Meeple Mea Culpa, or Cardboard Confessions
By Nathan Tenney
It's the time of the year that people prepare to set goals for the new year. Some goals emphasize things we want to do that we haven't already been doing, while others focus on habits or behaviors we want to change. The latter type of goals require that we take some time for honest self-reflection and introspection. Over the years, I've had a lot of fun and great experiences playing games, but not all my experiences are positive. When those happen, I like to take a step back and look at my own actions and see if there are some lessons that I can learn, things I can change, to keep from having the same issues again. I'd like to share a couple of these lessons. These are my own experiences or those I've directly observed. Any similarities to your own is coincidental (unless you were at the table with me at the time).
Several years ago, we had a player in our lunchtime group, I'll call him Mike. Mike's turns often took a long time. Not significantly longer than some of the longer turns each of us took, but his were more consistently long. The group would sometimes tease him about the length of his turns, at least in part because we were sensitive to the length of time our games took (we tried to limit gaming to less than 1 hour). We played in a shared space that occasionally had visitors and higher management coming through, and we had been warned that it could possibly be bad optics for us to be playing games at lunch, especially if it went past a certain time (despite the fact that as salaried employees, we were allowed up to "flex" our time). I don't know about the rest of the players, but I had no idea that what I thought was good natured ribbing was really bothering Mike. One day, we pulled out a game that we hadn't played in quite a while called Robo Rally. In the game, each person selects a number of cards from a deck of cards that contain instructions for their robot, and places them face down in order of how they want those instructions followed. Once all the players have "programmed" their robot, they simultaneously flip over each card in order and perform the instructions on the card for their robot, dealing with any interactions that happen between robots. The game has a mechanic that if all the players but one have programmed their robot, a small sand timer is flipped over. If the sand runs out, then the remaining instruction slots not already filled by the player are filled at random by the other players at the table. Mike walked in just as we were pulling all the bits out of the box, saw the timer sitting on the table and angrily asked "What, did you guys go out and buy a timer just for me?" I at first thought he was messing with us, but it turned out he was completely serious. We attempted to assure him that the timer was simply part of the game, but he was not assuaged. He turned around and left the room. My recollection now is that he never came back to games. I know I for one invited him multiple times to rejoin us, but he very respectfully declined. He told me he'd rather work through lunch and be able to go home to his family an hour earlier. I don't know that the teasing was the main reason he left the game group, but I've always felt that was at least a part, and that thought has bothered me over the years.
Now I can't say that I don't tease people at the table even now. Dave knows I sometimes give him a hard time about analysis paralysis, even though my own AP is probably worse than his. What I can say is that this experience has led me to try to be more welcoming at the game table, and hold off on teasing until I get to know the person better. Another thing that reflecting on this experience recently has made me consider, is my own reactions to teasing directed at me by other players at the table. I know I can be sensitive about some kinds of teasing, and I should be more aware that in most cases, it's meant as friendly banter and not allow it to get under my skin.
Checking out at the table
Recently, while playing a game online with some friends, both my plan A and plan B were eliminated in round 1. I could see where this was going, and I just didn't see any way for me to even have a chance, so I did something I rarely do. I told the guys in chat that I was just going to be passing on my turn for the rest of the game (though ultimately, I didn’t stick to that). Another recent experience happened at BGGCon. I was playing a game with Nathan and Logan, and was struggling to make any progress in the game. I was visibly getting frustrated, and considered checking out of the game, but because I had just started to put together this blog post, I decided to push on.
Occasionally the game, or your fellow players, puts such a bad beat on you that you question the wisdom of actually even playing the game at all. I've seen one player in Settlers of Catan, get blocked in pretty much every direction from his first 2 settlements. He pulled out his laptop, started working, and quietly collected all his resources, refusing every trade offer for the rest of the game. One could hardly blame him. It's hard to find a reason to engage when you don't see any way to victory. But having a player completely check out of a game isn't as fun for everyone, and for me, defeats the purpose of sitting down at the table in the first place. I'm there to have fun, unwind, and connect with my friends through a shared experience. Completely crushing everyone else is just icing on the cake. Really tasty icing, but it's not why I play games.
Usually, when this happens to me, I'll change my own personal goal in the game. I call this going for the moral victory because I started using this approach a lot to keep engaged in games of Power Grid when I got so far behind that there was no way for me to remain competitive. I would change my personal goal for the game to buying the 50 cost fusion plant, the best non-polluting plant in the game (without expansions) and therefore the most "moral" plant. I may set a more reasonable goal for a score to achieve, pick a card to buy, or try to play a particular combination of cards at least once. In the case of the BGGCon example, while I didn’t even come close to a victory, I ultimately had a good time, and I would definitely play the game again.
However, be considerate when picking a new goal. One that I'm trying not to do anymore is to deliberately play "kingmaker" (i.e. pick a person who isn't winning and help them win). For me this devolves way too often to "anyone but Dave" which sounds fun at first, but starts to appear mean spirited after about the 4th or 5th time it happens (sorry Dave). The most important thing to remember for me is why I sat down at the table in the first place. Winning is great, but I'm there to have fun
I think I've wallowed in negativity enough for one post. While considering scenarios for this post, I came up with nearly a dozen "learning opportunities" I've had over the years. I may revisit this topic and share some of these in the future, but I'm morbidly curious. What lessons have you learned from not-so-great experiences at the game table?