Valentine To Gaming
on Feb 7, 2017
Valentine's Day is coming up and most of us are (hopefully) reflecting on why we love those that we love. This year, the Review Corner has decided to take a similar introspective approach and we are writing up Valentines for our beloved hobby- tabletop gaming. As the Editor-in-Chief of this feature here at Miniature Market, I am especially pleased to present it to our readers because I think it not only illustrates why our writers love games and the gaming hobby, but also who these fine folks are behind all the reviews and discussions they offer here on a weekly basis. As is the custom, I'm going to go first in this, our Valentine to Gaming.
The first game I ever had- beyond Hi-Ho Cherry-o, Cootie and other childhood classics- was TSR's Dungeon! It was love at first sight in the early 1980s, and I was about six years old. It was the perfect storm for getting exposed to fantasy story-telling in games. It was make-believe, but with a structure and tangible, rules-enforced outcomes. From there, I wound up with a few Steve Jackson micro-games including the seminal Ogre, which I played by myself and never played with another player until I was like 15 years old. Later I went through the RPG thing, the miniatures thing, the Magic thing, the Euro thing, the Ameritrash thing (hell, I helped start that), and back through all of those again at some point or another.
So my love for gaming goes way back, and over 35 years of playing games my reasons for loving have only accumulated as I've grown older. At first I loved the settings and stories; eventually I grew to love the mechanical design and social interaction. Then I wound up loving games as an artistic, authored, and creative medium capable of a broad range of atmospheres, textures and expressions. After that, I found that I loved it just for fun, playing games with my kids. But I've never really cared about things like balance, competition or "elegance". There's not much heart, soul or life in those things for me. But when it comes down to it, I love games simply because I love playing make-believe.
As long as I can remember, I've always been a gamer. Growing up, I begged my parents to play Monopoly and tried to get my friends into chess. In Junior High and High School, I took a long meandering road through RPGs including D&D and just about every White Wolf property. As life got busier, though, it became harder to prepare for a role-playing session. On those weeks, we found this great game: Settlers of Catan. No prep time - you could simply play it out of the box. It started in a regular rotation.
And from there, we slipped down the board game rabbit hole. We grew into Cities and Knights and from there to Citadels and Bang!. Eventually, we shifted increasingly from RPGs to board games. The challenge and thrill of competition was still there - and there was always high interaction. From there, we found that we enjoyed all genres. Titles that tell a story like Pandemic: Legacy, cooperative endeavors like Sentinels of the Multiverse, hidden traitors in Dead of Winter and deep strategy in Dungeon Lords.
Board games provide the best in challenging, interesting, and engaging play. And let you do it all in the same room with your friends beside you.
What do I love about games? The lessons they teach and the stories they tell.
Beyond winning and losing, playing board games teaches us how to do both with class. Jump into an online FPS and you'll have no shortage of twelve year-olds telling you which parts of your anatomy should be inserted into which other parts, but sit those same tweens next to you at the table and marvel as their manners develop. When opponents plant trains in your way in Ticket to Ride, blocking your easy jaunt between neighboring cities, you learn how to overcome setbacks. Being ganged up on in Scythe? Better start making deals. As with any form of competition, you win or you learn.
The best games are remembered not for the final outcome, but the stories you tell afterward. Creating your own saga in Star Wars: Rebellion, sowing a path of destruction in Chaos in the Old World or turning a collection of misfits into a cohesive underwater team in Captain S.O.N.A.R. will generate enduring memories that last far beyond wins and losses. That's what I love about games.
Gaming found me as a child. It's been with me as long as I can remember and will likely be wedged into my soul when I die. Beyond the mainstream titles of the proletarian, I took my dive with Axis and Allies before I even reached middle school. Long five hour games full of drama and fatigue led to strung-out jaunts of caffeine and sugar. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons came next, THAC0 branding my mind and fantastic worlds full of wonder filling my eyes.
Gaming never stopped. After years of roleplaying I eventually capitulated to board games. They fit what I wanted out of the hobby, in respect to commitment and variety, while still retaining that strand of youth. I'm attracted to dramatic action as we see in titles like Blood Rage and Cosmic Encounter. That experience I crave is loud and emotional. For me, this hobby stands as a connection to years gone by and captures a feel of play and joy that's devoid in the everyday routine. It's not exactly an escape; rather, it's a commitment to youth in spirit. It pushes cynicism and apathy to the wayside and is a dedication to simply having fun. Creativity, socializing, and delight are what it's all about.
The weekend we were assigned this feature did not go as planned for me and my family. A girl once in our care needed a place to stay. Foster children that leave our home have mixed stories when returning to theirs. Sadly her home has not been a happy one. So our ordinary routine was upended by a late night trip into town, packing and unpacking and serving arbiter between a young woman and her parents. Well, my wife actually plays the counselor role. Not professionally, but she has a knack for it, though things still may not work out the way we think they should.
And in the midst of all that we played a game. That's my role. It was just like when she lived with us, again. Originally, I got into gaming to spend time with my kids. It’s not the only activity in which we bond, but it’s an inclusive one. We can relax, talk and laugh together. They can put down their electronic devices and exert their minds. Over the years, as a foster father, that has evolved to mean even more. Gaming is a temporary haven. It’s not to sweep any troubles under the rug, because they’re still there when you put the box back on the shelf. But it’s a coping force of normalization for kids that come into our care. Obviously they need more than just what a game provides, but what it does offer cannot be overstated. You see, I love games because they are a simple, fun and practical way to nurture a safe and healthy relationship with all the kids I love, showing them that they are accepted, safe and worthy of attention.
Games are fun, but to me, they're also fascinating, a testament to human ingenuity. I grew up on video games in an era when developers couldn't pull off photorealistic visuals and enormous setpieces. They had to do a lot with a little, and that craftiness is the same thing I love about board games (it's also why I'm a big fan of practical special effects). My induction into modern board games began with Battlestar Galactica, and I'm still blown away by how abstractly but viscerally the game recreates the show's paranoia and politicking.
I'll always love games like Android with byzantine interlocking mechanisms that somehow work together to immerse you in a clockwork world, but I'm more and more drawn to card games like Legendary Encounters and Arkham Horror LCG, that squeeze big narrative moments and mechanical variety out of a relatively simple core ruleset. When these games are expandable, allowing you to embark on new adventures without digesting an entire new rulebook, so much the better. In the end, my favorite games are the ones that try something new, whether that's Robinson Crusoe's delayed consequences or Five Tribes' ever-shifting landscape of action selection.
Relative to most of my colleagues in The Review Corner I'm a recent convert to the world of cardboard gaming. My childhood was one of Mario and Link, not Axis & Allies. Board Games hovered at the periphery of knowledge; I assumed Risk was as deep as that hobby went. That all began to change as video games slowly did away with local multiplayer in favor of online play. My favorite video gaming memories are of 4 people gathered around a single console, ducking over and around cables as controllers are passed around from winners to losers. I now play board games for the same reason I used to play video games: the people. Board games provide real life, face-to-face interactions that video games have left behind.
Whether it's the cooperative play of Escape or the fierce negotiations and backstabbing of Cosmic Encounter, board games sit you down in front of friends and family and connect you in real and visceral ways. My wife and I have cheered and high-fived each other during Pandemic: Legacy. My friends and I have stood and yelled at each other across the vast expanse of Twilight Imperium. Board games bring us together as friends and enemies. Yes it's fun to explore mechanics or gaming systems, but I much prefer exploring each other.
Like many in the gaming hobby, I grew up playing the all the standard, classic games. I'd always search the game shelves in the toy aisles to see if anything new or exciting caught my eye. Inevitably, I'd be disappointed. In grad school, some friends introduced me to modern board gaming via Catan, Munchkin, and Arkham Horror. Tacos and games became standard weekend get-togethers for us and I quickly started a collection. Around the same time, I found boardgamegeek.com, which lead to a whole other world!
In fact, that's one of the things I like best about board games: each game opens you up to a world. Every box is a surprise as to what will be inside, how you'll move the pieces around, and what kind of story you're about to engage in. I've never felt like I wasted time playing a game, even if it's not one that I end up liking. There are few other hobbies that provide the ability to interact with others, provide you with an intellectual challenge, and come with adorable wooden meeples. The innovation in game design over the years is awe-inspiring and I look forward to even more to come.
The part of gaming that I love the most is its collaborative qualities. It's easiest to see these in cooperative titles, such as the ever-popular Pandemic or the more experiential Robinson Crusoe, where the players actually have to work together toward a stated goal put forth within the context of the game. But when you dig a little deeper, we see that all table games have a collaborative element. We all agree to sit around the table and work together to create an enjoyable experience. It might be the convenient alliances of Cosmic Encounter, the party fun of Codenames, or the strategic optimization of Agricola. But in all of those situations, we still agree to bear with each other for a little while to create something enjoyable for everyone. There is a huge amount of trust being put into each other, and it is actually a very vulnerable position to be in. There is certainly a big potential for disappointment and poor experience, but the upside is so much greater. It can be an unforgettable experience that forges friendships and creates stories that last for years, and it is what makes games worth all the trouble in the first place.
What I enjoy about board games is that their mechanisms are laid bare for players to interact with. Not only do you get to experience the joy of the end result the designer was going for, but you also get to see how he or she accomplished that goal.
For example, one of the funnest moments for me in gaming is always teaching a new player—especially a non-gamer—Pandemic. I go through the typical board game teaching steps: here's what we're trying to accomplish, here are the things you can do on your turn, here's how we win and lose the game. Then, I make it a point to emphasize, somewhat dramatically, that the Infection cards are shuffled back on top of the deck.
There's usually a light-bulb moment right there for players, the joy of which can't be simulated in any other hobby: "Oh," they'll say. "So that means that cities that have been infected recently are much more likely to get hit again?" Yes, that's exactly what it means.