There are lots of people who play games, but let me tell you about someone special, the perfect player of games. She is characterised by two things, the first of which are her capacities. Intellectually, she’s second to none, as soon as she’s skimmed the rules she’s learned them, by the time setup is finished she’s a dozen idea for good strategies and by the end of the first game she’s well on the way to mastering it. Woe betide you if you seek to beat her at a game she’s put any real time or thought into.
Her capacities stretch beyond the academic, she’s capable of startling diplomacy, always able to be on the winning side of any trade or team. Perfect perception serves her just as well in divining her opponents intent as in spotting opportunities that other players might miss. She’s also a creature of imagination, able to enjoy being swept up in the world created by the game enabling her experience to transcend that which would be possible in an abstract built on the same raw mathematics.
Ah, but capacity is only half of the story, the real measure of a player is in how they’re used. The perfect player is characterised by her ability and willingness to adapt how she applies her capacities depending on the game and her opponent. When faced with a competition level opponent seeking a challenge she unleashes her full potential, but when playing casually with friends knows how to make a move that’ll make everyone laugh and join in the game. In a group that enjoys backstabbing she’ll prepare and execute the perfect betrayal to the accolades of her friends and should her group be one that puts fun before winning she can adapt to that too.
Where a group seeks to be immersed in the world she has a dozen tricks, anecdotes and when all else fails amusing in character voices to draw them in with her. When she introduces a game to new players the explanation is clear and succinct, learning a game in her presence is effortless (even where someone else takes the lead in explaining). Imagine a world of perfect players, in which every person is a paragon of analysis, planning, execution, imagination, grace, perceptiveness and sportsmanship. What games would suit such a world?
I think that in such a world, no games would be created or required. I don’t know any perfect players, but I know people who come close in various ways and it’s a delight to play anything at all with them. As a child with a cardboard box can create a transmogrifier or time machine, a perfect player can take perfect enjoyment from an imperfect game. How many times have you played a game, thought it was brilliant, only to later find that you never recaptured that special spark? I think that often it is the players, rather than the game, that generates the fun. From the point of view of creating an experience board games lose a lot by comparison to computer games, I think that one of the reasons that they’re still so popular is that the face to face experience has such an impact.
There are a lot of ways to classify games and I try to think about them in as many different ways as possible, it helps me to generate ideas and design games in ways that I might otherwise fail to consider. All players are imperfect, most players are imperfect in different ways, what does it mean to classify games by the sorts of imperfection they most readily tolerate and what makes them break?
Munchkin is arguably tolerant of failures of imagination and humor. The game’s components very directly supplies these elements (or at least things that inspire them) such that a group that’s not filled with witty people who’re usually cracking jokes together can still enjoy these elements. A total lack would totally ruin the game, but imperfection is bolstered. It’s far less tolerance of a failure of sportsmanship, as a very competent group of players could play far past the boredom threshold of all involved but continue anyway due to the relative ease with which players who do not wish to lose can prolong a game in the hope of eventual victory.
Coming from the opposite direction Chess is just as tolerant to such a lack of imagination and humor, not because it supplies them but because the core experience of the game does not require it. It also handles a lack of sportsmanship, within reason, as the interactions between players are so scripted. On the other hand it’s entirely unforgiving of a lack of certain cognitive capacities without which it can feel like a very poor game.
The concept can be applied to individual mechanics as well as entire games. What is the purpose served by negative cards affecting all opponents equally in Dominion? Or by the drafting mechanic that appears in games like 7 Wonders? Why do so many cooperative games (even my own Wizard’s Academy to a very limited extent) ask players to communicate in particular ways?
I can think of positive answers to all of these questions (something that is added to the game) but equally they all have a negative answer (a negative behaviour or experience that they minimise). A full perspective of a game, as either a designer or a player, requires an understanding of both – but the positive comes to mind more readily. Perhaps its time to improve the nature of my designs by unlocking the power of negative thinking.
I’d like to end the post on a positive note though – I don’t think that the world requires perfect players (or perfect people!) and I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with embracing our imperfections. As long as we’re seeking to enjoy ourselves and to encourage those around us to enjoy themselves it doesn’t matter if the way we go about it isn’t the most efficient road. Besides, it’d be boring if everyone played the same way 😉