I played Shadowfist Friday night. After the last game, I was asked “What did you learn?” “What’s the preview of your next blog post?”
I’ve been thinking on and off about that. I don’t feel like I learned anything new from that session about strategy, tactics, deckbuilding, or anything substantial about what cards I haven’t seen before do. At one point, I thought to myself, “Is it important to learn something every time I play?”
Thinking more about the night, I gravitated towards perspective. Miguel, the host, is very much into playing the game, even though he has played it for a long time. A number of the other oldtimers don’t seem to get that much enjoyment from the actual play of the game. Whereas, I do enjoy playing.
Once upon a time, I came up with a wild guess as to what percentage of games for different CCGs I thought were good games or enjoyable games. I used this benchmarking to try to articulate why Ultimate Combat! is so much better than other CCGs. I may not recall correctly, but I believe it was something like 20% of my Magic games were fun/good, about half (or maybe it was 40%) of my Babylon 5 CCG games were fun/good, and something like 75% of my Ultimate Combat! games were fun/good. Don’t recall if I ever tried to blindly guess about V:TES percentages, but I’d probably say two-thirds.
To pick on Babylon 5, as I think it’s an important contrast, we played a lot of rough games. There were numerous, tedious cheese, Shadow, Vorlon, Alliance of Races (I was the main offender), unrest, Drakh, ISA, Conscription (I was the main offender), Tu’Pari kills everyone, etc. games. We did not eschew annoying strategies or annoying cards. It’s funny for me to think about how much more we embraced brokenness, abuse, and stuff not that good but highly unpleasant than in my playing any other multiplayer CCG. That certainly helped when it came to playtesting, of course, to the extent that saying something is unfun and seeing it printed anyway was being helpful. Until Wheel of Fire introduced Drakh and ISA, though, I was pro B5. In fact, I consider the post Severed Dreams environment the best overall environment.
Why go on about B5? Because the point of playing games is to do something fun. Winning may be the internal goal of a competitive game, but it’s the expected fun value that makes choosing one game over another or even just choosing gaming over doing something else the correct choice. It may make me sad to not have more opponents (or any opponents for certain games I like), but there’s no point in playing a game that isn’t fun, so I get that I enjoy certain games to the point of being interested in playing them where others don’t have that level of interest – I no longer worry about trying to convince people about how great something is.
B5 was probably a coin flip as to whether it would be fun for any given game. Now, more than one game was usually played, so you could view it as an expected value of half a fun game per game played, leading to one or 1.5 fun games per play night. Then, a vast amount of my enjoyment with games doesn’t involve playing them. I enjoyed thinking about optimal moves in the Game of Thrones Boardgame, even though I thought the game sucked. I thought about how to build Hyborian Gates CCG decks (I even built one!) or Tempest of the Gods CCG decks (I actually have some decks built even though I don’t actually understand how the game works).
Shadowfist is being far more enjoyable to me, right this minute, than B5 was, on average. Actually, Shadowfist is being more enjoyable to me, right this minute, than anything besides UC! and maybe the Wheel of Time CCG, on average. But, it’s not a fair comparison. Newness is a thing. Being able to relive learning a new CCG is a thing. Not having to care about how good the game is or how good a tournament game it is or whether I can corral enough people to fill up a tournament is a thing. I’m in a post-curmudgeon mindframe. When B5 was new to me and before the first expansion, maybe even after the first expansion, I probably enjoyed it as much as I do Shadowfist, right this moment.
The problems in Shadowfist don’t really bother me. I’m not invested in its history, as I’ve been invested in the history of a few CCGs. I haven’t had a chance to become jaded, like I have with B5 and V:TES. I just build decks, play the game, and don’t get caught up in any angst over the game.
At the same time, it’s a CCG experience. What does that mean? It means, there is so much to discover, so many things to try, so many ways to bring my personality into the game that you don’t get with boardgames (for instance). I sit in a weird position of, on the one hand, understanding completely the gripes of veterans about the game because I’ve been through those wars with at least two CCGs. On the other, those aren’t my fights and I am going through much of a newb’s discovery phase. I might have been knowledgeable about CCGs enough to not be “gee, whiz” when I took up B5, but I also hadn’t gone through the playtest wars or the design wars that I went through after getting into that game.
So, what did I learn?
I learned that I can be in a position to both embrace the possibilities in a CCG without being a cynic while also not being naive about the issues the game faces – rules, balance, paucity of players, infrequency of play, staleness of decks. It’s a pretty cool position to be in.