Monday, July 19, 2004

The New Games

Fairy tales were once for adults only, full of horror, sexuality, love, morals, and all the good things that make up good art. Sometime in the last few centuries, the fairy tale changed in two ways: the tales became simplistic and less gruesome, and the audience became children.

To sell the old fairy tales to a new generation who scoff at them as children's stories is an uphill battle, both because the name itself has become stigmatized, and because the entire concept is viewed skeptically by a sour association. You can sell "thrillers" to adults, "historical fiction", and Margaret Atwood's "speculative fiction". But not "fairy tales".

"Board games" suffer from the same problem. Board and card games used to be for adults; today, mainstream board games require no more brain than the average 3-6 year old can wield. Games like Sorry. Trouble. Monopoly. Most "games" are not even games but "activities", such as Trivial Pursuit, Pictionary, etc... meant for breaking the ice at parties.

Mystifyingly enough, ask the same person if Chess or Bridge or Go are for children, and he will admit that they are for adults, but that he never thought to group them under the term "board game". But Bridge and Chess require so much time to learn to play well, and who has that much time?

I am happy to tell you that the fine art of producing quality board games for adults is making a comeback around the world.

The new games, these games of ours, are games for adults. You can think of them as midway between Monopoly and Chess: accessible like Monopoly, yet engaging for adults like Chess. They don't require a lifetime to master, but neither are they simply a way to pass time without thinking.

They are a lot of fun, like games should be, but they are also serious, intelligent, and often educational. They can stand against any other adult recreational activity, from television to computers to movies to newspapers to drinking beer, and can be considered at least as respectable a use of your time as any other.

Examples of these games, and good starting games, include Settlers of Catan, Carcassonne, and Ticket to Ride. Essential information about these games can be found at Board Game Geek. They can be bought at various online stores, such as or

For a good list of games that can rekindle your interest in board games, check out my Holiday Gift Guide.

Board games used to be for kids; board games of the twentieth century were for kids. These games are not for kids.

Good riddance to the last century's board game world, and welcome to the new one.


Saturday, July 03, 2004

The Five Qualities of a Good Gamer

The Five qualities of a Good Gamer are:

1. Good Manners

Good manners is a top quality of any human being. My definition of good manners is similar to that of Miss Manners' - the quality of taking care not to cause other people undue offense. This includes many things:

* Listening as much as talking, because other people have egos as big as yours
* Taking care to observe local customs
* Acting in a manner that increases everyone's enjoyment each session
* Keeping yourself and your surroundings clean and well-kept
* Good sportsmanship as both winner and loser

and many other items too numerous to mention.

2. Intelligence

You really can't be a Good Gamer without some modicum of "gaming intelligence" (I will qualify intelligence here as "gaming intelligence", because some otherwise very smart people in other areas just aren't going to shine when it comes to games). Time spent with them may still be very enjoyable, the friendship may still be valuable, and no judgement would ever be cast on their worthiness; but it's not really gaming. Maybe it's socializing.

Most people have difficulty grasping some rules and some games; this doesn't mean that they are not intelligent or "gaming intelligent". After a few attempts, they can pick it up. If they can't, then after a point you realize that you are never going to be challenged playing a game (or this game) with them.

3. Patience

This could be a sub-quality of good manners, but even a well mannered person may gracefully give up too quickly. To learn some games (and actually hear and understand the rules as they are explained), to become good at them, and to be respectful when others take time to make a difficult move, requires patience.

4. Curiosity

Curiosity is what is going to get you playing to begin with, keep you playing, get you to try out new moves, break out of group think, and get you to try new games.

5. Creativity

Similarly, you need creativity to try out new moves (curiosity to want to find new moves, creativity to actually come up with them) and to make the leap into a game's "system of thought". Creativity also allows gives you license to look at games and game systems and dream up something better - tweaks, variants, new ways to harness the fun beyond what comes in the box.


Friday, July 02, 2004

Culture Clash

We just ran into two situations of culture clash in our group.

In the first incident, gamers with a wargame background played against gamers with a Eurogame background. A deal was made during the game between player A (Eurogamer) and player B (wargamer), and unilaterally broken on the last round of the game by player B, after all of player A's actions were over. This was our first playing of anything resembling a wargame (Wallenstein).

The treachery was a complete surprise to the Eurogamer. He had left his postion completely open to player B, because he had assumed that a deal made is as binding as any rules of the game in print, unless given advanced notice of intent. Player B assumed that deals were to be made and broken when to the advantage of the one who wants to break it. Who was right?

The answer is that neither one was right or wrong. Both styles of play can be acceptable, as long as prior understanding is given before cracking the game open. It is the gaming group that must determine if deals in any game not specifying must be kept or only held under a balance of power. At the very least it is the group who play the game that must agree to it, before the game is started.

I like to think of it as players and characters. The players are the people that come to play, the characters are the personas they take up when they play. The players must decide what rules the characters must abide. Once done, it is up to the characters to decide what to do within the game rules.

Only note: the answer that "the lesson was learned for future games" is not acceptable to me, because it implies that player B "knew" a rule of the game that player A did not, and exploited this, which is patently unfair.

The second clash involved the classic question of what to do on your last turn when you can't win. Player C, a wargamer, decided to inflict a loss on player D who had attacked him (in a normal game play) earlier in the game. This one is much harder to answer, because it depends on why he did it. (We were playing Taj Mahal)

If he did it because it was really the best move for him to maximize his position, it seems "right". If it was done because he wanted to "remain in character", it could also be "right". On the other hand, if he did it in order to dissuade player D from attacking him in future games, it seems "wrong". I think some combination of the second and third was closest to the truth, but most unconsiously; it is just what wargamers do. They attack people who attacked them. This was another surprise to the Eurogamers.

My hesitation is that among wargamers, I believe that there are some who play with a kind of quasi-roleplaying which extends toward any game. They think that it is normal and correct to "get back" at an offending player during the game, even if it does not maximize their points, and would maintain that it has nothing to do with metagaming issues.

I don't want to be in a position of telling a player that they need to choose or to not choose a certain decision in a game. I hope that they will not choose actions that offend people outside the game board if they are playing with non-wargamers. I also hope that other players do not take offense when another player makes a reasonable move against them. That is why the first attribute of a gamer must be good manners.