Board Games

Finding the Perfect Game

This article will serve as a slight retrospective for my Training for Difficulty article. If you have yet to read that article, I urge you to read it so you have a strong basis for what I will be discussing in this article.

I’ve spent a little time messing around with cardboard. Yes, I would go far enough to say that I am a cardboard connoisseur. I’ve punched pieces and optimistically thought “this game will be the one!” Spoiler alert: it never becomes “the game.” It never would’ve become “the game.” It is impossible ever to find a game that will be perfect for me.

Now before you go off and tell me that I have raved about Brass: Lancashire and 18XX titles, let me clarify. Brass is my favorite game of all time, hands down. The puzzle that is present in Brass is titillating and intriguing. The gameplay feels tight, and every decision feels meaningful throughout the game. It is a game that I always want to play, and I do not anticipate that changing.

As I have played more 18XX titles, I have also found the sheer delight in the gameplay. Each game is this intricate clockwork of mechanisms in which I want to soak myself. No other game I have encountered since has given me the same feeling. It has made me reconsider what type of games I enjoy versus games that I have had a good time playing.

Now considering the high praise I just laid upon several games, allow me to let some air out of the balloon. These games are not the perfect game by such a considerable margin that it is remarkable. “But Daniel,” you exclaim, “you have yet to define what criterion is used to prescribe the title of the perfect game.”

If you’re so insistent on some definition to give substance to this debate, I am here to disappoint you. Asking a group of people what defines their perfect game is a purely subjective experience. However, I do want to cover interest, rules understanding, metagaming, and competitiveness.

INTEREST

Sicily covered with rail.

Allow me to start with an anecdote. I had the pleasure of going to Gateway 2019 in Los Angeles, California. I was happy getting to interact with people who shared common interests as myself. There were genuine laughs and fantastic people with which I had the opportunity to play some fabulous games.

I was scheduled to run an event to play 1846: The Race for the Midwest. As I sat down with my three other competitors, I was slightly uneasy. The unease lifted once I realized most of them I had met before at the train gaming meetup I referenced in my previous article. I was able to relax and fully be myself. I had the most fun I had the whole convention playing 1846 with these gentlemen.

After our game had concluded, I had expressed to one of the older gentlemen that I had a fantastic time and was eager to learn the game more to have a better showing the next time I played it. He then went on to tell me these stories of playing train games. He told me tales of people abusing strategies of certain games to suffocate other players out of the game. He eventually detailed how he would spend time at home studying their schemes and found a way to beat it. His studies eventually led him to find such a powerful opening that he needed to contact the game publisher so that they would fix it in the rules.

I had images in my head of valiantly fighting against those who seek to destroy their opponents. Ripped from my daydream, I faced a question.

“How old are you?” he asked.

“22,” I responded.

“You’re a young man. Don’t let gaming get in the way of life,” he stated, plainly.

After that brief exchange, he left. There I was ready to accept the fact that 18XX games would become my perfect games. I was ready and willing to dedicate myself to getting better at this system of games. The look on his face communicated to me a certain level of gravitas that I wouldn’t typically have considered.

The depth in which this gentleman dove to learn about the game and its system led to him losing hours if not days of his life to win. Is that what I wanted? Would you even consider that time as lost if it is doing something which you enjoy? I had to draw a line between my interest and fanaticism.

You can be interested in a game but does that make the game perfect? I had played one-a-many popular video games. It always seems that the people who have more time and interest in a game are the loudest critics of that game. It seems the more invested a player becomes, the more the game falls apart in their fingers. I’ll use that to throw another theoretical question at you: Is a game still perfect if you care about it enough to want to change it?

There is also a passing interest in a game when you see it on Amazon, YouTube, or in your friendly local game store. I’ve had an interest in a game simply because the theme seems compelling. There needs to be some threshold reached to compel people to buy, learn, and play the game. If there is hype surrounding a title, that will generate more intrigue.

Take, for example, Pax Pamir 2nd Edition. The game is gorgeous. The production is top-notch. The designer Cole Wehrle has made some other games I enjoy, and it is a crunchy strategy game. I immediately took an interest in the game. I have played it once and unfortunately have not been able to get the game back to the table. It is a game that captivated me but didn’t stick with my gaming group.

Additionally, we get to predatory market practices which artificially create interest. Kickstarter has been a website used by game designers as a method to get their dream projects funded. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, but there is a problem with creating artificial interest. By creating these massive, expensive games with exclusives to the Kickstarter edition, players get Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO). They feel the need to get the game because this one might be “the one!” Whether or not that is the case cannot be discerned until after they receive their copy.

It seems that an interest in a game only brings us to the doorstep of the experience. I feel like you can hardly say that someone’s interest in a game denotes whether or not that game is perfect. It might lend itself to the game seeing playtime more, which will skew the perception of whether or not a game is perfect.

RULES UNDERSTANDING

You only have to know the cards, right?

I had touched upon the hours of rules torment some players had when we played 1846: The Race for the Midwest. Now we get to more group-specific criteria for what is considered to be the perfect game. As I have been fluctuating between different playgroups, this has begun to sit at the front of my mind.

I have a group of people that I now play 18XX titles. I have a group of people with which I play medium-weight games. I have my parents with which I will play light/filler games. I am fortunate to be able to have people with which I do play board games. I’ve received a reply on Reddit saying the amount of games I have played during a week is about as many games they play for a year!

With that, I have to start considering the people I play with when I get a game. When you own a board game collection and your friends come to play with you, you have to become a curator. You have to, to a certain extent, change the lens in which you look at games. When I am about to say “I would love to play this game!”, I have to temper expectations and propose, “Would one of my gaming groups love to play this game?”

Board games are rarely an isolated activity. There are games designed to be able to play by yourself, but I’ve mostly felt hollow after finishing a board game solo. I want to be able to share with someone what happened. Usually that someone is the people with which I played the board game!

Now, this raises an interesting question. If you have to sacrifice some level of personal enjoyment to find a game that will see play with your playgroup, how could you consider that game perfect? It might be perfect solely for the reason that everyone wants to play it. Nevertheless, if you are playing a frustrating, annoying game, I hardly believe you can call that game perfect.

I should take this moment to accurately distinguish the weight of the game as a simple way to determine if you are interested in a game. It is no secret that I am a fan of heavy games. I enjoy games with a lot of rules because I believe once players inhabit that rules structure, there is a lot of room for players to be witty and strategic. For some of the players I have played with, the last thing they want to try to do is to remember fifty different rules that have errata and exceptions. Depending on the person, comprehension of the rules is a barrier to entry.

So you might prefer complex games, but your group prefers party games. How would you work to remedy the differences between these two? It seems, by default, that this inconsistency would lend itself to never being able to find a perfect board game. What good is a game if you don’t enjoy it or you don’t play it?

METAGAMING

In the middle of some Battle Box action.

Explaining metagaming is a simple task. Yet, the value that metagaming adds to player enjoyment is incredible. Let me give you an example of metagaming, and I am sure you will be able to catch on.

Let’s say we are playing 1846: The Race for the Midwest. I’ve won a game in the past by buying the private companies in the Michigan region then operate the Grand Trunk Railway. In the future, observant players are going to be a lot more hesitant to allow me to have a stranglehold on the Michigan region in subsequent plays of the game.

Metagaming, in a nutshell, is the ability of players to learn and adapt to whom they play with. I feel like any game that wants to vie for the title of perfection must, in some way, allow players to play around one another. Take, for example, the card game “War.” War is an entirely deterministic game. This means from the initial state of the game, you will always receive the same end result. There are no random agents at play or strategic choices that exist to steer the direction of the game. By the time you sit down with your half of the deck, the winner has been decided.

On the flip side, let us consider one of the most popular games in the past 30 years. Magic: the Gathering is a card game that has gotten such high regard and esteem that it is practically immortalized. This is because it is the first of what is known as a Collectible Card Game (CCG). Being a pioneer in a genre tends to grant a certain level of prestige. Magic: the Gathering has metagaming engrained in its very core.

For someone who has grown slightly tired of Magic: the Gathering, I still have an immense level of respect for the game and will keep some cards and decks. The things I am most proud of are my Battle Box and my Cube. My Battle Box is a set of 10 decks I designed to be played against one another. My Cube is a set of 450 cards I have hand-selected that can be drafted by up to 8 people.

If you notice, the things I have kept both are self-contained meta environments. Players, when they play with my Battle Box or Cube, will be exposed to a predefined climate which they can use to anticipate/think differently about strategy. When playing against their opponent and trying to guess what cards are in their hand, they have complete knowledge of what could be in their hand. This knowledge grants a transcendent level of play that feels like a beautiful push/pull of dancing with your opponent.

When players don’t feel like they have an opportunity to show wit or outsmart their opponents, the appeal of the game tends to dry up. They no longer can add their own personality or preparation into the game that they are about to play. This, I believe, is why we see games lasting for such a long time with such rabid fans.

I must, however, make an important point. I seem to be pushing that if a game does not have some sort of grand strategy for which one can prepare, it is not worth your time. That is just plain not true. Other games focus on a tactical approach. Given the current board state and resources available to you, you must make a decision.

Even if player interaction is at an all-time low, these games still offer a level of developing metagaming. Let’s discuss two separate titles: Inis and A Feast for Odin. A Feast for Odin (AFFO) is the quintessential game of slightly jostling your opponents but never having real interaction with them besides an occasional shoulder bump. Yet, there is a metagame to AFFO. In AFFO, I know that I want to be grabbing an exploration board and to be focusing on how to upgrade/utilize the resources the game gave to me. Players start talking and realizing the strong and weak plays within the game. This develops an overall feeling of strategy that becomes emergent.

In Inis, players draft the same selection of 12 cards (16 in a 4-player game) to determine who can take what actions during this round of play. Players have to look at the board, their pieces, and consider their goals. From these facts that they gather, they can make informed decisions on what cards they wish to use this round. Players start memorizing what cards exist, knowing what cards they took, and then shift their eyes around their opponents. Who scooped up the card that will negate my actions this round?

The ability for players to be able to develop their strategy over consecutive plays opens up the game like oxygen opens up an excellent red wine. I feel a game that is not perfect is one that falls flat after the first play. A game that would be “perfect” would unfurl slowly, enticing the player to traverse deeper into the complexities of its strategy.

COMPETITIVENESS

A cutthroat game of Deep Sea Adventure

This is the last and final category I want to talk about is the competitiveness of your gaming group. This tends to be a more human factor, but some games have different elements of their gameplay which one might need to look out for when considering whether or not to play.

Who plays Cards Against Humanity to win? Who plays 1846: The Race for the Midwest to get a few laughs? Let me clarify that I believe the main point of a game is to have a good time. In addition to fun, there is a certain level of competitiveness that you have to give a barometer reading. Rules lawyering and apathy can kill a game faster than any of the other categories.

Let us start with rules-lawyering. Rules-lawyering defined is the action of a player removing the spirit from the rule. Players seek a competitive advantage by interpreting the rule by what is written instead of what was intended. What game designers are doing when they design a ruleset is trying to shepherd players through an experience. The rules are the sheepdogs ensuring that they do not deviate too far from the desired journey that the designer wishes to take them.

Party and casual games tend to set the atmosphere for competition reasonably low. These games don’t exist to pit the wittiest minds against one another. The rules exist as a living document to help guide enjoyable and entertaining experiences. I’ve never laughed harder than when I played A Fake Artist Goes to New York. The intent is to create silly and funny situations; therefore, the rules quickly get out of the way. The journey that the designer wants each player to take is one where they are laughing with friends, and slight rules variations or violations occur. Also, most of these games encourage house rules to adapt the experience to their friend group!

To juxtapose rules-lawyering, let us discuss apathy towards the rules/game environment. Nothing takes the air out of a game than when players start treating the system of rules with indifference. It can completely deflate an experience and let the air out of other players. I have put away games one-a-many times because the players just simply don’t care for existing in that competitive system.

When I am playing a grand strategy game or one that requires concentration, it is depressing when players decide the game isn’t worth their mental energy. It is almost like signaling to the other players that their investment is silly. I have even had players exist as a chaotic agent which serves not to win the game but perform random actions and attack players indiscriminately. Any complaints from the other players are usually rebutted with, “Well it’s just a game. Why are you taking it seriously?”

Of course, eurogames exist to have very little interaction between players. I feel these games cover a decent middle ground. Each player is responsible for their own system or engine. If a player doesn’t want to take it seriously, they will be the only one affected. They might become a distraction to other players, but there is an impossibility of them affecting other players.

There is this thin line you have to walk with your playgroup and assess to what level of competitiveness they ascribe. If your players keep things fast and loose, maybe stay away from games with a more serious tone to the gameplay. If your players do not find the gimmick in party games appealing, a more sophisticated experience will be one that will leave everyone satisfied.

PERFECTION?

Red snags the win!

Perfection is impossible to achieve. That does not mean that you cannot find a board game out there that you will love much like I love 18XX games and Brass: Lancashire. The sheer number of games already published and that become published every year is an excellent indicator that there is a place for you in this beautiful hobby.

The game that will be “perfect” to you is the one that properly combines the four elements of rules understanding, metagaming, competitiveness, and interest. A journey you will have to take is to what level do you slide each of those metrics. I still am finding which degrees suit me the best after playing board games seriously for two years. I don’t anticipate fully unraveling this mystery anytime soon.

With the right people at the right time, an unassuming game might become the closest you’ve seen to perfect. When it comes to getting another game to the board game table, keep in mind who is playing. There will always be another game that might try to crack your gaming group. There will never be another gaming group quite like yours.

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