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.