Weirdly enough, after having undergone a diet of ameritrash-only gaming, I recently found myself wandering my game cellar, realizing that currently about 80% of my collection consists of euro's. Good, what a relief to get this out of my system. Actually writing it down somehow makes me a bit nervous. It is a change that I had not seen coming. If you had told me I would buy a game with a cover uncomfortably rendered in browns, with a rather serious looking medieval person holding some unexciting object in an unexciting environment of his living room, I would have told you to subscribe to group therapy for suppressed anger.
And now I do find myself in between mountains of boxes that show exactly that: old men covered in brown colors holding unexciting objects. And I am writing this in the epicenter of Ameritrash gaming. What does this all mean? And why does this not bother me as it should?
Rewind 3 years back. After some major changes in my private life I had moved to the quiet country-side in a small but pleasant house surrounded by fields. I started playing games with my girlfriend and mother-in-law (another set of words that I would have never expected to write down in this order a few years ago)and discovering the delights of quick to explain games. In the city I was part of this buddy-gaming-network that had geeks aborbing 35-page manuals.
They actually enjoyed reading them. They took them along on camping trips. They even used them as bedtime reading.
There was a cult of living-with-a-manual for a week, slowly digesting all the weird and unnecessary exception-rules that were part of the Ameritrash cult. I must confess I was for some years one of these geeks. I definitely enjoyed living in a game system for days, trying to memorize every significant bit of chrome to be able to smoothly explain it in one compact bulk at the gaming table. Something that actually never happened, as 35 pages rules books seldom translate in an easy-to-explain experience. But I strongly believed it was possible, so I tried again with much effort with each new mammoth I picked up in my local gaming store.
And one day it was over. I remember it clearly. It was an average monday, with some delicate rays of sunlight and a cat paw in my face waking me up. I sat at the breakfast table looking at a boiled egg, and realized: I am done with 35 page manuals. Somehow my head couldn't take another one of those. I blame my memory banks being full, and actualy generating some kind of tiping-point. At that point I had started hunting down 10-pages-or-less games with non-violent artwork and pleasant zen-like themes that could lure my girlfriend into the hobby. And suddenly I realized I had become somewhat of a different gamer. I actually enjoyed the fact I could play 3 games in one game night.
Suddenly there was the delight of being able to pull a title from the shelf and read through the rules while my partner was making tea. Before the cups were hitting the table surface I was ready to explain the game system. Things were definitely bright and shiny.
Yet, I had some re-lapses. Whenever I was in a gaming shop and I saw a big box showing some exotic locations and scarcily dressed woman in front of an apocalyptic sunset, I felt this primitive urge and pulled it from the shelf. Sometimes I almost dragged it to the counter, with my credit card ready for action. Sometimes I even bought these good 'ol dirty delights in a box...staring at them in between sessions of Tokaido...wandering if these boxes would hold all the promise inside them that the cover hinted at. But each time I opened them and started reading the first of 35 pages of detailed exception rules... I gave up.
Yes, I'm kinda at ease with the fact that I have become a different gamer. And yet, I do miss some parts of those 35 pages. A sense of feverish precision in which the use of a desert buggy with a rocket launcher on top was translated into rules, that had no intention to be streamlined, let alone easy to explain. When I recently bumped into "Psycho Raiders", this feeling of oldskool nostalgia gaming was completely re-kindled in its rawest form. There is something infinitly exciting about those PSI titles that had small tables for each and every event in a game. For that very reason I've been digging up my photo-copied rules booklet for Leading Edge's "Aliens". A game I have been playing of and on using the Flash-version, which speeds up play considerably. But somehow the idea of making this a more elaborate process of looking up tables, rolling dice and managing fiddly components suddenly seemed weirdly aluring. There is actually something about these elaborate oldskool games that demand a full commitment of players that offer a game a very intense being-there feel. There is no room to escape their ever dominating need to read through sections of the rules, looking up very detailed situations.
For every single moment there is a table or rule somewhere hidden inside. And that actually is very comforting. You want to call for help in Psycho raiders? Yup, we have a rule for calling for help using a phone or a resonant scream. This makes these type of games infinitly satisfying. Compared to the coldly calculated streamlining method euro's use to make a game system, these oldskool games in a very convincing way try to neglect any form or shape of elegance and gladly offer you excessive detail in large frivolous scoops.
And it is precisely this intense detail that offers these games a soul. Instead of a sterile mechanical system you are actually drawn into the game's universe, that relentlessly offers you detail upon detail of elements that shape it and make it seem real, regardless the fact you are staring at a paper sheet map devided into hexes.
These ridiculously detailed rules makes every counter and paper sheet become a living breathing thing.
So once again I feel myself being torn between the delights of easy-to-learn elegance and elaborate chrome-ridden gaming. And you know what... I think they can perfectly co-exist. It all comes down to the moment. Sometimes I feel the urge to experience the brilliant elegance of something minimalistic like 'Deep sea adventure" from Oink games.
That sushi-like simplicity that comes from stripping away all the excessive fat so that a core is revealed that almost dissolves in front of you while playing.
And yes, sometimes I need this SPI-like fix too...living inside a rules-set for a week. I find myself digging into all those lovely oldskool tables and detailed rules that simulate driving a dodgy car of the local sheriff towards town while being chased by a group of psychotic axe-wielding freaks whose line of sight in hexes with fog are covered in lovingly detail in the rules sitting on my coffee table.