My friend and I once derailed a Dungeons & Dragons session for 30 minutes while we argued over whether or nor my wizard could cast a “hold animal” spell against a human. Geeks, amiright? My contention was that humans are animals; in fact they are primates, which was one of the categories of “animal” listed in the spell description. His contention was that was not the intent of the rules, evinced by the fact that there was a separate “hold person” spell, in all functionality the same, but explicitly described for use on humans. Who won the argument? Who cares!? The moral of the story is we wasted 30 minutes of our lives and ruined the fun for everyone at the table.
All this was because, when I was younger, I used to obsess over the concept of the “official” rules to a game. It came from growing up in a family culture of vicious Monopoly play and other snide victories in games. Back in those days, the definition of what made you a “good” player had less to do with strategy and more to do with cheap tactics begotten by a better understanding of the rules than the other players had. Winning on technicalities. Winning at all costs, regardless of whether the experience of playing a game was actually any fun. I was very much a “letter of the law” kind of gamer; not so much “spirit of the law.” Really, I was the exact opposite of the kind of gamer I lauded in “There Is No Game.”
As one gets older and one’s attitude becomes (hopefully) more sophisticated and mature, then one comes to realize that the notion of “official” rules or “correct” play is a social construct and is as liquid as ideas of race and gender. When it came to gaming, this was a slow and difficult transition for me. I’ve spoiled many a fun time hijacking the conversation over “what the rules say or don’t say.” I’m more laid back about it now, but by no means enlightened. It’s also the primary reason that I don’t enjoy most games that involve players “voting” or making some sort of arbitrary judgment on “funniest” or “best” . Same goes for games that involve simultaneous action, which almost always leads to arguments over precedence. To each their own, of course, but these games just don’t have the structure that I prefer. Fortunately, I’ve come around on a slew of other titles, and I’m much more comfortable with the idea that “the
official game” only exists in the time and space where the game is being played, and has no real permanence or true state.
I think I have to thank video games for helping me chill out on board games. As far back as I can remember, all the way to Atari 2600, video games have had settings. There was frequently not just one way to play a game, but anywhere between a few and a few dozen, depending on the title. The game started with the assumption that different players will want to play differently, with different variants, and with different difficulty settings. This was the norm for video games, while in board games (at least as I remember and experienced them), it was not. In board games, there were The Rules. And they were printed, right there in a booklet or on the box lid. In ink. And it was all very legal-document-y-ish. And you only made “house rules” when the constitution needed interpretation. Variations came only through due process and judicial review. Then, of course, playing the supposed “same game” at someone else’s house was as off-putting as visiting a foreign country. I honestly can’t remember the first board game I saw whose manual openly articulated “optional rules” or “modes” of play. I just know it became mainstream at some point, and I think I’m on to something here with the video game connection: the word “mode” does sound very digital, does it not?
Now I’m a game designer, and a new but similar problem tends to emerge. Once upon a time, I insisted that there was only one, true form of a game. The game existed. Then I came to accept that there can be many forms, all equally true and enjoyable. The game exists only while the game exists. Unfortunately, now I’m sometimes plagued by a feeling that the game never comes to exist at all. It’s like I’ve gone too far the other direction in my thinking. This is especially true of games I’ve personally designed. No matter what state of “completion” they may appear to be in, I cannot help but view every single session as yet another “play-test,” and I sit there and question every rule and constantly evaluate every aspect of the game. Happily, it’s no longer from the viewpoint of exploiting some cheap advantage over the other players, but simply in a constant search for what is most fair and most fun. Nevertheless, my enjoyment of the experience of playing a game is diminished somewhat by a constant habit of revising it.
Games I have not designed are not spared this, either. Owing in part to the fact that I’ve accepted the reality of variations, it has essentially opened a floodgate in my mind. Game rules are fluid; therefore, EVERY game is open to interpretation, re-implementation, and revision. It’s been said that “a game is never finished, only published.” And it’s true, as it is with story-telling as well, but I can’t help playing nearly every game with at least a subtle doubt in my mind as to whether there isn’t a “better” way. It can be disheartening. Just recently I downloaded an app-version of Stratego to my phone. Here is a game that I absolutely loved as a kid—to the point of drawing up “battle plans” and “ideal formations” on index cards in preparation for the next session. It’s been years since I got to play at all (not counting the most recent and frankly disgusting new variants Hasbro has released, but I’ll save that rant for another article); I was stoked to find there was a high-quality and faithful app version on the market. Plus, it turns out the A.I. isn’t all that bad. And yet, I couldn’t help myself, sitting there hunched over my phone, the computer and I both boringly repeating moves simply to stall, wondering… “Isn’t there a better way?” Something of the magic had been lost. This happens to me all the time, whether I’ve designed the game or not. The gamer begins to wonder exactly when, if ever, they actually “play a game.”
Fortunately, I’m happy to say there’s a resolution to this inner-conflict, and it’s in fact the same resolution as that for coping with foreign variations. One simple word: settings. Whether or not the game in question has any expressed variants or optional modes, I have found that if I constantly think of whatever game I happen to be playing in terms of “settings,” then I agonize much less about whether or not the active rules are “best.” I rather just think of them as “current.” It often helps, especially with games that do explicitly offer variants or games I’ve personally designed, to make a conscious commitment ahead of time to actively choose the rules set, and thereby actively NOT choose an alternative, for the present session. Of course I still get ideas about different ways the game might be played, but these ideas don’t become distractions or preoccupations, and they don’t diminish my enjoyment of the present gaming experience. I simply relegate them into a little box in my mind labelled “variants.” Possibly I’ll play the game that way later, or maybe not, but it’s enough to appease my compulsive thought process so that I can enjoy the game as it exists in that moment. It’s really all about frame of mind.
So if you’re a designer like me, or simply just a “tinkerer” who enjoys inventing house rules for your games, but you find yourself wondering when was the last time you actually sat down and
played enjoyed a game, consider “settings.” Allow that there’s time and space for infinite variations, iterations, and ruminations, but that the time and space is probably not during the game. As with the rest of your life, pay attention to and get the most out of the experience you are having right now, and take all your “what if” questions as lightly as you can. You’ll end up in far fewer arguments (with yourself as well as others), and you’ll have a lot more fun.
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