Learning to love to learn – Learning and politicking with Maria

A statue of Maria Theresa has fallen over. Cards and tokens are falling out of the cracked ceramic head.

It’s probably the biggest obstacle to gaming. The difficulty and complication. The big rulebooks. The teach.

I’ve heard it described as the only form of entertainment that starts with a reading comprehension exam and an oral (or aural) exam. First someone has to learn the game, then they have to teach the table.

It’s a hurdle for many, and that’s fair.

But there’s also an excitement there.

I can love the first time I roll through a rulebook, spotting quirks and wrinkles and clevernesses, building excitement and anticipation about the games to come. Games are almost inherently emergent, about watching a stable ruleset expand into a set of specific situations that might not have been predictable. Reading the rulebook is often about trying to speculate about what the rules might lead to, looking for the invisible magic trapped in the diagrams and text.

It was during a verbal teach, rather than a rulebook, that I had this particular burst of rulebased excitement. We were getting read to play Maria, and I was trying to unwrinkle all the weird little quirks of this strategic take on the War of the Austrian Succession. My brain was burning slightly, and I was worried I’d missed an important part of the politics, not quite understanding how accepting the annexation of Silesia would work.

But then, a bomb was dropped.

It started familiarly, and I had an expectation. The statement began ‘any deals made during the game’ and I was so used to hearing the words ‘can be broken at any time, immediate trades can be made, but promises for the future are a matter of honour’. It’s a typical rule. Leaving room for betrayal and mistrust, which is what people are generally after in diplomatic games. They want the cut and thrust of drama and betrayal.

But no. In Maria any deals made during the game are binding. If you promise someone you’ll vote with them in the next election, you have to do it. If you promise to subsidise someone for three turns, you’d better make an explicit caveat that you’ll stop if they invade…and probably define what ‘invade’ looks like.

It was such a tiny detail, but hearing it, and realising it’s implications. That’s powerful. The teach wasn’t an obstacle, it was the first step of the unfolding drama.

I was immediately terrified of the implications of politicking for the game. Betrayal wasn’t an option, so this wasn’t a game of bluff and threats (although it is, sometimes), this was a game of cold economics, dangerous politics.

It was perfect.

Picking out details in the rules and wondering what they’ll do to a game is one of the great joys of gaming. One of the finest pleasures.

Because really, learning is what games are all about. They are little testbeds in which we play out implications and try out new ideas. The reason we play games again and again is because we are convinced we learnt something with the last game, and might now be able to use that knowledge to better effect.

Learning is one of the joys of play. Learning the system. Learning the game. Learning about people.

Not to mention learning about the annexation of Silesia.

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