Joining the hard side – Import/Export and why teaching is so scary

ShippingContainer-01

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?

Sigh.

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.

Enter Import/Export.

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.

You play.

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.

 

 

Advertisements

On understanding – why new is exciting

Understanding-01

I had a revelation the other day, of the sort that must seem blindingly obvious to anyone who isn’t me.

I’m in love with understanding.

We were talking in an entirely different context: my attitude towards bureaucracy in meetings, where I am simultaneously enormously frustrated, and overly excited about doing things right. It’s because I’m quiet while confused, but once I understand, I want to explain it in new ways.

It’s quite irritating, I imagine.

As soon as I had that realisation though, I spotted something else.

This is why I love games so much.

I often talk about games as if they are a series of interlocking puzzles. Each turn is a set of variables and options that you roll around and consider until you make a decision, and see the ramifications. It’s a simplification, but it also gets to the heart of something.

People talk about games as being a series of interesting decisions. I find it a bit too vague, because it doesn’t explain what interesting means, but this leaves plenty of scope for people to find interest in games for the maths, or the story, or the puzzle or the drama.

Or anything else that interests them.

For me, I think it’s a series of things that I don’t understand, that I have a chance to try to.

How amazing is that? A cardboard box that comes in the post promising a completely new set of things to understand?

I guess this is also why books are cool, and science, and going to new places, or history, or anything, really. Some of the most fun times can be had by trying to understand something you didn’t.

And the profound and exhilarating satisfaction of actually getting it.

Some games are deep wells you drown in. Each new understanding leading to a new set of problems to overcome. Some games are light and frothy beasts, easily graspable, but with enough nuance to keep you guessing. Sure, you understand, but do you understand it better than the person on the other side of the table? Can you demonstrate that understanding?

Not through smugness. Show…don’t tell.

I guess that’s the big risk, of course. And the problem in the meetings. Understanding, and showing off about it, is smug and unpleasant.

Unless games are a safe space for that. A place where it’s okay to share in this understanding.

A lot of the best games end in a furious and wide ranging post mortem. A huge conversation about what went wrong and what went right, and what didn’t work quite how you expected. Because even after you’re finished, you’re still trying to understand.

When I crack open a new box, I always think of it as being a new world to explore. A new language to learn. A new set of questions to ask myself.

I’m never going to be tired of a hobby that constantly gives me new things to understand. Especially one that that asks me to do that learning with friends. Semi-co-operative, we try and make sure we all understand, while striving to do that little bit better than everyone else.

But the winning’s not the thing.

It’s the learning itself.

Now I understand.

And I’m in love with that.

Loving what I don’t like – Dead Last, bullying and playing to lose

unnamed

I really love Dead Last.

It’s a game you can teach in seconds that produces a really intense, and really surreal set of behaviours.

It’s not very nice though, and there’s next to zero tactics in it. It’s probably the closest I’d get to accepting the overused comment ‘it’s not really a game’.

Each round, everybody votes for someone to kill. Majority rules, except if the person figures it out, and plays their ambush instead of voting. But if you don’t vote with the majority, or if you ambush when you’re not the target, you’re dead. Repeat and repeat, until there’s only two players left, who play a slightly modified prisoner’s dilemma mini-game for a bit of loot. Then you start again. First person to 20 loot wins (or some number I always forget).

I don’t normally like doing rules explanations, but I’ve pretty much given you all the rules. The only thing to add is that those ARE the only rules, and you can communicate however you want. More of the rules explanation is spent explaining what rules people assume will be there aren’t there than actually explaining the rules.

Really it’s a game about finding novel ways to communicate. And being very paranoid about why nobody else is trying to communicate with you. There’s bluffery and a bit of calculation once someone pulls ahead. There’s short lived alliances and immediate betrayals.

But essentially, it’s just low stakes, fast paced, and rapidly cycling bullying. You need to be in the in group, but you can’t tell who that is. This induces extreme paranoia, particularly in me. It never feels as nasty as ‘it is a game about bullying’ makes it sound, but it really is emulating playground exile.

I still want to make my millions by re-theming it to be about Mean Girls.

Anyway. I like it, I’m awful at it, and I think it’s bad, but great.

There’s a certain type of game built around creating an experience that isn’t really about winning or losing. Sometimes competition is just there to motivate people, it isn’t the point (arguably, this is true of all games, but it’s definitely more clear at some times than others). I love a game that just creates a set of tensions and questions that I can sit back and watch, not worrying about where it will end up.

Dead Last sits in that sweet spot where I don’t particularly care what happens, but I can enjoy taking part.

It probably wouldn’t work if everybody felt the same way. But it’s hard to tell.

Elsewhere, I want a game to wrap me up in its puzzles. I want it to make me think real hard about I can do my best and maybe even beat my opponents. Sometimes I want to be dropped into a deep, intense mind game with an opponent, trying to figure out and outstep their every move.

But sometimes I want to laugh at people being mean to each other (and me) in a safe environment where that’s okay.

Dead Last is for that. It’s comfortable, laid back bullying. As long as it doesn’t give you a panic attack of a flashback, it’s really quite fun.

Pleasurable paralysis – getting lost in indecisions in Mage Knight

MageKnight-01
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

Yes, I’m opening my board game blog post with a quote from TS Eliot*, that’s how I roll, and it’s as relevant as it ever will be.

I want to talk today about analysis paralysis, the boardgamer’s bête noire. It’s the feeling of a mind slowly crumpling into a time zone all it’s own. The feeling of watching someone ponder a move for five minutes, before reaching out, briefly certain, but changing course before the piece is picked.

It’s a particular affliction, and widely reviled, but I want to make a defence of it. I want to talk about its rightful place.

Analysis Paralysis is what happens when someone tries to calculate the incalculable. From the outside, it’s someone taking frustratingly long to take a turn. Some players get reputations because of it, and others will swap stories about the filler game that lasted an hour, or the 90 minute midweight that lasted half a day. We dread the idea of playing certain games with certain people (even when we like them, even when we love them). It’s frustrating, in many ways, but it’s also something we have to accept. Different people enjoy playing in different ways, and it’s hard to begrudge someone taking the time to learn a game properly, and taking the time to puzzle out how to play well.

Because a lot of us are here because we love those puzzles. And a lot of us are here because this is a place where we can be a bit odd and get lost in thought and it can all be socially acceptable.

I’m not the worst, but I’m a sufferer. I try to gee myself on, but certain games pull it out of me, and I won’t realise just how long I’ve been pondering two near identical choices. I’m as indecisive in real life. I wish I used board games to practice speeding up, but often, I only crack because I want to make sure everyone’s having fun.

In truth, I love those rare opportunities to really revel in it.

I can think of three places where it happens. Online asynchronous board games. Solo games. Mage Knight.

Now those last two are trick, from my point of view, as Mage Knight is the only game I’ve soloed, and I can’t quite imagine myself doing it with anything else (although we’ll see what happens if I cave and get Spirit Island).

Solium Infernum, an online boardgame with crushingly byzantine rules, and vicious negotiation, let me lose days in a game. It let me drown in the possibilities, and try and consider every single angle. It let me come up with theories and check up rules, and analyse different probabilities, knowing nobody was waiting for me, nobody was drumming fingers on the table, waiting for their turn.

But we’re not here to talk about computer games, no matter how boardgame-like they are.

So, enter Mage Knight.

Mage Knight is probably my favourite game.

I’m sure in principle, when people ask me what my favourite game is, I should vacillate, appropriately paralysed and give about twenty suggestions. I’m sure if I was nicer, I would pick something accessible enough that when someone who hasn’t played anything since Monopoly asks me, I can lead into ‘and I can teach you’.

If you press me for my top ten, twenty, thirty or forty, I’ll likely spend days pondering.

But I can’t help it, if you ask me my favourite, it’s always Mage Knight.

It’s got a trashy backstory, and trashier minatures (I’ve considered buying some brown paint, just to paint some damn trousers on a couple of them), but the core of the game is exploring a map, fighting monsters and besieging castles.

Except that’s a lie. That’s just what’s happening on the table, and in your mind’s eye.

The core of the game is five cards at a time (later six, sometimes even more), and a thousand possible ways to arrange them.

Mage Knight lets you do immense things with just a few pieces of card. Each card represents an ability or super power, but you normally have to tie it together with other cards, and there’s always multiple ways to use those cards. You need to move with some, but then be ready to start a fight, and block enough damage to be able to fight back and hopefully kill something.

You start off having to wrangle a hand to just about fight off the weakest units in the game. By the end, that same card manipulation has developed to the point where you’re chaining things together and fighting hordes of dragons, and swatting monsters aside like flies.

But to do it, you have to spend a lot of time working out exactly how you can tie those cards together, and exactly how those enemies work.

You see, it’s also a game of checking rules, and finnicky details, and very, very specific wordings, timings and symbols.

In many ways, it’s all of the most off-putting things about boardgames.

But it lets you revel in them.

I only recommend it solo or two player. I’d possibly stretch to three if all of us knew the game intimately. When played two player, you both have cards to consider at all times, and you can be planning out your move, and either ready to go as soon as it’s your turn, or engaged enough in what your opponent/partner is doing to not give a damn.

It’s rich, and it’s full of decisions and unknowns and challenges.

And it lets you bury yourself in them.

Solo is shockingly lovely, the only real problem being that there’s no audience to tell your story too. The game does generate stories, too, earthquakes that shatter castle walls. Shields that let you ram through your opponents as you block their strikes. Armies that fall before walls of fire. Castles that fall to pieces and crush the very people hiding within.

You are monstrous, but the game lets you enjoy it.

The truth about analysis paralysis is that in a good game, with interesting decisions to think about, it’s not actually paralysing (except, perhaps, for the other players). With a game good enough, your mind will be leap over obstacles, and turn somersaults to dance around all the available options. A great game feels like you’re dancing with the board, your mind leading the cardboard into a world of action and adventure.

Sure, really you’re just adding up some numbers and making some guesses and thinking some systems. But great games rarely feel like that.

Mage Knight is a perfect example. Its finnicky details paint a rich story, and it does it with puzzles that interlock with puzzles that interlock with puzzles. Punching an orc might really just be a few sums in a row, but slaying a dragon can feel like besting an adversary.

It’s all in the mind.

So next time someone’s taking too long on their turn, maybe take some time to remember how good it feels to get lost in that bit of your brain that turns maths into stories.

Because really, that’s what boardgames are.

But also, don’t forget to take your damn turn.

 

 

 

*Best poem, that. Read aloud, to yourself or another, it’s almost as good as Mage Knight.

Just one more point – Bärenpark, bear parks, and furious efficiency

BearPark-01

If we’re honest, most board games are about numbers.

A lot of my life is dedicated to numbers these days, which is odd, as I have problems with all the basics of numeracy. My counting is not great. My adding is worse. And my method of multiplying seems ludicrously convoluted.

And yet I work in co-op finance, and love all these number-laden games.

It works though, because both aren’t really about the numbers, but about the way those numbers are related to each other, how we tie them together.

In finance, it’s all about knowing what the numbers represent. We have spreadsheets to do the maths.

In boardgames, it’s normally about efficiency. Squeezing a slightly bigger number out of the limited resources you have.

So let’s talk about bears.

Bear park (or Bärenpark, on the box) is a game about shouting ‘Bear park’ excitedly.

But it’s also the perfect demonstration of a particular kind of numerical magic.

The game is about building a park full of bears. You have polyominoes of various sizes and shapes, and you have to lay them on a grid. Where you place them let’s you take new tiles ready for next turn, or make your grid bigger. Once someone’s finished four grid tiles, their park is finished, everyone else gets one more turn, and then you’re done.

It’s simple, it’s elegant, it’s satisfying.

And then you fill it with numbers, and it becomes a ruthless, frustrating and utterly joyful experience.

Some of those tiles? They have numbers on. And those numbers go down as you go down the stack of tiles. If you’re the third person to grab a T shaped Polar Bear enclosure, yours is worth two points less than the first.

The big tiles come with bigger numbers, but there’s only one of each. Got your eyes on that eight pointer with the Koalas on? Made a nice cosy space for it? Someone else took it first? FURY. You’ll have to find a home for the seven pointer.

As you fill up the grid tiles, you’re forced to leave one space terrifyingly empty. But don’t worry, finish the rest of that tile, and you get to pop a statue down. But those statues creep down in points, so you’d better hurry hurry hurry.

Everything creeps down, and everything pulls against everything else. You’ve got all these goals: grab lots of tiles, fill up your grid, take the best bears, aim for the achievements, finish the game quick!

There’s two things making this so powerful.

Firstly, the laying down of shapes is a fundamentally satisfying puzzle. It’s an interesting headspace to just be flipping these pieces over in your head and trying to fill up as much space as possible, leaving exactly the best sort of gaps for later moves.

The second part is what sets the game on fire though. By attaching points to everything, and tying your actions to where you place your tiles, you’re torn at every moment between different sorts of efficiency. The difference is normally just one or two points between each different move. It’s such tiny details. It’s enough to keep the maths simple, but provide constant pulls in so many directions.

The drive for efficiency is strong. The simpler the numbers, the harder the pull. It’s the ‘look after the pennies and the pounds look after themselves’ mentality, etched in bears and cardboard. You will win if you make every move as efficient as possible, maximising everything. But there is no way to know exactly which is the right type of efficiency, so your brain will tumble through a hundred possibilities and not be able to catch on to a single one.

Bärenpark is one of the most joyful games I’ve played this year. It’s got bears, it can be taught in a minute, it’s quick, and it’s infuriating. Everyone who plays it starts off easy going but soon turns into a puddle of stress, whilst still having fun because of those damn lovely bears.

Bears are great.

Put bears and numbers in your game, and you’re probably halfway there.

Make it this easy to learn and with decisions this tough, and you’ve got actual gold.

Golden bear statues. Worth ever so slightly more than the other players’.

A cup of solidarity – Community, trauma and tea in The Grizzled

Grizzled2-01.jpg

It’s so unique, that it took playing with exactly the right group of people to realise just how brilliant the Grizzled is.

There are plenty of war games, but few really feel like games about war as I have spent a lifetime thinking of it. Most war games are about tactics and strategy.

The Grizzled is about suffering.

You spend the game unable to fully communicate, desperately trying to survive through a slew of dangers and threats, not knowing who is holding on to what trauma, what problem you’re dealing with next. You can become phobic or traumatised, giving you temporary shakes and shifts to your personality. You could become prideful, and insisting on always being the last one standing. Or you might be mute, and unable to speak at all.

It’s a savage world, which is only fitting for a game about life in the trenches of the Great War.

But really, that damage and brutality is not what makes the game so powerful. (As vivid as it is to see someone you love and care about, who you know has been marginalised and silenced in the real world, made mute).

Really, the game is about community. It’s about caring for each other, and supporting each other, and being together.

It’s based on a real group of soldiers, some of whom were relatives of the game designers. A group of friends who signed up together and got to the frontline, and tried to survive, together.

For most of the game you are getting rid of cards, putting them in front of you, or in ‘no man’s land’. They are your personal problems, or the group’s problems (but everyone needs solidarity with everyone else to survive).

But that card play is never the key emotional moment.

Each round, when you can’t take any more, you pull out of the round…and you put the kettle on.

It’s a tiny thing, that the act of ‘support’ is tied to something as mundane as a hot drink, but it is so damn vivid, so real. Deciding how to distribute your support, who you will make the effort to try and help, is critical to the game.

If you all focus on one person, you can have a huge impact, but if you spread your support around, that’s also useful for everyone. The community works together to warm each others hearts. Solidarity is bound to the bones of the game. It’s all about helping each other.

I love that this grim and sad game manages to be so uplifting, focusing so hard on how important friendship, love and caring in even simple tiny ways is. I love how much it tells you about desperation, survival and tiny, humane hope.

I love that it recognises the importance of a cup of tea in troubling times.

(Of course, the game and soldiers are French, so probably favoured coffee or hot chocolate. And to be honest, I actually prefer hot chocolate too, I just can’t stop saying it’s tea when I’m playing.)

The Grizzled is an odd, bleak game that warms my heart despite some of the grimmest subject matter available. There is no romance here, but there is kindness.

And tiny kindnesses are so important.

The Grizzled is a tiny, kind game. I think it’s important.

What makes a favourite? – #My9BestBoardgames

IMG_20170427_184906_630.jpg

So these are some of my favourite games.

I got caught up in a little swirl of hype, as people on Instagram shared their favourites, and spent a little bit too much time photographing them. Partly to make sure I really meant it. Partly to make you sure I really meant it.

I’ve done a chart before, and it nearly broke me, but at least here I didn’t have to rank anything.

For accessibility, here’s the list, in no particular order:

  • Food Chain Magnate
  • Mottainai
  • Patchwork
  • Glass Road
  • Maria
  • Churchill: Big Three Struggle for Peace
  • Panamax
  • City of Remnants
  • Mage Knight

Now. The thing that surprises me is how heavy and inaccessible this list is. This does not function as a good primer for board games. There are only two games on there that I think I could easily teach anyone who was put in front of me. Only one of those that I’d be sure they’d like. Somewhere, my favourite games became more about my esoteric and challenging needs than about the games I think are best for the average table.

There’s exceptions. Patchwork is an elegant masterpiece, combining simplicity and ruthlessness into something pretty and odd and tactile. Glass Road is quick and whip smart. City of Remnants is made up of lots of moving parts, but all of them are separately straightforward, and it tells a mean story.

But Maria needs an entire page to explain the annexation of Silesia. Even I don’t understand how to play the strategic map half of Churchill. Panamax has one of the worst rules books I’ve ever tackled. Food Chain Magnate is brutally unforgiving, to the point where I can’t bring myself to play it with new people, because I know someone will make a mistake early and have a miserable time.

There’s some real un-fun in this list, from certain perspectives.

But these are my favourites. These are the ones I get lost in. The ones that swamp my brain. The ones I want to sing songs about and tell stories about.

If you hear me talk about games, I’ll often talk about bringing people together, about telling stories together, about learning things about each other, and about teaching each other things.

It’s not that these games don’t have that, they have it in spades, but they have it in a little walled garden. You need to bring your own siege engine (and, in the case of Maria, make sure you’ve kept it in supply).

These games represent the weird and tricky end of the game spectrum (apart from Patchwork, which I would recommend to absolutely anyone at any time, and I will teach you to play in thirty seconds). They include games I convince people not to play, because I’m worried they’ll be scared off.

They also represent so many fascinating ideas. Each one has some quirk or delicacy or foible that makes it utterly unique.

And that’s why I love them.

I love them for the weird victory conditions, the desperately dangerous card draws, the gutwrenching intensity, the satirical undercurrents, the puzzles within puzzles, the quick infuriation, the accidental teamwork, the meditative frustration and the delicate simplicity.

Have fun matching those up to the games, by the way.

I’m not here to talk about the details though. I just want to let you know that I love these games, and want to be playing them always.

Complication makes great stories. It gives decisions weight and heft and danger and doubt. Complicated games create weird motivations and unreliable alliances. Complicated games can get your wrapped deeper and longer, and stay under your skin for days after.

They also make games hard to teach. And hard to get to the table.

None of them are impossible. They’re just tougher to crack. What’s inside is definitely worth the effort if you can get there.

But they aren’t for everyone.

I’m a nerd, and I love the rules and complexities and weirdnesses and innovations. My list was always going to tilt to the extreme.

(I’m also a fan of late era Scott Walker.)

But you know what I love more than my 9 favourite games?

Playing games. Whatever they are.

Teaching games. Whatever they are.

Bringing tables of people together, and making them hate and love each other, at least or a short while.

Don’t go out there looking for someone else’s favourite 9 games.

Go out looking for yours.

If you do, you will find more than 9 moments of joy. More than 9 great stories. More than 9 strange imaginary worlds.

And you’ll have shared them, every step of the way.

Games can fill tables, rooms, hearts and minds.

And they need you to do help them do it.

 

Unfolding cardboard worlds