By Podsy McPod
Why do you game?
Sorry I am jumping ahead. Perhaps you don't game, you just like to collect and paint models. That is fine, glad to have you on board as part of the hobby but you are not who this article is aimed at. My target audience is people who actually use their model collections to play games.
About a year ago and about thirty five years since I started gaming I was struggling to find enjoyment in my gaming. This culminated in a sci fi game against a dear friend where I was beaten without being able to offer any real opposition and I threw a strop. Yes a full on five year olds strop. I apologise again to my opponent who luckily is still a good friend. I was playing with beautiful models using a rule set I liked. Afterwards for the first time in years I sat down and seriously asked myself why did I game. I even contemplated giving up gaming.
The first thing I realised was I certainly did not game just for the sake of winning. Sometimes when demoing a game to a new player I have wanted to crawl under the table as sheer good fortune meant I thrashed my opponent. If you counted all my wins and losses over the thirty five years I am sure the losses would exceed the wins, so it could not be that.
I used to play in the local competition circuit for ancient and medieval wargaming, travelling quite a bit to play. I enjoyed it for many years but towards the end I began to realise there seemed to be competitors who just wanted to show how smart they were rather than being interested in the game. I got the feeling they would have been equally happy to compare educational qualifications or bank balances to decide who won. I saw some crazy things. One novice competitor was playing in a game with two classical period pike armies. His pike were better quality than his opponents so he rushed them to engage the enemy pike. His experienced opponent tilted a unit at a bizarre angle and said this prevented the two lines engaging. The referee confirmed this ruling. Of course this was absolute historical nonsense. Two lines of pike would not fail to engage because someone was not standing absolutely straight. This was an example of how the leading players won not by using better tactics but by exploiting their superior knowledge of the foibles in the rules. Eventually I decided this scene was no longer for me. If your reason for gaming is solely to win, good luck maintaining a supply of opponents.
So if winning was not my reason for gaming, what was? Very quickly I realised there was only one possible answer, fun! So the real question became what made gaming fun for me. There are different answers for different people. As already discussed some people find fun in winning by doing whatever it takes. Some people just like to throw figures on the table and see what happens. I remember playing in one large fantasy game where people just opened their carry cases and threw out what they liked on table. I nearly fainted on the spot, no army lists, what the heck was going on! If your fun is found in games like that great, I wish I could, but for me things have to be a little more organised. So what does make a game fun for me?
Playing opponents you like beyond the gaming table. It may sound harsh but I have realised people whose company I enjoy or would enjoy on a social level make the best gaming opponents. Life is too short to play against people you have a personality clash with, even for the sake of getting a game. For years I struggled to find opponents but the advent of gaming communities on the internet means I now have to limit the amount of potential games I could play so that I still have some time for other things.
Games should have an element of luck. Chess is not for me. I love it when lady luck smiles on me and I am able to win a game that looked lost. It also means I have something to blame for defeats when things do not go to plan. Skill should outweigh luck. Snakes and ladders is not my game of choice either. In general the player using the better tactics should have the highest chance of winning.
Games should make sense within their own lore. If I am playing a fantasy game a dragon should have more chance of destroying a mob of pitch fork armed peasants than the other way around. It can be problematic for games without historical evidence to back up how things work but I think we all know pretty quickly if something feels right or not.
Having deeper pockets to buy more stuff should not give a better chance of winning. I deliberately avoid games with their own dedicated model lines. I have seen a lot of games that launch with balanced factions only for the balance to be lost when new models are released. I can see why manufacturers do it. They have to give you an incentive to buy their latest release but it is something I am very wary of.
Army lists and army building should influence but not decide who wins. I fully admit to having spent hours over the years tweaking and developing army lists. The advent of computer based army builders makes this even more fun, but a good army build should not guarantee victory before a game starts.
My ideal game is one that is closely fought with victory going to the player who has the better tactics or occasionally better luck. Tactics are important to me. A game that offers deep and real tactical choices is one that appeals to me above all others. Unfortunately for me at least the opportunities to play this sort of game seem to be ever decreasing.
I am amazed at how game design has improved since I started gaming. The first rule books I used were small, closely typed in black and white with few if any illustrations. I remember one world war two rule book that had a shooting table that involved looking for the technical name of a particular gun in a paragraph of about twenty names with ten or more paragraphs. No one thought to give all the guns in a given category a numerical value and then put that in a table. The quality and choice of rules and models has grown and improved enormously especially since the advent of the internet. Not only have games improved themselves but we now all have computers and printers to make life easier. I remember when affording to pay for photocopying out of pocket money was a real concern. Photocopying was expensive in the early eighties!
For a long time I thought I just needed to demo games with greater tactical depth to get people interested. I actually feel nervous when I give a game demo now. If it does not go really well the system will never be played by that player again. Why would they when there are so many alternative choices out there. I realise now I was wrong in thinking that demo games would be enough to interest players in a given system. With the multitude of games and systems available I realise most people only play the same game a handful of times in a year. A single demo game is not enough for anyone to see the tactical depths of a given game. My current choice of sci fi rules is not decided by which rules give the greatest tactical depth but by the criteria of whether they can be understood by someone who plays the game casually a couple of times a year.
On the one hand this vast array of gaming products undreamt of in my youth is a huge blessing. On the other it is a curse. Barely has one system been brought to the table before people lose interest distracted by the latest game launch or kickstarter. If you only play a given system a few times in a year you will not see the hidden delights it has to offer. Now I do not wish to disrespect or discourage all the wonderful people in the industry bringing out new products. If people are going to play your system I wish they would play it a bit more. Neither do I wish to try and dictate to people what they do with their gaming time, but my suggestion is this, slow down. If you are going to take the time to play any game, play it more than once. Give it the time needed to fully understand the rules and explore different tactics when playing. With the fantastic products we now have available I am pretty sure you will find there is more to the game than you thought at the end of your first game. Who knows you might even have more fun.