When the Voyager spacecraft was sent out of the Solar System, we attached to it a golden record, holding the sounds of Earth on the one in a googl chance that something, somewhere is able to find it, time and micrometeorites hasn’t deteriorated it to dust and they are able to figure out how to extract the sounds from it and hear humans say “Hello” to them.
A beautiful, and true, story. As you read (or skimmed, it was a lot of words) the playthrough of High Frontier, you may have noticed that in between the movement of bits of plastic on the (virtual) board, I was also talking about the feelings of the board members, the look of the space ship, the reasons why there was a Science Symposium one year, but a Budget Cut the next. That isn’t in the rules, that’s just my Very Wordy brain at work.
That’s what I love about that game, and most others you’ll probably see in the games I blather about on this blog. It’s not the moves I agonize over. It’s not the strategies that reveal themselves through play. It’s not the brilliance of mechanics that simulate complex abstract concepts that are represented by a few cubes and point values. No. It’s all those things that form together to make a story in my own mind. It’s like saying a script, lighting and special effects are what make Kubrik’s 2001 what it is. Not a perfect analogy as the script is clearly already a story, but I’m doing it anyway. Deal.
I play games at work, in public places, anywhere I can. I sometimes get questioned about what I’m doing. I usually just say “Playing a game,” and leave it at that. My eyebrow goes up when the usual reply is “By yourself?” Sure, if I was playing solitaire with a regular deck of cards, no one would bat an eye, but if it uses different cards or a board, it’s out of everyone’s wheelhouse, but I can’t judge them. If I saw someone playing a sport that looked a bit like basketball, but there was only one person on the court, I’d probably ask questions about it too, even if solo basketball had been a thing for awhile amongst basketball fans.
But those that see me more often, mainly coworkers, are now at the point they ask me “How’s the game going?” It is sooooooooo much better to reply “Well, I was able to get a bigger rocket, so I’ve got some colonists heading out to the moon of Saturn called Titan to see if they can build a colony there.” or “I’m arguing with Stalin about whether I should give him sole conquest of Germany or if it should be split amongst the allies” or “I’ve got to get two more people to close these gates and I win, but there’s a giant monster standing in front of it, so I’m not sure if I’m able to get past it and I’m really close to losing, so it’s getting tough.” Those are the things of stories, those are the things coworkers want to hear about. It’s so much better than, “Well, I put 4 red cards on top of 4 black cards and I still have 48 more cards to go.”
There are great abstract strategy games out there that I play, who have themes pasted on to them that still make them near impossible to explain. I have Castellion by Z-Man Games in my bag right now to play at lunch. The game is in the Oniverse universe, which is a series of brilliant brilliant solitaire games. If you’ve ever thought of trying out some solitaire card/board games, find any of the Oniverse games and buy one NOW. Anyway, in it you place tiles down to form a “Castle,” but you can’t put the same shape tile next to each other, and if you link the same color tiles together in three different shapes, you get certain benefits and there are goals that need a certain number of these shapes. There’s certainly a lot more to it, and it’s a fantastic game, but I’ve played it here before: “So, what are you doing?”
“Building a castle to withstand incoming Nightmares!”
“Neat! How are you doing.”
“Um, well, it’s kind of hard to explain…”
Because of it’s abstract nature, you can’t tell a story with it, it’s just tiles and shapes and colors. Sure the theme of castles and nightmares and each color is named like “Chameleon” and “Juggler” who “Help” you against the nightmares, but really they just let you dig through the discard pile or swap two tiles positions. You’re not really picturing cute little dream creatures running around a castle preparing for a fight. And explaining that to a non-gaming onlooker just ain’t going to help them. And if you try, and then they don’t see that translating to what you’re doing on the table, they’ll lose just as much interest as if you start explaining tile laying strategy.
But if the game’s fun, who cares?
I think I’m going through all this to say: “I love stories.” Stories are important. They teach us so much. I’ve learned things about Afghanistan by playing Labyrinth: The War on Terror and A Distant Plain by GMT. My daughter, who was 3-years-old at the time, showed sympathy for someone dealing with a death because we had read Spider-man comics and new how Peter felt about his Uncle Ben. And how many people work at NASA now because of the Star Trek series? That’s why I’ll probably focus on story-telling games on this blog, because it’s much easier to talk about those games, and they have greater impacts than more abstract games.
But don’t take that as me not liking abstract games. They’re just not as much to talk about. And as the blog’s title suggests, I have to blather on about something, don’t I?