The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

Sisyphus Syndrome

Dave Shapiro

May, 2004

In the realm of the dead, Sisyphus is condemned to roll a stone up a steep hill only to have it slide back down each time it reaches the summit.

GoOn the surface, Go is a relatively simple game to teach someone the mechanics. The basic instructions can be completed in one, long paragraph. Compare this with an introduction to Chess. (This does not refer to the depth of the game, just what is required to get a novice "up and running".) The Go board is simply a set of intersecting lines while the playing field in Chess has squares of opposing colors that affect movement. Chess has six types of pieces (pawn, rook, knight, bishop, queen and king) each with individual parameters that govern movement. Try explaining the movement of knights, castling or the ever popular en passant in one paragraph. The units in Go are basically flattened marbles that, once placed, never move again. Capturing pieces in Chess may involve a frontal assault from a rook, a slash across the board by a bishop or a revealed, hidden hop from a knight. Surround a unit in Go and it is captured. On his first turn a novice Chess player may open with any of 20 different moves (advance any of the eight pawns one or two spaces or advance one of the knights). The player is constrained by the rules, unlike Go where the player may place his stone (piece) anywhere on the board.


So now the novice is prepared to play his first game of Go. He looks at the near endless intersections on the board and begins wondering if any points are more valuable than others for placement of his initial stone. Contemplation turns to confusion and then becomes frustration; where to best place that first stone? His ever patient instructor reminds him that he may place it anywhere (hoping he will place it somewhere while the sun still warms the Earth) explaining that Go is like a river, flowing, changing direction. Finally, the new player sets his first stone. The ever patient instructor nods slightly and places a stone in another area of the board. Placing the next few stones seems easier and the novice grows comfortable with the game. This is when the delusion begins. Confidence increases faster than testosterone levels at a strip joint. The novice "knows"; this game isn't so deep, it is much less difficult than Chess. He believes, he knows that he is doing well; possibly dominating the game as the ever patient instructor pauses and mulls over placements, obviously struggling to counter the astute setting of stones by the novice. (In some novices the delusion develops into a full blown hallucination with visions of Dan level play expected within days.)

Oh, about half way through this first game the delusion dissolves in a blast of ice cold reality, shrinking the novice’s confidence level. The questions swirl: what is happening here? Why are my stones disappearing? Why has the ever patient instructor suddenly mutated into some form of mythical beast with a scorched earth plan for play? Having played a variety of other games, the novice experiences a "eureka moment", realizing that Go is a deep game; much deeper than originally expected. Go is a game that will require repeated plays in order to even begin to understand it’s complexities. The novice imagined the river of Go to be a stream that he could hop across only to be confronted with the shoreline of the Amazon. Few games compare with Go for breath and depth; the novice realizes that it will be a long time before he "knows" Go, before he understands the game.

But what if this never happens? What if you never "catch on"? What if every time you play the game, you are simply lost, not knowing what to do? You understand the rules, the mechanics, and are able to formulate a strategy but it never, ever works. Is this even possible? You are a gamer; a gamer who has played hundreds, thousands of games over the years, why should you fail so miserably at this one game?

The scenario is real and more common than I originally suspected. After years of gaming, I have encountered a trio of games that I "just don't get". I enjoy the games and find them challenging even requesting them with some regularity. I understand the rules and have successfully played similar games (games in the same family) but when I sit to play these, even with the best intentions (and a lot of caffeine) I am simply a lost soul. Repeated plays have not improved the situation resulting in frustration; I am Sisyphus 2004. Mentioning this problem to other gamers will usually illicit a so-play-something-else response. They don't understand. I can accept losing; it's only a game. I cannot accept not comprehending for the same reason; it's only a game.

This terrible trio is composed of respected games. When I approach one of these games it is with apprehension, lacking any confidence in my ability but always hoping that this time is the time; the one time it will finally unfold as planned, that I will become one with the game; that I will play competitively intelligently and possibly even win or at a minimum, understand my loss. However, every time I play, I not only lose, I lose badly and cannot fathom the error in my strategy. There is some mysterious wall that prohibits me from attaining even a modicum of success. This has begun to bruise my ego; it is embarrassing yet I continue to return to these games for the same reason a moth flitters about a flame and with similar results.

First of the terrible trio is Taj Mahal. Statistically, in a five player game, I should win about 20% of the time. In well over 30 plays I have won only once! That was so aberrant, so unique that we noted the date and my score on the inside cover of the box. I know the rules and understand the mechanics but any viable strategy continues to elude me. All too often any lead evaporates and losing by 20 or more points is common.

Second on my list is Tichu. Tichu is in the family of games that includes President, Asshole, Gang of Four and several others. Gang of Four is so popular in our group that we are on our second deck of cards. I not only win occasionally, I understand the nuances in the game. Bring Tichu to the table and my partner had better be very understanding (or inebriated). I never do well and cannot explain why as Tichu and Gang of Four are very similar games.

MüFinally there is . I try; I really do, but anyone who selects me as their partner (a rare event I assure you) must suffer masochistic tendencies. I understand every component of the game, every mechanic, but I cannot synthesize this into a whole; I have all the correct ingredients but the cake won’t bake. Give me Oh Hell or Wizard and we will have a competitive contest; muster up and I simply fill the seat. For some reason that I am unable to recognize, I cannot wrap my mind about the concept.

In each of these games, every turn is like that first turn for the novice Go player; I face a blank board and lack any real notion of what to do. It is frustrating; I "just don't get it". During a recent game gathering, I broached the subject only to discover that this problem may be more prevalent than I first expected. Everyone identified at least one game in which they felt lost, incompetent. A long time gamer professed sympathy for the problem and acknowledged that strategy in El Grande eludes him. A friend who introduced me to war games years ago, revealed that his Achilles' heel was Risk. He stated that in over 30 years of gaming, he has never, ever, not even a single time, won a game of Risk!

All of these troubling games have card play in common but nothing else; there is no mechanic, designer or theme that appears to be involved. Have I created a psychological barrier prohibiting me from doing well; at the very least, from playing competently? Is it even possible to be so consistently incompetent without actively pursuing this course? Should I seek out a support group? Is Camus correct in asserting that I am actually enjoying this situation?

Be assured that I will continue my apparent never ending cycle, struggling to push my rock up the mountain only to watch it slither and slide down after nearing the peak. I resolve to continue playing until I either win or understand why I consistently play poorly. Maybe Albert is correct; I am enjoying this.

- Dave Shapiro

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