Solitary Soundings

Musings of a solitary gamer. "The advantage of conversation is such that, for want of company, a man had better talk to a post than let his thoughts lie smoking and smothering." (Jeremy Collier) Comments welcome.

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Games and Puzzles Revisited

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A blog-post comment caught my eye today and got me thinking. It's partly about the many games coming out nowadays which are actually puzzles. And it mentions a trend away from true games and toward complex puzzles.

Well, that touches upon something that has crossed my mind periodically for years. I've gone through most of my life saying I love games but hate puzzles. And of course I've always thought I knew what that meant. But anytime I compared games and puzzles closely, they'd start to overlap. If I continued to stare, they'd blend together until I couldn't tell them apart anymore.

The emotions behind my statement were clear enough, however: to me, a puzzle feels like a one-shot brain strainer--struggle to solve it, and then you're done once and for all; a game, in contrast, feels like less of a struggle and something you're glad to come back to time and time again.

Maybe that's part of it. But today I decided to compare dictionary definitions and see if I could get more insight that way.

The definition of game I've looked up many times: "a physical or mental competition conducted according to rules with the participants in direct opposition to each other." That fits most of the games I care about, though I ignore one part of the definition and stretch another. I ignore "physical," because I'm only interested in mental games. I stretch "participants" to include robots--AI opponents--and also to include myself when, for instance, I play both sides of a wargame against each other.

Only today did I think to look up puzzle: "a question, problem, or contrivance designed for testing ingenuity." That led me to an aha! moment. But before I got there, I had to also look up ingenuity: "skill or cleverness in devising or combining: inventiveness." That suggests coming up with something new or putting existing things together in a novel or special way.

When you tackle a puzzle, you're confronting some problem you've never seen before and deciding what to do with it. When you play a game, you might be dealing with something you've seen plenty of; it could be something you've practiced over and over for a long time.

If a game is brand-new to you, learning it might be a puzzle. But after you get to where you know how to play and have practiced a bit, you're doing the same sorts of things every time you play. The question isn't whether you can solve the problem in front of you; it's how well you can perform in comparison to your opponent(s)--to the other participant(s).

Some of this is debatable, and definitions are always changing. I don't want to start any arguments. But I guess I've said enough to continue with what's on my mind here.

Coming back to my longtime statement, "I love games but hate puzzles," it makes sense to me again. I had come to doubt it. Sometimes I wondered if it was actually the other way around. But now I don't think it is.

What made me wonder is the fact that I've long avoided player-versus-player games for the most part. That is, I've shunned human opposition and opted for solitaire or single-player gaming. Some would argue that solo gaming amounts to just doing puzzles: if you're not out to beat anybody, and there's nobody to beat you, it's not a game (according to the above dictionary definition). But I'm always aware of opposition even if there's not a human opponent, or even if I'm my own human opponent.

Furthermore, I'm very much interested in practicing--getting better at playing the game by repeating it over and over. That's not something you typically do with a puzzle. If you're into, say, jigsaw puzzles or sudoku puzzles, your experience with one of them will probably help you in the next. But every puzzle you tackle is new; you don't do the same puzzle over and over, trying to get quicker at solving it. You can do that, but it's outside the norm. The thing about puzzles is that you're testing your ingenuity; and for that, you need to be dealing with something new and different every time.

But that process annoys me. What I want is to deal with the same thing over and over until it becomes second nature to me. Like improving at chess by playing standard endgames repeatedly or studying openings and variations. Chess and checkers start out the same every time, and the basic patterns become very familiar. Every game ends up being different only because it's deep and complex and the players vary their lines of play. There's some ingenuity involved (players get inventive at a deep level where new-to-them patterns emerge), but the winning chess or checkers player is often the one who has studied and practiced the most, or who exhibits the most concentration and self-discipline.

In my wargaming years, I always hated having to learn new games. I wished publishers would settle on a set of rules and produce many games with the same basic rules (eventually some companies did that; there are series of wargames now). I'm very uncomfortable anytime I tackle a new game, be it a board game, video game, or whatever. Once I'm past the stage of being a floundering beginner, just figuring out how things work, then I can finally settle into the game and get a feel for whether it's a game for me.

Partly because of that, I tend to be a little dismayed if it's a very long game. The longer it is, the less likely I am to play it repeatedly. And if I can't play repeatedly, I can't work on improving at it. So, games like Planescape: Torment have felt, ultimately, like a waste of time to me. That particular game is one I'm likely never to play again; it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. With the help of a walkthrough, I made it past all its puzzles and challenges, but there's no incentive for me to go back and do it again.

Maybe that's why I've never been able to make myself play The Civil War. It's on a favorite subject, and it's reputed to be great, but it's long and involved. Worse, I'd have to learn it first, and learning new things is often an unwelcome hurdle to me. It might be worth it if it was a shorter game, because then after learning it I'd be able to play it over and over again and work at improving.

I like games to be somewhat long and complex, though. Classic games like backgammon often seem too short to me. If I can sit down and spend, say, two or three hours with a game, that's about right. It feels like a substantial experience but also a repeatable one. I love the feeling of sitting down to a game of Master of Orion or Civilization IV and sinking into the familiarity of a game I've played many times before. New challenges await me, but I know all the controls and most of the patterns of play and how to handle most situations I encounter. So I get a feeling of contentment, and that's highly important to me.

When I'm doing a puzzle, I never get that feeling. If it's a challenging puzzle, I get tense and then possible exasperated. I'm anything but contented. I only experience relief and then contentment if I manage to solve the puzzle.

Nowadays, though, lots of gamers would respond to all this by scratching their heads and saying, "Huh? What's all this about competitive games and puzzles? I don't play games for any of that. I just like a good story; if a game has a good narrative arc and provides escapist entertainment, I'm good. If it's a video game, cinematic effects are great too."

Well, I guess I'm old-fashioned. To me, a game is what's described in the dictionary definition I gave above. It's probably a definition rapidly growing outdated, and maybe I'm growing outdated too, but it works for me. I like to draw a distinction between competitive and noncompetitive activities. So it's a little hard for me to think of story-based games as games at all. Or to think of games primarily as forms of entertainment. To me, games are essentially tests of certain mental skill sets; their purpose is mental exercise as well as entertainment or diversion.

Because of that, I've taken to calling myself a strategy gamer instead of just a gamer. It seems to work; it clues people in that competition and goals are important to me--that I'm not likely to be content with just stories or puzzles or action or entertainment. I want a game to test me on a set of mental skills that I enjoy trying to improve at. And if the game entertains me all the while, that's a nice bonus.

Calling myself a strategy gamer works OK among board gamers as well as video gamers and RPGamers. Many board gamers think in terms of social gatherings; they might go so far as to say a board game or card game is a social gathering. But they don't necessarily see strategy games that way; games like chess, checkers, and go are something different, something more studious. So are most wargames. And those are the kinds of board games I'm into--the kind I can study, not the kind I can have a rollicking good time socializing over. Among board gamers, though, it helps to further call myself a solo or two-player strategy gamer. Otherwise people start thinking of the 18xx games and such, which I have little or no interest in.

However, solo and two-player games probably are the closest games get to being puzzles. So that takes me full circle to where I started in this post. As a matter of fact, I often prefer sitting and doing a few mate-in-two problems to playing a whole game of chess. You might think mate-in-two problems are clearly just puzzles, but to me they're not; they're exercises that build my chess-playing skill. If the problems were not possible chess endgames, I wouldn't be interested in them. They're appealing because they're part of a game. It's like practicing scales in order to improve at playing a musical instrument.

In fact, that's not a bad analogy. I'm no musician, but if I were I'd love picking up an instrument that I've practiced with for a long time and know how to play well. The familiarity of it would be a big factor in my enjoyment; the instrument would be like an old friend. And once I've picked it up, I'd be free to play well-practiced tunes or to improvise something new. Much of the time I'd be content to just play what I know.

That's what I look for in a game also. And I can find it in a favorite game, but I can't find it in a puzzle because a puzzle is always a brand-new challenge that calls for ingenuity. Nor can I find it in an open-world or "sandbox" story-based game, because the idea there is just to explore the game world (usually just once through); you're not doing practice exercises to improve your skills.
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Sat Jan 19, 2019 10:56 pm
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My Five Hundredth Blog Post

p55carroll
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Looks like this is number 250 in this blog, and there are 250 posts in my other blog (Random Ruminations). Nice round numbers. Cause for celebration.

And yet, I'm reminded of the old story about the fellow who was passed up for promotion. He stormed into his boss's office and said, "I have twenty years' experience in this company!" His boss replied, "No, you've had one year's experience twenty times." These blogs have been all about me and how I feel about the games I play; and although I imagine I've got something new to share each time, it must seem dull and repetitious to anyone on the outside looking in.
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Sat Dec 29, 2018 7:01 pm
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Caught between Boredom and Frustration

p55carroll
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The title, I think, describes my lifelong gaming hobby. Of course there's a third element too--the joyful expectation that lures me in each time I play a game. That lasts awhile too. Sometimes it lasts halfway into the game or even survives to the very end.
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Mon Dec 24, 2018 4:10 pm
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The Joy of Learning How

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Patrick Carroll wrote:
I'm starting to realize I'm kind of a living paradox: I've loved games all my life, but I don't like playing games that much.

It's the same with another hobby, languages. I love delving in and starting to learn the grammar and vocabulary, but I have almost no interest in gaining fluency and joining another language community. I like using other languages just enough to prove to myself that I can. No more than that.

For years I just bought wargames, learned how to play them, and then set them aside. Just playing one, after having learned how, didn't appeal to me. It seemed almost like a waste of time. In any case, I'd be much happier learning another new game instead.

In the case of Magic Realm, I do have a lot more I could learn (not to mention all I'd have to relearn). So it's appealing in that sense. But my interest is dampened when I stop and think about what the game is: a multiplayer adventure that can, incidentally, be played solo. I don't especially want the adventure, and only RealmSpeak makes it a convenient solo game. If I play again, it'll probably be just to work my way through the rest of Jay Richardson's tutorial. Once I feel I know all about how to play, I'll never want to do it again.

I did finally download VASSAL several months ago, but I've delayed doing anything with it. Now I think I know why. I don't like playing games that much; I just like learning how to play them. (Teaching someone to play might interest me. I just seldom have the opportunity for that.)

My real passion, it seems, is for acquiring know-how in (relatively) closed systems. Show me a game, a code, a language, a personality-typing system, or anything that looks self-contained, and I'll plunge in with delight, wanting to know how to do the thing. But once I've got the know-how, don't ask me to put it to use or apply it to anything. I'll feel I'm done and ready to move on to something else.

I wrote the above in response to a thread reply in VGG. But it seems to belong in this long-running blog too.
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Fri Dec 7, 2018 4:00 pm
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Brain Strainer or Walk in the Park?

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I can never make up my mind which I want--a challenging game or one that's just pleasantly amusing. And I'm not content with, "Don't worry about it; keep both kinds around and play whatever you're in the mood for." Because if I could decide what I'm really in the mood for, there'd be no problem in the first place.
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Tue Nov 20, 2018 3:13 pm
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Low-Tech Solo Gaming

p55carroll
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I just read an article on "dumbphones" and how the smartphone cycle may be well past its peak. It surprised me but rang true--or at least possibly true. At any rate, I've been carrying a smartphone around for several years, and while it seemed very cool in the beginning, I'd be perfectly happy without most of its features now.

Coincidentally, some BGGeeks have been replying to an old GeekList of mine, calling my attention back to it. It's a list of classic Avalon Hill wargames, so it brings back fond memories. It also makes me wonder about having relocated my "home base" from BGG to VGG a few years ago--back when my new smartphone was the most exciting thing ever. How is video gaming going for me now? How would I feel about going back to board gaming?
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Fri Nov 9, 2018 3:59 pm
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Labor or Leisure?

p55carroll
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"<sigh> I just had another sucky experience in Civilization this morning; I was doing fine, when the Ottomans attacked me and started taking over all my cities."

"Aw, c'mon--you're not going to spend a blog post whining about that, are you?"

"Well, no. I feel like it, but I guess I won't."

"Good for you! Say something positive for a change. People play games for fun; that's what they want to hear about."

"Fun--right. People don't know how to define it, but they're sure it's what counts."

"So you're going to try to define 'fun'?"

"Nah. Too many viewpoints on it. Just as well to leave it vague. Guess I'll just go with the subject line and blog about labor versus leisure."

"Oh no--not the old business about Tom Sawyer and fence painting. Hasn't that been done to death?"

"I dunno. I still need to resolve it. And it's my blog."
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Thu Jun 21, 2018 3:46 pm
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Reorienting

p55carroll
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I hit a slump in video gaming a week or two ago; nothing satisfied me anymore, and about all I've been able to do is play my old standby, Master of Orion. It's OK, but I'm not even enjoying that they way I used to.

A couple weeks before that, I started back into board wargaming a little; I played a scenario of Ancient Battles Deluxe, and that game is still set up on a nearby table, ready to be played again. I might just play it again today. We'll see.

Meanwhile, I've also been aware of my ongoing fascination with board games in general and traditional strategy games in particular--e.g., chess, checkers, and go. One drawback for me there is I don't know anyone else who plays and don't want to go out of my way to find opponents, at least not for face-to-face play. I like studying the games and playing solo on the computer, but I'm reluctant to play competitively, even if it's friendly competition.

So, now I'm reevaluating where I am in regard to games and gaming. I just threw open my closet doors, and from where I sit I can see most of my game collection. What to make of it?
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Sat Jun 16, 2018 11:59 pm
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Gaming as a Laboratory of Life

p55carroll
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Attributed to Socrates is the saying "The unexamined life is not worth living." To me it means that one has to reflect and consider things in order to turn experiences into wisdom; otherwise things happen, but the meaning of them is lost (and then life usually brings the experiences around again and again until the lesson sinks in).

That might just be common sense. However, I've turned the saying around and found the reverse useful: the unlived life is not worth examining. That's my way of reminding myself not to spend too much time reflecting or ruminating, lest life pass me by.
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Sun Jun 10, 2018 3:52 pm
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Selective Minimalism

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I've been somewhat attracted to the concept of minimalism for years. If you're not sure what it is, you can click the above link or this one:
https://www.theminimalists.com/

Of course, with me (if not with everybody), there's always some tension. In this case, I'm spoiled by all the comforts and conveniences I've grown used to all my life, so I'm reluctant to give them up. Hence, it's hard for me to even think of going camping anymore, much less permanently simplifying my lifestyle.
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Sun Jun 3, 2018 5:31 pm
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