Sunday, July 29, 2007

A Most Personal Impersonal Game

In reality I seldom play board games at this point in my life. I've been in this location for four years now, but have only very gradually begun to develop friendships locally, and no one that I would consider a friend or close acquaintance has much of a propensity for board games. This represents a radical departure for me since the vast majority of my friends from the past have been game aficionados. All my best friends from high school, dorm mates from college, two younger brothers, uncles on both sides of my family, cousins, dad, mom & aunt (on very limited occasions), and my lovely wife, have all indulged my predilection for board games.

Real game, imaginary friends

Just recently I've realized that this state of affairs desperately needs to end. I have the suspicion that the quantity and quality of my gaming experiences have a direct impact on my happiness in life. My primary objective to remedy this sorry situation is to begin a gaming group in the Potsdam/Canton area. As I begin to plan my opening moves towards this lofty goal, I will keep you posted. Although I do feel severely board game deprived, I do have three outlets for my passion: I play two player games with my wife on occasion, kid's games with my four year old daughter every day, and online board games on the site AsoBrain games. The first two points on this list I would love to elaborate upon, but those are topics for another day. Playing on AsoBrain games (mostly their version of Settlers of Catan, called Xplorers) has been a revelation, albeit a bit of a puzzling one. True, being able to play board games on a daily basis if I so choose is a fabulous opportunity indeed, and one of which I've taken particular advantage the last couple of weeks. I love that I play this very personal, familiar game with opponents I've never met from all over the world. Indeed this is a typical representation of our modern situation: I am at once experiencing much more connectivity with people I would have never had known in the past yet simultaneously experiencing much less immediate relationships with those I meet in this way.

Is it really possible to play board games on a computer?

Though I love playing at this site I am quite aware that the experience is missing much of what I love about board games, namely the immediacy of an experience shared with friends and the aesthetic appeal of handling game components and performing the basic rituals of play. Internet play with strangers is almost completely a matter of strategy in that although there may be a little chat amongst players, such games are devoid of that natural comfortable chat between friends and the (usually) playful banter that arises from games played in person. The interface for the online game is cold. Even when players chat, there is only so much of their feelings, reactions, frustrations, moments of elation, and the like that can be gleaned from watching the game unfold. Essentially all you get from the experience is the moves on the board. From a narrow strategy sense this could be a good thing, since there are few distractions from one's concentration on the game and the moves to be made. If the point of playing is to develop or hone one's game strategies then this is an ideal environment. However I would assert that the distractions, reactions and the like are at least as important to a gaming session as the strategy involved in the actual game mechanics.

For me, games are like food...really

As I've written previously, the presence of physical components that are held, slid, shuffled, stolen, flipped, rolled, slapped, and generally manhandled throughout game play, for me, results in a great deal of enjoyment. I would liken this in a way to most any simple pleasure in life. Anything that one is passionate about, even broken down into its simplest components or steps can bring great enjoyment and satisfaction to an experience. For instance, I am passionate about cooking & working with food. Sometimes this can be a job or a chore, or just another action that I perform. When I stop to think about it and allow myself a little immediacy as I prepare a meal I derive much satisfaction from the simplest actions, from the motion of peeling a potato, to the explosive pop & sizzle of a steak hitting a hot pan, to the slide of a knife separating whole vegetables into the small accessible pieces that become the components to be transformed into finished dishes. Just as there are thousands of tiny pleasures found in the preparation of a meal from start to finish, tiny actions, motions, and rituals throughout a favorite game each provide startling pleasure in and of themselves far beyond even the bigger context of the game. In my mind this is one primary reason why I have a stronger attachment to board games than to video games: the only tactile experience in video games is the controller since they are almost entirely visual experiences. Although I love many video games, especially those on the NES and SNES systems from years past, they fall short of board games precisely because of those weaknesses I highlighted in the case of video board games on the Internet: shared experience and ritual pleasures. Playing Settlers of Catan on AsoBrain games ends up having much more in common with video games than it does board games despite the fact that the game rules are essentially identical to the tabletop version of the game.

Looking for a few good opponents

All this being said, my new found Internet board game fascination was thrown for a loop several days ago when I played online for the first time with people I know in real life. My brother Christopher, one of his friends, my cousin Jennie, and I got together for a game of Xplorers on AsoBrain games. This promised to be a lot of fun because both Jennie and Christopher have been real life gaming opponents for essentially all my days of board gaming. We played countless board games as kids along with my brother Ben and my cousin Katie, and almost always play games when we get together although this usually only ever happens when we are all able to gather at my uncles' farm during the annual family gathering at Thanksgiving. This has become fairly difficult since each of us has become far separated from one another. The farm is in Vermont, while I reside in New York, Jennie in South Carolina, and Christopher in Kansas. My fingers are crossed that we will have the opportunity for a session this November. Yes, I truly miss mopping the floor with the old gang and would love to do so this holiday season! Now, if any of them ever actually read my blog, this should get them all riled up, which is a good thing...they'll almost certainly play angry and be way off their game.

Great time playing a painful game

Back to our session on Thursday. The experience was incredible. I had a great time chatting with Toph & Jennie and actually getting to play a game with them was a rare treat. That being said, the game certainly was brutal in a couple of ways. First, although I have played quite a few games on this site the other three players were Xplorers virgins: they all knew how to play the board game, but since they had never used this particular interface, the entire game was spent familiarizing themselves with how to actually get things done. Trading especially takes a little practice since players need to know how to ask for cards from other players, counter-offer, trade with the bank, and reject an opponent's offer. Familiarizing oneself with this system makes for excruciatingly long turns. A few more plays down the road a game of Xplorers will probably take between 30-45 minutes for us to complete. Unfortunately this one lasted twice that long. The other problem for me in this particular session is that I made poor choices for opening settlement positions (as did Jennie, although she does have the excuse that she's only played Settlers twice...I can't make such a claim). The result is that Jennie and I were almost mathematically eliminated from contention after two or three turns. Neither of us had access to the proper resources or the room to expand our territory sufficiently to win the game. What this means is that I spent the final 1:15 minutes of the game waiting for the misery to end.

Final Score: Ugly

Results: Toph obliterated all of us because of good opening placement, a bit of experience, and a little luck; I will admit it here and now that I was thoroughly outwitted. He may have one the battle, but mark my words: I will win...the next battle! It really was a lot of fun, and future games will certainly be even better since everyone will be more familiar with the interface, turns will progress much more quickly, and hopefully I'll preform more like the most experienced player of the group rather than the least. Was this experience even close to as much fun as playing with the same group in person? No, I don't think so, but it is the only way I can frequently play games with these people I love, and there is certainly much to be said for that. My life is richer because we've started to play these games, perhaps not so much as it would be if I were playing regular board games with friends face to face in this area, but a great development nonetheless. I await our next game with much anticipation.

Additional reading

One additional note: There are several sites on the internet that allow you to play board games online. Settlers of Catan seems to be the most available for online play, although I know Carcassonne and Ticket to Ride are also available (Carc on AsoBrain, even), and legions of Euro style board games can be played on BrettSpielWelt, a german boardgaming site. I urge anyone looking for a little more boardgaming time than their immediate surroundings allow to check out some of these resources. in particular is very accessible and I highly recommend giving it a shot if you enjoy Settlers of Catan or Carcassonne. BSW is definitely worth a look too, but I have yet to play there since it is a bit more intimidating and complicated. Get online and give it a shot!


Anonymous said...

Nice formatting...very impressive!

Andy Fugdale said...

Very interesting article. I totally know what you mean. I love playing board games with my friends, but they don't often want to play. I recently started playing Settlers of Catan on my xbox360 (they have a great version available online). I don't even play with other players, just against the computer. And I can play a game so quickly that it is hardly worth the effort. I can certainly enjoy learning the ins and outs of the game and the strategies involved, but I miss my friends cursing me for stealing their intersection or begging me to trade with them.

Dani in NC said...

I hope you reach your goal of starting a local gaming group. I like playing computer games, but it doesn't give me the same sense of satisfaction. When playing board games, I lose far more often than I win so my enjoyment of them is purely social.