Thursday, July 19, 2007

What I Love (and Hate) About the Board Game Experience

By no means am I an expert in the field, but I do love board games. Is this reason enough for you to listen to my ramblings on the subject? Absolutely, it is! Board games are a great way to spend quality time with family and friends. The good ones are fairly simple to learn, force players to us their brains to excel, have immense replay value for a reasonable purchase price, and, best of all, serve as a means for friends to interact and converse rather than as a distraction from those activities that movies or video games often are. Don't get me wrong--I enjoy video games, especially classic ones, but there's just something engaging about playing a great board game. Well designed board games with quality components provide me great pleasure, in both a visual and tactile sense. Shuffling cards, moving pieces, placement of tiles, rolling of dice, and then the sight of the game unfolding one move at a time before you, to me, is a rewarding experience indeed. This is not even touching one of the most engaging aspects of the pastime: the competition!

Everything I know about board games I learned from my uncles

Of course, the best thing about board games is when your uncle gets that glint in his eye that says "Nathan is exactly 7 spaces from Park Place and 9 from Boardwalk, sounds like it's time to mortgage my utilities to finally build those hotels I've been planning!" Yes, I was schooled in board games early in life by my uncles up at my grandparent's farm in Vermont. Sure, it is only a game, but what good is a game if you don't try your best to win? Sure, this might come across as cutthroat, especially if you yell "HA! Take that!" at that moment you crush your hapless opponent, but some things in life just can't be helped.

Dude, it's just a game!

I take board games very seriously. I also believe that the point is to have fun. Some people may think that these two stances are contradictory, but that is certainly not true. Being serious about a game simply means that I respect the rules and the systems that have been put into place by the game designer(s). I very rarely use house rules since I feel that the game as published is nearly the best possible version in almost all cases. Certainly house rules can spice up a tired game in some instances, but in general they sabotage a designer's well thought out plan and ultimately make a game less fun to play. For instance, take the house rule in monopoly used by almost everyone who plays the game: Placing extra money from taxes and fines into the middle of the board which is then awarded to a player who lands on free parking. This adds playing time onto an already long game, and increases the amount of luck involved in an already heavily luck dependant one. So when someone says "let's put money on free parking, that'll be more fun!" what that ends up meaning in reality is that the winner will much more likely be determined by luck and the game will probably last an additional hour, all of which leads to a less interesting and more agonizing session.

Boardgame S&M anyone?

Of course, if you prefer your board games to be boring and agonizing, enjoy pounding your forehead against the table out of frustration, and love subjecting your friends to the same, go right ahead and throw that money into free parking! I mean, that is the way the game is played, right? Now, don't get me wrong, I didn't always feel this way. I too have spent many years playing house rules, especially in monopoly, because it always seemed like a good idea as a kid. Ah, my years as a misguided youth! [I'm a misguided adult now, thank you very much!] We're grown-ups now, it truly is time to take on something that actually rewards good play instead of the whim of the dice.

A code beyond the rules

Taking games seriously, to me, also means playing in a way that is consistent with the point and spirit of the game. I believe each player should play to win to the best of his ability. If all players do that I feel that overall you will have the best possible game, spirited and fun for all. I especially hate what I would call intentional kingmaking, where one player has decided (s)he has little to no chance of winning and therefore gives an undue advantage to another player and thereby throws off the natural course of the game. For instance, in monopoly it is perfectly legal to give some or all of your property to another player for free. If you decide you will not be able to win, you could give a monopoly and all of your cash to another player so that a third player, who is the current leader, can't send you into bankruptcy and take all of your property on a subsequent turn. In such a case the hard work and smart moves that the 3rd player has made to get to such a strong position is wiped out simply because you decide to throw the game. Nothing to me is as disappointing or infuriating as a move such as this. Although not against the rules, such play undermines the spirit of the game and makes it feel pointless and the results arbitrary.

I leave you with two points that really dredge up the worst of board game players:

  1. Cheating--If you don't care about the process of the game and the challenge of winning honestly, but only about the results, how about not subjecting your friends to your psychopathic tendencies? Simply set up the game on your own, declare yourself the wiener and move on.
  2. Complaining incessantly or blaming the dice/other players/poor circumstances for your own inability to play well. If you seem to lose a lot but would be really awesome at the game if it wasn't for bad dice rolls and your obnoxious friends always ganging up on you and making your game sessions miserable, see my suggestion for cheaters above. If you can't peacefully play with others, just go play with yourself!

Thank you for reading, and good day.


Yehuda said...

This is a nice post. Awaiting more.


Bernie said...

There are a few traditional games, a very few, that invite players to make up their own rules. There are many games that offer players sometimes as many as 20 different variations. All the games I write about, in Junkyard Sports dot com, especially, and frequently on Deep Fun dot com and rarely on Major Fun dot com.

I also like games that you can't really play seriously, without cracking up. I like games that so clearly acknowledge their lack of seriousness that playing them makes you laugh. Those are the games I write about in Major Fun dot com. Mostly.

Am I disagreeing with anything in your excellent post? Not at all in the least or slightest. Just appreciating. And differing.

Nathaniel Todd said...

That is one of the great things about games: there is so much variety out there that there is something to please everyone and also that no one could possibly like everything.

I myself tend to lean more towards more 'serious' games that have very defined rules. These are the games that I have the strongest connection to, gain the most satisfaction from, and ultimately have the most fun with.

That being said, I do enjoy a silly game on occasion, balderdash & apples to apples are both quite entertaining. Perhaps I would enjoy more of these types of game if I were to experience them.

My post was meant just like yours, appreciating and differing. Thanks for the thoughts!

Dani in NC said...

My husband is big on house rules, not just in games but in almost everything. I think it would kill him to stick to a set of instructions exactly as they are written :-). On the other hand, I like to play a game by the rules at least two or three times. However, I have loosened up a bit. There are some games where I will simplify the rules a bit when we are first learning to play, and then gradually move up to the full rules after we have some experience.

laurion said...

Your points on trying to win/cheating/kingmaking remind me of something Reiner Knizia once said, and I paraphrase (because I can't be bothered to look up the exact quote, as exactness doesn't matter here);

"The goal of a game is to win, but it's the goal that is important, not the winning."

i.e., Play to win, but don't win at the expense of playing.

Hate Board Games said...

Here is a funny blog post on hating board games.