On not knowing – unravelling mysteries with Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock

People are pretty keen on presenting mysteries as things that are satisfying to solve. Nothing beats the smugness of getting the answer right.

I think there are two things better.

The first is calling Sherlock a prick.

Sherlock Holmes is the definition of entitlement. Narrative detail bends to his whim, creating worlds in which his enormous leaps are always right. It’s exactly how people like to see the world, as making sense, because there is a right answer, even if we can’t see it. There’s a reassurance there, but it doesn’t stop him being an utter turd.

The second is more nebulous. It’s the simple pleasure of not knowing what is going on.

Having threads to tug on, but not knowing how they fit together. TV mystery revels in this, as does a lot of modern non-mystery TV shows. In the wake of the series Lost, everyone want their TV to not make sense. It exploits the infinite possibilities of the blank page, by not providing answers until you’re already committed.

The eventual answers are unsatisfying, because up until that point, a million possibilities could’ve been ‘true’, and so, they all were.

In Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective, you spend the whole time having barely a clue what’s going on. You bounce from door to door, acting out little scenes from a booklet. They fill in little details, but often raise as many questions as they answer. You start to join dots, but scribble them out as something changes. You make guesses and assumptions, and they might even be right, but you’ve got no idea how to show that.

This is what this game gets so right. It understands that not knowing is fun.

If you want to win the game, you have to be ruthless, quick, and make bold (but correct) assumptions. You need to be exactly the same sort of smart-arse as Sherlock. Entirely disregarding some perfectly valid leads in favour of the one tiny detail that happens to be more important.

I’d actually find it quite annoying if I had any desire to play it like that.

The game is about deduction, assumption, guessing and puzzling. You’ve got to aim for that, but it’s much more fun to meander and drift and discover and feel clever.

I’ve never felt clever at the end of a game. Sherlock always explains how easy it was to just ignore most of the information and pull at the particular thread that works. It’s just as frustrating as the books and shows can be.

But it’s fine, because on the journey you were excited about your wrong guesses, you were laughing at the silly voices, and wondering if every single detail was important.

Uncertainty can be a treat. Not knowing can be fun. You can’t feel clever and certain unless you’ve felt the opposite first.

And that might be most of the fun. Walking the path is much more satisfying than getting there.

In particular because the destination is a schooling from the smug detective.

So take your time. Because fuck that guy.

 

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Simple pleasures – Carcassonne, familiarity and humanity

Carcassone

It barely makes sense for me to write this, but I think it’s important.

I’d had a strung out, stressed out wrung out kind of week. I was so worried I was actually unable to experience worry any more, and I made it out to a game night at the local. I’d just got a lovely tasty and exciting new game in the post, and I was keen to try it out.

As I looked at it, and looked at the people around me, I realised I couldn’t face trying to learn and teach together.

Some of my favourite joys in gaming come from teaching, learning, understanding. It’s why I still spend more money than I actually have on board games. I like the new, I like the exciting, I like the discovery. I like sitting down with a bundle of people and building a new and exciting puzzle together. This is well documented.

But sometimes I’m tired. Sometimes I don’t want the most interesting, deep, complex and puzzling game I own. Sometimes I don’t want something new and odd.

So my heart quietly leaped when someone pointed out that Carcassonne, that old classic, goes to five players.

It’s never been my favourite game. I initially bounced off it because we found it too complicated*, it was one of the first games I’d played as a grown up, and I won by a huge amount by just barely understanding how farming worked. But it felt fiddly and finicky.

Later someone taught it to me properly, and I enjoyed it more, but it was never my game. I’d played over-long games or just found it a bit to mundane. I had squeezed a lot of the fun out of it by playing on an app.

But two times in the last year it has taken me aback. One was playing competitively, which is a subject I might return to. The other was quite the opposite.

Tired and frayed, I started laying out the pieces and gently explaining the rules. You put tiles down, then you get to put people down. Those people claim ownership, and can vie for control through clever tile placement.

Immediately, we had a warm argument about the difference between cloisters and monasteries. Before long we were talking about drunken farmers, propped up against city walls. We had a recidivist thief and a passive aggressive episode of the Archer’s.

I’ve talked before about the stories that games make. But this was barely even that. It was just the space to be silly.

The game was simple enough for everyone to pick up quickly. One person didn’t want to play after the explanation, but we pointed out that we could help them, and they’d definitely get it by the end (they nearly won, just one point behind). That simplicity, and the inability to do much planning on your turn, just turned the whole table into an ebbing and flowing back and forth of silliness, kindness, ridiculousness and affectionate piss taking.

Little bursts of song were sung. Shoulders were squeezed.  Laughs were laughed and hearts were filled.

For all of my talk about systems and puzzles and heuristics, the truth is that sometimes we just want a game as an excuse to be present with some people to smile with them and talk nonsense at them.

I had spent large chunks of the week feeling like a vessel for worry. A conduit for other people’s numbers and questions. A worker. One of those little carved lumps of wood we put onto spaces in these games. I was put in the spot, I did the thing, we were done.

I felt alienated and spaced out.

I took a trip to Carcassonne, and lay in a field, looking at clouds with friends and farmers. Picking out shapes, giving things names, telling silly stories and making each other giggle.

And I was a human again.

Sometimes it’s good for a game to get out of your way.  To not just be a safe stress and worry, one you can manage, but just a gentle set of action and involvement that brings some people together.

There’s a lot of reasons to play. But I struggle to justify the idea that anything should come higher than laughing with other people.

It’s just a good excuse to be human.

 

 

*Present me is amused to remember that’s how I used to feel about Carcassonne.

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On the edge of your dice – Chaos and drama in Impulse

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It’s easy to find unfairness in the roll of a die. You need something to happen, the odds are in your favour, but luck isn’t with you, and that one in six chance screws everything.

It’s frustrating, and something that people complain about a lot in games. The loss that was too random, the win that was unfair. I’ve done it myself, criticised a game because we’d got all the way to the end of a game, and after all the strategising and hard work, it all came down to a single flip of a card, or a die roll, or a counter pulled from a bag.

It doesn’t matter how much control you had getting to that point, if you’re suddenly flipping a coin to decide who has won it can feel cheap.

Despite this, I’d argue the flip of a card is one of the purest moments of drama that boardgames have to offer.

A lot of the roots of gaming comes from gambling with dice. You put some money on some dice, and that roll becomes important, powerful. Whether you win or you lose matters, so every time the dice are rolling, you’re hanging on every turn, knock and spin.

The themes and puzzles and strategies of modern games are quite often just giving you excuses to care about the roll of the die. It tends to be cards and counters these days, rather than dice, because designers and players like to control that randomness more precisely. But if you boil down a game, it’s likely some of its bones are made out of chance.

We were playing Impulse, a fast but weird take on the space faring empire builder, where hours of politicking are replaced with minutes of combo building. It’s convoluted and a bit odd, but it has a lot of charm.

It can feel unfair, but it’s usually over before you’ve noticed quite how stacked things are.

As we played, we found ourselves in one of those dramatic, flip a card climaxes. Each player had to draw a card, whichever had the higher number would win. One person would win the game, the other would win the chance to win next turn.

In isolation, you wouldn’t play that game, just flipping cards to see who got the better number. But the rest of the game had given this moment narrative and drama, and it felt powerful.

I was desperately scrabbling together to keep the game going long enough to have a chance to catch up. My opponent just kept coming out on top in fights they should’ve lost, and was nudging further and further up the victory point track. Their ruthless plan of building up and sabotaging and telling people to come at them was working.

And this was more of that. Several card flips had us neck and neck. The win within grasp, the tables already turned…although only to even odds.

There’s something particular here. The cards were already drawn, and the fate was decided. The card flip would reveal what had already been chosen. There’s a ramping up in that moment, the cards becoming heavier, the air becoming thicker, the table becoming quiet. The uncertainty becomes more real.

It’s anticipation again. That wondrous feeling of not knowing, and hoping. The realisation that this is the moment we’d been building up to.

Sure, it’s a flip of the coin, but it’s not just any coin. It’s the coin. Our fate was in our hands, and we gave it up for this moment.

The cards flipped, and the thing happened.

Looking back, it doesn’t matter what happened*, what mattered was how much we cared. Who had come over to watch. That the moment happened.

Those hot glowing moments of drama are what games are all about.

I don’t necessarily mean that a game has to have a moment like that to be a game. Those moments just show us really clearly how games work, why they matter.

They work because we care. They matter because we decide they do.

It’s a simple trick, but a beautiful one. We take something unimportant like a deck of cards, and give them meaning and power and drama and fun.

We put our faith in them, and they take us on a journey.

That journey doesn’t have to be random or unfair or entirely in the hands of absent deities. It doesn’t really matter how the game gets you there. It just matters that you care, and that alchemy happens.

The flip of the cards, the roll of the dice, the placing of the tile, the counter that’s moved.

It’s little moments, imbued with meaning and power because we chose to do that.

People say games are all about interesting decisions. The most interesting decision, is to decide to play.

So you may as well roll the dice.

 

 

*Reader, I lost

 

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Putting things in boxes – What I talk about when I talk about games

Boxes-01

I’m going broad again. But I got curious about a thing.

People who like boardgames often love a category. It’s a hobby that encourages systemic thinking, so it’s unsurprising a lot of the biggest fans don’t mind a bit of cataloguing and taxonomy.

It occasionally makes boardgames people utterly inscrutable to the uninitiated.

‘Oh, it’s a eurogame with an interesting bit of hand management’ (said while I look in faux mystification at my hands).

‘Obviously, that’s not a real wargame’ (said of a game about war).

‘Oh no, it’s a deck building game, not a game where you build decks’ (said with a grimace at the inevitable hour long debate about the term deck building).

Now, if all that made no sense to you, that’s fine. I don’t actually want to dive in to any of those topics (yet). What I wanted to think about, was whether everyone using these terms is already misunderstanding each other.

It’s a too subjective taxonomy to be actually useful, and the most interesting things happen on the edges between competing ideas, so I’m not sure they serve anyone at all.

As a case in point, eurogames.

To some people, this is about lack of conflict, to some this is about a lack of personal randomness, to others this is about quasi-abstract mechanical games with dry agricultural themes.  To some people, it just means ‘boring games I don’t like’.

This last one is the one that troubles me most. But all of them are missing something. And I’ve not been remotely thorough in looking for definitions.

When I see someone say ‘Oh, Time of Crisis is a great wargame for eurogamers’. I don’t know what they’re telling me. Time of Crisis has direct conflict, dice rolling to determine the outcome of those conflicts, and simulates war and political maneuvering across a continent. It’s a great game, but I can’t see a purist eurogamer being happy with me marching into Rome and stealing it from under them with a few lucky dice rolls.

But when people say that, what they are really saying is ‘hey, you, I know this looks a bit different to what you usually play, but I love it, do you want to give it ago’.

We quite often create boundaries, between one or another type of game, and then try desperately to reach across them, because at the end of the day, we just want more people to play with.

My collection runs the gamut, and reaches to most corners of the hobby. I can simulate the fall of Roman Britain or blow glass in Bavaria or fight Orks across far-flung stars or plant herbs into pots or solve a ghostly murder or try and express a Shakespeare quote using only ideograms and the word ‘yes’. All of these worlds, and hundreds more are sitting in boxes waiting to be unpacked. I love them all, and want to play them with you.

We categorise so we can help easily find things we might like, but when those categories get too heavily marked out, they become barriers. I don’t think any of these games are fundamentally different. They scratch different itches, take more or less time to play, and more or less effort to learn, but they’re all fundamentally games.

I want to talk about games, but I mostly want to play them. We don’t need weird language and jargon to do that (well, we do, but only what’s written in the rulebook of the game in question), we just need people, time, a table and some heart.

I doubt I can resist the urge to label, but only because I desperately want to get you to play, and I really, really don’t want you to have a horrible time. But don’t let the words get in the way of a game, just look at the box, see if you’re excited, and then find out what’s inside.

That juicy playable centre is the game, and that’s why I’m here.

Let’s play a game.

 

 

 

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It’s good to have a plan – The joy of anticipation

 

You pour your eyes over the board, looking at an array of possible actions and moves, and suddenly it clicks.

You’ve got a plan.

It’s perfect, but it’s not your turn. You’ve got to wait.

Games are mostly about interacting with other players. Sometimes you’re just racing each other, but a lot of the time there’s a shared space you’re fighting over. Sometimes this is a significantly more peaceful fight than others.

Worker placement games, where you take actions by placing your ‘workers’ on a shared board and block that space for others, are often considered a bit lacking in interaction. You’re more likely to accidentally piss off somebody else, than you are to do it intentionally. There’s a delayed effect, and often a second way to achieve your goal anyway.

I think people often talk about the frustration of this, or accuse it of being blandly passive-aggressive.

I want to talk about why it’s great.

Even a tiny possibility of your plan being broken brings tension to the table. The more complex the plan, the more time you’ve got to wait, the more that tension rises.

It’s one of the great thrills of games, and one of the reasons why waiting your turn can actually be the hardest, and most entertaining part of it.

There’s a rhythm to a lot of games. Planning, waiting, action, planning, waiting, action. A lot of people think of that waiting as a fault, and sometimes it is. Particularly when you can’t make even vague plans until your turn, it’s frustrating to just be waiting. (Although it’s also time to chat and bond and tell stories).

But there’s such a huge thrill that comes from peering at the board, formulating a plan, and then holding on to the hope you can see it through. All that waiting becomes pure anticipation. It’s a slow crescendo, that swells and ebbs and burns throughout a game.

Honestly, it might be my favourite. That huge tide of emotion as a plan comes together. The relief when an opponent doesn’t quite block you. The quiet hope and the roaring satisfaction.

Even the acid ‘oh fuck you’ that sears across the table, as someone screws you over. The way they curl their lips back at you. The way you have to re-concoct.

Boardgames are made of decisions, but they’re also made of taking your time. They’re made of the waits where you feel the hope course through you. They’re made of the tiny defeats and victories that build up to the finale of point scoring. They’re made of looking at your friends with silent hope, or seething rage.

It’s never just the moves, it’s the space between.

And what you fill them with.

 

 

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With additional thanks to Emma for illustrating this one with her face.

Are games ludogenic – What game shall we play today?

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Okay, we’re in ‘trying to coin a term’ territory, so let’s start with some vibraphone jazz.

What game shall we play today?

I was thinking about words, and I was thinking about games, and I was thinking about selfies.

This is basically my entire life, to be honest, so it’s not surprising.

I was thinking about the idea that some people are considered photogenic, they sing to the camera and beg to be photographed. When frozen in time as an image, they just look brighter and more glorious than the likes of me. They’re always at the right angle, and always in the right light.

It’s obviously a lie, but we’ve got a word for it, so it must mean something (even if that is just implied jealousy, as indicated above).

So I wondered whether games are ludogenic. Whether some games just desperately beg to be played. Will always leap off a shelf and onto a table. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re more fun than others, or more interesting, it just means that when people see the box, or even think of the idea, they are already excited.

There’s lots of routes to it. Lots of ways to be ludogenic.

Scythe is a gorgeous enormous box with art unlike anything else in boardgames, it’s got big chunky pieces and giant plastic robots looming over tiny wooden farmers. It’s incredibly ludogenic. I’m always being asked if I’ve got it, or if we can play it. It’s a mostly solid game, but I think it’s got wobbly bits and is a less exciting than it looks, but by god, do people want to play it.

Similarly, the Game of Thrones board game is always much easier to get played than any other game that is a bit unfair, ruins friendships and can easily last six hours. Everyone knows Game of Thrones. Everyone wants to be those awful, miserable characters. The theme is ludogenic, because it’s a story people want to play inside.

It’s all very subjective of course. Forbidden Stars tends to be more ludogenic for someone raised on a certain type of little plastic monster, but is enormously off putting for anyone who can’t tell their Waaagh from their Ulthwé. The Norwegian fishing of Nusfjord tends to be a lot more exciting than less specific agricultural situations, but could just as easily feel like too dry for someone looking for a ruck in space.

All of which is to say, that deciding what to play, answering Chick Corea and Gary Burton’s vibrantly sprightly question, is surprisingly tricky. There’s so many factors that could put someone off a great game, or entice someone to a mediocre game.  So many tells that a game might have on the shelf that don’t actually pan out once you’re playing.

The cliché would tell us not to judge a book by it’s cover, and while that’s incredibly true for people, it’s utter bullshit for books. Cover design is a delicate art form, and I’ve worked in a library long enough to know that it’s very easy to see what sort of book something might be from it’s cover. The publishers are telling you something.

I think boardgames are quite a lot worse at this though. Board game boxes tell stories about theme, but can never really get across the type of thing you’re playing. Some of the visual language is established (there’s a certain type of box that tends to have a smug man standing proud on the cover in front of some landscape….you can normally tell roughly what you’re in for there), but really, there’s not as much coding.

The things that we like about games, even when the games are deeply thematic, aren’t always clear from the theme.

There is nothing about shipping in the Panama Canal that obviously leads to a game of shunting chits and dice around a map, trying to trick others into doing your work for you.

The ‘science fiction’ section of my game shelf is full of dramatic planets, bright stars and strange aliens. Very little about those boxes convey whether it’s a knife fight in an interstellar phone box, an operatic epic, a smart puzzley dice game, a riotous trade-em-up or a card driven efficiency shuffler.

You can’t judge a game by it’s cover, because the game isn’t the theme, it’s the story it tells. A game is the puzzle it holds and the world that you build and the people you sit with. It’s the magic that rises out of a set of rules and a few pieces of cardboard when you breathe life into it.

So I guess I’m saying don’t get distracted. Take time to explore something you might look over, there’s wonderful games in bland boxes, and wonderful stories in unexpected places.

And that’s exactly the sort of game I want to play today.

 

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Gather round the cardboard – telling stories in Nusfjord

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There’s a magic that happens with the right group, and the right pile of cardboard.

The board can become a warming fire you’re gathered around, the turns become a story you tell together. It can feel so kind and gentle and ancient.

Nusfjord is a game about fishing in a Norwegian village.

It’s of the sort of game that people often write off as lacking in theme, just a pasted on bit of fluff. But that’s not how it’s felt when I’ve played. It’s the perfect example of a game where the theme can actually set the table alight, until you’re huddling together just telling stories.

I find it really helps to teach a game if you can present a little bit of story for each rule. Don’t just explain that the different plates on the banqueting table need different amounts of fish – talk about the community centre, where everyone’s willing to share the meagre portions when there’s not much about but once there’s plenty, people let their hunger loose.

Little details like these help turn a game into a story.

The last time I played, we kept expanding on this, by giving the elders names, explaining how they arrived in the town. Before long we had envious siblings, dark back stories and a village full of eccentrics. We weren’t just talking about game mechanics, we were talking about people.

It helps people remember the rules, but it also helps people remember the game. It makes it feel like a one off, unique moment, rather than just another time we played that game.

There’s so many things you can enjoy about games, from the puzzles they provide to the thrill of chasing victory, but the one that makes me feel most connected to the people I play with is making stuff up.

That same game, in our cosy co-op local, we ended up with a couple at the next table playing dominoes and listening in. They were a bit bemused by the extravagant pile of cardboard buildings and wooden fish, but obviously curious. At one point, we invited them to join us at a future game night, and one said ‘I don’t know about that, I don’t know the rules’.

Their partner chipped in with ‘I don’t think there are any rules.’

I think, in one particular way, I don’t think I’ve ever felt so proud of a group of people playing. We were having so much laughter, fun and stories, that from the outside, it just looked like we were making things up at each other.

No rules, just a fishing village full of people and absurdity.

I think I want more games to look like that.

I love rules, and the way they create these stories: in their intention, and their gaps. But if it can look from the outside like we’re just mucking about?

That’s a huddle that’ll really warm your cockles.

 

 

If you liked reading this, and would like me to write more like it, you can support me long term by chucking a quid or two a month at me, or by buying me a metaphorical coffee to keep my metaphors going.

Unfolding cardboard worlds