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Thinking Out Loud

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Diary of a Middle-Age Game Nerd >> What's Happening To Me??

After a closely contested game of Hannibal: Rome v. Carthage last night, versus fellow BGGeek armadi, I was up late waxing philosophic as I am wont to do after gaming. We played for 2.5 hours, and called a draw as it was getting late, and as we chatted while we were putting things away, I realized something strange.

I felt that I was getting hammered relentlessly and was on the ropes the entire game (as Carthage) with little to no chance of winning, and feeling a bit of sour grapes over what I perceived as a really bad string of luck (dice rolls and card draws) that undermined my strategies. Armadi, on the other hand, revealed that he thought I was actually controlling the tempo of the game, and thought I had a good chance of winning had we played to conclusion -- which was a big shocker to me.

Was I so blinded by perceived bad luck that I failed to realize my position? Was I so disappointed in my own poor play that I failed to credit the clever play of my opponent? Was I so frustrated by the turn of events that I failed to realize the times when the cards favored me? Have I become a poor sport?

It's tough to say, and it's been challenging over the last few months to re-evaluate my gaming tastes, the people I game with, the types of games we tend to play, and why I play. Some games that I used to idolize and adore now seem flawed and fail to deliver, while other games I had always reviled and defamed suddenly had appeal or potential.

As my gaming tastes and regular group of gaming friends shift, I think I've hit on several things that best describe the overarching trends in my development as a gamer:

1) My tolerance for luck is diminishing. While I don't mind the presence of luck, I do not like luck to be an overriding factor. When I lose, I want to lose because of poor play on my part, or strong play by my opponents, not because he drew such-and-such a card, or I failed to roll 5+ on a 1d6 during a critical moment.

In our game of Hannibal, Hannibal and Scipio squared off in a decisive battle toward the end of our evening. Armadi forced my elephants to go crazy with a card, reducing my BCs by 2. I played a card to steal a BC from him. We ended up with 10 cards to 11, I believe, and played out all the cards, seizing control back and forth, until it was Armadi's turn to start a combat round and he had no cards. He rolled to withdraw, an succeeded. I rolled to prevent the withdrawal (which would have given me the victory) and I failed. Scipio withdraws after a long battle, and we each lose 1 CU to attrition. We both played as strategically well as possible. The only possible results were complete annihilation if he failed his withdraw roll (or I made mine) or escape with niggling effects. That's a huge discrepancy.

And that's part of what irked me. Where did I go wrong? Was there a flaw in my strategy? I think we both did the right things through the course of the combat (and in fact, during much of the game -- there were only a few moves we questioned by the other).

In a highly exaggerated look at things, if I can't succeed (to some degree) when I perform as strategically well as I can, then why try a strategy at all? Either my strategy and decision making is flawed, in which case I'm at a serious disadvantage to begin with, or luck overrides strategy often enough that planning isn't rewarded as much as getting lucky cards or die rolls.
Instead of enjoying the close battle and the time spent gaming, I grew increasingly frustrated with the feeling that my decisions didn't matter as much on the outcome of the game. Is this poor sportsmanship? Or a reaction to a game system/style I don't like? Or the result of having experienced more balanced, strategy-rewarding games that help me feel like I'm truly in control of my in-game destiny? Or just a general mounting intolerance for luck?

Theme, length of game, number of players, the actual players themselves -- all these things impact how much luck I like in games. I love Blood Bowl. In a zany two player game with all the rampant chaos going on, the number of die rolls represent risk management that you do your best to steer in your favor. Lots of luck, but fits the game, timeframe and 2 player aspect perfectly. On the other hand, there's plain ol' Risk. It may have the same number of die rolls, but there's a game where I think the luck is too much for the length of the game, especially if played with 5 ultra-competitive people. So the same amount/type of luck, but with a completely different result.

For me, I want just enough luck to:
a) throw a bit of the unknown into the mix
b) help level the playing field between experienced and inexperienced players
c) create interesting situations that increase the game play experience or replay value
d) still allow for player skill to compensate, more often than not, for a bad run of luck

2) Well-implemented randomness increases my interest and replay value. While it may seem contrary to point 1 above, I do like elements of randomness and chance. I like things that change every time so each game is different. In die Macher, there are different opinions, polls, regions and things like that to make each game different, but each of these elements has value and generally doesn't tip the game in one direction or the other. In Wallenstein, the action cards, event cards and turn order keep things fresh and dynamic. Perhaps it's finding the right balance, or the fact that more of this is public information to work from.

3) I do not like being undermined during my own turn. There are some games with backstabbing that I enjoy, but I find I like it less and less. And I'm also get increasingly frustrated with games that have a "Mother May I" feel to them -- you want to enact a strategy, but someone else can interrupt you, on your turn, and take away your advantage.
That's where Magic: The Gathering really started to wear on me Blue Permission decks and Instant effects. Some combos/actions got on my nerves more than others, especially all the cards that tampered with my ability to act on my turn. When you can no longer rely on anything as a given, the amount of time and energy you need to invest to develop strategies (or implement them in game) slowly shifts from fun to chore.

I think that's especially true (for me) for strategies with several steps - I want to perform actions A, B and C in order to get result D. If the opponent disrupts A, B or C, he's effectively used one action to stop 4, and sent me back to the drawing board. When that occurs often enough, it's frustrating, wondering why I bother investing time developing a strategy when it's so easy to overcome -- like building a house of cards. If the opponent can remove a card at whim when he likes, causing the whole thing to come crashing down, do you keep trying to build the house of cards, or find something else to work on...

It's a subtle difference, I'll admit. In Wallenstein, folks operate with more open information, by virtue of the events, actions and turn order. If you end up going before me and attacking the region where I was going to farm for the turn and taking it from me, that would bother me far less. I had assumed some of the risk beforehand, had better advance knowledge of what may happen based on the card order and the impact turn order would have, etc. But if the same sort of thing were to happen where I were about to farm, then someone plays a card interrupting that, stating "I'm going to attack you first" where I can't reasonably predict, plan for or respond to, that'd be more frustrating.

4) I'm not a very good player. This has been the most difficult realization for me to accept. Compared to the people I usually play with, I'm definitely on the low rung competition-wise. I regularly make poor decisions, fail to look ahead far enough to implement long-term strategies and don't always fully comprehend the nuances or subtleties of a system's mechanics to take advantage of them.

In quite a few games, I feel that I'm more of a kingmaker than a contender. That there reaches a point in the game where I no longer believe I have a chance to win for myself, and have to decide what to do next. Do I simply try for the best possible score regardless of the positioning of the other players (letting them duke it out for themselves), or do I play the spoiler and interact in the game the best way my limited role allows -- by impacting the eventual winner in how I throw around my resources.

And finally, and this is the hardest part about the self-assessment, I don't know if I'm a good sport... I try to congratulate good play by my opponents, but often I become disgruntled or distracted by some sort of persecution complex -- bad luck, bad decisions, getting ganged up on, you name it. When I realize I'm in that mode, I try to shake it off and roll with the punches, but it's not as easy as it once was.

What happened to the happy-go-lucky guy who used to love to just get together to be with some friends? When did I become so competitive? Have I become a grumpy old man? How do I put the fun back into this hobby, so I don't distance myself from my game group or become "that guy" that folks don't want at the game table?

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