This is more about boardgames than about RPGs, but I think it could apply to both at some level. I don’t like doing work. I don’t mind a game being hard, but I don’t like it to only be hard. I see a lot of people playing casual games – timewasters – and I’ve tried a few myself. They always feel like I’m just doing work disguised as fun. There is no connection, no engagement, just a relentless task to be completed.
I want something more. Then I think about the games I do play and claim to enjoy and sometimes I realize that they are just as much work and don’t really improve on the engagement aspect to make it feel like fun.
The DC Deckbuilding game is a perfect example of this. Even though the game is splashed with pretty art from the comics, the game itself is very repetitive, only focused on victory points, and doesn’t require much from the players in terms of engagement with the theme. We don’t think about the cards in terms of how much we want to play Aquaman or Green Lantern, we think about how many points of power Solomon Grundy generates or whether or not we have Bizarro when it comes to racking up Weaknesses. Ultimately, even though the game designers did make an effort at tying card effects to the character pictured, the game is still just a task oriented effort.
The Car Wars card game was surprising to me in that, for all its simplicity, it manages to evoke a certain feeling of whipping madly around an arena trying desperately to hammer the other cars into submission. Even though there is no difference between the cars you can play and no difference in the hand mechanics from player to player, the game feels really fun.
Some games, which are otherwise excellent, like Lords of Waterdeep, can easily fall into the trap of being work. I have noticed when I play that I’m the only one who refers to the adventurers (resources) as Fighters, and Thieves. Everyone else just says, “I’ll take a purple and a white” and then we don’t even read each other our quest cards – we just pile them up and add victory points to the total. I can’t be upset with the other players because they are playing the game and having fun, but when we play that way it all just feels like a task we’re completing rather than a truly enjoyable experience.
I suppose the better way to say this is not, “I don’t like to do work” but rather, “I don’t like to do work for the sake of work.” Honestly, it’s why I never liked chess but I love Diplomacy. Chess is a pure, diceless strategy game but it’s lifeless to me. Diplomacy is a strategy game with a social/bluffing element which really puts you in the life of the general moving your armies around the board. It almost tricks the player into a deeper level of engagement.
This has led me to consider that as I weed games out of my collection (which has grown too large to be playable at this point) that my criteria might be less, “how often do I think I’ll play this” and more “what do I get out of each experience of playing it?” Is it fun, or is it just work disguised as a game?
Perhaps I haven’t articulated this well. Does anyone have suggestions for games that really brim with theme and engagement and slough away the cold mathematics of victory points?
Thanks for reading.