I’m Not a Planner

The more games I play, the fuller a picture I develop of which board games concentrate on the aspects of play I like best. I lack the vocabulary of game theory, so this is more than a bit of fumbling around on my part. But I’ll do my best to lay out what does and doesn’t appeal to me about board games.

For example, Puerto Rico, Caylus and Agricola taught me I’m not a planner. In games like these, you really need to know not only what you need to get your engine of resources and currency moving, but what you’re going to do when someone takes the action card you counted on having for yourself. Those kinds of game mechanics don’t really do anything for me. I spend enough of my life planning and managing resources that doing so for relaxation doesn’t really appeal.

The irony of this is I’m resolutely a huge fan of Arkham Horror, which, in its way, is all about managing resources: Stamina, Sanity, clue tokens, money, doom track, rift tokens, terror level, open gates versus closed gates and the Dunwich Horror and Deep Ones Rising tracks. Fortunately, it’s also dripping with theme and story-oriented elements. It’s practically a GM-less roleplaying game. So games that build narrative, like Arkham Horror, tickle that pleasure center for me. Most of my enjoyment of Illuminati comes from the story element of conspiracies jockeying for control and influence over fringe interest groups. Additionally, that culmination of a storyline makes me feel like I’ve achieved something, which games about accruing victory points never do for me — even Agricola‘s family building and feeding leaves me cold.

Tactical games like Risk and Diplomacy tend to frustrate me for similar reasons. Tactics are really procedures built to achieve a goal. It’s also often about chaining effects together, like finding units whose special abilities work in synergy. This ties back to that need to plan ahead and construct resource generation schemes.

So what I have learned from all these games? I like to:

  • Think fast and not worrying about planning turns ahead.
  • Feel engaged with a developing storyline and narrative elements.
  • Have a sense of accomplishment at the end.

So Goes the Game Group

The Geek Social Fallacies, formulated by Michael Suileabhain-Wilson, outline “ideas about human interaction which spur their holders to do terrible and stupid things to themselves and to each other.” Geek Social Fallacy No. 5, for instance, says “Friends Do Everything Together.” This becomes problematic in a variety of circumstances, but today, I’m thinking specifically about how it applies to the context of playing games.

Primarily, I’m thinking about the notion that a game group requires constant unanimity, that everyone must like and participate in every game. In the context of board games, this can particularly problematic as the styles of play, and individual’s tastes for those styles of play, span a very wide spectrum. Some people go for regimented games of building economic engines, other people go for wacky, random “take that”-a-thons and still more fall at different points between the extremes. Variety of preference is good, but it can make finding mutually acceptable common ground in a group difficult. In my experience, insisting on picking a game everyone likes to play often leads to a very limited selection of choices. There are, generally speaking, two main ways of dealing with this.

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Who Gets to Make My Decisions?

In the midst of a discussion on RPG.net about how one would run Chaosium Publishing, if handed the keys to the kingdom and a large pile of cash, one poster made the following remark:

After you’ve done “Your uncle dies, leaving you with the most unusual…” and “A former colleague sends you a telegram with cryptic news…” you start repeating yourself when it comes with ties to connect characters to scenarios. Once the squamous start showing up and the tentacles are poking around the corner, there’s very little other than roleplaying and the “gaming contract” to keep Investigators involved – the sensible and tactical decision would usually be to get out of Dunwich as quickly as possible. There’s very little mechanical reason for the Investigators to behave as pragmatically as possible.

My kneejerk reaction was “Well, yeah, roleplaying is the point.” It is, as part of the typically unspoken gaming contract, up to the player and GM both to give characters strong reasons not to make the safe, obvious choices, like hopping the last train out of Dunwich.

Then I ran across this post on The Spirits of Eden, where Wyatt talks about how Wizards of the Coast presents the new edition of Dungeons & Dragons as allowing more roleplaying because out of combat abilities aren’t defined by skills like Profession and Craft.

And I realized, good grief, this is the same discussion that has recurred time and time again for years: is it the game’s job to tell the player what happens, or the player’s job to use the game to see what happens? In other words, are there mechanics for determining a character’s choices, like morality in the World of Darkness games, or is it all up to the player’s inventiveness?

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