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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No Gamer Is an Island

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"Really don't mind if you sit this one out. My word's but a whisper, your deafness a shout."
"If I were to hang my head, I'd miss all the rainbows. And I'd drown in raindrops instead."
Motivated partly by a love of solitude and partly by fear (of ridicule, rejection, or who knows what else), I've spent a lot of time in my life by myself. And that includes my gaming life. Even this blog title and my BGG badge reflect my "solo" approach to gaming.

But I'm not really as solitary as I might seem to be.

A couple current BGG discussion threads have made me look back, with new eyes, on my solo wargaming past. Yes, I used to play wargames by myself; I did a lot of it, over the course of many years. But was it really playing solo? Or was it just learning the rules and preparing for the face-to-face game I might play someday?

It was definitely the latter. As a matter of fact, I never welcomed any designed-for-solitaire games or systems. I was attracted to them, and I thought they should be perfect for me, but I only ever played a couple games each of Mosby's Raiders, Ambush!, B-17: Queen of the Skies, Nemo's War, Hornet Leader: Carrier Air Operations, Field Commander: Rommel, and Empires in America. As soon as I learned how to play each of those games, I felt done with it. I put it on a shelf and never took it down again, or I ended up selling the game. I doubt if I'll ever play any of them again.

I've had a similar experience with some two-player wargames--the simpler ones. For example, I bought and learned A House Divided, and I decided it's a great game. But since then I've never been able to make myself play it. I've set it up at times, but then I'd put it away without following through.

In contrast, consider what I did with Squad Leader and Advanced Squad Leader: I devoted about fifteen years to learning the rules and playing through the scenarios--always solo. I consider it one of the best periods of my wargaming life. I got frustrated to tears trying to figure out Crescendo of Doom, but then I was happy to start all over when ASL came out. It was such a big, complicated game that it took all those years just to learn how to play--to try to memorize the rules and to put the rules to work in the scenarios and get hands-on experience with them. I think I did pretty well too: I got to where play was fluid, and I even created a house rule or two.

But around 1994 or 1995, I reached a point where I felt I had learned ASL. And at that moment, I lost all desire to play it. I couldn't see sitting by myself and playing the scenarios, and I didn't want to connect with other players either. Having learned the game, I saw it for what it was, and I immediately thought, This is not for me. I never played it again. I ended up selling all my SL and ASL stuff.

What I finally came to realize is that I love learning complex games by myself, but I don't like playing them by myself. Once I've learned a game, I'm done.

It's a little different when it comes to deep traditional games with relatively simple rules--games like chess and go. There's usually a body of literature associated with those games, and I love studying the books and doing the exercises on my own. There's no end to that, at least in the case of popular games like chess, checkers, and go. With this kind of game, learning the rules is a breeze, but it still takes a good while to get to be a decent player. So I aim to do that, mostly on my own, and it ends up being a satisfying hobby in itself.

But no matter what kind of game I'm playing--er, learning--on my own, I always have it lightly in mind that someday I'll play it with others. I don't set a deadline, and I rarely do anything to make it happen, but nevertheless the idea is always there. And for me it's a powerful but subtle motivator. If there's any pressure, from inside or outside myself, I get irritated and procrastinate; I don't like dealing with the logistics of playing with others. But if I believed I'd never, ever play the game with anyone else, I'd be totally dispirited. To remain motivated and enthused, I need to envision someday, somehow getting together with someone and playing face-to-face or at least online.

However, I've been procrastinating for so many years now that I've started to worry. Will I ever get around to breaking the ice and playing games with other people again? So, I've just gone ahead and taken some baby steps in that direction.

First off, I joined a couple online gaming sites and got into games of backgammon, cribbage, dominoes, checkers, and chess. Most are with strangers, but several are with a friend in another state.

Secondly, I've been finally learning Magic Realm, and I accepted three kind offers from fellow BGGeeks to play the game using RealmSpeak. So far, one of those games actually took place (my first non-solo game of MR ever!), and another one is starting up.

Truly, it's a whole different experience when two or more players get together. By myself I was getting some of the basics down, but the guidance I've gotten from two experienced players has already paid big dividends. I'm much better oriented to the game than I was before; I know more about what to go for and what to watch out for. (In fact, just last night, I finished my first game with a positive score.)

It's also nice just to chat with someone while playing. It's a reminder that we're all basically alike in most ways, that we all make mistakes, and that it's OK to just bumble along through the learning process and have fun.

Magic Realm may be an especially good game for me, for several reasons: (1) it's suitable for solitaire but scalable for up to sixteen players, (2) it's so complex and deep that it will afford learning opportunities to last the rest of my life, (3) its fantasy/storytelling theme appeals to my wife and many friends, while the strategic/tactical aspect also satisfies me and other "thinking" gamers. In short, there's plenty to enjoy in solitude, but also plenty to enjoy with others--even lots of others.

And for me, that's how good gaming has always been. I do love immersing myself in a game when I'm alone and have time to spend on it--either to learn the rules or learn more about strategy or whatever. But in the back of my mind there's always the vague intention of playing it interactively, the way it was designed.

I've experimented with designed-for-solitaire games, and I've also tried playing, by myself, wargames I've already learned, but that has never panned out for me. I'd soon find myself feeling high and dry, devoid of enthusiasm. If I couldn't play the game with somebody (or at least against a computer AI), I didn't want to play at all; I'd rather just start learning some other game.

So, despite this solitary BGG persona, it would seem I'm not a true solo gamer at all. I may spend a lot of time alone, and enjoy that time, but I become unhappy when stranded on a desert island.
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