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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Motivation: What Makes You Want to Play?

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Most board gamers motivate each other. Getting together for a game sounds fun in the first place, and then it usually turns out to actually be fun. Members of a group might tire of one game and want to play another, and there might be the stray AP-prone player slowing things down a bit, but those things work themselves out over time.

What about the solo gamer, though? What makes someone like me sit down to a board game instead of following the path of least resistance and playing a video game instead?

Sometimes, frankly, nothing makes me do that. I do end up playing a computer game instead. Last night after supper, I glanced at the Magic Realm game on my table--the one I've been halfway through for weeks. Then I picked up my netbook computer and loaded up Civilization V to while away the evening.

That happens pretty often. It's just easier to sit back in my recliner than to sit upright at a gaming table, especially after a long day's work. It's also easier and more pleasant to let the computer remember all the game rules and handle the number crunching and other drudgery. As a bonus, the computer provides AI opponents, which sort of makes me feel like I've got company when I'm really by myself.

However, partway through a game of Civilization (or any other game like that), I always get restless and begin to feel like I'm just wasting time. I only ever play computer games in single-player mode, so I know I'm not practicing for a future multiplayer game. I'm only engaged in a sort of structured daydream. I'm getting a bit of mental exercise, and I'm enjoying the narrative as it develops, but that's about it. And after an hour or two of it, it feels like time to put it away and go do something else. On the whole, it's about like watching a movie or reading a light novel, I suppose.

But movies and light novels are not usually my thing. I'm more inclined to watch documentaries or read classic literature. I prefer to use my free time for what I consider serious pursuits. So, in the long run, I end up being happier with games that seem serious or worthwhile to me.

That Magic Realm game on my table seems serious because it has become a cult classic. It's a now-rare Richard Hamblen design, and its fans swear it's the top game of its kind, head and shoulders above other adventure/RPG board games on the market. Its rules are daunting, and that lends a good dose of seriousness to it as well. Just learning the game requires dedicated study. Beyond that, from what I hear, there's a lifetime of challenge in learning how to use the sixteen characters optimally in various situations. And then, for those few who get that far, there are fan-created expansions and options.

So, any time I spend on Magic Realm feels to me like time well spent. I'm working at something--doing something substantial with a big potential payoff.

Today at lunchtime, I played a couple games of checkers on my smartphone. To me, that's another kind of serious gaming. (In case you're one of those who mistakenly believes checkers is just a kids' game, I sometimes play chess or go instead. All three games fall into the same general category to me--simple-but-deep traditional abstracts.) It's serious because there's the potential for a lot of deep thinking and study. This is the kind of game you can study and practice all your life without coming close to mastery. Hence, anytime I play a game of checkers, I feel I'm in the early stages of a lifelong study and doing something well worth studying.

In addition, checkers (like chess and go and other such games) has a long, rich tradition. And I can't help but be conscious of that whenever I play. Within my own life, checkers is the game my dad taught me when I was a kid. But beyond that, it's also the game mastered by the great Marion Tinsley and played in tournaments for many generations. It dates back at least to the Middle Ages. To me, that's a whole lot more impressive than some hot new Essen release that somebody designed last year (probably just putting a new twist on some old game mechanic).

Wargames always seem serious to me for another set of reasons. First off, war itself is deadly serious: countless lives are at stake, and the fate of nations might hang in the balance. Also, military history is history--and whatever goes down in history automatically seems important. If it weren't important, it'd be forgotten instead of being recorded. So, anytime I'm playing a game based on a historical battle or campaign, I'm involved (at least in some small, fun way) in a study of military history. I'm gaining insights into how and why things happened the way they did, as well as some understanding of how they might have gone differently.

For most of my wargaming life, that was my main motivation. Today, it's more in the back of my mind. I find myself preferring lighter wargames today, including some that pretty clearly distort history. It's hard to explain why a "serious" guy like me would prefer wargames like those.

Basically, I reached a point where I lost faith in the potential of even the best wargames to clearly and accurately model their historical subjects. Some designers try hard, researching a subject and meticulously creating a game that simulates it, but as far as I can see, the games always fall short of what I'd consider desirable or reliable. There are at least two reasons that happens: (1) no one can know for sure what could have happened historically (which is what wargames are all about); it's hard enough just to learn what actually did happen; and (2) games are games and must be playable; battles and campaigns may have certain qualities in common with games, but they're not games--and to try making a game out of a battle automatically twists the truth of the battle into something else.

Still, that "something else" can be fun and fascinating. I've loved wargames all my life, and I don't expect that to change. My attitude has changed, though: nowadays I emphasize the "games" part of "wargames." I don't look for a useful, enlightening model of history; I only look for a fun and interesting game with history-based verisimilitude. For example, Bulge '65 is a fine game with enough historical detail to convince anybody that it's about the historical campaign; it follows the general outline of the campaign and is tied closely to it in many ways. I'm quite happy with that old favorite, and I don't need Bitter Woods--even though, sight unseen, I'm sure it's more historically accurate in numerous respects.

Similarly, I'm delighted with A House Divided and not much interested in trying The Civil War. Based on all I've heard, I'm sure the latter is a fine game. But like all wargames, it's certain to have its shortcomings--and in a "hardcore" wargame like that, I'd find those shortcomings hard to overlook. In a lighter wargame like AHD, it's easy for me to overlook such matters; it's designed with game play in the forefront and history as a backdrop, so any weaknesses or distortions of history fade into the blurry, out-of-focus part of the "depth of field."

I suppose my preference for lighter wargames is inconsistent with what I said above about being a "serious" gamer. But my brand of seriousness only goes so far, and it only goes in certain directions.

For instance, although I love classic games like chess, go, and checkers because they're serious--in the sense of being time-honored and worth studying--I have no intention of ever playing such games in tournaments. Other fans of these games consider tournament play to be the primary indication that one is a dedicated player. But I'm not interested in that particular kind of dedication. I want to play the games and understand them better and better, but I don't want to hone my skill to a fine edge and test myself in competition with other good players.

With Magic Realm, I want to seriously delve in and learn the rules, then play enough solitaire games to gain a good understanding of how the system works and what all its possibilities are. But I'll probably never play the game with anyone else.

And with wargames, I want to be imaginatively involved in the serious business of war, and also to get some good mental exercise from playing, but I don't want or expect to get a lot of hard, reliable historical lessons from playing.

So, I guess I'm selectively serious. But the sense of seriousness is, nevertheless, a big part of what motivates me.

In that, I'm a peculiar fellow, no doubt. Most other gamers, from what I gather, are motivated by the opposite of seriousness. Show them a serious game like chess, and they'll run screaming from the room. Offer them a session of Loopin' Louie, and they might be all over it.

Well, sometimes I'd be all over it too--but only for a short time. If it went on for a long time or happened too often, I'd end up considering it a waste of time. But it might be good for a few minutes every now and then.

However, anything that's only good for a few minutes now and then is not, in my view, worth thinking or writing about. Nor is it worth looking forward to or making a hobby of. Such things don't feel rewarding; they only feel like momentary pleasures.

Another thing that motivates me, as a solitaire gamer, is the potential to play a game with others. A game that can only be played solitaire always leaves me a little cold. It's great that I can play it by myself, but it's too bad I'll never be able to teach it to my wife or play it with someone else.

I may end up playing solitaire about 95 percent of the time. But when I do, it still feels more worthwhile if the practice I'm getting will be useful in the face-to-face game I'll play someday. So, I always appreciate it when I come across a good game that works for 1 to n players. Merchant of Venus is such a game (though I haven't played the solitaire version for ages). Race for the Galaxy: The Gathering Storm is another.

Lately I'm thinking of getting back to RftG again. I originally bought the base game to play with my wife, since we used to play card games together quite a bit (including some of the Kosmos games). But when I saw what it was, I decided it might be best to play solo awhile before teaching it to her. Then, after a couple solitaire games against the robot, I shrugged and wondered what the appeal of the game was. But something keeps drawing me back to it. Maybe there's a mystery in it that I need to solve. Also, last time my wife saw me playing solo, she expressed some interest in it; so maybe it'd be a good game for us after all. In any case, the possibility of playing it with her is a strong motivation for me to play it myself--even to play the solo version.

Magic Realm is proving harder for me to get motivated about. I delved in and got halfway through a game, and then I took a break and have never gotten back to it. Part of the reason, I think, is that I don't see myself ever playing it with anyone else. I could, of course; I could play it with fifteen other people at once! But it's such a complicated game that I'm unlikely to just teach it to my wife or a friend someday. I'd have to link up with people who already know the game--and that means going out of my way just to play the game. That need to go out of my way is the sticking point. It might happen, but it probably won't. And if the probability is that low, it's really just a solitaire game to me--which ought to be OK, but somehow it's slightly discouraging.

An ideal solitaire game for me (one that would really motivate me to play) would:

1. feel like a serious and worthwhile game, not just frivolous entertainment;

2. be playable solo or with at least one other player, with the solitaire version being good practice for the more-player version;

3. be easy to teach and learn;

4. be conveniently small (card-table-size footprint) and short (an hour or two at most; a half hour is better).

Most important, it would have to have that certain je ne sais quois that makes a game great and makes people love to play it.
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