Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Games as Puzzles

 Each player must accept the cards life deals him or her: but once they are in hand, he or she alone must decide how to play the cards in order to win the game.”


I love sitting down with a new game and trying to figure it out. Certainly I have numerous “how to play” videos to consult – though I usually do this before purchasing a game that’s tempted me with rave reviews or an engaging theme – but sitting down to sort through the components and then figure out how to actually play it is just part of the fun. For some games I enjoy repeat plays where I can try different strategies for winning. With the exception of solitaire games, each one provides a chance to get to know the people gathered to play it. Summarized in three questions – How does it work? How do I master this game? and Who are these other players? – these puzzles cross the boundaries of the adventure gaming hobby – board games, roleplaying games, miniature and board wargames, card games – and can consume participants to varying degrees based on the game and the player.

Games challenge us on many levels. They encourage us to read and follow directions, win and lose graciously, evaluate different situations, and manage with the resources we’re dealt. Certainly they have educational benefits – application of math, reading, critical thinking, assessing situations, often putting things in historical context – and they can help us grow when we take a little time to reflect on what we learn when playing. New games, even old favorites to which we return, further serve as three-fold puzzles further engaging us beyond their rules and themes.

First we face the puzzle of how the game works, understanding the rules and components, learning how to play. Sometimes we review our “how to play” videos, other times we read the rules straight through, often referring to the components. We might orient ourselves to the rules before bringing the game to the table with others, but sometimes solving this puzzle is a communal effort involving everyone at the table. Often playing a game the first time serves as a practical test of our understanding in an environment where we’re tolerant of mistakes, guide each other, and agree on rules interpretations. This proved true when we recently tried Gamewright’s Rat-a-Tat Cat, a card game with the coveted Mensa Select award. The rules seemed basic with some puzzling twists – get rid of high cards in your hand, with cards face-down and having looked at only two of four starting cards – but our understanding of the nuances of the game really coalesced the first time we played it. Each player must figure out the rules themselves, with varying degrees of help from others. Solving this puzzle is a cooperative endeavor; without everyone attaining a functional knowledge of the rules, the group cannot experience the game at its most basic level.

The second puzzle comes from mastering the game. How do we best use the game’s rules and elements to thwart our opponents and achieve victory? These strategies aren’t always apparent from a basic understanding of how the rules work...they emerge from experience. Sometimes we learn by reflecting on how our past in-game actions affected the situation and pursue those that worked in our favor. Other times we learn over the course of multiple plays of the same game, testing different strategies as we go. If we play games with similar mechanics, we might adapt learned strategies from other games. We can inform our strategies from other sources: fellow players, internet forums, websites, and online videos. Back when I was playing the first edition of the Star Wars: X-wing miniatures game regularly, I tried learning winning strategies by playing the game and testing out different squadrons, seeing how opponents paired ships with enhancements, and reading about winning combinations online. Frequent play and analyzing our strategies can add enjoyment to games we like enough to play repeatedly.

An ACW ironclads game set up in
the local museum Civi War gallery.
The third puzzle consists of the players (including ourselves). What personality traits affect how they play a game? What motivations and strategies do they bring to the table? How does the game change with different combinations of players? “You can learn more about a person in an hour of play than you can in a year of conversation,” despite its dubious attribution to Plato, among others, remains very true. My recent American Civil War ironclads wargame at the local museum offers an interesting example: each player brought their own perspective to the event...the family with kids who were interested in ironclads, the gamers looking for a new tactical challenge, history buffs with a competitive edge. Each player brought something different to the table from the perspectives of mastering the rules, motivation of play style, and driving personality. Learning about other players, understanding how they play a particular game, challenges us with a final puzzle in every game.

Every player of any game – roleplaying games, board games, wargames – brings their own expectations, understanding of the rules, play strategies, interest in the setting/theme, and personality to the table. We tend to game with our friends, who usually share our own views, backgrounds, values, privileges (or disadvantages), and prejudices. Sometimes our differences emerge while playing the game; a good group seeks to understand and show sensitivity to these differences to help make the game an enjoyable and fulfilling experience for everyone. This might result in some players leaving and new ones joining, changes that affect various game elements in a new mixture. Certainly a game – with its emphasis on certain system mechanics and setting themes – can influence that mix to varying degrees, but ultimately at the game table we all strive to get along for the sake of an entertaining and fulfilling experience.

Who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle.”

Lewis Carroll

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