Games are like songs: you never get tired of playing the best ones over and over, and you can enjoy them all by yourself.
"Fun I love, but too much fun is of all things the most loathsome. Mirth is better than fun, and happiness is better than mirth." (William Blake)
I've been learning to play Magic Realm. I finished reading the basic rules over the weekend, and I also played a dozen or so solo games using RealmSpeak. Now I'm pretty well intrigued, and I may end up being downright enthused.
This morning I'm asking myself why MR feels so different from strategy computer games and other games I play.
After studying MR all weekend, I decided to take a break and treat myself to Master of Orion--an old favorite that I'm very familiar with. I didn't get very far into it, though, before I caught myself missing the hands-on experience of playing MR. There's strategy and tactics in MoO, but the computer handles so much that I feel less involved. More often than not, I just click the Auto button to resolve tactical combat. And even if I do take charge and give each and every order, the details (algorithms) of combat resolution are mostly "under the hood," so I have to rely on my experience with the game to gauge approximate outcomes.
I've also been playing some chess, backgammon, and cribbage online. Those games give me that "hands-on" sensation. I know all the rules and mechanisms, so I'm free to ponder any game situation and come to an understanding of it. In a game like chess, I might not have the time or patience to study until I've found the very best move, but if I choose a so-so move and suffer the consequences, I can at least see how and why it worked out that way. Hence I'm always learning (even if not steadily or efficiently).
Magic Realm has some of that chesslike feel to it. The rules defy memorization, but they're all in the book for reference. So, as things happen in the game, I can learn how and why they happen. At the same time, I gain better control and can make favorable things happen more often. That's very satisfying. I like it better than just clicking away at something I only half understand, hoping for a good outcome.
But I'm also reflecting on my few games of Mage Knight. I had high hopes for that game, but after playing it (solo) two or three times, I put it back on the shelf. I figured I might pull it back down someday, but I wasn't in a hurry. What does Magic Realm have that Mage Knight doesn't?
Well, I've been away from MK too long now to make a complete comparison. I'm also too new to MR. But what I said to myself after playing MK was, "This is just a big, complicated puzzle." If I'd been playing it with others, it would've been an interactive puzzle. And maybe in some sense all games can be called puzzles. But something made me especially aware of the puzzle aspect of MK. I'd get so wrapped up in finding the right combination of cards that I couldn't think of anything else. At that point, the game's theme ceased to matter. And to me that was too bad, because it's a colorful game with a theme that ought to matter.
MR is just as abstract, maybe even more so. But the design is completely different. The mechanisms in MR are all tied right in with what they're supposed to portray. That's just like wargames; they're designed as conflict simulations, so whatever players cause to happen in the game can be mapped pretty directly to what could or would have happened on the battlefield. That kind of design makes a game realistic. And indeed, when I hide or move or swing a sword or cast a spell in MR, in a way I feel like I'm really doing just that. I don't feel the physical sensations, of course, but it's perfectly clear what real-life or fantasy-life action I'm taking. In the game, it's abstract, but physics are taken into account; and when working out the physics, one can't help but picture the real-life or fictional counterpart to the game action.
I didn't get that from MK (but maybe just because I didn't play it enough). The artwork is suggestive, and imaginative players could possibly put some kind of story together, but the game actions didn't seem to map closely to real-world (or fictional-world) actions. Hence, I didn't get pulled into the game world; I didn't feel like I was vicariously experiencing what the game represented.
In contrast, I can't help but get pulled into the Magic Realm world. Yet in a way, it's weird that I do get pulled in. Years ago, when I tried teaching MR to my wife, she balked when we got to the combat system. Unlike me, she had an RPG background; she was used to the dungeon master filling in detail about what all is happening--the sights, the sounds, and all that storytelling business. So when I explained MR combat, it must've looked to her like a slight elaboration on rock-scissors-paper. It is quite abstract, after all.
But at the same time, combat is actually simulated in MR. In the first round, longer weapons strike first; after the fighters have closed in, faster weapons strike first. Blunt weapons deal damage indiscriminately, while sharp weapons have to pierce armor and thick hide; and missile weapons are unpredictable--they might miss, wound, or hit a vital spot. If you have a fast weapon, you can cover your move so that you'll intercept and kill an enemy before it reaches you. And that's only the beginning. Then there are allies and concerted attacks, spell effects, opportunities to alert weapons. Oh, and before combat, an opportunity to run away if your speed permits. During combat, you're likely to be fatigued and/or wounded; you want to avoid the latter, but sometimes it's worth the price of fatigue to make a certain kind of move or attack.
In other words, you're there. You're on the spot, fully engaged in thinking through all the things your character does. There's no dungeon master to make up a story and tell you what's happening, but there's also no need for that, because basically whatever is happening clearly is happening. It's explicit in the game. Oh, if you have an active imagination, you can mentally fill in the sights and sounds and smells and other sensations that a board game can't convey. But whether you use your imagination that way or not, you're involved in the physics of every action.
MR is an odd duck among fantasy-based games. Though players assume the roles of characters, it's not much like a role-playing game; there's no storytelling or improvisational acting (though players are free to do that on the side, I suppose). Basically MR is a strategy board game where you have to think your moves through and plan your way to fulfilling the victory conditions. Yet it's not a strategy board game like Settlers of Catan, where the theme is more or less just a mnemonic device--something to help players remember the rules. In MR, the theme is built by game mechanisms designed with physics in mind; the game works the way it does because the real world (or a fantasy version thereof) works that way.
I always liked wargames because of that--because they map so closely to the real world and thus afford me, as a player, with a solid sense of hands-on (albeit vicarious) experience. By itself, though, that wouldn't be enough. I also like wargames--and MR--because they're challenging strategy (or tactical) board games with clear rules and procedures and victory conditions (unlike many RPGs, which are all about the vicarious experience but not necessarily challenging the way chess is challenging).
There's a special kind of joy in playing a game that's relatively deep and challenging (like chess), variable (like backgammon and many other games with randomness), and engaging (to where you're imaginatively pulled into the theme or game world). Any one of those things can be fun, but all three together is a magical combination.