Mnmlst Gmr

Just because I don't know what I'm talking about doesn't mean I have nothing to say.

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La Rochefoucauld Comes to Boardgaming

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"It's not hard to design a game that works, the real challenge is making one that people want to play again and again."--Martin Wallace
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Microbadge: "The reward of a thing well done is to have done it." -- Ralph Waldo EmersonMicrobadge: Swimming fanMicrobadge: Parent of Two Girls and One BoyMicrobadge: Innovation fanMicrobadge: "Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify." -- Henry David Thoreau
Oh, right. I have a blog.

I'm going through my various notebooks and unfinished digital jottings and am declaring Topic Amnesty. So while I don't have a new blog post, per se, I do have a series of vaguely related thoughts/aphorisms/maxims on gaming from the last 8 months, many of which began life as a potential column and ended life without gaining a single word.

Onward.

--Gamers sometimes try and increase their number of gaming opportunities by increasing the number of games they own. Then they have two problems.

--The number of games required to keep casual gamers interested is quite small. The number to keep reluctant gamers involved is smaller still.

--My Mother-in-Law claims Scrabble as her favorite game. She has not played it in three years. She sees nothing wrong with this.

--A well-rounded collection looks like whatever you want it to look like at the time you decide you're almost done.

--When I teach people a game for the first time, it is well-researched and well-considered and perfectly aligned with both my tastes and the long-term, repeated enjoyment of my group. When they teach me their game, they have wasted their money and it's obvious we're never playing the game again.

--Most non-BGGing people you game with are perfectly content to occasionally splash around in a relatively shallow pool of risk/reward and moderate contingency planning.

--Many people declining to participate in the 10x10 challenge mention something along the lines of "this leaves me very little room to learn new games." The amount of enjoyment you can get in a year out of "just" ten games is enormous.

--It appears that much of the allure of recent medium- to medium-heavy Euros comes in simply discovering/experiencing how the game's novel Action Selection or Action Drafting mechanism frustrates your choices. Once this is experienced: next game, please.

--Get to the bottom of: when I invite 7 friends to game night, 6 show up. When I invite ten...6 show up.

--Games that "work" 6p seem to be either (1) simple & light, or (2) twice as long as the printed play time.

--I've recently begun to understand the allure of wargaming. I reach for an abstract or a train game or a card game when I want to play a game. I reach for a wargame when I want to play.

--The best way to ensure your group favors already-learned games is to play on weeknights.

--The right opponent(s) can make any game fun, but even they can't make a dull game interesting. See: Tokyo, King of.

--When I win a game, it is because I planned and executed well. When someone else wins a game, it's because I made a mistake.

--Happiness is a shelf with empty space on it.
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Fri Jan 31, 2014 8:01 pm
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Stories, Real and Expected

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"It's not hard to design a game that works, the real challenge is making one that people want to play again and again."--Martin Wallace
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Microbadge: "The reward of a thing well done is to have done it." -- Ralph Waldo EmersonMicrobadge: Swimming fanMicrobadge: Parent of Two Girls and One BoyMicrobadge: Innovation fanMicrobadge: "Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify." -- Henry David Thoreau
One thing I've noticed over the course of my BGGing is that there doesn't seem to be much demand for microbadges that convey what a user's pant size is. Or one that says whether or not their hair is falling out. What kind of porn they have bookmarked. What percent of the bag of chips or carton of ice cream they eat in one sitting. Anyone take fiber supplements? Can I interest anyone in a Brutal Honesty series of microbadges? Hygiene Habit Overshares? No?

Microbadge lineups are a very carefully edited story, by and large. Presently, my five displayed badges are:

1.) Thoreau
2.) Train Gamer
3.) GCL Swedish Meatballs Division
4.) 18xx fan
5.) Parent of One Boy

This is a persona. It's not that it's an inaccurate persona, but it's not exactly who I am most of the time. I couldn't tell you the last time I sat down and read Thoreau. I like him, sure, but it's not like I read him all the time or have great swaths of his output committed to memory. And I certainly give off a train vibe, right? Two whole microbadges. 40% of my available real estate. But that mostly represents what games I think about the most, and not the games I play the most. I imagine I'm not the only one who chooses to display what I'd like to play rather than what I do play.

In the comments of my last blog post, Alex Brown shared something that floored me, and was phrased in a way I hadn't considered before. I'll quote the whole thing here, to save you a click:

Alex Brown wrote:
I've found this to be the quintessential dilemma of the hobbyist.

I've made a lot of compromises in my expectations because of this. I'd rather play something than nothing. However, the frustration of gamers is that there are all these great systems and experiences board games offer, but unlike books, films and music, it's so hard to share them with someone who wants to listen.

I'd rather play games with my wife, my family, my friends.

I also want to play games with intelligence, control and sometimes even narrative.

Doing both simultaneously is my dream.
Brilliant. There are two words in there that stood out to me the most: "compromise," and "dream."

One of the things that is abundantly clear to me at this point in my gaming journey is that this hobby, more than any other hobby I have done or still do, is inextricably linked to compromise. From your very first play of whatever Gateway Game got you here, you move inexorably toward compromise. Everyone in your gaming circle does. You play a game, you love it, you try and convince others to play it. They eventually yield (compromise on their part). If they enjoy it, then one day you are probably faced with their requests, their unplayed games, or their favorites in addition to yours (compromise on both of your parts). There may or may not be overlap between your preferences. If they do not like the game you have convinced them to play, then you have to expand your circle and seek out other people to play with (compromise on your part). You drive farther away. You go to a different FLGS. You try a different game. You send recruitment emails to different people. You game less frequently than you would prefer. You get a different group. Again, maybe.

The ebb and flow of gaming is often hard to take. I presently have to drive a fair distance to play 18xx. How much longer can I do that? I play with a private group once a month, and this is where I (theoretically) play my Winsomes. But we're moving away from Train Games there, and more into Euros I wasn't wild about when I first played them. How much do my socialization needs caused by working from home trump my intellectual preferences? I'm certainly not going to seek out new friends over this. I have also personally vowed to get away from the computer during lunch every day, and either read, or play something solitaire, or just sit and listen to music. What percentage of my gaming is this going to be? How bothered should I be that the collection I've spent time and money researching and assembling now looks like it will get played less and less in the immediate future?

One reason this ebb and flow is so difficult is because I have decided that the most important reason to game is the intellectual one. There's a continued failure of expectation there on my part. I have clearly decided that the way a game in a box creates a problem space is the most important thing: it's what gets me to log on to BGG and read, and think, and dream, and then dream about something else once that first dream becomes inconvenient. And this gets highlighted whenever a new compromise gets injected into my gaming hobby. Which happens frequently because that's the hobby. Most of my gaming consists of aborted attempts at replayability amid temporary social conditions.

It's Spring, and if my microbadge lineup were to reflect what my current circumstances are, then my Organic Gardening microbadge should probably get placed front and center for a little while. Right next to my flyfishing one. And maybe my Solitaire Gaming one. Or perhaps a "Forgets to Brush Teeth" one that I'll make (any takers?). But after losing quite a few opponents and opportunities over the last few weeks, the dream-reality divide has started to stand out a bit more than it has in the past.

This fall will mark the 4th anniversary of my first game of Carcassonne, which is the game that got me into this world of hobby and designer games. I'm not sharing this because I plan on celebrating this anniversary, just merely to point out that after 4 years, the people I played Carcassonne with back then still just want to play Carcassonne. There is an at times terribly lonely growth that comes from BGGing, and it's not the same with other hobbies: I don't require other people to eat the food I grow or cook, and I don't require listeners when I play music.

BGG is an intellectual accelerant, something that propels me forward at a much faster rate than all of my opponents combined, and that is totally incompatible with the momentum of my social gaming circumstances, on average. That it's taken me almost 4 years to accept that is really kind of embarrassing. Because there's a part of me that is getting quite tired of having gaming epiphanies every few months, in part because these epiphanies usually center around games I don't happen to own (I regret giving away a lot of my solo-optimization Euros, as my current collection doesn't solo very well; I built it up with an eye toward playing in circumstances that don't seem to exist any longer). I don't dislike jaw-dropping learning moments, but they do seem to happen at a rate neither my wallet nor my social life can keep up with.
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Tue Apr 30, 2013 6:31 pm
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An Indexical Reality Check of 2013

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"It's not hard to design a game that works, the real challenge is making one that people want to play again and again."--Martin Wallace
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Microbadge: "The reward of a thing well done is to have done it." -- Ralph Waldo EmersonMicrobadge: Swimming fanMicrobadge: Parent of Two Girls and One BoyMicrobadge: Innovation fanMicrobadge: "Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify." -- Henry David Thoreau
Number of months I have owned Commands and Colors Ancients: 19
Number of complete games of it I have played: 0
Number of weeks it has been set up in the back room of my house, ready to play: 3
Number of times I have rescued it from the Goodwill Donation Bag, giving it a Stay of Execution: 1
Number of months I have thought about playing it: 19

Number of times I have attended my local 18xx Group: 5
Number of games I have played with 18xx Group: 6
Number of times we have played a game I own: 1
Number of 18xx games I own: 7
Number of 18xx games in my still-pending Deep Thought Games order: 5
Number of times 18xx Group will meet over the rest of 2013: 9
Number of Train Games they have declined to play: 5

Number of games I said I was going to buy in 2013: 0
Number of secondary market Winsomes I have bought in 2013: 5
Number of these I have played: 1
Number of Winsomes I now own, total: 11
Number of total Winsomes I have played in 2013: 1
My favorite publisher: Winsome Games

Number of games I have played against my wife in 2013: 17
Number of times my wife has requested we play a game that is unfamiliar to her: 0
Number of times I have defeated my wife in a game this year: 5
Number of minutes she has spent on Board Game Geek: 0
Number of seconds our debrief of Hex lasted: 0
Number of Winsome Games she has said she'll play: 0

Number of times per week my neighbor and I vowed to play games together this year: Once per week
Number of weeks that have passed in 2013: 16
Number of weeks I have played games with my neighbor: 7
Number of times he has requested we play a game that is unfamiliar to him: 0

Number of daughters born to guys in my Train Group today: 1
Number of members of Train Group who admitted they don't like Train Games: 1
Number of times Train Group will meet over the rest of 2013: 8
Number of games that have been specifically requested recently by Train Group: 4
Percentage of those 4 games that feature trains: 0%
Percentage of those 4 games that feature orcs: 50%
Number of Train Games that Train Group has declined to play: 3
Number of copies of Agricola owned across Train Group: 3

Number of dedicated Age of Steam groups I have: 1
Minimum number of Age of Steam plays I was hoping for in 2013: 12
Number of times my Age of Steam group has met in 2013: 1
Number of Age of Steam maps I own: 26

Size of the dream world I live in: Large
Expansion possibilities for this particular world: Infinite space still available

Days in a row my 1.5-year-old son has handed me Six, Hive, Qwirkle or Hey That's My Fish off of my shelf so we can stack its pieces and hide tiles under the couch or the rug together: 3
Number of days I will keep doing this: However many he wants
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Tue Apr 16, 2013 1:18 am
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Fleeting vs. Enduring

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"It's not hard to design a game that works, the real challenge is making one that people want to play again and again."--Martin Wallace
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Microbadge: "The reward of a thing well done is to have done it." -- Ralph Waldo EmersonMicrobadge: Swimming fanMicrobadge: Parent of Two Girls and One BoyMicrobadge: Innovation fanMicrobadge: "Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify." -- Henry David Thoreau
As much as I enjoy what could be termed "deeper" contemplative writers like Thoreau, Emerson, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard or even Edward Abbey, I do sometimes get a kick out of reading more "pop psychological" approaches to introspective questions, such as the more approachable, less dense New York Times bestseller style. This can either be in book form or in blog form, and one blog I've started following on Twitter is something called Marc and Angel Hack Life. As best as I can tell, they're a California-based married couple who write about self-worth, happiness, goal achievement, and positivity. The usual post tone and content ranges from "silly and trite" to "worth dwelling on for a bit." I'm fine with that range; it's the internet, and it's free. We're not all Thoreau.

But I can forgive the obviousness of some of their writing (it's not particularly good writing, style-wise, to be honest). However, just because something's obvious doesn't mean we should ignore it, and it doesn't mean we're actually good at managing obvious things. We often do lose sight of obvious things, and so even when coming across something like their frequently-saccharine "7 Unfortunate Habits of Unhappy People," we can still be made uncomfortable by recognizing "Overindulgence of a good thing," or "Setting unrealistic expectations" in ourselves, because sometimes the most upsetting thing is a mirror.

Onward. This morning's post of theirs is called "10 Little Habits that Steal Your Happiness," and I was immediately drawn to one of them:

7. Constantly seeking fleeting contentment.

This aligns almost perfectly with topics I've been thinking about and writing about quite a lot lately.

Now they define "fleeting" as "instants of material comfort," whereas "enduring" is "attained through the growth of your mind." To be fair, they're mostly talking about inner peace, but hobbies are often meant to counterbalance the stresses of work and personal life, so I think some of this is at least worth turning over; we're not drafting a dissertation here.

I tend to view following and buying new games as short-term goal satisfaction, being quite close to fleeting contentment. Mostly because it never reaches what I would call long-term enjoyment. Save for a short burst of enthusiasm right away, most new games ultimately lack longevity, as we tend to bounce to the next thing almost immediately. This can be blamed on ourselves (as we get distracted) or our groups (as even if we remain focused on playing just a few titles, there's no guarantee your friends or game group will feel similarly).

This fits in with a GeekMail conversation I've been having off and on with someone over the last few weeks. One of the topics we touched on was "how do you know when you're done experimenting, and you've found your game home?" The context of this was in how some people really narrow their focus on something and virtually ignore everything else. This is frequently stated as a goal of a lot of people, even Cult-of-the-New folks: "well, I play a lot of games because I want to find what I really like and then concentrate on them." It's not clear how many people actually do find a focus, and instead just continue to try new things, thereby making "trying new things" their default focus. But a lot of times, those people who do find a focus are viewed suspiciously. I definitely have a type, as anyone who views my play log or my collection here will notice immediately. I'd love to call that "enduring." But some people do view it as closed-minded. There's a bragging subtext to telling someone that you've found what you've been looking for.

But this "fleeting" vs. "enduring" isn't quite so straightforward, I don't think. What would one call a larger collection of fleeting experiences, if it lasts long enough? Would "constantly learning new games and playing them a few times, always staying up on the new stuff" count as an enduring goal, or an enduring experience? I certainly don't think of it that way, though some people do, and I'm tempted to over-legitimize my own behavior because of it. Since I'm not quiet about searching for enduring experiences with far fewer games, I like seeing posts like Marc and Angel's, because it validates my decisions. But it's also a little bit of confirmation bias, because I want to assign truth to it that I'm really in no position to assign. I would like it to be true. I'd prefer it if it were true. So, it's true. But just as I have been accused of being closed-minded because I play a narrow range of stuff, I'm quite quick to make "enduring" mean whatever the hell I want it to mean.

I'm still tempted to maintain that short-term, disconnected experiences are, in fact, fleeting, that they don't "add up" so much as they just successively happen. Kierkegaard warned of this in his Diary of a Seducer and in his Rotation Method, where people who seek temporary, sensual (aesthetic, in his case) experience are doomed to try and one-up themselves because their experience is ultimately unfulfilling, however alluring it is. This one-upmanship never ends, because the individual gets accustomed to the experience and needs to seek out slightly more complex or slightly more meaningful versions of it; more chits, more rules, more cards, more special abilities, more mechanisms. Except boardgamers don't keep going forever. They burn out. And I'm tempted to say that a common reason is because loads of them attempt to create enduring experience out of fleeting building materials, a sand castle at low tide. And if that's not enough temptation, I'm also tempted to give a lot of meaning to something that appears to have some endurance to it, to make long-term replay matter more than a few plays of several different things, even if the total is still 20 plays (either 20 plays of one game or 20 plays across 8 games).

As is the case with most things I write here, I don't know what my conclusion is. There doesn't seem to be one. I agree that we should seek "enduring" over "fleeting" if we want to stay balanced and happy with what we're pursuing; constantly bumping into fleeting things feels exciting but can be destabilizing. However, it's damn hard to know when something has moved from "fleeting" to "enduring" in the first place, and it's especially hard if you have no idea where you're trying to end up. I'm not sure "I'd like to move toward having enduring experiences in my hobby" is specific enough to be helpful, because how do you know when you're done?

This is a hard hobby to approach rationally, and it's a hard one to control without getting arbitrary about some of your decision-making in game selection; there's always something else to explore, always one slightly related thing that you can also try. I feel like my arbitrariness has helped create a more enduring hobby, but I don't know that. Sometime in the future I'll know if I've chosen wisely, because I'll see that, yes, there really has been some endurance to what I've been doing all this time, because, well, I'm still doing it. But that feels unsatisfying, like it outsources judgment and thinking to some far-off date where, presumably, I'll know better. In the meantime, I'm left with the same instability as everyone else, wondering what the hell I'm doing.
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Fri Mar 8, 2013 5:03 pm
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How Do I Fail Thee? Let Me Count the Ways

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"It's not hard to design a game that works, the real challenge is making one that people want to play again and again."--Martin Wallace
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Microbadge: "The reward of a thing well done is to have done it." -- Ralph Waldo EmersonMicrobadge: Swimming fanMicrobadge: Parent of Two Girls and One BoyMicrobadge: Innovation fanMicrobadge: "Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify." -- Henry David Thoreau
I began logging plays at BGG a little over a year ago, and I started, in part, because my son was just a few months old, I had a Game Appetite that was larger than my Game Playing, and I wanted a way to track whether or not I was actually getting my money's worth out of what I owned, and whether I was spending as much time enjoying my hobby as I was spending researching it and fussing with it. I couldn't track that accurately by memory alone.

That tracking has expanded a bit. I don't log detailed plays for everything I play, but I do try and add some comments on games that are complex enough where I feel like logging some info might help me in future plays, or if something neat happened and I don't want to risk forgetting about it, or if I learned a strategy tip and want to preserve it. But I really only do that with games that might become part of my more permanent rotation, which is, I suppose, where I want to end up: with a somewhat consistent small selection of games I can play and get better at and really dig into.

So a great thing about logging plays has been that I no longer need to rely on my memory to tell me when I last played something, or whether I've played it twice in a year or three times. But there's been an unintended consequence, as well, because now that I started logging comments to promising games, it's become abundantly clear to me just how bad I am at games I love, and how terribly slowly I seem to improve. And I have examples! Lots, and lots, and lots of examples.

I have been playing a lot of Tigris & Euphrates here at BGG, with two 4p groups. And I pretty much always finish 4th. And I play 18xx via Rails and Dropbox, and pretty much always finish last. And I play 18xx with a real life group, and my best performances to date (my best!) are finishing 4th in a 5p game of 1830 and finishing third in a 4p game of 1889 (I placed second in a game of 1830 a few weeks ago, but that ended on bankruptcy and I was pretty screwed if the game continued, so I'm not sure how much satisfaction I should take from that one). Currently I'm playing a bit of Slither on LittleGolem.net, and am reminded about every other move just how little I understand the strong/weak move distinction. Hell, I've lost 18xx games to people who have never played 18xx before. I lose teaching games.

There are exceptions. I once won a game of Paris Connection in which I never laid a single piece of track, so I pretty clearly understood how to work the system in that instance, giving me hope for that game, and others. And ten minutes have passed between my typing that sentence and my now remembering that I once won a 6p game of Chicago Express against a table of 4 newbies (my brother was the only other experienced player). So, OK, there aren't many exceptions to my losing streak at all. A list of games I'm actually good at might honestly be a blank sheet of paper.

So what the hell am I doing? Why do I do this? Why do I play games that I'm terrible at, that I take forever to learn, that I can't remember rules to, and against much sharper competition?

I'm just going to start calling it "compelling frustration." It's plainly obvious to me that, after spending several years on this site, that I neither play games as frequently as other people, nor do I think about them as often as other people. I don't study them in as much detail, I don't follow trends, I don't look for new mechanism fixes or reboots or ways to tweak a game to better balance it should I play it 3p and not 4p. My buddy Martin once wrote about "breadth gamers and depth gamers," and I do like that distinction, but how about those of us who are terrible depth gamers? Gamers who insist on losing the same game(s) all the time? 'Tis I, BGG, the Compelling Frustratist. Don't I get a category?

This is not a tendency unique to games. I seem to gravitate towards things that are out of reach. My wife was out of my league, for starters. Still is, if I want to be honest about it.

But hobby-wise, the last guitar piece I learned was just beyond my ability, but when I was done, it was no longer beyond my ability: I moved the goalpost during my studying. I've done it again, as I really have no business trying to study Manuel Ponce's Sonata Romantica, particularly since I have no committed performance date in the future to give me a goal to work towards. The piece is the goal, and that's what I've decided is true about compelling frustration: the game is the goal. Playing the game well is an incredibly distant goal, farther off for me than for many other people here because I just don't play as frequently as some people do, I don't create as much opportunity to do so, and I seem to have a very real handicap to playing some games well, which is that I simply cannot remember rules. Rules are, in some cases, somewhat arbitrary restrictions on my decision making within a game's problem space, and as every editor in charge of my company's corporate and visual styleguides will tell you, I am terrible at learning arbitrary rules.

Compelling frustration is what makes Age of Steam so great, or what makes me throw my hands up and say "Dammit Martin! I didn't even think to place a leader there, but you did and it was a strong move aaaaaand...here comes fourth place again, beautiful" but there's always an again, despite the frustration, because I can see that my Future Self (he's much smarter than my Current Self) can actually get to a point, maybe, potentially, where that move will start to be a little clearer when the board is inspected. Each of these games helps me move the goalpost, even when I lose. Losing these games (particularly Age of Steam) still comes with a sense of accomplishment. I can lose each time, and lose differently, and lose awesomely.

I like that these purported favorite games of mine have this, that they consistently demonstrate that I am not, in fact, very clever (maybe yet, maybe not at all), that there is more to pay attention to on the board than just what I have been paying attention to so far. Ryan Sturm (of the How to Play Podcast) once called for more of an effort to play better games more often, and--as I look over my collection, my logged plays, and my gaming opportunities--that seems to be exactly what I'm doing. I really am not playing duds very frequently any more. That has come with a tradeoff, though, as I seem to have lost my ability to actually win a game. Except I find these games so compelling and so different that I don't really care, and have noticed that removing winning from my gaming life has actually caused my gaming to increase. Better games more frequently? Yes, please.

Last night a 5p Rails/Dropbox game of 18EU came to an end. I placed fifth. A 5p game of 1856 is starting up at some point today. Monday night I'll probably lose a game of Chicago Express at my Train Game Night, and next Saturday I'll likely lose my first game of 1860 and then lose either 1824 or 1848. It's going to be pretty great.
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Fri Feb 8, 2013 6:31 pm
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The Problem That Wasn't Really A Problem

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"It's not hard to design a game that works, the real challenge is making one that people want to play again and again."--Martin Wallace
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Microbadge: "The reward of a thing well done is to have done it." -- Ralph Waldo EmersonMicrobadge: Swimming fanMicrobadge: Parent of Two Girls and One BoyMicrobadge: Innovation fanMicrobadge: "Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify." -- Henry David Thoreau
Recently, a common complaint came up in some reviews and session reports for a couple games I'm subscribed to (the actual games aren't important here; I just want to focus on the concept that was common across threads). While not every thread referred to the complaint explicitly this way, it was pretty clear that people weren't enjoying the game in question because of what they saw as a Runaway Leader problem, though it was sometimes phrased as having a Fallaway Loser problem.

Runaway Leader generally means that once someone gets into the lead, they just keep putting more and more distance between themselves and their competitor(s) and there's little that can be done to stop them. Fallaway Loser, conversely, just means that once someone falls behind, there's nothing they can do to claw their way back and be competitive. Very similar states.

Before I go any further, I can't help but be reminded of back when I taught, and I'd have students--smart students, mind you, this was a College of Engineering--who thought that, no matter what their performance to date in the course and no matter how much time remained in the semester, that it was still possible for them to get an "A" in the course. This was amazing to me. That someone could be smart enough to get admitted to an engineering school and still hold this idea made no sense at all. For it to be true, it required a suspension of how math actually worked, and also required an act of generosity on my part that was unexplainable and without motivation.

Now, I want to stop here. Because little is more unnerving online than reading about how you are intellectually deficient in some way, I just want to clarify that I'm not calling people who despise Runaway Leaders stupid. Runaway Leaders probably do exist, as a phenomenon. What I want to explore a bit is whether or not that automatically constitutes a problem. Because that's how it is generally articulated: "this game has a runaway leader problem." Very few people ever say "This game has a runaway leader opportunity."

We often talk about how we want games--particularly heavy games--to have decisions that matter. We want "meaty" decisions or "tough" decisions. We seek out games that cause us to weigh many things to arrive at a decision and then act, and live with the consequences of that decision. And yet I can't help but be a little surprised that the Runaway Leader as a quickly diagnosed problem exists in that same world. So people want a game of tough, strategic choices full of meaningful decisions, but the execution of those choices shouldn't result in too commanding a lead, and failed choices shouldn't punish you too much?

Runaway Leader and Fallaway Loser both strike me as feedback from the game about how your decisions weren't good. Is someone pulling ahead? Yes? Then recall what they did, work out when they timed it, and next time try to do it or prevent them from doing it. Are you falling behind? The act of being behind in a game is feedback about your choices. So don't do what you did again, or, at the very least, try and work through what you did (and what your opponents did) to have yourself be in that position.

I get that when people game they want people to have a good time, and they want people to stay engaged. But that's a philosophy that's more in line with the standard German Family Game, and not necessarily the meatier, heavy game. I'm often left wondering if there are serious problems of expectation in some games, where people want a meaty experience full of tense, tough decisions...but they don't want those decisions punished very much, and there shouldn't be much threat of falling too far behind. If you insist a game offer tough choices, and also insist that the game not punish you too much for making a bad choice early on, then you are not really seeking out games with tough choices: by removing punishment, the "toughness" of a decision has been neutered. It stops being a "tough" choice and instead becomes a temporarily inconvenient choice, a tough-seeming decision. Like my students who thought an "A" was always within reach no matter their performance to date.

Now, I'm fully aware that I might be missing something. And so I'd like to turn to you here: what am I missing? From my vantage point, something isn't right. There's nuance here, and it's being ignored in favor of a blunt, imprecise term.

When people talk about Runaway Leaders, are they really talking about a related (but contributing) issue, such as early finite actions being too powerful? I.e, on turn 1 a player gets a Mistress of Ceremonies and just rides the wave to the end and there's nothing the opposition can do? Or they claim a route between two cities and get such a head start in income that they other players can't do a thing to come back? (Though I'd probably argue that in that last example, "Turn Order matters" might be the key takeaway). Perhaps most importantly, have any of you ever diagnosed a Runaway Leader Problem, only to rescind it later with more plays? How many plays constitute enough to make that call?

Part of the issue here, too, is that people do not play games several times, so if the feedback from the game is "well, do something different next time; you overvalued Action X relative to what your opponent did," and the player isn't inspired by the game enough to want to play the game again and try to play differently and learn whatever that "something" is, then the problem will remain to them as a Runaway Leader Problem and not a Suboptimal Play Problem. The latter way of framing the issue is entirely within the players' control, while the former is frankly an easy kind of defeatism. So maybe my issue is that I dislike seeing people just dismiss something outright for a bad reason. I can't fault people for not liking a game and not wanting to play it again, but I can certainly fault them for choosing to express that in a way that (surprise!) manages to keep their own ego intact while shifting blame to someone else (i.e., the designer).

I'm starting to suspect that, fairly frequently, it's used as a way to express frustration that there's nothing immediately obvious that can be done to close a performance gap between players. A game might be a lost cause for you now, but that wasn't the case last turn, and that's when your intervention was necessary; it's too late now unless you reformulate a plan that'll take a while to work. I don't know this for a fact, but I'd be willing to bet that games with frequently-perceived runaway leader problems are also a.) games that are often described as "fragile," and/or b.) games that focus on something other than engine building or goods conversion, which tend to show the outcomes of decisions rather explicitly; in other words, the more opaque or counter-intuitive the feedback, the more likely some players throw up their hands in frustration at seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Again, that's just a hunch.

Runaway Leader issues might surface somewhere in the first-play murky area of "defining how players created or earned their opportunity." That's a key area of interest that keeps me coming back to the same games over and over again, and I'm starting to see that it's an area that other people have no interest in exploring at all. That doesn't automatically mean the game has depth, but it definitely means the game has some element of replayability; there's a ready-made area of investigation there, something to toy with and test.

Ultimately, my default setting now is to not believe someone at all when they say a game has a runaway leader problem; that diagnosis must be earned. Instead, I log that criticism differently, and I note that the game might have an interesting choke point, or a counter-intuitive way of progressing through the game, or a non-obvious way of messing with the deltas between competitors. I'm not saying that's right, but absent any real context, I just view the "Runaway Leader" label as always having an asterisk.
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Sun Feb 3, 2013 8:10 pm
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My Year of Small Large Changes

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"It's not hard to design a game that works, the real challenge is making one that people want to play again and again."--Martin Wallace
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I am not sure if I've ever accomplished a New Year's Resolution, truthfully. I have made resolutions, though I don't know how long I lasted with my new plan before habit got the better of me and I reverted to pre-resolution form. One of the reasons resolutions typically fail is because they are too much of a wholesale change, and that adopting the new routine or new behavior is so counter to established normalcy that too much willpower is expended, stress happens, and then: failure. A better way to make resolutions is to not do it all at once if the desired change is too drastic. Make smaller changes first, gradually adopt each one and make it a habit before adopting the next, and so on. Habits are hard to break (this is probably what got you into trouble in the first place), and by deliberately encouraging good habits, you make it a bit easier for yourself to succeed. It's satisfying to make it to the end of a sequence of microgoals, but it's also mentally frustrating to attack a bigger resolution with some bee sting-sized assaults over a long period of time.

Earlier today I made a list. This list can be read as either a list of goals, or a list of how I can correct everything I find unpleasant about myself: your pick. Most people think they have above-average willpower and can stop doing any habit they have; they just choose not to. This is a nice protective position to take. I have no doubt that people could accomplish a lot of great things by challenging themselves, but I think we all suspect that "I can do it if I want to" is often a deflection rather than a decision to not test oneself through some patently obviously and inevitably successful standoff.

My wife tells me I'm hard to shop for; I'd like to think that means I'm equal parts "discriminating taste" and "satisfied with what I have," but the truth is that, for years, if I wanted something badly enough I'd just buy it. So the reality is not that I'm discriminating, but that I'm too impulsive for gift-giving to make sense because family members know my state of "needing something" lasts about an hour before I log on to the Intertubes and lo, a transaction occurs, and my need is met, and my sister still doesn't know what to get me for Family Secret Santa (result: I got a lot of gift cards this year).

This year, overall, I bought less than I normally do. Partly because my son has cut into my leisure time, yes, but also because I have no real need for new things because I'm not done with the old ones yet. My wife and I spent more on experiences than things (well, we also replaced our driveway; that was both a thing and an experience), and we've already talked about keeping that going.

All this is to say that, for the first time in forever, I have a Resolution List composed of smaller changes to habits I already have in-progress. So while a lot of this might sound hokey ("you can do it! Just $29.95!"), I can attest that it actually does work if you feel stuck trying to get yourself to change in some way. But among the usual self-improvement stuff that creeps onto New Year's lists, there are also some gaming/purchasing changes that might be of interest to others, which I'll share here:

1. I'm going to use my gift cards today or tomorrow, and then not buy any new books or games for the year. This is the big one. My 2013 game purchases will consist of the Deep Thought Games order from December of 2011 that still hasn't shipped, and I'll try to get a Winsome 2013 Essen set this summer when that window (briefly) opens. That's it.

2. BGG less. The other night I caught myself watching a 15-minute video review of a game I already own. No disrespect to the reviewer, but What. The. Heck. By running Rescue Time on my laptop, I know what my normal time spent on the site is, and I've been slowly cutting back. Cutting back even more is not a dramatic change. I've spent a lot of time here researching what I own, so it'll be nice to focus more on playing than investigating. I've more or less stopped buying games anyway, so I don't feel this is a looming failure and public humiliation ("Yeah! Tell us another one, John!"). And frankly #2 will help with #1 automatically; I can't be tempted by a game I don't know about.

3. The other night I printed a pdf of some public-domain sheet music by a composer I like (Fernando Sor) and in about a week have worked my way through the whole piece. But it was free. I have a lifetime of music already in my house, more if I include the Internet (which I should). I'm adding music to my Forbidden Purchases list.

4. End the year with less. By the end of 2013, I'll have two full years of play log data (I plan on keeping that going). At that point, I'll have an even clearer idea of my available time to game, and I expect some heads to roll.

5. Spend more time with my Decktet and with my Penguin Encyclopedia of Card Games. There are a lot of potential games there, but as one NBA basketball player once so eloquently stated, "potential just means you ain't done sh*t."

6. As always, keep playing things with my wife, keep playing 18xx through Rails/Dropbox, enjoy my real life groups as much as I can, and play over lunch whenever possible with my neighbor.

I have plenty to amuse myself with during 2013, as I've long since reached Distraction Saturation. I've been pointing myself towards purchasing changes for a while, slowly. Reading about, thinking about, and talking about change is quite pleasurable, but often those are things we do in place of the actual change, unless of course your resolution is to read about, think about, or talk about a topic. 2013 is, therefore, my year of small large changes. I've never had resolutions seem so achievable before, and it's probably no accident that I've never achieved a resolution, either.

Wish me luck, and good luck in all your resolutions, as well, both big and small. Happy New Year.
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Fri Dec 28, 2012 9:16 pm
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"Gaming" vs. "Certain Games"

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"It's not hard to design a game that works, the real challenge is making one that people want to play again and again."--Martin Wallace
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Here's a somewhat rhetorical-sounding question. Last night I went to my FLGS (which is honestly not so local) specifically to play Age of Steam, which is a game I love and a game I have a very hard time getting opponents for. A guy I met online tried to get 4 or 5 people to commit to the game on the FLGS mailing list earlier in the week, and it wasn't looking good for quorum. As I was sitting there waiting for him, a few people showed up who all knew each other and they were asking what they were going to play. "You here to play Age of Steam?" one of them asked the other, in a joking tone of voice. "Hah, yeah, of course," the other one said sarcastically. Once our game did start, a couple people stopped by during the game and either made some (good-natured) remarks about how the game was too brutal, one woman stood and talked for a few minutes and said she preferred Steam, etc. So, confirmed: not a popular game.

After our game was over, Tom (the guy who set up the game) said "how can you not like this game?" And I nodded, not because I think everyone ought to like this game, but that I liked this game a whole lot and I can't see myself not liking it.

So my question, which is not really about Age of Steam, specifically: Age of Steam is one of those games that I would love to play a couple times a month. And it seems to be pretty hard to drum up that kind of local sustained interest in it, and it occurred to me that I can say that same thing about practically all of my favorite games.

And as I was driving home, I sat there wondering if I liked gaming, or if I liked certain games. Because if my 18xx group dissolved for whatever reason, and if I could no longer find local players for Chicago Express or Age of Steam or New England Railways, I honestly wasn't sure if I would seek out new games to be potential favorites, or if I'd just wait it out knowing that I might be waiting forever, or if I'd throw in the towel and get rid of my 3+ player games (2p stuff like abstracts and card games are immune from this; I have no problem finding people to play those).

I'm sure other people have given thought to this very thing. So I'm sort of wondering how other people would answer that question. The process of navigating this huge world of gaming and finally reaching what I liked took three years; November of 2009 I bought Carcassonne and Settlers of Catan and brought them home for Thanksgiving. Since then, I discovered what I liked and sought to create opportunities to play those things, and this has been successful.

But if all of a sudden it stopped being successful, I don't know that I have it in me to try to search through games again to find other things I identified with to that level.

Luckily, Tom's a kindred spirit in the "it's hard to get other people to play my favorite games" camp, and our tastes match up pretty well in places, and we're already talking about getting some Power Grid and Container played. So the scenario I was thinking about on my (longish) drive home isn't likely any time soon.

So, what say you: if your Top Ten games suddenly were looking like they would go unplayed possibly forever, would you find a new Top Ten? How long would you wait before accepting they'd never get played again?
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Thu Dec 20, 2012 2:12 pm
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"Doing" Vs. "Having Done"

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"It's not hard to design a game that works, the real challenge is making one that people want to play again and again."--Martin Wallace
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Microbadge: "The reward of a thing well done is to have done it." -- Ralph Waldo EmersonMicrobadge: Swimming fanMicrobadge: Parent of Two Girls and One BoyMicrobadge: Innovation fanMicrobadge: "Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify." -- Henry David Thoreau
Believe it or not, it's very easy to misunderstand your own motivations for doing something. Incredibly easy, in fact. And one of the things that I did for a long time was confuse "doing" with "having done." I'll bet you've done it too.

Sometimes an activity is appealing and I think "oh, I'd like to do that," but what I'm really saying is "oh, it'd be nice to have done that already." Consider a method of creating case furniture that I was (briefly) obsessed with for a while. It required me getting a decent push-stroke saw (I typically work with Japanese saws that cut on the pull stroke). That saw is still sitting downstairs and I have never cut a single dado or dovetail with it other than the Godawful ones I cut the night the saw arrived. So in this case, when I learned of the method and decided to buy the saw, I misread my own desire. What I was saying was not "I'd like to learn how to do that and eventually be able to use it this way" but rather "it'd be pretty great if I already knew how to do that," and I bought the tool despite the fact that the purchase cannot possibly address the need I was having. With just a few seconds of pause to really hone in on the need, it's a purchase that could have been avoided. I wasn't interested in learning how to do it; I was drawn to a fantasy of already being able to do it.

It obviously makes no sense to buy something if it's to service an irrational need like that. But I was misunderstanding myself and instead expressing the irrational need (that could never be met, notice) as a purely rational one that seemed quite reasonable.

I did this with books all the time, and occasionally still do it. While I'd often tell myself "I'm looking forward to reading this book, so I'll buy it," what I was actually saying was "this topic seems fascinating; it'd be wonderful to already have the knowledge contained in this book." That is a very, very different thing than looking forward to enjoying the time spent actually reading the book, in teasing out connections, in enjoying the word choices the author made, in creating a coherent whole out of what's contained inside. So I now have a few books by H.L. Mencken sitting on my shelf, unread. Ditto a biography of Thomas Jefferson. There are others; I'll get to those Shakespeare plays eventually! I was looking forward, most of all, to having them read; the actual reading of the books was not something I ever made time for. Because I didn't want to read them at all; I wanted to have read them already.

That's a common misunderstanding in gaming, as well, particularly when you read someone's glowing endorsement of a series, or a designer, or a game family, or a system that's unfamiliar to you. It's incredibly easy to be inspired by their enthusiasm and say "I'd like to experience that; just look how rich their enjoyment is," but that enthusiasm often does not mean "I'd like to slowly gain the experience in this area, like BGG User X has," but rather "it'd be fantastic if I already had that experience." Again, related statements, but not synonymous.

Gaming for me completely opened up when I realized which games I actually wanted to gain experience in (i.e., which book I enjoyed myself the most during the ten hours I would spend reading it) and which games I was simply dreaming about having experience with (i.e., which book I would like to have already read). This might sound simple, but it was decidedly not simple for me to spot this. Like with many other things, "one-click shopping" and "buy it now" and "storing your account information for faster service" all make it less likely that you stop and pause and try and define what your need truly is; the faster the transaction is encouraged to happen, the fewer opportunities you have to self-audit.

The truth for me was that it was rarely possible to discover my Actual Need in the mindless 30 seconds it took to watch my shopping cart go from Finalize to Confirm to Purchase to Receipt. So I stopped trying. Understanding your real motivation takes longer. Several minutes, or several days even. It took a few text or email conversations with people in my gaming group to see if they were interested. It took a few days of thinking about what I'd have to play less in order to make room for this new purchase. It took a few days for me to finally accept that, no, I really do not have the time to study this new piece of music, or that I won't have time to read this book for a long, long time. It also took realizing that spending $24 to save $8 on shipping would get me laughed out of the room during an economic game, and rightly so.

The most important additions to my purchasing decisions have been time and distance. Calculus, basically. Easy Shopping is wonderful this time of year because you can have an "oh crap, forgot about Sally!" moment fairly late in the year and still get a gift shipped in time for Christmas, but Easy Shopping is dreadful on a hot, bored August evening (internet shopping out of boredom strikes me as being like grocery shopping while hungry; it never ends well). I stopped allowing internet merchants to save my credit card information, I stopped allowing my browser to save my password, and I have made all of my commerce-related passwords between 15 and 30 characters long; these are then stored in a notebook on a bookshelf. If I want to buy something, I don't have to just go to the site and click "Buy." I have to go to the site, go get my notebook, find my password, log in using long & arbitrary passwords, enter my item in the shopping cart, go get my credit card, enter that number, and click Buy.

I do trust myself more than this would imply. But smart purchasing (read: purchasing where I was matching my need with my realistic ability to meet that need) required me to have distance between my impulse and when I handed currency over to a merchant in exchange for what I wanted. Internet stores don't come built-in with that distance, so I needed to create it myself. Overall, it helps ensure that when I buy something, I'm interested in actually doing it, not just buying a prop to help me feel like I'd like to have done it already.
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Fri Dec 7, 2012 8:46 pm
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Administrative News (Light Gaming Content)

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Dear However-Many-Subscribers-I-Have-Left:

Hi there! How are you? Good, I hope. I am well. I am busy, and I am tired.

I sat on this decision for a little over a month, but it occurred to me that the title of my blog is no longer appropriate. When this blog began life, my gaming life looked very different: I was not a full-fledged dabbler, but I still dabbled a bit. Now, not so much. I have spent the last few months really settling into a gaming routine, discovering what I liked to play, and discovering what I like to talk about & think about. This has had an effect on my boardgaming, personal, and professional lives, believe it or not. So a few things have become more or less finalized in that time:

1.) My tastes are fairly set
2.) My collection is stable
3.) I now have two regular & distinct monthly groups, with a possible occasional third (!), for multiplayer play
4.) I have two regular opponents for 2-player games
5.) While still not my dominant hobby, gaming now occupies more of my leisure time than it has in the past; not so casual anymore, really

Off the table, I have also settled into my role as BGG's Unofficial Game Scold. Not sure how that happened, but here we are.

But perhaps most importantly, I have fully worked out how my gaming hobby intersects with my work in both research and activity, and how my gaming intersects with my targeted effort to simplify my life now that I have a child. These are all important things, and the tone of the blog changed from casual dabbling to more focused entries that tackle topics where these distinct things might overlap (incidentally, I have had a very nice GeekMail conversation with one reader who pointed out that I never did write about anything I mentioned in my opening post; those drafts are still sitting in OneNote, half dressed since February). I also, through the regular chatting on my GCL, have come up with more coherent thoughts on my relationship to gaming as a hobby; many thanks to them, as I feel like I've grown a lot in the last Almost Year, and that would not have been possible without their patience and endurance. So, thank you Meatballs.

Therefore, at some point this week, I will officially change the name of this blog. So this is mostly a warning that an unfamiliar name will pop up in your subscriptions at some point, but that it's still this blog. I guess I'm rebranding. But truthfully, I took advantage of the Wandering Thought nature that a blog affords and, well, I wandered. Wandered right into something that I wasn't expecting, but kind of liked once I got there. So I'll stay.

The last few months have seen 1-2 posts per month, and that seems to be the baseline. So welcome to my New Old blog, soon-to-be-called "Mnmlst Gmr," and I hope to see you in the comments.

John
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Wed Nov 28, 2012 4:09 pm
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