Alternatives To Fun

My original intent was to focus on an aspect of V:TES – you know, that game I theoretically play and haven’t said much of anything about for weeks – with this post.

But, I read tomorrow’s Magic article by lead developer Zac Hill and started thinking about something else, then started thinking about rolling everything together since it all ties into pondering what makes games fun.

The V:TES part has to do with a common problem I run into when building decks on paper.  I create a lot of concept decks that are more akin, sometimes, to others’ tournament decks and, in other cases, try to prove a point about the game.  More specifically, the decks I’m talking about are very focused, unlike a lot of the decks I prefer to play.

And, that’s the problem.  There are some ideas I very much am curious about in terms of how well they would work, but the point of playing games is to have fun, and I don’t project that a lot of these decks will be fun to play in the setting – tournament play – that they are intended to be played in.  I suppose if I played a lot of tournaments, it would be fine to try more of these experiments, but tournament play is sufficiently scarce that I want to play something that will interest me throughout a day and not decrease the enjoyment of others.

Examples?  Combo.  I actually want to see how a Turbo Baron deck plays out, for instance.  I’m no great fan of combo in the first place, but it’s counterproductive not to examine such things.  Vicious or metagamey stealth bleed.  While I actually like stealth bleed, I don’t see how I can make the game fun for others by playing good stealth bleed decks, including ones that would be good because they abuse the metagame, such as masterkiller decks.

Meanwhile, crafting the fun deck for tournament play requires some thought.  The first part being what I’d actually enjoy playing, which is not a constant.  The second part is making sure that it achieves the low threshold of viability that I talk about often.  Probably not all that surprising that when you aren’t trying for good, it’s not superhard to achieve bad.  The third part is being memorable, more so to my opponents than to myself.  That memorability may be achievable with a modicum of cards or may require a more developed angle.

As an example of a deck that probably hit #1 and #2 and intended to hit #3 but likely failed, I had my Sea Pirates deck.  There were two primary elements to the deck:  I have never won a tournament playing Protean; Restoration should be better than I have long thought it is.  But, neither Protean nor Restoration nor the combination is distinctive enough to gain the all important “cool points” that any real deckbuilder is looking for.

Meanwhile, in our December qualifier, I played a !Nos deck that actually *gasp* rushed.  It arguably hit #2 and might have hit #3 only because people don’t expect me to play serious combat, but it utterly failed at #1.  Sure, it wasn’t a pure rush deck, a deck archetype I tend to despise, but any sort of rush requires way too many decisions I don’t enjoy making in tournament play.

So, to wrap up a bit about my V:TES decks so that I can move on to addressing some elements of Zac’s article, I have a bunch of decks across many years that I have never put together because, while they may be interesting scientifically, they strike me as unfun.

While I’m writing this, I haven’t actually finished his article.  But, there are so many things that could be commented upon, I’ll go through the ones I want to, in order.

Feeling

A central point to the article is explaining why people game.  People game to feel something.  Now, if you know about Timmy, Johnny, and Spike, you know that words like experiencing something are used to differentiate the psychographic profiles.  Still, it seems intuitively obvious that the reason to play games is for fun and that fun is a feeling.

It’s this feeling that ties the article into what I talk about above with decks.  Sure, I can play a really good stealth bleed deck.  But, that’s boring.  Where’s the challenge?  Winning a tournament?  Been there, done that … and with some really sketchy decks.  Win a major?  A continental championship?  Besides how rare it is for me to play those, the feeling of achievement in the game wouldn’t be nearly as high playing a boring deck as playing a non-boring deck.

Every once in a while, I play FreeCell.  I also play a lot of solitaire with an actual deck of cards while I watch TV, but FreeCell is a good example, here.  There’s a reason that when I play FreeCell I think in terms of 100 or 200 game sets.  Winning any single game of FreeCell is so pathetically easy that it provides no feeling of achievement.  It’s the ability to concentrate over the course of hundreds of individually trivial games, to grind, that is being tested.  Overcoming that lapse in concentration is the achievement and seeing the 100% win rate over hundreds of games is the payoff that a 100% win rate over a few dozen doesn’t provide.  I’d imagine that poker is like this for professionals – the achievement isn’t one big hand which might have been luck or bad play by an opponent but grinding other players out due to superior play.

Flow

I’m one of those people who despises Madness of the Bard.  That may seem a bit odd when you consider how many joke decks I build for CCGs.  But, maybe we can sort out this paradox by looking at the three elements of the flow experience:  clear goals, rigidly defined rules of engagement, and the potential for measured improvement in the context of those goals and rules.

I have learned, at least to some degree, that playing contrary to the goals of a game ruins the play experience for everyone.  Madness of the Bard does actually relate to the goal in the game of eliminating opponents’ pool, so why do I find it so offensive?  Because it’s a separate game.  I don’t actually care a whole lot about what it does to pool totals.  Anyone trying to play to the card, for whatever reason, is engaging in a poetry contest, not playing a card game.

Meanwhile, many of my joke decks are jokes in that they play around with people’s expectations, not jokes in that they are opposed to a plan of winning.  My Minbari Intrigue deck in the pre-Shadows days was trying to win, it was just trying to win with an awful strategy and with awful cards.  My Dance, Dance Revolution deck, currently built, can win … as substandard as Wind Dance is as a combat play.  I don’t think I make a lot of joke decks that make no effort to be viable.  I do, however, end up with a fair number of decks intended for humor that tried to be viable and failed.  The result ends up being the same, and it’s not a good thing to screw up games for others with such decks.  I could see someone arguing that the Minbari Intrigue deck was non-viable; I certainly don’t remember it doing anything productive.  But, sometimes, you can’t tell until you go to play the deck.  I’ve built decks that I thought would be competitive, that were built to try something productive, and that failed miserably.

Fiero

Fiero addresses more precisely why I hate easy wins.  I’m not terribly clear on why anyone else is in favor of easy wins, and fiero would suggest that they shouldn’t be, but it’s entirely possible that what I think is an easy win is perceived as more challenging by someone else.

Anyway.  When I talk about not enjoying winning in and of itself, it’s very possibly due to the level of fiero that is provided.  I take pride in all of the V:TES tournament wins I can think of off the top of my head because I felt challenged in every event.  In truth, I can’t really think of any CCG tournament win where I didn’t feel challenged.  On the other hand, there have been tons and tons of individual games, whether CCG or boardgame or whatever competitive game, where I felt no satisfaction from winning.  Any game where I get handed victory feels hollow.

Oh, I think I may have thought of an example of something that was competitive, if not a tournament:  the Prophecies League that V:TES did, now many years ago.  I won the first two games.  Won the next two games.  Nine weeks later or whatever, when it ended, nobody else had more than three wins.  I vaguely recall individual games where I might have gotten the game handed to me, but, more importantly, the overall experience wasn’t all that satisfying.  I even would skip playing for a week hoping someone would make some progress catching up, only to eventually end up winning on my efforts through week two.  A huge reason the other participants didn’t make it a challenge was that they didn’t make any real effort to metagame.  The league rules were utterly brutal to the unprepared and, since I got to choose one of the rules every week for the entire event, I kept choosing rules I thought made for interesting deckbuilding decisions, rules that lent themselves to building very odd decks.  That proved unfierotastic when people didn’t take the rules into account.

The End

Zac mentions how Magic is flowriffic because there’s always a correct decision.  Um, I won’t try arguing with that because I grief on Magic enough and it’s essentially right, anyway.  The important bit is that games fail when you don’t know whether your decision mattered.

I don’t like El Grande.  I’m a strategist, of what level I don’t really know, but I do know that I’m a bad tactician.  El Grande is far too tactical for me.  I have no idea whether my early game decisions to forego short term points will pay off because hammering leaders is expected.  This lack of understanding the payoff deprives me of any joy in making decisions earlier, then, later, the game may be so out of hand that there’s no joy in the later game decisions, either.

By the way, if anyone was curious as to why I suck so bad at jobhunting, some of it has to do with not knowing the payoff of my decisions.  Probably goes even further than that.  From a flow perspective, I don’t clearly understand the goal, since I don’t know specifically what job I want, I don’t have any sense of rigidly defined rules of engagement, but, on the other hand, I do have a sense of improvement in terms of more interviews, better interviews, and offers.

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