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It's Only a Game

Jared Scarborough

March, 2005

I recently had cause to reread Greg Aleknevicus' German Games are Fraudulent! wherein he gently, and only implicitly, admonishes the theme-pasters of the publishing world for their cavalier shuffling of design and setting. While reading the article I thought of Reiner Knizia's 30-odd drawers, each containing a halfway designed game, many likely half-baked mechanics awaiting a theme or vice versa. Here's hoping they each find a partner.

This got me thinking about my numero uno in the pet peeve department, the dreaded drainer of my gaming interests, which I call the "Ornery Objective". No, I'm not talking about the evil gleam in the eye as one moves the robber and a cry is heard across the Settlers table, nor the slow turning over of one's Alchemist's Gold card in Age of Renaissance as several faces turn ashen gray. No, that's the nature of adversarial conflict. There are only a very few games that manage to substitute cooperation for conflict—and even fewer that do this successfully (Family Pastimes' The Secret Door is one that my niece requested many a time back when she was pre-teen).

No, I'm talking about something that I may be one of the few to object to. If you follow the various boardgame discussion boards you'll remember the hub-bub over Puerto Rico and its slave economy setting that boiled over several years back. There was talk about the colonist bits being slaves brought to work the fields, and so on. Well, not only had this occurred to me, too, but I even objected to the Sugar and Coffee being grown. The question for me was "Why do I want to immerse myself in a world where I'm aggressively growing products I actively avoid eating in real life? Furthermore, isn't it likely that I'll do poorly in a game in which I can't quite yoke the ox of my ambition?"

Still not sure what I'm talking about? Ok, let's say you had a choice between playing two different games. In the first you'd be trying to think of ways to annoy your spouse and victory would be making your mate cry out in mental agony; plus you're playing against an AI that has no sense of compassion. In the second, your playing your favorite game with your buddies. Save for the twisted snickerers and the I'll-accept-any-challenge crowd, there are precious few who'd choose our first option.

Now take that first option and ratchet down the intensity. Instead of hurting your significant other, you're just tasked with discovering ingenious ways to take out the trash, or ways to eat thin gruel three times a day. See where I'm coming from? My question is often: Why am I playing this game if it's a turn-off?

Now obviously, ornery objectives can be tolerated in games like Puerto Rico that are otherwise great fun. For example, I play quite a bit of Paths Of Glory, a wargame that recreates World War I down to the use of phosgene and mustard gas in trenches. The horror of the setting is, believe it or not, sufficiently mitigated by the amazingly fun system—at least until a more exciting design appears, at which point I'll drop WWI like the turkey it is.

About ten years ago I played a lot of Acquire, a hotel-chain-building, stock-ownership design that some credit with being one of the first stands-the-test-of-time great games. And I do have fun playing. But I find myself asking the "What's-going-on-here?" question. What if my parents ran a local, mom-and-pop hotel with charm, grace and sound-proof rooms, but they couldn't compete with the advertising budgets of the egg carton chains? See? And if I start thinking about these things while I'm laying down tile A4, I suddenly lose interest in the game and my mind wanders further afield.

"But wait a minute", you say, "it's just a game!" Right, and I'll still play Acquire; it's a good game. But what about Nexus Ops, an upcoming release from Avalon Hill. From Gamewire we learn that it's a "...tile based battle game in a futuristic setting where mysterious corporations vie to control the wealth of a planet".

Hmmm, "corporate...wealth...controls...planet", sounds a bit like a modern-day Risk on steroids. Well, if somehow the mechanics are shockingly innovative with bodacious fun to be had, I'd probably want to try it. But until I hear reviews to that effect, I'll have to pass.

And what else does Avalon Hill have on tap? Well, there's the escapist fun of Monsters Menace America (the original Avalon Hill title being Monsters Ravage America, which, if you're dealing with the campy and the down-right boyish, seems the more fitting title); there's Robo Rally (more futurism boosterism), something called Sword and Skull (I have a soft spot for pirates, mind you, but how many friggin', ...oh never mind), and finally Vegas Showdown, where we gamers can pretend we're playing for the wrong reasons: greed and getting lucky.

And what do four of the five upcoming Avalon Hill releases have in common? They're about vice or abetting the anti-hero. In a word, plunder; or in two words the Ornery Objective. Winning at being the baddie.

"But", you say, "aren't games all about escapism?" Not mine. I came back to the hobby in the 1980s to play build-it games like Civilization, Empire Builder, and later, Carcassonne, Lost Cities and Puerto Rico. So, it's not escaping that fascinates me, it's construction and finding the most likely path amongst many.

Conscious that Avalon Hill is an American company, I checked out the anticipated releases from our euro friends. The settings are often historical (Louis IV, Australia), imaginary (Shadows Over Camelot), even a bit whimsical (Diamant), but there's no sign of the ornery that I see.

Maybe it's the difference between appealing to a teen—and mainly male—audience that wants a degree of mayhem with their "baditude", as opposed to a family market that includes mature adults as well as a younger generation.

Ah well, enough philosophizing. Let's get back to the table.

- Jared Scarborough

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