NYC Gamer              

Joe and Bob

February 10, 2009

I have two acquaintances at work, let us call them ďJoeĒ and ďBob,Ē who adamantly refuse to learn any modern board games. Both Joe and Bob enjoy and somewhat frequently play Chess, Scrabble, and Poker. Theyíre intelligent and clearly enjoy board games. Joe has also expressed nostalgic interest in Risk. Theyíre an interesting case study in the spread of modern board games because Iíve tried everything I could possibly think of to interest them in trying a modern board game and, being the lawyers that they are, they have an abundance of counter arguments to explain and justify their disinterest. Whatís particularly confounding is that I had a fairly good success rate at converting people to the board gaming hobby in law school, where I founded a student organization. People came to the club expecting to play Monopoly and Risk, and left intent on purchasing Settlers of Catan among others. Not so with Joe and Bob, who are convinced and adamant in their opposition to learning new games. I find this an interesting subject for discussion because there are many of us in the hobby who hope for the day when modern board games replace the tired old classics in every familyís cupboards. We, or maybe just me, truly believe that Ticket to Ride, Settlers of Catan, and Carcassonne should replace Monopoly, Risk, and Life in every home across the country. We see the slowly growing widespread popularity of Settlers as a testament to the inevitable superiority of modern board games. Maybe weíre deluding ourselvesÖ

Rule #1: Rules

Joe and Bob simply donít want to bother learning the rules to new games, and they argue that most people are the same way. They explain that theyíre already familiar with the rules to the classics that they do play and donít want to go through the effort of learning something new. While this is a hurdle that Iíve had to deal with before when introducing people to modern board games, itís still hard for me to wrap my head around and fully appreciate. I guess Iím a freak of nature because I love learning a new set of rules to a new game. I love puzzling through the rules and setting up a practice game to see how the components and the rules interact. I love wading through that first game and seeing how the game actually works in practice, often very different from my expectations after just having read the rules. And I love playing the game a few more times to explore various strategies and paths through the game, as well as various ending conditions or interesting circumstances that may arise during the course of the game. Then Iím more often than not done with the game. Not because I never want to play it again, but because something new and shiny comes along to distract me. Thereís a new set of rules to explore and I move along. Itís not a pattern that developed consciously or intentionally, but itís the way things are because of the sheer joy of discovering a new game and the thrill of those first few plays as you begin to explore the workings of its rule set.

That little soliloquy makes Joe and Bob roll their eyes. They retort that this all sounds too much like work. And the last thing they want in their entertainment is to be reminded of work. I can see where theyíre coming from with that argument, especially after spending a long day interpreting a statute or case law. But interpreting the rules to a game is fun, right?

Corollary: Opponents

Joe and Bob are highly trained attorneys, so they know when to make a concession for the sake of a larger point. They follow-up their protestations about rules with the logical point that even if they give in and decide to embrace the ďboard games of the future,Ē it wonít matter unless others donít take the plunge simultaneously. Joe and Bob point out that itís easy to find opponents for the classics. Everyone knows how to play Chess, Scrabble, Poker, and Risk. Too true. So if they want to play one of these games then they can get together with friends and play without giving a second thought to whether everyone knows the rules. The rules are so ingrained in the collective psyche that itís a given that you can sit down to play with just about any other human being. Thatís an admittedly big plus for ďthe classics.Ē

I protest that while there is a small following for modern board games that there is still a devoted following of ready-made opponents. There are plenty of enthusiasts in the board game hobby that I could introduce them to so they could gain an appreciation for all of the great leaps forward in board game design that have occurred in the last 50 years. Joe and Bob see right through me and have not one, but two counter-arguments. First, they already have enough friends and they donít want to make new friends based on the activity of board gaming. This makes some sense. I fear that most people would rather engage in a sub-optimal activity with people that they already know than meet new people. Adults seem pretty set in their social circles, so if you canít get an entire preset group to adopt a new board game then youíre back-up canít be to extract certain members. Itís an all or nothing affair, and inertia makes it an uphill battle. Second, they astutely recognize that even people immersed in the hobby wonít already know the rules to all, or even most, of the games that they sit down to play. So what if they meet and play with these hobbyists that I speak of, because even they will have to ďwaste timeĒ learning games.

Explore vs. Excel

Joe and Bob donít want to explore a board game, they want to excel at it. I obviously donít think of the learning phase for a new game as wasting time because thatís my favorite part. They want to skip that part and go right to the phase where all players involved know the rules cold. They want to master a board game, not like professional Chess or Scrabble players, but like advanced amateurs. They want to keep playing these games and they love the competition. They want to beat each other. They want to win. I want to win when I play a board game, but they really want to win. I heartily subscribe to the wisdom of Reiner Knizia who famously said: ďWhen playing a game, the goal is to win, but it is the goal that is important, not the winning.Ē Joe and Bob think thatís crazy. They see games as competitionÖ as a battle of wits to see who comes out ahead. They see games as a way to sharpen their skills and improve so they can win more frequently.

Itís intriguing and perhaps somewhat counterintuitive, but Iíve realized recently that the people who delve the most into the modern board gaming hobby, who really stick with it, and who go so far down the rabbit hole that they lose sight of it, are the people who really donít care about winning. It makes sense when you think about it because you canít care about winning and constantly learn new games. Theyíre not complementary desires. Either you want to specialize and excel or you want to explore. You canít really have both, given the limit of 24 hours per day and 7 days per week. Iíve met quite a few board gamers over the past few years and they range across a wide spectrum in terms of how much they care about winning. But time and again, the people who truly fall head over heels for the hobby are the people who forget about the results of a game as soon as itís over. They might ponder what they could have done differently to improve their score, not because theyíre bitter or upset, but rather because they want to continue exploring the breadth and depth of the rules framework.

Failed Analogies

Itís a surefire bet to compare modern board games to known entities in order to entice new players into the fold, right? Wrong. I know that trick; Iíve used it successfully many times before. I was ready when they told me that they liked Risk with my counter-punches of Nexus Ops and Wallenstein. I was prepared when they suggested playing Chess with my retort of YINSH, DVONN, and if they were feeling adventurous then perhaps Mr. Jack. I suppose thatís five failures right there, and we were just getting started. They shot me down time and again. I talked up the cube tower of Wallenstein, but just as my eyes got wide, they remained impassive. I pushed the novelty yet instant familiarity of YINSH and DVONN, and the genius of Kris Burm making modern day classic abstract games. It all came back to the intolerable waiting time of learning the rules and practicing to excel. They donít want to just play a game, they want to be good at a game, not just good but great if they can swing it. So what if Nexus Ops does away with the intolerable length of Risk or if YINSH prevents the person who has read the most Chess books from dominating. They read Bobby Fischerís book and reviewed lists of two-letter Scrabble words in their spare time for a reason.

Online and Offline

Joe and Bob enjoy playing board game face-to-face (such as Chess and Poker) and on the computer (such as Scrabble and Chess), so I suggested face-to-face games and online computer implementations of board games. I brought in YINSH and Mr. Jack. I sent a link to the Hurrican Games website for online Mr. Jack and Ludagora for Through the Desert. I guess thatís four more failures. It didnít matter if it was offline or online, they wouldnít be enticed either way. They were resolute and firm in their love of the familiar. Itís not that they love Chess or Scrabble by any means. They readily recognize that these games arenít amazing by any means, but they love the familiarity of known entities. They bask in the comfort of returning to an old favorite, except itís not really a favorite, just old.

Lost Cause?

We want different things. Weíre not talking past each other, but weíre not quite talking to each other. I donít care if Joe or Bob ever plays a modern board game, but what worries me is the implications of their arguments for the rest of the populace. My confident dream of everyone eventually owning and loving Settlers of Catan, Carcassonne, and Ticket to Ride is shaken. Perhaps itís a niche hobby for a reason. Perhaps it takes a special kind of person to happily spend 20 minutes learning the rules to a new game and 90 minutes inevitably struggling through that first play. I wonít rest in my proselytizing of the wonders of modern board games. Iíll continue to trumpet the advantages of no player elimination, quicker playing times, straightforward rules, nice components, modular boards, less luck, and more strategy. Iíll stick to my mantra of ďdifficult and meaningful decisions.Ē But I canít help but wonder if itís all in vain.

(See Boardgame News for an edited version of this article plus additional comments on it)