Looking For Group

A Team of Like-Minded Individuals

The next big battle in the console wars is underway. The knock-down drag-out fight between Sony and Microsoft, with Nintendo yapping and biting at heels like a spry old Shih Tzu, has the techno-foes trading blows over system power, online security, indie game development, and a number of other issues. But very little of what I’ve heard (mind you, I have not been paying much attention) talks about how much more fun the games will be. Processor power and stronger graphics engines are lovely, but nobody is talking about increased interconnectivity with players, beyond a few “post scores and issue challenges through social media to your friends!”, which isn’t a meaningful connection.

The strange thing is, it wouldn’t be difficult. Imagine sitting in front of your Xbox, firing up a digital reconstruction of a game, and simultaneously opening up Skype to connect with friends. The game doesn’t even have to be tightly programmed, it could just be a graphical construct that allows dice rolling and piece movement. We could have a new era of tabletop gaming, something that could one day mend the rift of live tabletop and isolated console gaming.

I love both video and board games, but as far as interaction with people, live tabletop gaming cannot be beat. Thus it is a point of frustration for me that actually getting people to the table to game cab be such a Nightmare.

Whyyyyy is nobody showing up?! (heh, me and my puns)

Time and Space

That’s what you need to put a group together. Well, you need the people of course, and the desire to play, the physical games themselves, etc. But once the desire is there, and since everyone I know has at least a few games ready to play, it all boils down to the time to play (and learn) games and a place to play them. Time and space are the dwindling and scattered resources of planning.

Mark: Want to get a game thing going tonight?

Me: Yeah, of course I’m interested. Where should we do it?

Josh: We’re about to eat dinner, but we might be interested after. I don’t think we’re coming out to Watertown though.

Mark: Well, I’m in Melrose, and you’re on your way home to Watertown (Google maps estimate: 1 hour with traffic). What about Josh, he’s roughly between us (~22 minutes from both our homes).

Josh: Nicole and I are out for tonight, thanks though.

Me: I just got in, I don’t have it in me to go back out for an hour drive in traffic. Maybe some other time.

That Kind of Party

There’s something to be said for an impromptu game session. For most gatherings though, you need to plan it ahead of time, just like if you were planning a “normal” party. More so I’d say, since for most parties I’ve attended all you need is booze and space for people to stand around, drink, and socialize. For gaming, people need to know rules, be physically and mentally invested in the game, and be willing to adhere to certain customs not necessary in other parties; keep drinks and snacks off the table, don’t walk off in the middle of the game to chat with someone in the other room, don’t get into side conversations, and take the game seriously.

Me: (before many parties) You think I should bring a game or two, in case people want to play?

Katie (+a few others): I don’t think it’s that kind of party.

Me: …I know.

Normal Party vs. Board Game Party (as the internet, vis-á-vis Google Images, sees it)

Looking For Group

When you get older, your free time becomes scarcer and more precious. Certain life matters crop up, things like jobs, bills, kids, fund-raisers, that sort of thing.

Sukrit: My mother is visiting this weekend, so I’m out.

Mark: Flying to San Francisco for work. I’ll be there next week.

Josh: It’s my last show that night and after the show I plan on being extremely drunk.

Me: I’m getting married in X months (in which 8 ≥X≥0)

Gaming becomes one more thing you have to prioritize. I know people who are passionate about anygamegood, even if they don’t call it that. And they lament the occurrences when their gaming sessions have been knocked off of one or more persons’ list of priorities. It’s even more frustrating when it’s done on incredibly short notice (often the day of) and it’s treated as simply not a big deal.

Ted (on absences from the Risk Legacy campaign): “We all have things to do in our lives, of course. But for me it’s like this; if you’re interested in gaming you make time for it. If you can’t make it, fine, but don’t say you can make it and then just blow it off.”

Auston (author, games designer, and avid blogger): “I just feel like people are scheduling the game, and if somebody, anybody, calls them, my game is the first thing to get dropped.”

And therein lie the issue. I believe the perception of gaming gatherings is that of a frivolous activity, a source of amusement and diversion that begins, ends, and in the middle is filled with inconsequentiality. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t believe that, to a degree (it’s right there in the mission statement), but I would never call gaming, or the act of planning or reneging plans, as inconsequential. I believe it’s important to remind ourselves, every now and then, that play has its own important place in human interaction. I hold games in high regard, and the people who play them are closer to me than others. It is a social gathering that to me is not as arbitrary as eating a bunch of caramels.

Party Size

Before game night begins, I have to decide who I’m inviting. It’s more complicated than you’d think. You can’t just invite all your gaming friends and see who shows up. Well, maybe you can, I can’t. Josh and I have a spreadsheet of our gaming friends to keep track; it’s around 20 people, incomplete. If half those people showed up every time it would be bedlam.

Every game fits a certain number of people. Some are broader than others, but most have a recommended number. Just so with game nights, especially when I have certain games I’m hoping to play.

# of people

1:    Well, they do make a lot of neat board games with 1-player variants. Try Mage Knight, or Chrononauts solitaire.

2:    Duel night with a good friend/rival. Netrunner, Pixel Tactics, Twilight Struggle. Puzzle Strike and Innovation fit more, but are great 1-on-1. If this is what I’m looking for, I’ll ask one person at a time until I find somebody. Sometimes this can result in an unexpected cancellation and a ruined night so, to call it back, I do enjoy console games.

3-4:    Tons of games fit this number optimally, and it’s a good figure to shoot for if you want to have a low-key gathering with your friends. Which is why we never have it. This is the razor’s edge of gatherings; you either invite the exact number you’re looking for, and everyone bails, OR you invite a few extra friends, figuring that somebody won’t be able to make it, and everyone shows up.

Josh: “Improv people are notoriously flaky. I invite them, but I don’t count on them replying quickly if at all.”

5:    This is a tough number sometimes. Not a lot of games work with 5; they generally run long , there’s a large gap between turns, and the asymmetry precludes 2v2 setups. Still, it’s not hopeless. Co-Op games like Pandemic or Shadows Over Camelot work this way, and Betrayal at House on the Hill is pretty good with 5.

6:    There are games that fit 6, but I personally believe they’re the kind of games you plan for. Diplomacy, Twilight Imperium, and other large-scale games are great, but they’re the kind of games I want to specifically plan for, not drop in for a game night of indeterminate attendance and “what do we want to play” syndrome. More likely this is splitting into two games.

7-8:    Now you’re getting into definite 2-game territory. 7 is particularly difficult, since there are very few (non-party) games that fit 7, and I personally can’t name one. Even Dixit, a quintessential party game, only fits 6. 7 has to be 5&2 or 4&3. 8 provides more flexibility, but again, it will be 2 games.

9-12: This number frustrates me. We end up with it sometimes, when I haven’t had a game night in a while and want to see everyone. Or when I send a blast invite to make sure I’ll have enough people and, improbably, most of them actually show up. At this point, not only are we playing two games, they’ll take up the full evening. We won’t get a chance to play or chat with the other half of the group, which is fine when everyone is having fun, but it can be a drag gaming with 5 and cleaning up for 12. And considering our group isn’t big on Apples to Apples or other large party games, there’s no other recourse.

13: At this point you’d better just hire a hobbit to round out the numbers.

13 is unlucky. Also, these guys are certain to f*** up your table

Plan Ahead

As I said before, planning a game night takes as much time as planning any other party.   I try to give at least a week, but the more people you’re looking to invite the more time you want to give them.  (And sometimes I ping guests who haven’t replied, as most people don’t RSVP anymore.)

I usually send out a list of games I’m hoping to play beforehand (Josh is a bit more loose, there are pros and cons to both).  If you know the number of people playing it’s easier, and will prevent wasting time deciding on what to play.

Finally, and most importantly, it is good to remember that game gatherings are fun.  It can be frustrating when your plans for an epic sit-down of Twilight Imperium get snuffed out, or if your multi-hour 12 man game extravaganza becomes 3 people playing Catan again.  But instead of focusing on how things went awry, consider how nice it is to play games with friends.  You can’t control other people or their plans, but you can plan ahead, and if your friends are looking to game, they’ll make time.

This weekend marks the one year anniversary of Anygamegood.  To celebrate (and also, coincidentally, since my friend and former boss is visiting from Texas) we’ll be doing a day-long gaming session at my place.  Hope everyone is getting some good gaming in this weekend.

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Talking It Out

I’ve said it over and over again, but the most fun part about games remains the actual human interaction you get while playing. And while any game will allow you to talk about the local sports team while you play, not every game lets you talk about the game you’re actually playing. Some games, like Settlers of Catan, force you to talk about what you’re doing; you have to talk to each other to trade. Other games aren’t as encouraging, but allow for it by giving everyone enough information to discuss moves (Stone Age, Industrial Waste), which leads me to say things like “really? I thought you’d be going for the field this turn.”

I played a game of Chess a few days ago for the first time in what has to be years and was struck by the way my playing of other games had influenced how I treated it. Chess is similar to Puerto Rico (alright, Puerto Rico is similar to Chess, it’s been around much longer) in that there is no randomness; every play can be analyzed on a “if I do X then you do Y then I do Z and you…” train of thought until the end state of the game (potentially, of course, unless you’re playing Deep Blue, then it is definitely). It’s strange how this affects table talk. You could tell your opponent when they are leaving their queen vulnerable or you could try to talk them into making a mistake, but neither is very satisfying. The latter feels mean and the former feels like you’re just playing yourself.

Talking strategy ended up costing me, as I told my opponent when they made a particularly bad play, and let them take it back (Also costing me: the hubris of thinking I was a superior player). Later when I made a play that was not obviously bad but led to me losing a rook and being out of position, my opponent’s first words were  “wow, that’s a great move” rather than what I ended up saying “Man that was over aggressive. That probably cost me the game.” (Spoiler alert: It Did). If I had shut up I would have been in a much better position, but, well, I enjoy talking too much.

A much more fun game happened a couple of weeks back, when my friend Mark, Brandon’s friend David and I took a first crack at Snowdonia.* Mark had only played it a couple of times and it was the first time for both David and I. Snowdonia was very Euro in that everything you could do would give you points (or cards that would make other moves stronger further down the road), and the game was entirely about maximizing what points you could get with your two workers each turn. I found it agonizing in the best kind of way.

My agonizing and talking about each individual move ended up making the game take longer than it should have, and David, apologizing profusely, had to leave with the game only midway through. What followed was one of the more interesting things I’ve done gaming-wise in quite some time: Mark and I decided to play David’s turns for him, as well as our own. This allowed us to discuss how the game was progressing, what moves might be optimal and why, but doing it in the third person rather than asking for our opponent’s help with our own moves. It didn’t feel like that game of chess, it felt like a co-op game where we happened to be playing against each other. “David’s” moves were never to block the other person’s or to directly get out of the way. We played “David” as we thought the real David would play. I walked out of the game with a better appreciation for the strategy than almost any other maiden voyage with a game. I got indirect advice and answers to my “why isn’t this the obvious play?” question without giving away what I wanted to do. Digging deep into the game was one of the more enjoyable experiences I’ve had boardgaming in quite some time.

From this unique experience I made a realization that bums Brandon out. His new favorite game is Android: Netrunner.** The game seems pretty well put together, and even while seeing that it has potential I didn’t find myself enjoying it. I’ve come to realize that it actively discourages table talk.*** The megacorporation plays cards face down. Everything it does is in secret, and the hacker can spend significant resources only to find that what the megacorporation has been hiding was a trap the whole time. It requires bluffing and has numerous important pieces of information that are hidden. Any discussion had about the game has to be taken with a large game of salt, as it starts to feel like the battle of wits from The Princess Bride.

"Listen, the never get involved in a land war in Asia line was CLEARLY about Risk strategy"

“Listen, the never get involved in a land war in Asia line was CLEARLY about Risk strategy”

The tension built up from a game of Netrunner is probably what some people love about it. I’m not here to say that they’re wrong, just that I need that tension released. A game that should have no table talk but still felt fun was a recent game of Noir**** that I played with Brandon and Katie (Brandon’s fiancé). The game is fairly simple and not without its flaws (the game ended in a 2-2-2 tie as we all figured out who the other person was and there was no way we’d then end up next to each other without getting hit first) but it led to a beautiful moment where I moved Katie’s character out of the way of Brandon’s (I had figured out who they both were but Katie didn’t seem to have known) and whispered “I’m saving your life” which caused Brandon (and then me) to break into hysterical laughter. This tension breaking discussion about the game was probably not helpful in terms of winning. If Brandon didn’t know that I knew who he was, he may have been more reckless about his own movement and let himself end up next to me. But because the game moved quicker (and because I had had a couple of beers), I was more willing to give myself a slightly lower chance of winning to get some more enjoyment out of the game.

Watch out for Ryan, he only looks young and innocent…

Watch out for Ryan, he only looks young and innocent… 

Now, obviously, not everyone gets pleasure from boardgaming the same way. Some people want their game to tell a story and hate that euro games use little wooden cubes. Some people want to wreck each other’s shit and some people want to play Dominion without any attack cards. Brandon loves the mindfuck that is ever present in Netrunner and I hate the way it makes me shut up. Before Innovation took the crown of my new favorite game, Stone Age was the reigning champ for quite some time in large part because it encouraged me to ask why someone made the choice that they made, because if I were them I would’ve gone the other way. In improv, its bad form to talk about what you’re doing, but in boardgaming? I find it delightful.
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*Snowdonia is a very Euro-style worker placement game, but unlike most worker placement games I’ve played, you only get two workers per turn (eventually you can get up to 4, but it is costly).

** Netrunner is a card game set in a dystopian future wherein a Hacker tries to get into a megacorporation’s mainframe. It isn’t really a deck building game, but I don’t know how to describe it.

***To be clearer: it discourages helpful table talk. It highly encourages you to lie to your opponent and to get them to make mistakes. Given the option between antagonistic table talk and none, I find myself (personally) wishing for none.

****Noir is a game where the board is a grid of faces, and you are trying to figure out who everyone else is, and then move your card next to theirs so that you can kill them, before they do the same to you.

These Are My Friends

In a couple of my earlier posts I talk about board games, the physical games themselves, as friends. Without deeply exploring the underlying commentary one could do on my seemingly devotion to consumerism to the point of anthropomorphizing commercial products, let’s just reiterate that I take my games seriously. And as such, it vexes me when people talk crap about games I like. While fully understanding that not everyone will enjoy every game, I still get upset when people judge games I like as objectively bad, especially when I feel they haven’t given them a chance.

Last Saturday I went to a friend-of-a-friend’s house for gaming. Knowing nothing more than the fact that it was boardgaming, and a different group than the eclectic bunch at NESFA, I took the 5 minute drive to the apartment. There were 5 people; me, my new friend Kevin, the owner and his girlfriend (possibly wife? It didn’t come up.) and another woman who insisted that her status as an orthodox Jew prohibited her from doing work on this the Lord’s day of rest, which meant no driving, no word games, and no ringing the doorbell.

Among the games we played was David Sirlin’s Puzzle Strike 2nd edition. To stretch the friend analogy, PS is like that guy who’s not exactly a bully, not outright mean but somewhat off-putting, but has really cool ideas and is actually a lot of fun to hang around. The guy putting on the gathering, whom we’ll call J, heard of it and requested we play when he learned I brought it. We played a 4 player game, with me trying to explain the game to three people who never played. It was fun, though it did drag on a bit. Afterward, J proclaimed that it wasn’t different enough from Dominion to be anything special. Now, I disagree with this; the combat mechanic is a marked departure from Dominion which, while an amazing game, is largely 2 to 4 people playing a communal solitaire with limited card stacks. The game is very similar, more-so than most would care to admit, but I don’t think after one play-through that statement can be said.

We discussed it a bit, then moved on while I tried to let it go. We played Tichu. Kevin and I lost, from a combination of terrible draws and overly aggressive play. After that Kevin and I played some 2 player Puzzle Strike, which I now believe is the better way to play. interspersed throughout our three games was J’s commentary that the game wasn’t that good. It included an out-loud aside that he would be giving this game a 5.0 out of 10 on BGG (which is pretty bad).

What I should have said was nothing.

What I did say was, “I know initial experience is a big thing, but I think you didn’t get the full scope of the game with just one play. I think you should play it again before you give it a 5.”

What I wanted to say was, “Stop talking shit about my game! You played it once, you have no right to judge. I know you didn’t like it, we’re enjoying it right now, enough with your bitchy commentary.”

It made me feel kind of bad. I’ve said before, in owning a game you become its ambassador.  If I can wax philosophical for just a bit: Games are the language by which many of us socialize. It’s a medium we use to meet and measure our fellow man.  Saying you don’t like a game I enjoy is like saying you don’t like what I’m saying, you don’t like my friends and you may as well not like me. So I felt like it was my fault J didn’t have a good time. It’s a fun game, it’s Dominion with a cool fighting component, why didn’t he like it? Did I explain it poorly? Was it the other people? Or is he just a stupid jerk who doesn’t like fun? Maybe he’s bummed because he lost, but I lost, I’m (mostly) fine with it.

Now, a deeper analysis of the evening might reveal a few extenuating points. For one, I was coming off a somewhat frustrating game of Pandemic with a bunch of people not listening to my sound logical explanations and doing bad plays. Then we lost Tichu. And of note, PS isn’t really my game, it’s a game I own, I didn’t create the thing. People can hate books or movies I like, and I won’t get bent out of shape. But for some reason I hate it when people talk shit about games, especially games I think are great, especially after one play.

Sometimes it’s best to just stay out of it

So why is it that I (and I hesitate to use the word we here) take criticism of certain boardgames so seriously? It’s certainly possible that I’m just being immature in this regard. But I like to believe it’s because games touch us in a more personal way. Passive media such as books, movies, and indeed many video games can and do reach us on a personal level, but they generally don’t require us to make an investment in them beyond time and a certain level of attention. We make our own experiences with the games we play, we have a direct influence on the outcome of this game, and the ending is not written in stone. Perhaps it’s because we have a hand in the creation of this completed game/story/work that I take it personally when people put it down.

Josh is very up-front and unapologetic about the games he doesn’t like. We’ve played a few games of things I love that he says he hates, specifically Thunderstone and Ascension. And while it wasn’t every time, it seemed to be the majority that he’d put down a game after he lost. Normally I’d write it off as sour grapes; after all, the man loves Dominion, and he liked Puzzle Strike (which he won), what makes these so bad?  But once I get past the reflexive ire I realize that Josh isn’t big on the random components, or at least so many of them. He likes having a little more control over his resources and the state of the game.  In Dominion the only truly random component is your draw.  In Thunderstone it’s the draw and the dungeon, and in Ascension it’s the draw, the row, and the dual point system that could tend to fighting or economy.

We’ll be playing Android: Netrunner in a week, and I know that, before we begin, he’ll want to see each card in the box to get an idea of what the decks do. Which isn’t bad, but I’m looking forward to learning the game as we play, being surprised by each card and how it fits into the game and the narrative. It’s a weird thing to have an emotional investment in, but I’m really hoping the game is fun for us. It’s almost like introducing two friends from different circles and really hoping it works out, only weirder because I haven’t even met one of them, who is incidentally not a person but a board game.

As a final thought, it’s worth repeating that board games are about people as much as they are about the game. And if somebody doesn’t like the game I like, that’s fine, it doesn’t make either of us bad people. But it can mean that maybe I don’t want to play with a guy who isn’t speaking my language. Part of being an adult, even one with child-like tendencies like me, is learning that not everyone is someone you need to please. We meet people, learn about them and get a feel for their personality, then decide if this is a person we wish to spend more time with. Just so with games. And if any game good, any person good too. I look forward to seeing if J and I mesh on other games. Josh and I have our disagreements, but he’s a great guy, and he’s my friend. And nobody talks shit about my friends.