Tuesday, September 22, 2009

A Good Heart These Days Is Hard To Find

Here's an interesting story about board gaming which has made me think, and also got an annoying song stuck in my head. When I was at uni there was a student in the year below me who lived at the same residential college. Because of his haircut we called him Feargal Sharkey. I never had much to do with him, but I met him again at a barbeque a couple of years ago. He has kids now.

Not long after that, or maybe even before that, it's all hazy now, Feargal also turned up to a Critical Mass day of games, as he's a long-time gamer buddy of one of the Critical Mass stalwarts. So, although we don't see each other so much, Feargal and I are basically friends.

Anyway, on Sunday at Gencon Oz I was playing games with some little kids (aged 7 and 8) while their dad was playing Chaos In The Old World. Feargal had temporarily lost his kids in the seething maelstrom of geekness so sat down to play Giro Galoppo with us. I cafrefully explained the rules to the kids, with special emphasis on the Things You Should Not Do, i.e. you should not play a card which lands you on a jump or the river or the moors. The 8 year old totally got it, the 7 year old totally did not. The 8 year old rushed to the front, the 7 year old lagged sadly behind. I was in second place with a slight chance of catching the 8 year old, so I set out after her. Feargal was at the back with the 7 year old.

As the game rushed to its quick conclusion, I noticed that Feargal was making some bad moves himself. Awful moves. Even worse than the kid who totally did not get it. In the end, the little girl won and Feargal came last. I mentioned later "Mate, you are the worst Giro Galoppo player I ever saw." Feargal just smiled.

I wonder whether Feargal knew that the 7 year old had just won Viva Topo! and totally flogged us in two games of Whirlpool?

Monday, September 14, 2009

Stop Crying

A few weeks ago my kid started playing Mafia Wars on Facebook. Until then I'd ignored it, just like everyone else, but I figured at least I could sign up and help him passively. I had a bit of a poke around, clicking on a few things, but it didn't make much sense. My kid was generous enough to help me. The days went on, and I was surprised by how complex a game it was. It didn't make much sense. I'd managed to buy a few properties and get some income going, and I helped my kid when I could. Then I got robbed.

I mean, some other BASTARD attacked me and damaged my properties and reduced their income. I couldn't believe someone could be so mean. I was ready to give the game up. I consulted with a couple of mates who also play it, and they didn't think that me being robbed was very exciting news. I repaired the damage and thought about it.

Eventually I went to the Zynga forums (Zynga is the company that makes the game). I found an article written by a poster called "Stop Crying", and it was his guide to how to play the game. His basic point was, when something bad happens, stop crying and play better. Suddenly I got it. After a week or so playing, I finally understood the game.

Very soon I was cruising the streets of New York looking for someone to beat up. I got good advice on how tough was tough, and set about making myself that way. A couple of weeks later I was almost invincible, for my level. And I was nasty... I started robbing myself, working on the hypothesis that the weak must suffer for the strong to prosper. That's what the game is about.

Of course, I'm only strong for my level. I'm level 80 and the toughest player I know of is just over level 1000. That's amazing. He could wipe me out without breaking a sweat. Of course, I'm so insignificant as to be below his attention, which is why it doesn't happen. Mafia Wars encourages players to interact with others at about their level, so of equivalent strength.

It turns out to be a very good game. The most fun is when you rob someone so badly they put you on the hit-list, and then when you've recovered from being killed you go rob them again. Because the correct response to being robbed is not to provoke the robber, it's to get tougher so he can't do it. Or else to ignore him so he goes away.

Does the "stop crying" principle apply to confrontational board games? Not so much, I don't think. Mafia Wars has the benefit that damage you receive can be repaired - you heal automatically, you can save up to repair your properties, and the bad guys just can't take your stuff at all. Board games are generally less merciful - when someone destroys your stuff in Twilight Imperium, it's gone, and you're hosed. Board games also work on the principle that all players are equal, whereas Mafia Wars somewhat segregates players of different strengths. Furthermore, board games have only one winner, and the others can be reasonably called LOSERS. Mafia Wars doesn't even have an end, so although there's necessarily less emotional involvement in the outcome, there's no point at which it's ascertained that you're a loser.

Anyway, please excuse me, MarshmallowBear keeps hit-listing me, and I'm gonna go rip him off some more.