Out the other side? by Nick O'Neill
Something very strange happened to this gamer in the month of April, and it crept up on me slowly, stealthily, and when my attention was pointed in a totally different direction – I went an entire evening without once thinking of board games. To be more precise, I went an entire evening without getting onto the internet and looking mindlessly at BGG for a bit, which is what I tend to do when I probably should at least be thinking about board games, but it still came to me as quite a shock when I finally remembered to load up, log in and mark all those subscriptions threads as read. It feels as if I have come out of the other side of a long gaming tunnel, as if that briefest of times away from the core of our addiction – barely six hours – has given me the freshest of glimpses of the hobby from without rather than within.
I joined BGG in 2004, and it seems almost a lifetime away now as relationships, jobs and houses have come and gone, and the site was, by its current standards, a niche construct, catering to a small community of hobby gamers. Nearly fifteen years later and the site has millions of members and generates untold hits and views per day. Those of us of long standing see the same things crop up time and time again, to the extent that there are even now Geeklists to channel all those repeated questions into some kind of communal well. Apart from all the recommendation threads, there are the plaintive “How do I cull?” questions, balanced out by the “What size is a realistic collection?” and all sorts of other things. Those with collections of 1000+ are admired, while those with collections of 25 or so are...well, they also seem to be admired, which is a little strange. And then there is the Pile Of Shame, or the Shelf Of Opportunity (for glass half empty/glass half full types), the H-Index chasers, the 10x10ers, all of us seeking measurements to show us that we are getting value out of our collections, that we are distributing love to these boxes as evenly and as fairly as possible, all the while inhabiting a site that screams in so many corners how great the current hotness is. Look! More minis! More stretch goals! More funding more quickly! You'll play this some day! With some notable exceptions happiness, it seems, is elsewhere.
And yet my favourite plays of April were of trusty old crusty old Dominion, a game that has lain unplayed for so long that I had to get no fewer than thirteen boxes off the top of it in order to get it to the table. It had been sitting there with its two expansions and remained unloved for nigh on two years, hovering so close to that cutoff line where it gets ejected from the collection that it had nearly found its way out of the door on several occasions. Maybe those thirteen boxes and the effort of having to move them saved it from the chop, but that moment came when it seemed like the perfect game for the occasion, so out, blinking, it came into the light.
In those “How shall I cull?” threads we are often advised not to keep unplayed games hanging around on the off chance that the stars align and the right conditions occur for them to get played, yet that is exactly what happened with Dominion when our new neighbour, interested in gaming but still, in the parlance of our house, a “pre-farmer” (when it comes to the rules of Carcassonne) came round to explore some of what the hobby has to offer. We set up the basic market as described in the rules for the base game, got him playing in short order, watched while the gears and cogs meshed in his brain...and had midnight not intervened and an early start the following morning we would probably still be playing now.
Despite having become a little stale for us in two, at a player count of three, and with accessibility such an important consideration, Dominion was exactly the right game for that time and place, the perfect fit to that evening. Our neighbour loved it, giddy with the excitement of discovery of something that to us was also once fresh and new, and I have to admit that it was instructive to leave the market as it was from game to game, genuinely to explore the various possibilities suggested by those cards. We played it the next week again, with an extra player at the table as well, and I have a feeling that it will probably become something of a staple of our gaming evenings together with him next door.
Of course, we all know that the round the table experience, the joy and repartee of company, is at least as important as what happens on the board, but when both those elements coincide at the right moment the hobby fizzes and crackles with life, even for somebody who has been around the gaming block a few times, for whom the seismic moments of new ideas and fresh discoveries come fewer and further between. Playing an old game several times in succession, almost the opposite of what most of the hobby seems to want to be for us Geeks, was simply joyous.
As a result of our experiences a couple of months ago, May turned out to be something quite different from what it might otherwise have been, seeing only one new game come to the table (which was really playtesting), as we tried our best to blow some of the long-settled dust off the boxes in our collection and to get them back into play. 7 Wonders: Duel emerged after nearly a year away, a game so tight and enjoyable that I wonder how on earth it had stayed away from our gaming focus for so long. Also, base game Pandemic, although ratcheted up to Legendary level by the extra Epidemic card to be found in the On The Brink expansion, providing a challenge so intense and yet so enjoyable that once more I wonder why I spend my time glancing at The Hotness at all. Then there was Mr. Jack, Agricola, Seasons – the list goes on, and the beginning of June has already seen Potion Explosion came back to the table for a long-overdue play, so long overdue that I somehow contrived to come up with my worst score ever, so much have I forgotten what it takes to be successful at the game.
The proof of this particular gamer's pudding is that the past few months have been so enjoyable, so unencumbered with the perpetual learning of new rules and the hope that the next game might just be great, that I have enjoyed my table time much more than earlier in the year, freed of the strains and stresses and pressures of trying to cram things in that (whisper it) I actually do not want to play as much as something else. In my case the problem is perhaps exacerbated because of the fact that my reviewing means that I simply must keep a decent turnover of new games coming to the table, but even that is now subject to strict limits, and that certainly feels like a good thing.
It is also important to keep my gaming groups in mind, which normally means my partner, but now includes our new neighbour and other innocents susceptible to the gravitational pull of cardboard. My partner is much more likely to want to play if it is a game that we know and both enjoy, more ready to find the whole experience disconcerting and overwhelming if it is something complicated and new, and possibly it is for that reason that games overburdened with mechanisms and exceptions tend to have very short shrift in our house. Give us something with rules that can be simply explained and understood, and where the complexity and interest in the game comes from how simple choices can provide difficult decisions, and we will most likely find something that sits fairly and squarely in our sweet spot. The longtime keepers in our collection have already proven their worth to us.
It should also be obvious that every play of a new game steals a play from a box that is already in the collection, even if it bears repeating, and while the thrill of discovery may be all well and good, I find it difficult to ignore that much new cardboard simply does more of the same in a just about adequate manner, and that moments of genuine greatness are few and far between. A risky punt on something new that is likely to be more or less average, therefore, takes a play away from something I know I will enjoy, and it is probably this realisation that, at the core of it all, has changed my view on gaming in the past few weeks.
I should point out that I have recently imposed numerical limits on various aspects of my play, including a limit to the number of new games I would be comfortable to learn and acquire this year. At the time of writing I sit comfortably close to where I should be on both measurements, this year being one of transition in order to clear my backlog of unplayed games in expectation of calmer times ahead. It also means that I am (slightly) less likely to do that annoying thing of going mad in some online retailer's sale, just because. Each acquisition and each new play now has to count as part of a strictly limited total, which makes it much more likely that I will have a higher strike rate of games that will appeal to us and earn their place in our collection.
Get a new game to the table now and it is probable that it will be the product of research that has led me to believe that it will maintain a permanent presence on our shelves, rather than a knee-jerk reaction to something I might have seen in a positive light many moons ago, but about which I had totally forgotten until seeing it in a maths trade or some online sale. By making my table time a more valuable commodity I may just end up spending it a little more wisely.
So was I unhappy with my place in the hobby? It may sound as if I was, but really I think I just needed to be more aware of where my own place happened to be. There is and always will be a place for new games in my collection, because the delight of discovery of something genuinely surprising is not a feeling I want to lose, and it would be hard to lose forever that visceral thrill of ripping off the wrapping and punching out the cardboard, but reckon that I need to be much more selective about what makes its way through the battlements. Let the others get their Goliath pledges from Kickstarter and then just possibly put them up for sale on the very day that they arrive - I'll sit at the bottom of the gaming pool and wait for the durable, good stuff to filter down. In the meantime you'll find me here cuddling up to my copy of Tigris & Euphrates. Anyone want to play?
My name is Nick O'Neill and I have been playing Hobby games for as long as I can remember, including complete seasons of Waddington's Formula-1 in my teens and family card games before that. I mainly play with two, sometimes more, and I'm happy to give any game a try. I lean towards medium-weight games with simple rules and deep gameplay. Homo ludens and proud of it. I review for GamesQuest UK, write for Yaah! Magazine and tweet gaming thoughts @meepleonboard. In real life I am @ukcomposer.