In Fact Sometimes That’s Not Right To Do

Please allow me to paint you a scene, dear reader. Indulge me in my hubris as I relate a little gaming anecdote and, in its embellishments and lengthy prose, attempt to put us all in a more receptive mindset to a topic that’s been on my mind. Do not fear, children of the internet age; for those of little attention I will post a succinct summary soon after, for those who proclaim “Too Long; Didn’t Read!”

You see, I don’t speak about my manner of employment much here. This is, after all, a place of gaming, and precious little of that happens where I work. Truth be told, not much of anything happens where I’m concerned nowadays. I’m not at liberty to speak to much of it, though most would find it tedious at best regardless. Suffice to say, I have a great deal of free time at my 9 to 5.

I am often amazed at how much media one can absorb online. But when one’s rifling through news sites, webcomics, board game blogs and podcasts has become too much, sometimes a person just wants to play a game. Thankfully the internet does
not disappoint. Still, it’s one thing to peruse written works online, quite another to watch videos, and yet another thing to actively play games in blatant disregard of your office’s internet usage policy. When I do game it must generally be either very quick, or very slow.

Josh and I will occasionally play a 2 player game online; most recently it was Seasons through Board Game Arena. There are lots of good reasons to play with friends of course, and one of them is you’re all much more likely to be forgiving about turn times. We would turn the clock off, and we completely understand if someone has to step away and actually do work instead of play. It happens to Josh more often than it does me.

The seasons are so magical, they pass at different times.  See what I did there?

The seasons are so magical, they pass at different times. See what I did there?

On one occasion I was unsure if I’d have time to play (or more accurately, if any walkers-by would notice my transgression of gaming at work), and when I finally committed to the time Josh had just started a game of Innovation on Isotropic (of which the newest expansion, Figures In The Sand, is now available). I decide to find another game, and settle on a 2-player Race For the Galaxy session with someone who doesn’t seem too hardcore.

See, Board Game Arena keeps a lot of stats on its games and players. Each game has an “average” play time, and players’ play times can be tracked. Paying members (which I am not) have access to this information, but anyone who creates a game can set criteria for those joining, and limit players to those with particular rankings, high player recommendations, or a certain number of games which would suggest they know how to play, and quickly. Lollygagging is frustrating when you’re gaming online, I get it. I have never played Race online, and I don’t want to upset anyone, which of course is an absurd thing to be concerned about. But I am, and I find a game I think will be forgiving, and we dive in.

Race has an average online play time of 8 minutes. Whenever you have a turn, BGA sends you a doorbell chime to alert you. The rapid pace and multiple steps in a game of Race means the site is constantly chiming at you, and of course the faster you play the more frantic it can get. It’s been a while since I’ve played, but I’m able to lock into a quick produce/consume strategy. Meanwhile my opponent is throwing out cheap developments and planets twice as fast as I am. I don’t want to disappoint my opponent, or get caught gaming at my desk, or do a stupid move, so in my mind a simple game becomes this grand mental effort of strategize, implement, hide browser, return and re-evaluate, repeat.

It’s over almost before I realize it. Final scores, Me-42, Opponent-39.

The adrenaline dropped out of my body and I sank into my chair. What the hell happened? Was that a game or a quickie? It felt like hate-sex in the break-room before a conference. I felt dirty, used, and even though I won the feeling of accomplishment was coupled with a sense of longing. This isn’t what a game is supposed to feel like.

TL;DR: I played an online game so super fast it made my head spin, and I’m not sure I liked it.

Often times the people I play games with have a sort of “fun optimization” mindset. A fun game of 2 hours is not as preferable as 2 fun games of 1 hour each, or one of those played twice. Or sometimes, 5 or 6 successive games of something that takes 20 minutes. I once played a game of Dominion with a couple of people who played a whole f***ing LOT of Dominion. Our games took around 15 minutes, and my heart was pounding rapidly by the end of them. To which they replied, “oh, yeah, that’s about our average time.” Seriously? I mean, I get it. I don’t like feeling like my time is wasted playing a game. Sitting and waiting for a turn to happen is boring. But being pressed to optimize your turn and act quickly, in the effort of finishing in some arbitrary time limit is just as annoying. Even knowing the game and very capably playing it in record time (I won the first of those Dominion games as well as that Race game mentioned above), there’s something unnerving about clocking through a game so fast. Isn’t there time to savor?

Game Time!

(By which we mean the time it takes to play a game)

Every game published has a little block of information it, similar to the nutrition label on your canned corn. It will tell you the number of players, the recommended age range, and the estimated time to play. Which is great, but honestly it’s not as informative as one would think. And honestly, do believe everything you read?

It’s half passed time a f***ing 8 was rolled!

Fudge Factors

Number of Players

The more people playing, the longer the game. For some games this is just an additive property. For example: a turn takes about a minute each per person. The game has a hard limit of 30 turns. With 3 people, that’s 1 ½ hours. For 4 it’s 2 hours, etc.

Sometimes it’s a geometric increase. When everyone can participate in a person’s turn, the more people you have the more time each person’s turn will take. Example: For a 2 player game involving trading, the two players can manage trades very quickly. With a third person, each turn a player could conceivably speak with both players to make the best trade. The more players, the more discussion required, the longer the game will be.

Type of players

Players take different amounts of time for their turns (in games where turn time isn’t defined). Some take longer to strategize, some play very swiftly. Experience with the game is a big factor here. We have our own rough mathematical functions based on the players. One or two new players = 1.5x max estimated time. All new players = 2-2.5x time. Each Analysis Paralysis player adds a portion of time to the game based on the depth of strategy.

It’s also worth discussing in this section the kind of person and the kind of people playing the game, which are different.

Persons vary. Some are talkative, some are quiet, some are fervently interested in the game, and some are happy to spend time with friends who happen to be playing games. Independent of the kind of gamer they are, people’s personalities make a difference in play and, consequentially, on game duration.

People, by which I more accurately mean group dynamics, also vary. I think that online play is very quick compared to live, not just because the rules and physical components are streamlined, but the interaction is much different. There is no real conversation, no discussing turns, no real interaction with the other players save for that which is explicitly codified in the game. When I play games with the MIT group it’s very quick; experienced players, intensely focused on the game. I’ve played for years with some of these guys, and I don’t know their jobs, families, or in some cases their last (or first) names. When I play with friends at someone’s home the game tends to be much more relaxed. Experience is usually a factor, but so are the jokes, hints, jibes and general table-talk that may or may not pertain to the game at hand. These aren’t bad things, they’re just an addition to the experience of gaming with friends.

Environment

If you’re at a gathering at a game shop or convention, you’re surrounded by an abundance of games you’ve never played and people you don’t know, all united by a single thing; your desire to play games. That’s the focus, that is the singularity of contact with these people, and as such it is the focus of attention. Little to no time is spent on distractions chit-chat and the like.

If you’re at your Best Man’s apartment, cracking beers and jokes, discussing the upcoming wedding, the game is not the only thing in your life at that point. It’s going to share its time with the other things in your lives.

If you’re at a friend’s birthday/gaming party, it’s somewhere in the middle. Catching up is nice, and you’re there to spend time with friends, but you’re also there to game.

Time-to-Fun

All if this is a clinical examination of the duration of time a game might take. But perhaps that is not the metric we should pore over.

I was talking about Monopoly to Ted and Rebecca once. They’re sharp people, and usually have good insight into a game’s inner workings and what makes it work or not. One of the issues brought up with Monopoly was something I hadn’t considered before, something they called the “time-to-fun ratio.” The idea being that while Monopoly may be fun (and most people contest that claim), the amount of fun is too low for the time it takes to finish a game. A game that was just as fun, but condensed into a much faster game would be better. Or a game that took as long, but was fun the whole way through, would definitely be preferable.

While a bit over-generalized, I like the idea of a quantifiable amount of fun. Like if fun had a unit of measurement, like energy. The Whimsimeter. The Joviule. Grins-per-inch. Of course this doesn’t take in to account the type of fun we’re having, suggesting that our fun should have a purity rating, or density. Perhaps a conversion factor of fiero to friendship. Maybe a series of bar graphs listing the different elements of fun in their varying amounts. It could be the GMO labeling movement of the boardgaming world. “Carcassonne Inns & Cathedrals! Now with more Meaningful Choices!” “Cards Against Humanity, with fortified Friendship.”

Quantifying fun is a serious business

The Point being…

Yes, of course, thanks commentary/header. The point being that the length of a game is significant, but it is not necessarily a measure of the quality of a game, or the amount of fun one has while playing it. Faster isn’t always better, and not all the fun is derived from the board and bits and rules. A game is more than the sum of its parts.

A game should be savored from time to time. Race For The Galaxy is an excellent example; it’s an 8 minute games of resource management that could easily be a half-hour sci-fi serial of how empires are built if we gave it that chance. Battlestar Galactica, The Resistance, and any other co-op/traitor game’s enjoyment lays in the time between turns, the accusations and calculations, the nebulous element that only human interaction can provide. I’m not saying every game has to be a drag-out affair, but once in a while it’s worth it to take a breath and savor the moments that comprise the game.

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Who Serves Whom

Josh and I had an interesting conversation while driving back from Cape Cod after a recent day-trip.  Like many conversations that take place after midnight, it was sleepy and borderline coherent, but I think it’s worth writing about.  We got to play a few board games, and each one had something to offer to the loose thesis that defines this post: at what point do the games we play stop serving us, and we begin to serve the game?

Carcassonne is a delightful little game that can be taught swiftly and played anywhere with enough table space. I lost by 3 points in a final score somewhere around 100 and change. We discussed the game on the walk to the beach, and we both agree that the game is great with 2 people. It suffers when more people are added, and in my opinion it suffers greatly when expansions are added. Carcassonne has a ton of expansions, each adding something and, actually, you know what, f*** this, here’s the BGG page search for Carcassone, showing all the 40+ expansions, standalone games, and upcoming titles that designer Klaus-Jürgen Wrede has wrought.  Game design lends itself to different philosophies. One tenet I heard from a friend (which I don’t entirely agree with, but appreciate its merit) is that there’s little purpose to adding new rules to a game if it isn’t fixing a problem. Basically, if it isn’t broke don’t fix it. Carcassonne is a game about haphazard road and city building, lashing tiles onto each other in the loosest ways, and that theme has made it into the design itself, with more and more expansions adding new elements to a game like a bunch of garish modern additions to an old Victorian house. To bring us back to the main idea: at some point in adding to this simple game, you’re getting less out of it than you’re putting in.  At some point, you’re serving the game more than the game is serving you.

When Architecture goes unchecked

Ascension was fun, at least for me. Josh doesn’t really enjoy the game, and giving him the benefit of the doubt it’s not because he lost; something about it rubs him the wrong way. Now, I love the game. My second post here is a testament to it. So in this, we have another component of our talk; what do you do when you like a game and a friend doesn’t? You get more out of it than they do.  Maybe It’s not much more complicated than “not everyone has to love a game, just play something else,” but it’s also a great example of the disparate levels of interest two gamers might put into a game.  But what about gamers and non-gamer type people?

Our final game was Thurn and Taxis. The game requires at least 3, preferably 4, so we got Dan And Emily Lavadiere (heretofore known as EmLav) to join us. Now here’s where we get into the main thrust of my meanderings. Games are supposed to be fun, and you can take them as seriously or flippantly as we want. Dan and EmLav aren’t game people like Josh and I are game people, but they like to play. Usually.

Yes yes, it’s very beautiful, can you take your turn please!?

It’s hard to focus on a game when you’ve got friends around, and drinks, and you’re just not invested in the game. I like EmLav, but when people wander off when it’s not their turn and you have to drag them back, it’s tough to deal with. It boils down to a gap in the interest in the game of the people at the table. Games are there to provide fun for the people. But the people need to respect their fellow players and, I believe, the game. We had fun, regardless, and in the end it wasn’t a huge deal, but it’s what got me thinking about the idea that, on some level, we “serve” the gamer as much as they “serve” us?

Phrasing it this way doesn’t really gel with Josh. For him, it’s more a matter of a low vs. high level of investment with the game. I agree with him, but it helps me to think of it this way. I consider it a question of how much the game asks of us, and how much we expect from the game.

I think of it as a spectrum, where at one end the games serve the people, and at the other the people serve the game. The former lays in a place of pure social interaction, where the game exists to facilitate a gathering of people to enjoy each other’s company. The game is simple, easily teachable, and its outcome ancillary to the jokes and drinks and revelry that is shared around the table. It may not even finish. If people have fun, and the game plays a part, it has done well.

Who takes this game seriously? Give you a hint: you’re reading their site.

BONUS: please write in to request the story of my 5-game tear against Josh, you won’t be disappointed, and I think it’s hilarious.

On the other end, where the people serve the game, imagine a tournament. Any tournament, for any game. The people who excel in tournaments serve the game. They know it, study it, revere it, they have a respect for it that most people will never appreciate.

As a somewhat obtuse example (but a worthy aside, IMO), click here and look at the photos. What you’re seeing is the Settlers of Catan 10th Anniversary Collector’s Edition Treasure Chest. With an MSRP of $380, the game is a work of art, far more so than any game I have ever played. Made with high-quality resin that feels like stone, hand-painted and made to fit inside a polished wooden chest, this game is a literal treasure to be admired. I have had the luxury of playing one a set like this once, and the people I was with knew how special playing it was. It’s still the same rules and strategies of regular Catan, but with a certain reverence to the game.

Expensive or artistically crafted games are one aspect, but not the only one. A game that takes a great deal to set up is another. Though it can feel like work sometimes, arranging the tokens and cards and pieces and perusing the tome-like rule-book, in the end it has a certain appeal. The game is fun, but you have to be willing to invest some time and energy in it. The game doesn’t just give you the fun; you have to do some legwork.

I have friends for whom the game must serve, and games that are meant to serve. Any Game Good, but not for any person. And if the game doesn’t work for someone it’s not the game’s fault. Josh is allowed to not like Ascension, and I’m allowed to want Carcassonne to stay simple, easily accessible, and not concern myself with a bunch of new mechanics if I don’t think they lend to my enjoyment of a quick game.

I have games for whom the players must serve, and gamer friends who live to serve. Catan, while easy to learn, demands attention. Any war-game I know takes effort, in its setup and the execution of one’s turn, and it does not forgive frivolity. Puerto Rico takes a great deal of assembly and explanation, and in return gives a wonderful experience of managing a hacienda and trade business. Race For The Galaxy gives something similar, at about 1/5th the setup. Both have their place.

I mean this not as a sweeping declaration, or even a tenet of my philosophy, but as a musing on gaming. As a final thought, I think of games, the physical cardboard-and-pewter constructs, as friends in their own right. Some are easy to be around, simple to teach and always good for a laugh. Some require study, an investment of time and interest, and are the source of the most amazing times I’ve had, because of the game as much as the people who care about it like I do.