Iím not a particularly competitive man, but I love to complete. This apparent tautology is explained by the fact that I donít much care if I win: whatís important is the journey toward someone winning, and the struggle to see who it is. I suspect that for most of us thatís part and parcel of the attraction of playing board games. Cooperative titles are all very well but they remain an interesting aside from the main draw of exercising your strategic muscles against the crowd to see who comes out on top. So from this perspective I find it strange that a large slice of the gaming crowd appears to prefer to pit themselves not against their friends or peers, but against game designers.
There are sections of game design history that really ought to make each and every gamer who lived through them, including me, hang their head in shame. During the late eighties the market got swamped with what was basically rubbish - tedious, derivative games that were overly-long, overly-complex and overly-random largely for the purposes of demonstrating just how long, complex and random games could be. It took the Eurogame revolution to save us from ourselves. So itís perhaps unsurprising that gamers and designers alike chose to reject what came out of that era of gaming history in its entirety. However, increasingly, I think weíre realizing that some babies got thrown out with that particular bathwater.
As part of the quest to re-mould games into a format that was more strategic and more meaningfully competitive, designers tried to shift players onto a more equal footing at the start of the game and to ensure that they only interacted directly through the game mechanics. No more metagame. No more kingmaking or kill-the-leader or any one of the half-dozen or so symptoms that lead to directly competitive games all looking and feeling exactly alike, regardless of the mechanics, because what mattered above all was who was able to sweet-talk who into forming alliances. Instead, players would only be able to compete against one another by leveraging the strategic mechanics in the game - it would be a true contest of thinking skill. Iíve argued in the past that the common assumption that all games that have a diplomatic metagame are basically the same game is actually false, but regardless the early results were promising and interesting and opened up new avenues of game design. It worked. Gamers who were invested heavily in collectible card games or role-playing or miniatures games began to look at board games again. Arguably it heralded the birth of board gaming as a hobby in its own right.
The trouble is that ironing out the social aspects of game strategy was a hard task. Gamers wanted to play multi-player games, and as soon as youíve got an odd number of gamers in a game youíve got a balance problem. If theyíre going to interact, even solely through the mechanics of the game, there will come a point somewhere along the line when the decisions of one of those players is going to impact more on one of their opponents than the other. Early euro designs didnít really try to stop this. They tried to minimize it, which is the sensible approach, I think. Settlers for example allowed free trading but provided plenty of mechanics with which to bypass it, and allowed blocking but made it a slow process and gave players the chance to anticipate and prevent it.
But because of that lingering, knee-jerk hatred of all those awful games around the turn of 1990, that wasnít enough for a lot of gamers or designers. They wanted all forms of imbalance ironed out of games so that they became pure, or nearly pure contests of intellectual skill like classic favourites such as Go and Chess. But nearly all those classic games of antiquity are two player: translating that into a multi-player environment was a tough hurdle. The eventual solution was the birth of the spreadsheet game. The sort of game in which the board becomes little more than a giant, pretty chart on which to keep track of the play state. The sort of game in which players have little to do with one another directly but instead interact simply by observing each others game states and trying to pick actions that not only benefit themselves but make life as awkward as possible for other players. Some early entries in this genre like Puerto Rico had plenty of life in them but still didnít get it right: everyone knows the binding issues in that game that can hand advantages to certain players depending on who they sit next to. But as the concept grew in popularity, designers ironed out these inconsistencies. Recent games in this class such as Agricola not only have few balance issues but actually allow the players to fine-tune the experience to their tastes by tweaking the amount of randomness and interaction in the game.
Innovation is always welcome, and this group of games are a valid and interesting addition to the canon. The trouble is that the concept of perfect balance became a gospel, and this approach to design started to take over everything, aided and abetted by the growth of online communities where - almost by definition - the least social gamers started to gather and proclaim their favourite games which were, unsurprisingly, the ones with the smallest social footprints and the most perfect mathematical balance. By the time the internet became global and the rest of us joined in it was too late. Spreadsheet games had become the be-all and end-all of the gaming hobby.
But while the spreadsheet game might have solved the problem of bias in multi-player games, it seems strange to me that at the same time its questionable whether the result is actually, really competitive in the sense that I understand it. Letís imagine for a moment that there is such a thing as a Su-Doku tournament. There might be - I really donít know - but the point is that we envisage a tournament in which a usually solo logic puzzle of some kind is turned into a competition. In the dictionary definition sense of the word youíre in a competition but what youíre actually competing against are the mechanics of the puzzle, not the other players. Sure, youíll get a ranking and youíll get to see who was best at the puzzle on that particular day and over time the rankings will stabilize and youíll get some definitive answers but is that really a competition? What youíve discovered is who is best at understanding the game mechanics and optimizing the decisions in the game to maximize their impact on the eventual goal but thereís no struggle, no sense of cut-and-thrust, no sense of actually engaging with the intellect of another human being like there is in Chess or Go and that helps to make those games so compelling, such classics. Without that all important feeling the result is often challenging but totally without soul. Thatís what I mean when I claim that too many gamers have ended up playing against game designers rather than against other gamers. Just because youíre sat around a table engaged in the same competitive activity at the same time doesnít mean youíre actually doing it against one another. For that you need some direct interaction.
Belatedly people seem to be waking up to the effect this has had on the games market, turning everything into an empty, mechanistic repeat of the spreadsheet game even in games that donít have a spreadsheet. Way too many recent games have come out stuffed with potential but quite clearly seem to have been put through a design mill seeking some perfect idea of balance and intellectual purity that has the side effect of squeezing all the competition out of the game. Titles like Stone Age and Dungeon Lords really could have been better than they are with a bit less of an eye for balance and a bit more interaction. Thankfully things are changing. Games like Wallenstein and Brass (and a number of other Wallace titles) have demonstrated that there are ways round the balance problem, or at least that you can buy absolutely massive chunks of game play for relatively small balance sacrifices that would once have been taboo. Simultaneously the explosion of cards games like Dominion and Race for the Galaxy have shown that perfect-balance spreadsheet style game play doesnít need a spreadsheet or a two hour play time, meaning that people who are interested in experiencing a wide range of game styles (which should, really, be any hobbyist that deserves the title) can sample the delights that this style of game can bring to the table without needing to give up a huge chunk of their gaming time or cash to do so.
Itís time to stop listening to the self-appointed gaming cognoscenti and start broadening your horizons - find yourself some gamers to play against, instead of just designers.