Friday, July 10, 2009

Games of strategy--seeing the possibilities

Some people play games like some people "sound bathe", that is, have music playing but don't really pay attention, don't really LISTEN. They're not particularly interested in exactly what they're doing, and they're not putting much effort into it.

In many Euro-style games (and let's realize that this is such a large category that there are always many exceptions to any generalization), players WANT just a few choices, and then the play of the game revolves around which choice to make. The "best" choice depends on the situation, and the better players recognize which is the best choice in given circumstances, though generally there is no choice that will always work out best in a given situation.

In other games, including many "old" games and some of the new ones, there are many choices, and one of the skills is seeing all the possibly-good choices in a situation. Better players will not only see those additional choices, they may be skilled in influencing the course of the game so that those choices are available when they next play.

A sure way to spot this point of view is the gamer who plays a game once, then criticizes it for poor play balance or too few choices. While the game may indeed have those characteristics, it can also be the case that the player has assumed he's recognized all the choices, and all the balance possibilities, the first time he played.

I recall a young player at the WBC Britannia tournament (his first Brit game) who, when he finished, said he couldn't see how he could have done anything differently (no, he wasn't near winning). It was only after some expert players talked with him a while that he realized there were large choices he hadn't seen, and also, that even small choices made a difference in the long term. Perhaps he wasn't accustomed to games that did not reveal the choices immediately.

We have an essential difference:
"It's important but I haven't figured it out yet."
"I haven't even realized it's important."

So the expectation in those Euros that are essentially "family games on steroids" is that the first is the typical situation after one play, yet in many strategy games there will be a strong element of the second after one play.

Perhaps this is a reason (not a sufficient reason or necessary reason) why there is the emphasis on multiple ways to win in Euro games: so that the players will easily see at least one way to win at first playing.

I'll take an example from my own experience. Here's a comment I ran across about Britannia. "Innovative, but only interesting once. After that, it's just rolling dice for 6 long hours, very boring. Green is horrible. Purple is a one shot wonder also." Here's a person who thinks he can see all possible strategies the first time he plays a game. Is that because he plays simple (shallow?) games? This player clearly didn't have a clue about many of the strategies in the game. I'm curious if he wondered what the people who've played 500 times were doing? I suppose he didn't know how intensely the game is played, how (as Tom Vasel says in his review, it "may satisfy the itch in players looking for a deeper encounter, an epic game that is all about the experience."). Rather than consider the possibility that he'd missed something, the commenter dismissed the game. (Btw, there are lots of perfectly reasonable reasons why some people do not like Britannia, e.g. the length, the dice rolling, the "scripting", the need to plan well ahead. Poor play balance is not one of them, clearly.) This is the kind of comment I'd expect from a "shallow" player, perhaps someone who plays shallow games, though maybe just someone who doesn't easily see strategic possibilities in this kind of game.

I'm afraid there are a great many players of this kind nowadays, which may be one reason so many games are only played a few times: either they are shallow, so there isn't much there, or the "shallow" player isn't going to play any game many times because either he gets it easily and exhausts the possibilities, or he doesn't get it at all.

Is this "bad?" I suppose that's a matter of opinion. Designers need to recognize it, in any case.

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