Cooperative Competition and Cardboard
Goldeneye gave me some of my favorite gaming memories. Super Smash Brothers and Mario Kart gave me the others. There’s something about sitting around a coffee table with your friends, eating badly processed boneless chicken wings and laughing as someone playing Fox attempts to wave dash and falls to his death, or when someone walks into a hallway full of proximity mines. Or accusing fellow Mario Kart players of being prostitutes to pay for their increased skills.
Since then I’ve tried to find the same multiplayer magic multiple and it’s never quite worked. Playing Unreal Tournament with my hallmates in college was fun, but it lacked staying power. We’d play for a while and then I’d feel a profound disconnect, like I wasn’t playing with other humans. I’ve tried many first person shooters (Battlefield: Bad Company 2 most recently) and they didn’t jive with me: too faceless, too bland. Left 4 Dead was an exercise in frustration—sure, I could play with, talk with others, but it wasn’t social. The other players could be computers and I wouldn’t notice.
Even Magicka, the weirdest multiplayer game of last year, didn’t do it for me. Sure, we the players were creating the entertainment (like whenever one of my allies always did the wrong thing at the wrong time) but there was that disconnect, still. I played it a couple times and didn’t want to go back.
The thing splitscreen multiplayer gave us was stories. They gave us tales that involved one another, not just the game. We were the stars, not the title we were playing. Modern games are about providing that Blizzardian infinite game rope, the multiplayer game that will consistently reward which you will keep playing indefinitely, rather than being games that will bring us together as friends. They’re designed not to be sold back to a retailer, not to keep us together.
So I decided not to play multiplayer games.
Except this felt wrong to me. Sure, single player games have always been my jam, but multiplayer? I have lots of friends, but I rarely play multiplayer. We’d played Brawl to death, and then we played Balanced Brawl to death. We told stories about our multiplayer games. I missed the stories, not just playing with someone else. We needed something physical, something binding, to make the events real. So I bought my first board game.
Proper board games have experienced a resurgence in the past couple years. Personally, I was brought into the fold by RPS’ fantastic Cardboard Children column and, then, The Shut Up and Sit Down Show. We’re familiar with the classic games: Monopoly, Risk, Parcheesi, and maybe even Diplomacy. But looking at new games over at the fantastic Board Game Geek, none of them seemed like that. They were all numbers, and intricate scenarios, and, above all else, they looked fun. They looked like something to enjoy doing with other people rather than something to do at the same time as them.
The first game I really enjoyed was Dominion. This is the standard board game* narrative: new player buys Dominion and appreciates just how much fun board games can be. I played other games before it, and others after, but it’s the one that I can think about and think how much fun I had with it. It’s intricate, it’s strategic, and it’s cleverly competitive; it’s a game I could tell you countless stories about. My friends and I all play as creepy named countries (I’m “Tomistan”. Often “The Great Nation Tomistan”, or “Poor, Depressed, Choked with Curses Tomistan”) and we’re each characters, not as a rule but as a choice. One of my friends will try to buy all the attack cards and kill us. Another will, generally, try to get along before she decides to buy all the attack cards and retaliate. Another develops completely ineffective system after system and usually ends up losing by double digits. I build the strongest possible economy. We interact. We scream at each other across the table, and we feel giddy when we get excellent hands. There’s an accomplishment there absent in multiplayer video games—that feeling that you, you alone, have done something, accomplished something.
And it has stories. That’s the most important part. Board games have brought back stories to my friends. Stories about gaming. Instead of intellectual discussions about the ending of Mass Effect 2 or why Principal Prickly thinks he’s a speedboat, we can talk about that one time we played Dominion together. There’s a cohesion to it, a community to it that is reminiscent of good split-screen multiplayer. It feels physical and real and like we’re doing something instead of wasting time.
Of course, board games have their foibles. It’s hard to convince people to play them, especially here in the States where they haven’t caught on quite as quickly as they have in Europe. In fact, I would say this is the crucial problem the form hasn’t fixed yet: finding people to play with you. It’s the same problem Super Smash Brothers has: if no one wants to play with you, then you can’t really enjoy it. Simple as that. It’s worse for board games, though. There’s a barrier of entry, not just in the fact that most games are complicated and most gamers think of board games as Monopoly but also in terms of price (less than video games but again, you’re only getting a “multiplayer” component) and set up. They’re expensive, and they’re sometimes complicated. You have to learn them.
But you learn together, and it’s all worth it, in the end, when you can find stories and moments like the multiplayer of yore, when you interacted with friends face to face, when you made gaming memories as opposed to gained meaningless levels in a game you won’t be playing in six months.
A small link dump about the topic:
Cardboard Children over on RPS – And Not Cardboard Children
Campfire Burning on the Little Metal Dog Show – Really interesting series of articles by a newer board gamer which inspired this piece (since, you know, once one person writes about something on the internet everyfuckingbody should.)
*Yes, I know Dominion has no board. I am aware how clever you feel pointing this out. What would you call it? A card game? Because someone less clever than you or even I will then think of it as Solitaire. It is a card game with Eurogame mechanics, but that is long and exclusive. I will call it a board game because that adds more to the conversation.