Monday, December 8, 2008

General Gaming Rant - Games For Everyone Else

I'm traveling until Wednesday, so I don't have a new review for you today. I was considering bringing some games to review while I was here, but did you ever try to fit a three-foot long board game into your carry-on luggage? It's not impossible, but it would have meant I had to leave my toiletries at home, and I didn't feel like spending four days without a toothbrush. The guys I'm traveling with are probably happier for it, too.

So instead, we're talking about card games. And just so we're clear, you can forget about a nerdy discussion of your favorite cardboard crack. I'm talking Rook and Spades and Hearts, not Magic and Legend of the Five Rings and World of Warcraft. You know, the games normal people play.

See, normal people do play games, and lots of them. They know ten different ways to play Gin Rummy, five ways to play poker and six ways to cheat at cribbage (I'm not actually sure you can cheat at cribbage. I've only played cribbage once, and either I was too drunk, or the guy who came up with the game was drunk when he made it, and I thought it was only slightly more nonsensical than an episode of Jackass). My in-laws can sit and play Spades for five or six hours at a stretch, and beat the hell out of me every time. I can see a flanking maneuver from fifty yards out, manage my dice rolls to mitigate luck, and build an army that controls the map and maximizes ranged attacks - but I'll be damned if I can figure out when I should call trump or bid seven.

It's funny, because lots of card games can be an awful lot of fun, but we've gotten so spoiled by plastic figures and linen-printed game boards that we've forgotten that normal people can be happy with a deck of cards and a stack of plastic chips. Yet where we're the fringe because we can discuss cooperative mechanics and luck factors, my father-in-law can tell you without effort how many sevens have been played into the kitty after six hands. But then, my father-in-law also wears Glad Wrap on his arms when he goes to bed and kills squirrels out his windows using a high-powered BB gun, so maybe I should find another example.

Then consider all those old ladies at the Blue Hair Bridge Club, deciding when North bids four and betting their pensions on a game where one player at the table has to sit out every round. These biddies could run circles around you or me, taking three rubbers out of three while we sit there trying to figure out how to win a contract, but you'll blow their minds if you slap down a meeple.

And how about poker night? How many regular dudes get together once a month to sit in the basement around a card table smoking cigars and playing dealer's choice for penny antes? Lots, that's how many ('lots' is a technically-calculated figure based on extensive research, which mostly consisted of remembering all the times I got drunk, played poker, and smoked cigars until I was broke and throwing up in the bushes outside).

Of course, at this point we're talking about specific groups of people playing specific games, but we still haven't really talked about the non-gamer who just has a couple decks of cards and can, at the drop of a hat, sit down to play a few hands of whatever grabs them. Go Fish, Old Maid, Hearts, War - these are the games that get played at Thanksgiving or Christmas or weekends at the cabin with family and friends. When you consider card games, casual gamers play just about as many games as we do. They just don't go to conventions and stay in hotels for three nights just so they can get in ten hours of euchre.

And they buy stuff, too. Poker sets can be more expensive than that silly 3-D Catan set that had all those plastic mountains and came in a wooden treasure chest. People will get cribbage pegs with diamonds in the end (and that's madness, because if you're going to spend that much money for a game, don't buy pieces that you know damned well are going to roll under the couch or get stolen by your cat). This is a far bigger market than hobby games, with lots more people and lots more money. As an added bonus, there are not nearly as many casual card players living in their moms' basements and dressing as Sailor Moon.

So what's the difference? Why can't I get my in-laws to try Maginor? They're playing games already. Is it that much of a stretch to try Heroscape if you're already playing Crazy Eights? The answer is simple:

Well, duh.

A deck of cards is easy, portable, and not the least bit nerdy. An adult with a box full of plastic zombies, on the other hand, is a grown man who still plays with toys. Do you crow about the quality of pre-painted miniatures? Because most people don't. There's a simple component difference - we like games with full-color paintings and sturdy, colorful pawns, where most people are happy with cards printed in two colors. We have scoring tracks around the outside of our boards; they're just fine with a pen and pad of paper.

And our games are tricky. Most people just don't think in terms of tactics, or long-term strategy, or careful planning. For most people, that's work. We dig it, but that's not normal. We probably grew up on this stuff, or we discovered that it was actually fun to move plastic people around a paper map. Our games require a commitment, and it's not just financial. You have to have time and a whole lot of attention span to be able to get behind lots of our games.

So if you're wondering how you can get your family to play more games with you, consider playing their games instead of trying to get them to play yours. You can probably find someone to play rummy, but you know as well as I do that if you ask your mom to try Descent, she might try to have you institutionalized. And in all fairness, a lot of those card games are actually pretty fun, and there are hundreds of different games you could try until you figure out one you can dig. Canasta is a pretty fun game, if you can put together enough people for it, and as an added bonus, you don't have to persuade anyone that you're not about to blow up a national monument.

But you know what? I'm still totally going to play my wacky fringe games. I just spent a pile of money of World of Warcraft miniatures and that never-ending money sink of a CCG, just because I dig the premise (and I want to write about them in the vain hope that one day, someone at Topps thinks I'm a big-time gaming hotshot and decides to send me free stuff). I don't think there's a snowball's chance in Hell of getting my father-in-law to try either one, and I may only ever get to play when I can hook up with my closet geek buddies, but I don't care.

In the end, I guess I'm just a grown man who still plays with toys.


Anonymous said...

Interesting side rant as usual, Matt.

I guess I've often been in the middle somewhere. My dad taught me how to play Chess when I was 6, and we played it every night for at least a month. He later taught my siblings and I how to play Pinochle, and that became the regular game to play at family gatherings or boring evenings in hotel rooms. I enjoy most trick-taking games to this day, especially Hearts.

A funny thing happened though when my sister was in 8th grade. This guy she liked at the time played Magic. For some reason, he was also considered to be a cool guy. She learned how to play so she could play with him, and I became intrigued when I saw her and her best friend practicing. Eventually I got some of my own.

At just 10 years old, I was hooked. I put my allowance every week toward buying more cards. I taught some kids at school how to play, and we'd pray for rain at school so we could play each other.

And now I've made it come full circle. I've gotten my 69 year old dad to sit down and play Roborally or Catan with me, my sister, and my adult cousins. It can happen sometimes. I even brought Heroscape out once or twice.

They usually enjoy it, but they always talk about it as though it is a huge undertaking compared to other games, which is weird, considering that they usually won't say no to a 3 hour game of Monopoly. (Which is incidentally a game that I also really like, but it might just be because I win). In my head, I'm comparing Heroscape to Warhammer, so I think of it as a low maintenance alternative. Normal people do have a bit of a different perspective on games.

Anonymous said...

Great rant, so I just gotta ask:

who is;

Sailor Moon.

I laughed and I had no clue who sailor Moon was.

You make a very good point.

Cribbage & Backgammon are great games you can play with anyone and not get treated like a geek!

Pete Miller said...

Excellent Essay.

I think that the only war game I could get my friends to play would be the new Risk.

Fortunately I am raising my kids to be gamers. They are growing older and still like to play them. My daughter likes Zooloretto and Ticket to Ride and my son like Heroscape and wants to try Tannhauser.

My wife seems to want nothing to do with any of that. She'll play Scrabble and Amazing Labyrinth and 'regular' games but nothing more interesting.

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