Keeping My Promises

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There Will Be Games

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magic-process.jpgIn my last column of 2008, I made a public declaration that I was going to use John Farrels’ excellent stats tracking facility to actually try and make a concrete, measurable effort to play my favourite games more, try out more of my unplayed games and buy less games. Having made this public declaration, it struck me that I could actually make the whole thing a public enterprise - set myself some goals for the year and keep regular updates on my progress, thereby giving myself some real incentive to try and meet them. The final impetus I needed to commit myself to this course of action was a playful jibe from one M. Barnes that it seemed as though “‘buy fewer games, play what I have more’ is the #1 resolution I’m hearing from...everybody”. So I had to demonstrate that I was serious. I point of fact I was amused to learn that Michael has made this exact same resolution himself but nevertheless, doing the whole thing in public seemed like a fun idea, in spite of its obvious anally-retentive qualities so I thought I might as well go ahead with it.

But what goals? Well John has two metrics which measure collection usage in different ways. One, the “Friendless Metric”, is a straight up integer which, for people with more unplayed games than games played many times (which is most gamers) is negative. The other is a percentage which attempts to express how well utilised your collection is. My starting number for the Metric was -24 (with the average for all users being -118) while my average utilisation was 32.45% (average for all users 33.41%). I looked at the numbers for these measures achieved by current users, and did a few “what if” calculations and decided that aiming for a Friendless Metric of at least +1 and an average utilisation of 50% would be a gettable, if challenging target. But there’s a flaw: I could get these figures, or close to, by playing a bunch of unplayed games just once which is only half the resolution: I want to properly explore the depth my collection and play more games multiple times. So I’ve added a third goal, which is to have more games I’ve played 10+ times than games I’ve only played once. If I fail to meet any of these targets then I have to trade away or otherwise dispose of unplayed or played-once games until I hit the goal.

The remaining question is, what counts as a play? Well really it seemed that the only sensible thing was to record plays in the same way I’ve always recorded plays. Face to face games against other real live people count, obviously. But I also count plays online against real people, although not against computer AIs. Although this isn’t, strictly speaking, playing a game that I own it seems fair to count these. After all, if I’m playing a game a lot on the internet or by email then it’s only fair I ought to reward the designer by purchasing the game. More practically, there are some games I would not be able to play online if I didn’t own a physical copy of the rulebook because the publisher does not make an electronic copy available. I also tend to count solo games provided that the game in question has official solo rules released by the designer or publisher: I don’t count plays fan made variants nor multiplayer games in which I play against myself (in truth I hardly ever do either of those things anyway). This again seems sensible - some games can only be played solo, and others seems to have been designed with an official solo option in mind. Finally there’s expansions. I register a play of a game with an expansion as individual items. This is because there are many, many games which remain perfectly interesting and playable without expansions, so counting the expansion as a seperate play helps me track how much use I’m getting out of an expansion. But I’d be interested to hear if anyone thinks I’m “cheating” by counting these sorts of solo, expansion and internet plays.

Having decided in advance that I was going to do this and, in spite of how obviously anally-retentive it is, do it in public where everyone could see it, I got off to a cracking start by playing an unplayed game on the very first day of the New Year. We had some guests and, tried and hungover though we were, one of them suggested we play a game of Carcassonne. So I decided to break out The River for the first time. Indeed I made my first progress toward my targets playing light Euros with friends and family: I got to ten plays of Carcassonne and also of Ra in a similar manner.

Having made such a great opening, I ruined the whole thing by then going on a game buying splurge. I picked up Through the Ages as the number 1 game on my wants list because I was sure it’d see play thanks to the Vassal module. But then someone flagged up an online site selling Battlestar Galactica and the new edition of Cosmic Encounter at quite outrageously cheap prices. I couldn’t resist the bargain and got both. Not a problem, I thought. BSG has solo rules. CE shouldn’t have much of an impact either because I can ditch my GW edition of the game in favour of the new one. Then I managed to unearth what seemed to be the last sensibly priced copy of Galaxy Trucker anywhere in the UK and the bargain hunter in my felt I had to buy that, too. It’s short, so I was sure to pick up some plays, right? Well, possibly. But with those last two I was really teetering on the top of a slippery slope. I’ll have to show some more willpower in future.

Next up I turned to my long-suffering PBEM friend Sam Marsh. We had a quickfire exchange of games through all the scenarios in the Memoir ‘44 Eastern Front expansion to hit another ten plays.  I have both expansions for my copy of Dungeonquest and with a combination of solo and PEBM plays I managed to push both of those over ten plays each. We then both explored Through the Ages with a PBEM play like I’d planned. The next obvious place to look was for solo games so I got in a couple of solo sessions of Arkham Horror to reach the ten play mark on that game, and popped my BSG cherry with a solo game. I’m not sure the solo rules are terribly interesting but it’s a good way to learn the game for a session on all cylinders later in the year.

I wanted to reserve an entire paragraph to talk about Agricola. Now, a family member gave me a copy of this for Christmas, quite probably because they walked into a game shop and asked for a recommendation without knowing much about my tastes. I was happy to get it - I figured I owed it to myself to at least try out this new game everyone was talking about and since it had solo rules that was sure to happen. However without having made this resolution, it might have been months or years before I tried it for the first time. In point of fact I read the rules, played it for the first time and went through ten solo plays all in the space of a couple of weeks! But this highlights a weakness in my approach. Whilst I enjoyed the puzzle-like quality of trying to “solve” a solo game, Agricola isn’t a game that I can ever imagine wanting to play with other human beings. Therefore there will come a time in the near future when I’m likely to want to trade my copy. And in doing so my metrics will actually go down because I’m trading away a game I’ve played more than ten times. There’s a couple of other games in the same boat that would actually hurt my scores if I got rid of them. The obvious solution is to cling on to these things for one more year and then trade them, but that seems counterproductive. Any suggested solutions will be gratefully received.

Unfortunately, the stats package isn’t returning accurate results at the time of writing, but the last time I looked I’d managed to get up to something like an FM of -20 and a utilisation of something over 35%. Not bad for a month in which I bought four new games! I’ve actually played more games this month that in the previous two months of 2008 combined. And that’s great because really, that’s what this is all about - to encourage me to play more games. And it seems to be working handsomely. The only fly in the ointment is that in making up the big improvements this month I’ve used up most of my “easy wins” - i.e. games that are fast playing, or solo or can be played easily online. So future months aren’t going to be quite so easy.

More importantly than a bunch of numbers, what did I, personally, gain from this excercise? Well I’m pleased to report that I feel like I gained quite a bit. In getting out and dusting down some games that I had near the ten-play mark I was able to reassess what I enjoyed about them - in particular I’d forgotten quite how much fun Ra and solo sessions of Arkham Horror can be. I’m still not entirely sold on Carcassonne but at least I’ve gained a greater appreciation of what a clever design it is. I’ve also been inspired into trying out a couple of games that might otherwise have sat on my shelf for untold ages. Agricola didn’t really interest me that much (if I’m going to play an efficiency game, Puerto Rico remains my game of choice) but it’s good to have tried out the game that so many people are raving about. And my solo play of BSG should hopefully make the real thing go much more smoothly when it finally hits the table.

On the whole, it’s been a great month of gaming. And I’m hoping my resolution is going to pay off a whole lot more in the months to come. Watch here for further updates on my progress.

There Will Be Games

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Matt has been writing about tabletop games professional since 2012, blogging since 2006 and playing them since he could talk.


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