The Games We Play
I’m surprised to realize I haven’t really talked about this before, in any depth, considering how important of a topic this is in my life.You see, Dear Wife and I, we love games.
I don’t mean that in the way that most people like to sit down and play a little Monopoly or Yahtzee or something. Nothing wrong with those games, per se, but they definitely aren’t on the top of the stack of games we pull out when we want to play a game together. I mean serious games – strategy games and board games, and other games you’ve never heard of.
I’d say Dear Wife and I sit down to play a game on average about 1.5 times per week – either just us together, with another couple or group of friends, or at a local, organized game night. Some weeks we go without any games (especially weeks that are busy at school). Others we might play several games.
Myself, I’ve always loved games, I think. Growing up I’d occasionally play Risk with my dad. That ended during a particularly contentious match that Dad was losing pretty badly. I grew weary of his complaining about the bad die rolls, so I threw the game. (And by “threw” the game, I mean I intentionally lost; I stopped attacking my dad’s territories, which is the only real strategy in Risk. I didn’t pick up the board and physically throw it, as animated as that might seem.)
Around that same time in my life, I discovered “Dungeons & Dragons” and, shortly after, the card game “Magic: the Gathering“. Those are a couple of games that have earned a really bad rap, undeservedly so. Dungeons & Dragons (abbreviated as D&D by players and fans), often cited as the first and original fantasy role-playing game, is really a game about the imagination. It’s a game that takes its cues from fantasy literature – the original edition of D&D listed a hefty group of fantasy novels and mythological source material that served as part of the inspiration for the D&D game, and it included everything from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings to Vance’s Dying Earth to works by Poul Anderson and Michael Moorcock. The promise of D&D has always been the opportunity for players to play out the adventures of their favorite fantasy stories, and to give them control over the narrative. What I’ve always loved about D&D is the cooperative nature of the game. There aren’t “winners” and “losers” in a game of D&D. Instead, the players work together to overcome some obstacle or reach some goal (which usually would include defeating some powerful monster in combat). Some people, it is true, play the game in an adversarial way, but that method of play has never appealed to me. I think it’s this cooperative nature of the game, and the story-telling potential, that drew me to it.
Magic: the Gathering (M:tG) is similar, but plays out in cards. Unlike D&D, it is a competitive game, but it’s also very strategic, as players attempt to outwit their opponent by playing combinations of cards that describe fanciful and powerful magical effects that slowly eat away at the opponent’s pool of game points. The conceit of M:tG is that the game plays out as a duel between two powerful wizards who are casting spells and summoning fantasy-inspired armies to do battle against each other until either one or the other has exhausted himself and falls in battle. Again, it’s a game of imagination.
The bad rap these two games have gotten is due largely to the obsessive way in which its adherents play the game. In my first year of High School out in California, where Magic was big, I remember large groups of people filling one of the quads at school with their M:tG decks pulled out and engaged in one-on-one or multi-party duels for supremacy in the imaginary landscape of the game. And there are many people who remember the scares in the 1970s that inspired the movie “Mazes and Monsters” the events of which, it turns out, had nothing actually to do with the D&D game. But it’s true that players of D&D and even Magic will often willingly give up whole afternoons and nights at a time to play the game. But it’s for more than just the game… for many of its players, opportunities to play these games are also important social events and opportunities to excercise their creative faculties in safe and meaningful ways.
I haven’t played Dungeons & Dragons nor Magic in a good four years: not since I moved to the city. It’s not for lack of desire to play, but for lack of time and for lack of having a group of friends in the area that I know play these games. It’s a curious thing: there’s such a stigma on playing games like these that even in the company of other fantasy and science fiction nerds it’s still taboo to mention D&D. And yet, it’s precisely in this population where I’m most likely to find fellow players. Still, D&D done properly is a significant investment of time (the stories told in each game typically unfold over multiple gaming sessions), and that’s not time I have to give to it, these days. Someday, perhaps I will again.
For me, I’ve managed to fill the void with some games that scratch a few similar itches. When I moved to the city, I learned about the first of these that I would eventually play: “The Settlers of Catan“. Settlers, as players typically call it, is called by some the “gateway board game”. It’s often one of the first unusual strategy games (you know, a game published not by Milton Bradley, Parker Brothers, or Hasbro, who collectively own the mainstream board game market in the U.S.). If someone tries Settlers and enjoys the experience, there are decent odds that he or she will eventually move on to try other even more unusual board games. I had several friends in the city who were avid players of Settlers, and though I wanted to give it a try (thinking it might be a suitable replacement for D&D), I never quite got around to it.
Not, that is, until Dear Wife came along (in the days before she was Dear Wife). But that’s a story for another day.
By which I mean: tomorrow.