Get Out of the Way, Game!
Trying to navigate the murky waters of genre to define my tastes
By MARK WILSON
I’ve got a problem, albeit a minor one most of the time. I try to explain to people the types of games that I enjoy, and it comes across like I just enjoy being mean. I’ve defaulted to calling them “high player interaction” games, which feels more benign, but it’s usually accompanied by examples that furrow the brows of many who are used to more benign affairs at their table.
This is made worse by the fact that I do, in fact, enjoy many games where you have to be a bit of a bastard (or a gigantic one!) in order to win. The trouble is, these games aren’t the entirety of my favorites. Sure, I enjoy confrontational area control games, for example. But also some party games and co-op games and modern-style Eurogames and many others. As a result, getting my perspective across accurately is difficult. Thus my quest for a way to impart my preferences in a way that encompasses the whole.
Mr. Rogers and Cutthroat Gaming
Here is a quote from one of my heroes, Fred Rogers. While he might be turning over in his grave at how I’m about to compare it to gaming, I do promise that there’s a link here:
“We get so wrapped up in numbers in our society. The most important thing is that we are able to be one-to-one, you and I with each other at the moment. If we can be present to the moment with the person that we happen to be with, that’s what’s important.”
It’s an amazing sentiment, and I agree with it for a whole host of interpersonal interactions, most of them having nothing to do with gaming.
But I also see its application in board gaming. See, if I’m interacting with you in a game, even if it’s to hinder you, or be hindered by you, we’re in a shared, communal experience. I want that interaction to be my focus when I game.
What I don’t want is to focus on the game itself. You’ve likely heard of the concept of analysis paralysis (AP) in games. But beyond the frustration of dead time that AP brings, if I’m stuck in AP, it also means I’m stuck in the mechanisms of the game. I’m 100x more willing to be stuck for 60 seconds as I stare down an opponent and try to figure out if they’re bluffing or not. Those moments have real tension! But if I’m calculating the math behind a handful of different options to pick the optimal one, I’m shirking my responsibility as someone who should be contributing to the fun of the group, and I’m probably actively detracting from it.
As a result, when I’m stuck with those obtuse math problems, I’ll often just take an educated guess instead of trying to figure it out with any real accuracy. It’s just not that important to me. So when I say that I can appreciate the elegance of a well-crafted gaming puzzle, but that it’s not for me, I genuinely mean both of those things. They are brilliant, but don’t facilitate the types of interactions that are the reason I play games.
The Kindness of Playing the Villain
This is a related concept. I have a reputation in my gaming club for being the villain at the table. This is not by accident. I’ll go out of my way to lightly antagonize players in order to create an “us vs. them” mentality where the “us” is everyone else, and “them” is me.
There are a couple reasons for this. One, it’s grand fun. I lose a lot more than I might otherwise (though I’m still trying to win), but who cares? I get to twirl my non-existent mustache while everyone else decides that Mark isn’t going to win, then gets immense satisfaction when I don’t.
The other reason is that it can be lonely when the one being ganged up on is you, but you aren’t prepared for it or don’t enjoy those moments. I dislike the pejorative use of the term “bash the leader,” which is often a synonym for “good fun” in my world, but not everyone enjoys having that bullseye on their back.
And so I steal that spotlight out of a potentially odd, but very real, sense of awareness of those around me. When certain friends sidle up to a game and immediately declare that regardless of what happens, the table can’t let me win (followed by knowing smirks and sincere smiles), I know I’m doing something right.
It again goes back to how I relate to games: through the personal interactions they create, facilitate and foster.
Get the Game Out of My Gaming
There’s a user on Board Game Geek who shares some of these tendencies, and also much more extreme versions of them. Some people reading this may know who I’m speaking of, if you found your way here from BGG.
In any case, he’s fond of the phrase, “Get the game out of my gaming.”
It’s a good phrase, and it’s one that I landed on in a roundabout way even before I encountered his version. Mine goes something like this: “I don’t want games to be more preoccupied with themselves than they are with the players around the table.”
That may seem an odd way to personify a game, but hopefully the concept is easy enough to understand. Another way I’ve framed it is by looking at where a game directs your attention or focus to…is it on your personal player materials? A shared central space? Or the other players themselves, in a more psychological dance?
I’ll take a closer look at this idea a bit further down.
This, though, again doesn’t fall along any expected genre lines. I think many fine modern-style Euros – which are generally known for lower levels of interaction – nevertheless fall into the category of being more interested in players than game mechanisms. I like to hold up Keyflower and Troyes as my shining examples of interactive Euros that have both intricate mechanical puzzles while also an interest in the communal experience between players, and there are others that fall comfortably in the same realm.
But, to muddy the waters a bit, social deduction games can fall into this category as well. Or area control games. Or party games. Or storytelling games. Or card games. And each of those can NOT meet my criteria as well!
So it’s a case by case scenario, but I do see a clear line in the sand based on this criteria. It just doesn’t have any of the labels we’re used to.
Extension to RPGs
If you’re unfamiliar with the melodramatic “edition wars” in Dungeons & Dragons, it almost invariably ends up focused on its 4th edition, which was much more of a crunchy combat simulator than previous or subsequent editions. Some loved this. Others hated it. The exact merits of it aren’t my point here, but rather to circle back to my central premise.
For me, the edition doesn’t work as well, because while I enjoy combat, my favorite moments in D&D are the unexpected, hilarious roleplaying moments that – yes – can occur within combat, but usually occur in the periods between such encounters.
In this case, though, I don’t think that the extra granularity of the combat is de facto “in the way.” Rather, it’s in the way for me and how I best relate to the game. For others, a hyper-streamlined combat system that’s handled quickly in some RPG might be getting in the way of their preferred tactically dense entry point to engagement and interaction.
4e might not be the best example, but it’s a well-known one. Where I definitely see this divide, though, is with indie RPG titles. Many are glorious and fun, for varying reasons. But if you read enough press releases and Kickstarters and such, you can start to see a trend between the games that have a host of clever new mechanical ideas (or twists on old ones), and those that are usually rules-lite and try to sell themselves on how it will create new modes of interaction between you and your friends. There are other styles as well, but for our purposes I’m ignoring them, as they aren’t as germane to the discussion.
It should come as no surprise that I prefer the latter (with scattered exceptions, as ever), but I find it hard to define RPGs in terms of “interaction” in the same way that I can for board games, because both broad styles listed above are facilitating direct interaction, just in very different ways. So my own criteria breaks down a bit at this point. Ah well. Nothing’s perfect, and I still find use in it.
Where Is a Game’s Focus?
The phrases I highlighted earlier focus on the game’s perspective. Which is to say, it talks about how the game facilitates interaction (or doesn’t). But I ultimately like to focus on where the players’ attention is. It’s well and good if a game isn’t “preoccupied” with itself (which, I’ll admit, is an occasionally nebulous phrase), but I use that phrase as a gateway to the actual issue: player focus.
I’m a bad example, because I’m always commenting on players’ board states even when they have nothing to do with me. It’s usually a conversation starter and allows them to discuss their thought process behind recent moves. But if nobody comments on my board state in a session, or at least some other player’s and how it has implications for them, I’m probably going to be indifferent toward the game. Granted, there are mitigating factors sometimes. Maybe it’s a large, social gathering and people are socializing. If a game’s getting only 50-60% of a group’s attention in those situations, it’s expected. Or maybe everyone’s learning the game, and absorbing the game’s possibilities is required before a player’s gaze can widen to include the machinations of others. This is fine.
I’ve played a number of games over the years, though, that are fun at times, but the fun moments seem buried in about 10-50% too much “stuff.” That stuff could be physical stuff in the form of numerous card types, components, minis, etc. Or it could be conceptual stuff, the fiddly rules that require referencing the rulebook on every other turn.
Those games, to me, seem focused somewhere other than the players, because the players are focused somewhere other than the players. They’re focused on the stuff inside the game.
I can find enjoyment in such games, since board gaming is rarely less than pleasant even when the game isn’t the best. But I never have my favorite moments in those games, and suspect I never will.