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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Down to the Wire

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Smooth seas make the voyage more pleasant.
A ship in port is safe, and that's just what ports are for.
Seems I've been bitching and moaning for a long time about the shortcomings of various games, insisting that I can only tolerate the very best since I'm getting older and don't have an enormous supply of hours to squander.

I'm due now for a reality check. If it's true that time is running out, the thing to do is call upon all my experience and know-how, focus on the goal, and make the most of whatever I've got left. The remainder of the race has to be run, no matter what position I find myself in. I'd be a fool to let myself be slowed down by bemoaning mistakes I've made along the way.

So, what's the focus, and what's the action plan?

Focus point #1: Solo play. There's no getting around it; I do most of my gaming by myself. It's not always my first choice, and I do have some reservations about it. I find I don't care much for games that can only be played solitaire; I want the possibility of playing it with others to be there (even if I rarely or never take advantage of that possibility). But social interaction is down a few notches on my priority list. So, I definitely need to concentrate on games that can be enjoyed solo.

Focus point #2: Challenge. When I've delved deepest and thought hardest about gaming, I've always concluded that a key element of game playing is mental exercise. Or maybe learning would be a better word. I'm not much interested in a mindless game--something to just while away time with. To be worth my while, a game has to intrigue me or challenge me. It has to confront me with something to figure out. Yet it has to be something I can figure out in time; it would be maddening if it were just a puzzle too difficult to ever solve. Besides challenging me, the game has to have some kind of feedback mechanism to pat me on the back and let me know when I have learned a little something more.

Focus point #3: Imagination. I've always had a trace of math phobia. I started slipping a bit in my high-school algebra class, and I never completely caught up after that; I barely got by in geometry and practically failed trigonometry, and in college I took logic classes to avoid having to take any more math. So, I'm generally put off by games that are too stark--games that reveal their mathematical underpinnings. I know that all games boil down to mathematics, but I'm much happier if the math is covered over by many layers of text and art. That way my imagination gets involved, and I feel like I'm just immersing myself in a good story. Once I'm in that state, even the underlying math starts to be meaningful and satisfying. So, I usually prefer a thematic game.

Focus point #4: Convenience. As long as I'm coming down out of the clouds here, I need to acknowledge practicality. I'm not going to actually play all the games currently stacked in my closet, under tables, and elsewhere in the house; there's simply not enough time. If I went at it, I'd soon find myself unable to keep up with higher-priority tasks. All the fun would dry up, and I'd be forcing myself to play games out of some misguided sense of duty. No--I've only got time for so many games. And some games are much more time-consuming than others. So, I have to take an honest look at what games suit my schedule and my lifestyle--which ones I'll actually play and not just intend to play.

With those four focus points in mind, here's the action plan that makes sense to me today:

Part One

Magic Realm I bought this game when it was new, but I never got far into it before giving up or getting distracted by other games. Just recently, having noticed how much praise it still gets from its fans after thirty years, I bought another copy. It's spread out on my gaming table right now. I've downloaded the version 3.1 rules, and I'm all set to delve in and belatedly learn this old gem. I expect it to take me a good, long while (and I'm probably right, given that it has been sitting for weeks already without my having done anything with it).

Years ago, I was into ASL, and I kinda miss having a complicated rulebook to flip through, searching for arcane answers to mystifying game situations. It sounds like MR might fill that order. I also like the idea of a game that doesn't attempt to simulate warfare or anything right out of real life--a game that can generate stories that engage my imagination without tying it down to earth. From what I've read, it sounds like MR is also a challenging game--an ongoing learning experience that might last a lifetime.

It also fits my first "focus point" in that it's suitable for solitaire but can be played with others--up to fifteen others! I'll likely spend most of my time puzzling through it on my own, but I can see myself teaching the game to someone else someday--or playing it with more experienced players to pick up some of what I've missed.

As to focus point #4, I suppose MR is about as convenient as any other complex board game. It'll take some time to set up, and there will probably always be rules to look up; it's not as convenient as a video game by any means. But it looks quite playable.

Part Two

Lock 'n Load About three years ago, I tiptoed back into wargaming after about ten years away from it. If possible, I wanted to recapture the magic of being immersed in make-believe historical warfare, but only if I could do it without getting bogged down in thick rulebooks or huge, time-consuming games. I'd heard that the LnL system was a bit like "ASL lite," so I gave it a try--and it clicked with me right away. I had missed SL and ASL more than I realized, and this ultra-tactical wargame was just the thing for me.

I thought it might be tactical wargames in general that I was after, so I bought and played several others. In hindsight, though, it turns out LnL is the only one I really need. I now own, or have preordered, all the LnL games. I've so far played only several scenarios, so this family of games offers a lot of gaming goodness. I don't want to let the opportunity go stale, so I plan to make time to play LnL pretty regularly.

It hits all four focus points above. My only reservation is that it's not set in my favorite period (the Victorian Age) and sometimes I get my fill of tactical wargaming and want something more strategic in scope. So, as a backup to cover this contingency, I'm hanging on to A House Divided.

So far, I've played only a couple PBEM games and a solitaire game or two, but I like AHD a lot. So much, in fact, that I've bought copies of all three editions. This game has the feel of light, strategy-level wargaming and even manages to capture its Civil War theme without a lot of fuss and bother. Though I have a copy of The Civil War, I wonder if I'll ever find time to learn or play it. AHD, in contrast, is a game I know I can set up and enjoy anytime.

These wargames fall a bit short on focus point #1. They're designed for two players, and solo play means playing both sides against each other. I have fun doing it, so it's not a problem. But I have to give these games a demerit or two on this account.

Part Three

Traditional Board Games I've had an admiration for games like chess, checkers, and backgammon all my life, and I don't expect to ever stop enjoying them. Due, I guess, to my insular lifestyle, I rarely get a chance to play them with others. But nowadays I can play them to my heart's content on electronic devices. And by play, I mean study. These are the sorts of games that I like to read books about and practice at, with a view to improving my rating.

Sometimes there's nothing quite as satisfying as spending an hour or two with Chessmaster 9000, seeing how well I can discipline myself to pay attention and try to beat an AI opponent with a rating that's usually a challenge for me. Other times--most every weekday at lunchtime, as a matter of fact--it's wonderful to play a quick backgammon match on my Android smartphone.

Recently I was starting to get into a couple more exotic games of this type: Xiangqi and Shogi. I'll probably pull back the reins on those endeavors, as they're distracting me from traditional games I already know and which still have a lot of mileage left in them. For now, I'll move shogi and xiangqi to my "retirement" list.

Traditional games score especially high on focus points #2 and #4--they're challenging and convenient. Thanks to computers, they're also suitable for solitaire. As to focus point #3, imagination--well, it takes imagination of a different sort to play these games well. They do fall short on the representational detail (theme) and are pretty abstract. But sometimes I'm in the mood for just that. I get my fill of richly detailed (and rules-heavy) games now and then and want a good, stark change of pace.

Part Four

Other Games While the above three parts of my plan will likely account for 98 percent of my gaming time, I don't want to close the door to other possibilities--or get rid of all the games currently stacked around the house. I can probably get rid of many of them (they might as well go to where they'll get used). But once in a blue moon, my wife is agreeable to playing a board game--and she wouldn't be interested in playing any of the games I've named above (except backgammon). Every few years, we have house guests too, and they might be up for a game. So, I'm definitely keeping the games we used to enjoy a lot--Merchant of Venus and Advanced Civilization--as well as some newer favorites, such as Thurn and Taxis, Catan, Lost Cities, and Bohnanza.

I don't expect to play those games much. Some of them have sat around for years without being played. But they're not hard to relearn, and most of them are not that time-consuming. I may sell or trade away some of these games I bought in hopes of playing them with family and friends (e.g., Balloon Cup, Mr. Jack, Blue Moon), but there's no reason not to hang on to a few, even though my attention will be elsewhere.

In addition, I've got some wargames that I'd like to try someday, at least once each, just to see what they're like. So, I won't be in a hurry to sell them off or trade them away, but I'm going to mentally push them back to my "retirement" list. That way I won't beat myself up every time I look at one and feel pressured to play it just because I've owned it for so long.

So, there it is--my "game plan" for the time being. I always feel good when I come up with such a plan; it feels like I've straightened up some clutter that's been bothering me, and now I can get off to a fresh start. How long the plan will last before I unconsciously start drifting away from it is another matter. But I can deal with that when it happens.

Besides the joy, there are traces of sadness too. What I've said above relegates some games I was recently very excited about to the "retirement" list. One is Stonewall in the Valley. Just a short time ago, I was eager to buy all the games in that series and really get into it; now I've put that project off for the indefinite future. Another "retirement" game is The Ironclads Series, which I was getting heavily into within the past year. Yet another is The American Revolution 1775-1783; I was excited to finally get a new copy of this because I really enjoyed it years ago--but now I don't know when I'll get around to it. The trouble with this "retirement" list is that I'll probably never actually retire (can't afford to for one thing); and by the time I can't work anymore, I may not be able to enjoy games anymore either.

On the bright side, though, at least I've got a workable action plan for now, and it has the potential to carry me through a number of years.
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