In theory, this is a blog about the simple experiential joys of games. I want to celebrate the little details that make a game click. I want to think about the inexplicable moments where you realise ‘this is fun’!
Sometimes though, we’ve got to remember that it isn’t always easy, and there’s some scary bits to boardgames.
The big one, of course, is teaching (and its flip side, learning).
Games are weird and complicated things. And that fun stuff? It really is inexplicable. It doesn’t really make sense from the outside that spending an hour or two shuffling bits of cardboard around a table would be fun. It’s just pointless, right?
Well. Yes and no.
I love that games give us a space where we all agree to treat something frivolous with seriousness. Make the small important for a while, for the sake of doing something together. It’s a little bit of magic.
But what if you haven’t go the spell quite right? What it it’s the wrong ingredients? You don’t have the mana? What if they have immunity to that kind of (fun) damage? It’s not even the right bloody spell, is it?
It’s the creeping doubt you get when you’re teaching a game, and nobody is getting it. The rules don’t make enough sense. The goal seems really obtuse. There’s just too many numbers, damn it.
I love teaching games, and when I’m at my best, I’m quite good at it. I can teach some games in record time, and still include a couple of jokes about ludo-narrative dissonance. (Don’t worry, I don’t use those words when teaching, mostly).
But I’m not always at my best. And some games are just bastards.
It’s definitely a bastard.
It comes in a fake turquoise shipping container, and in principle, it’s about shipping. It’s got this (intricate, beautiful) mess of rules that don’t quite chime with many other games (it shares a lineage with Glory to Rome and Mottainai, but even that doesn’t help much, as the devil is in the details).
Each card can be used in at least five different ways, and sit in at least seven different places. Actions can take place in multiples, and some do odd things with that. Every time you do something, someone else has to do something, and if they did a certain thing, you take it turns to do the next certain thing, but that doesn’t mean it’s your turn. There’s two types of points, and some actions do very similar things with very different rules about exactly how. And the number of cards on this side, is limited by the number of cards on that side, but the number of cards on the other side are a multiple of the number of cards on that side. Oh, and every single card has a very specific rule breaking power that is totally unique to that card.
It’s a bastard. It’s definitely a bastard.
And when you teach it, you feel like a bastard. Like you’ve just taken responsibility for all these weird intricacies. You end up having to be really punctilious about language, to make sure you match the terms on the cards, just in case someone misreads a thing you can’t even see in front of you.
And you start playing, and every turn brings up question after question, as the machine slowly rolls into action. And maybe people understand what they’re doing now, but they can’t see the why.
And they certainly can’t see the fun.
And someone leans over from the next table, and says ‘are you still playing that?’.
And you do a little cry.
Except you don’t.
A great game can get you through that. If you’ve got the confidence and patience to get to the other side, you will start to see why. Strategies will form, options will coalesce. The pattern beneath all those ridiculous rules will emerge, triumphant. You’ll realise not just what you’re doing, but also why you’re pissed off at the person at the other end of the table for doing what they’re doing.
And it all becomes clear.
Import/Export is a great game. Everyone so far who I’ve got through the mire of confusion has wanted to play again. It’s got a really fascinating rhythm to it, struggling to get ships out, and then struggling to get them back, and then somehow struggling to make some money on the way. It’s weird, and it often looks like a mess on the table, but it’s a chunky and exciting set of decisions and puzzles, and a weird economy of actions and resources, that has you always second guessing what you should do, and whether you’re helping any body else too much, every turn.
It doesn’t make it better that it’s hard to get there. If I could weave a real magic spell, and have every game be easy to learn, then I’d do it. But I wouldn’t accept an untrustworthy curse that meant that made all games simple. Sometimes the complexity is important.
When you’re teaching, you don’t always know if a game is worth it. If it’s right for the people you’re playing with. If things are going to make sense or not. It’s scary. You’re often asking people to trust in this magical space you’re going to create, and you’re going to explain a load of rules, and then fun is hopefully going to happen.
And you never know.
You can never see from the outside why a game is fun. I’ve routinely looked at other people’s tables and just been bemused. I had the joy of watching two people play Patchwork without knowing what was going on, and it looked like some esoteric cardboard ritual. Pieces were slammed down firmly. Things were counted. Bits of cardboard picked up and pondered. All in silence. All meaningless from my point of view.
But that’s where some of the magic comes from. These abstracted weirdnesses are actually paths into a system of thought. You get to learn a new way of thinking, and discover a new set of stories.
You’ve got to climb the hill to get the view.
So be patient with your guide. Be kind to the person trying to get you up there. They might be just as scared as confused as you are, but they’re hoping you’re going to find a whole new world.
And maybe, just maybe, it’ll be fun.