A Developmental Story

I think it’s valuable if reviews, and other commentary, admit their subjectivity. If a reviewer starts to think that it is worthless to include in a review caveats such as ‘I feel,’ ‘to me,’ and ‘in my opinion,’ or that such phrases ruin his or her prose,  I would say that things are not quite right.

While I’ve made an effort to include this kind of phrase in my reviews, until now I’ve resisted setting down anything very definite regarding my general perspective on what elements make a board or card game more appealing to me. One reason is that there’s more than one way to have  a good time. I am attracted to simplicity in games; I want games to be a way to get closer to more people, to be accessible and enjoyable with more of my friends. But, for sure, there are experiences a half hour game could not realistically be expected to provide.

And much though there’s something attractive in the vim of  a punk guitarist who insists that no song should have more than three chords, I’d be spiting myself terribly if I resisted listening to anything more complicated than ‘Blitzkrieg Bop.’ To admit that one’s tastes can be broader than one’s values is not to admit contradiction, it is to embrace all of that which speaks to you, even while recognizing some originates from a position other than your own.

Therefore, instead of a manifesto, let me give you a brief developmental story. It’ll say something about my attitudes, but will allow me to avoid meaningless generalizations or unrealistic maxims.

I came into modern board gaming from an unusual direction.

I don’t remember quite how it happened, it wasn’t a monumental event in my life. But one day in 2007 I registered on BrettSpielWelt (a German portal for playing online versions of board and card games). I played a moderate amount, focusedly, using only three games on the system (many, many more are available) to fill lean moments. It was not until the start of 2010, when I received Carcassonne as a New Year gift, that I began playing games face-to-face.

Nevertheless, those two and a half years of ocassional online play have undoubtedly had a lasting effect on my view of games.

I began on BrettSpielWelt with 6 Nimmt! – a card game best played with large groups (up to eight is possible on BrettSpielWelt, up to ten face-to0-face), in which players simultaneously a select cards; without going into the rules, it is partly a game of luck, partly of second-guessing opponents’ thought processes. I played a considerable number of games and came to delight in the nuance an apparently very simple game can contain. The records BrettSpeilWelt keeps helped in the realization of this, and can help in the illustration.

6 nimmt!

6 nimmt! (photographed by Virre Linwendil Annergård)

Typically on BrettSpeilWelt, a game of 6 Nimmt! will be played by eight players. In the time I used the system (it’s been some time since I did last), I played a total of 333 games, and won 80 of them – 24.02%. Some (though only relatively few) were against less than eight players. If the game were completely luck dependent, I could expect a winning percentage about half of what I enjoyed.

Not to boast, just to show that giving time to a more simple game can be valuable. There were strategic revelations after my first game, but there were also some after the three-hundredth – and those later ones were more exciting, for being harder earnt.

Through BrettSpielWelt I also played Piranha Pedro and TransAmerica. The former is another game of simultaneous card selection (players are guiding a figure through shallow waters, with a finite number of stepping stones to lay out – they must guess/work out how the players before them will move the figure, so as to avoid spending their own stones). TransAmerica  meanwhile, sees its players (up to six) building a single network of railway tracks across the United States. Each player has five cities in different parts of the country which he or she hopes to connect to the network. The first to connect all five wins a round. Again, in each, a fair amount of luck is involved, but also a not inconsiderable amount of psychology. In each, there are ways (though clearly not infallible) of nudging the other players to do as you wish.

Transamerica on BrettSpielWelt

Transamerica looking less than beautiful on BrettSpielWelt (screenshot by Duncan)

To give one example, in Piranha Pedro the amount of time you spend deliberating over your choice of card can steer your opponent. If you play quickly, other players are more likely to assume you’ve made an obvious choice (which need not really be the case).

I gravitated to these simple games largely because of the awkwardness of learning a game through BrettSpeilWelt. One must both learn the game, and its sometimes counter-intuitive implementation. And these quick games were enough for the amount of free time I was ready to spend playing games at my computer. All the same, while I expected the other games onBrettSpielWelt would have more complicated rules, I imagined similar refinement – a similar capacity for mastery with repeated play. And, something of the same psychological quality – since these were intended as tools to interact with other people, after all.

The rest of this need not be spelt out in detail. When I began playing games face-to-face, and became more aware of what games are the most celebrated among the players I’ve met, the pleasure of learning the games they loved was often tempered by disappointment. The richness of strategic potential in the best games I have played probably exceeded my hopes – Agricola, for example, really rewards repeated play.

But, in general, those psychological qualities I had enjoyed in the board and card games I played on BrettSpeilWelt have not been in as greater evidence as I had hoped. It’s not, I now understand, that games with similar subtle richness to Transamerica and Piranha Pedro are in especially limited supply, but, for whatever reason, they are not celebrated as the classics I feel they should be.

This blog does not exist purely to address that, but this is part of why I feel compelled to write on board games: the dominant strain which emerges from the polyphony of board game commentary seldom represents me well.

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2 thoughts on “A Developmental Story

  1. Transamerica and (especially) 6 Nimmt are favourites at London on Board. 6 Nimmt is the ubiquitous end-of-the-night game. I’ve played 70-odd times now, with player counts from 3 to 10, and I totally agree that there are surprising subtleties to it. It’s one of the 8 games I rate a perfect 10 on boardgamegeek.

  2. Pingback: Revisions, January 2013: Sid Meier’s Civilization; Hey, That’s My Fish!; Food Chain; Oregon | Painted Wooden Cubes

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