Engaging in Playing a Game

So… this weekend I had the chance to play Wizards of the Coast’s game, Lords of Waterdeep. I didn’t know what to expect from this style of game created with a D&D twist but now that I’ve played, well, I’m going out and buying this game – it was awesome. A+ to the team that created this game. It played smoothly, it was super easy to learn but the play was complicated enough that choices mattered. It also completely appealed to me as a player because it really didn’t have many effects in the game of the “screw your neighbor” variety – which I hate. Really, it was a fun game. So here’s the rub. I played this game with 4 other guys. At least three out of the five of us are long-time D&D players and yet, as we played, we didn’t interact with the fluff elements of the game at all. Very few people read the quests beyond their type and their completion requirements, the adventurers you acquire as resources were referred to simply as “I’ll take an orange and black…” The buildings on the map, factions you claim, and Lord you are dealt were all basically just mechanics (where there were mechanics).

We never engaged the fluff of the game at all. That’s a lie; occasionally we’d joke self-consciously about some aspect of a turn – like the fact that you could basically guarantee that I’d be spending my turns down at the Waterfront… (hey, what can I say, I like ships?) Seriously though, this has been on my mind for a while, this past weekend just conjured it up at about the same time I watched the Tabletop episode where they play Chez Geek (I love me some Paul and Storm). Chez Geek is another personal favorite – but I find that I’ve been reluctant to play it more recently and I know exactly why that is – just not how to fix it.

I’m reluctant to play Chez Geek because I know I’m going to be disappointed. When I play Chez Geek I like to read all the cards, make jokes about real-life friends who compare favorably (or not) to the action going on in game, and generally riff on the nookie cards or “she who cooks” or “can’t handle it guy.” But the last three or four times I’ve sat down to play, it’s been an uphill battle. It’s mostly just an exercise in playing through the rules rather than injecting the sense of life that comes with the game. We don’t engage the fluff the way we engage the mechanics. But why play Chez Geek if you aren’t into the “story” of the game? It’s not so engaging or complex a play experience that it fascinates when you take the veneer of weird ass apartment living out of the equation…

And I had this experience with Lords of Waterdeep as well. As much fun as I had playing the game (and it does have a complex and engaging set of mechanics) I feel that it really lost something for me when I was the only one at the table speaking the language of the “setting” level of the game rather than the rules level.

This happens at the roleplaying table as well – but I feel that there are more opportunities to overcome this lack of engagement. Also, it bears mentioning that some sessions – like big combats or particular types of dungeon crawls – may actually need players to scale up their rules engagement to keep everyone focused and keep the game moving. I’m okay with this. I’m not expecting every moment of every game to be a storytelling dream. I would just like to see people engage with their games at every level.

I mentioned Tabletop before. I can pretty much say that the games where they get into the spirit of what is going on make the best episodes. The games where they are just, you know, playing, are the weakest – and that’s on a continuum, but it holds true for the most part – go back and think about it.

So, other than being “that guy” does anyone have any practical suggestions for aiding in engagement with board/card games? I’m interested in hearing what others do.

Thanks for reading.

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5 responses

  1. This is an example of how “modern”, streamlined, and euro type mechanics tend to kill it for me. Sure… a lot of stuff about 80’s games make them book keeping nightmares with too many chart look-ups and that are compulsively obsessed with “realism” and slathering on just a little more chrome…. But when someone games the auction mechanic in Cyclades… or burns through the deck to get just the right winning card for their victory conditions in Twilight Imperium… I Just. Don’t. Care.

    As clunky as something like Star Fleet Battles is, there is nothing else that makes me feel like I am in the captain’s chair. As stupid as the old Battlesuit pocket box game is… there is nothing that makes me feel like those are *my* men that are exposed to enemy fire.

    1. I agree. I hate feeling like a spectator when I’m playing the game…

  2. Me three. I like the “let’s pretend” element, even in board games — that’s why I’ve always found chess dull as dishwater. Recently my gf and I tried a card game called Gloom that lends itself to “let’s pretend” — you’re supposed to tell stories around your plays to make a whimsical-Goth Edward Gorey kind of narrative, though it’s still the cards that determine who wins. There’s a strong enough luck element in the game that it wouldn’t hold one’s interest forever, and boardgame snobs would just dismiss it. But for us it was fun. (Plus the cards are cool — thetransparent, and you overlay them so they replace some of each others’ bonuses and penalties.)

  3. Gloom is a fantastic game. My wife and I love that game.

  4. I think for most people, board games come with an intrinsic disconnect. It becomes more about the tactics and strategy involved and less about the thematic aspects. They prefer to keep their role-playing to rpg games.

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