"And you won't know a thing till you get inside." (Mystery lyrics; name that song.)
"Drizzle, drazzle, drozzle, drome; time for this one to come home."
I had a couple bad experiences with video games on Saturday, so I put the computer away and went out to mow the lawn. While mowing, I contemplated on what it is I really want out of games. Apparently it's not the same thing everybody else wants, because I hate many of the most popular games. Worse, I sometimes get so disenchanted that I end up thinking I hate games altogether. Yet, I keep coming back to them.
What I basically want is a pleasant and satisfying leisure-time activity. But what does that mean to me, and why do so many games fail to deliver it?
Reflecting on my just-played games, I thought maybe I was just frustrated over losing. It's true that I get bummed out when I lose too often or when I lose in certain ways. In some video games (e.g., Heroes of Might and Magic), I'm better off setting the difficulty level to Easy; otherwise the AI players will catch me off guard and make life very hard for me. And if I have to work that hard to survive, I'm not relaxing and having fun; hence, it's not a pleasant leisure-time activity.
But then I remembered the couple "sandbox" games I've played--games like SimCity (1989), where you just build stuff and get points for it and you're not exactly competing with anybody. I hated those, and I know exactly why: they make me feel I'm just wasting time. If a game is going to be reduced to a toy, I might as well get a box of Legos and just sit around building stuff on my bedroom floor. No--I think I managed to outgrow that at some point in my life.
Setting the AI to Easy, however, is only a short step from playing a "sandbox" game. If a game is too easy to win, I feel it's meaningless. It might be a pleasant leisure-time activity, but it's not a satisfying one. I want it to be both.
To be satisfying, a game has to seem meaningful or worthwhile to me. I have to feel I'm getting something of real value out of it. If I perceive it as light entertainment--like watching TV--I'll stop doing it altogether. To my mind it'll seem useless then, and I won't want to waste my time on it.
So, what makes a game meaningful or worthwhile? To a small degree, I can consider it a good stress reliever: curling up with a good game can be like curling up with a good book or movie--it's a welcome escape and can be refreshing. But a game is not a book or movie; it's something you have to work at. A game calls for creative decision making and intelligent reasoning. And, paradoxically perhaps, that can be stressful. So, if I were only in need of a stress reliever, I'd probably be better off sticking to books or movies.
People who play games with other people can cite another real benefit: social interaction. Games can be good ice breakers or social catalysts. It can be fun and rewarding to get together with other people and play. I can see that; I've enjoyed it myself many times. I'm such an introvert, though, that my idea of pleasant, satisfying leisure time is doing something alone. I don't want to have to arrange with others to play a game, and I don't often want to deal with people in my free time.
Since social interaction isn't a plus, I believe the only meaningful, worthwhile aspect of games for me is mental exercise. A game is a good way to practice reasoning or creative decision making.
At times, however, I focus too much on that and end up having a bad gaming experience. I'll pick a game that affords a good challenge, but soon I'm straining my brain and feeling miserable. Why? Because even though such a challenge does make a game worthwhile, it can make playing the game unpleasant. It's why I rarely play games like chess. I appreciate the mental challenge, but I don't want to have to work that hard in my spare time when I'm trying to relax.
So, for me to have a great gaming experience, I need to find a game that's pleasant and enjoyable--one that feels fun to play. And I also need it to be challenging but not too challenging.
In the case of video games, I can usually set the difficulty to suit my skill level. Hence, "challenging but not too challenging" is rarely a problem. The problems I run into have more to do with the game being pleasant and enjoyable.
Over time, I've identified a few game features that turn me on or off, making my experience pleasant or unpleasant.
One factor is game length or pace. I don't mind a long game, as I can always save and come back to it, but if it's also a slow-paced game, it starts to feel like a drag. I get a similar feeling if the game is too big--e.g., played on a huge map. Recent negative experiences have been with Master of Magic and Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri. They're both great games, but one has a very slow initial build-up, and the other has too big a map (or too many factions if played on a smaller map). I find myself ignoring many things in games like those because I just don't have the patience for or interest in micromanaging all that needs to be done. I get antsy and want to hurry the game along, and I'll automate many things and ignore other things in order to make that happen. Then I'll feel bad about having done that.
Another thing that tends to spoil a game for me is hidden movement. I've been vaguely aware of this pet peeve for years, but only recently has it become clear to me what a problem it is. I actually enjoy a game where I get to explore and discover things, so hidden information isn't automatically a deal-breaker. But nothing aggravates me more than being ambushed (or being expected to ambush an enemy). Anytime an AI opponent comes out of some dark part of the map and threatens or attacks me, I want to just shut the game down and forget it.
That's basically the same thing I always ran into in card games; it's why all my life I've said I like board games better than card games. In most card games, your opponents' hands are hidden from you; and at any time, someone might play a card that comes as an unpleasant surprise. It's the equivalent of an ambush. And I am so bad at mentally tracking hidden information that I no doubt get surprised a lot more often than most gamers. When I play a card game, I can't make myself consider what's in an opponent's hand; I focus on my own and act as if the other players' hands are none of my business. It's stupid, but it's a habit I've never been able to break.
In map games, I'm the same way. While I'm curious about what's in the darkened part of the map, and while I love to send scouts out and explore it, I still harbor the attitude that it's none of my business what my opponents are doing out of my sight. Once they appear in my sight, they suddenly become real to me; then I can focus on them. But until then, they don't even exist as far as I'm concerned. So, their sudden appearance always shocks me, and I kick myself for once again failing to foresee the possibility.
A game I find I really love is Master of Orion. Its map is a randomized galaxy, and you need scout ships or scanners to find out what all is beyond your starting position. Yet you see all the stars on the map from the get-go, and when enemies appear they're in plain sight. The game has a reasonably fast pace, and the map size (and number of factions) is variable. Everything about it works for me. And so far I've found no other video game quite as good. It's always pleasant and satisfying to me.
As to boardgames, a longstanding favorite has been Backgammon. It has open information, randomness, and a nice pace. It's always pleasant and satisfying to me, whether I'm playing with a friend or against an AI opponent on my smartphone. It's just challenging enough too: i.e., it makes me think but doesn't make me work harder than I want to in my leisure time.
When it comes to wargames, I like A House Divided a lot--and I think it's for the same reason I like Master of Orion: the nice mix of randomness, open movement, strategy, and tactics. The tactical aspect of AHD is quite simple and abstract, but that works best for this kind of board game. If I want tactical detail in a wargame, I'll go for something like Lock 'n Load, where the unique spotting rules simulate hiding without actually hiding anything from the player(s).
Speaking of wargames, I used to find them meaningful simply because they're historical. In my youth, I'd argue that I wasn't just playing games; I was studying military art/science/history. To me, that made it a good use of my time--something productive and worthwhile. Somewhere along the line, though, I began to doubt the credibility of wargames; I suspect they teach as many false lessons as true ones and allow players to experiment with things that might not have actually been possible. So I no longer look for history lessons in wargames. At any rate, it's not a big motivation for playing them. If I learn a little something, it's satisfying but incidental. Still, the games are fun and afford good mental exercise.
I play wargames solo, though, as I do most all games. Usually this means just playing both sides against each other. That works for me, as wargames (even simpler ones like AHD) are complex enough that there's plenty to think about and do each turn. By the time I finish one player-turn, I'm ready to switch sides and see what moves I can come up with there. I never completely learn a wargame; I don't play often enough. So when I do play, I feel I'm getting the hang of it so I'll be ready to play against another wargamer someday. I may nor may not ever do that, but the thought of it is important to me. I've never much liked designed-for-solitaire wargames, partly because I know I don't have even an outside chance of ever playing them with anyone else.
Traditional games like backgammon appeal to me but do have one drawback: they're designed for two (or sometimes more) players to compete over. Something is lost when they're played solitaire or against a computer AI. They're challenging, and yet I'm always uncomfortably aware that my opponent isn't there. The games are a little too small and stark and simple to make great single-player activities. So, I'll play backgammon (and a few other such games) with the idea of practicing for someday when I'll face a human opponent again. But otherwise, I'd rather play a meatier game--something like Master of Orion.
Hence, the traditional games I choose to play against an AI opponent are games I believe I might play with family or friends--backgammon and cribbage, for example. As much as I admire games like chess, checkers, and go, I don't know anyone who plays them; it's very unlikely I'll play one of those games with anyone in the foreseeable future, so I'm not motivated to practice them on my smartphone or PC.
I said above that I don't usually like designed-for-solitaire wargames. But there are some solitaire card games or board games that I do like well enough. I liked Space Hulk: Death Angel – The Card Game enough to buy a couple expansion packs, and I wouldn't mind playing more of that. I also need to break into my hard-earned copy of Friday one of these days. I'll even while away some time playing Patience now and then. These games provide a decent measure of mental exercise while also being somewhat relaxing and fun, and so I get just the "pleasant and satisfying leisure-time activity" I'm after.
Video games like Master of Orion have been my first choice in recent months, but I may be approaching the end of that kick. I bought too many video games this past summer, and now I own quite a few that I'll probably never play much, if at all. They're just too time-consuming, and there's a learning curve involved with the new ones. In addition, some have features I dislike, as noted above (e.g., extensive micromanagement or hidden movement).
I have more games of all kinds than I'll ever be able to use in the rest of this life. Some suit me, while others don't. Dabbling at all these games, however, has at least taught me a few things about myself--what I like and dislike in games, what works for me and what doesn't. I'm glad I can now pretty well articulate what I'm after in a game and which games I find it in.
For one thing, this means I've at least partially resolved the lifelong tension I've felt between games I admire and games I enjoy. I've always greatly admired chess and go, but I haven't played them a whole lot, and I've always been ashamed of that; I felt I ought to play the best games in the world instead of wasting my time with so-so games. Now I can look at those games (and the strategy books I've collected for them), shrug, and say, "Too much work. I don't want to strain my brain that way in my leisure time; I'd rather play something lighter and maybe also thematic, because that's more pleasant for me."
And when I hear other gamers raving about immersive RPGs or cinematic real-time video games, and I'm tempted to get in on that, I'll say to myself, "Nah--as cool as that might be, I need strategy in my games. Not a little strategy in the midst of a long, complex action adventure, but a strategy game I can play over and over and try to get good at." As I've said many times, if I just want imaginative immersion, I'll watch a movie or read a book.
I don't have a name for my preferred kind of game (any suggestions?). I'd describe it as medium-length turn-based strategy with randomness, an optional theme, and solitaire suitability, but without much (if any) hidden movement. Too many words there, though; I need something simpler.
Then I need a list of games that fit that description, and I should be all set (at least until I learn something new and have to modify the description again).