Just last week, I was having a little conversation online about some comments in one of my favorite podcasts, This Board Game Life. Just to summarize briefly, the hosts of the show basically said that Castle Panic was lacking in decisions and more or less just played itself. The point I was trying to make in my response was that it sounded like they were playing it as a pure-coop game, rather than as the semi-coop game with a winner as is written in the rules, and that adding in the element of how much to cooperate at any one moment makes it a lot more interesting.
So in the process of the conversation, I essentially called them out and said that they weren’t playing it right, so they didn’t really have grounds to complain about how the game played. The mere mention of the phrase “you’re not playing it right” made one other listener bristle up and push back against me a little. And that small point of contention was interesting enough to me that I thought I’d explore this whole idea of what is the “right” way to play a game.
Oh, and I’ll go on and apologize ahead of time for my excessive use of scare quotes. I just can’t help myself…
A Question of Rules
Now, my whole point was that they did not appear to be playing the game according to the rules as written for the game, so technically, they weren’t playing it “right”. And certainly, there are a lot of times where, unintentionally, you play a game with incorrect rules and that affects your opinion of a game. But hopefully, you then realize your mistake (or some kind fellow on the internet points it out to you), play it again correctly, and have a more realistic opinion of the game as it was intended.
But what if you choose to play it “wrong” by ignoring or changing certain rules in the game? It’s the old question about whether it’s “okay” or not to “house rule” a game to “fix” it in some way or another.
Now, my basic opinion is that once you’ve bought the game, you can do whatever the heck you want to do with it. I mean, if you get some kick out of sticking the wooden bits up your nose and rolling around all nekkid in the cards, then go for it (just please don’t bring it with you to game night afterwards and ask me to play with you… ewww!).
But I also generally think that before you apply house rules all over the place, you really need to give the “real” game a fair shot first. A lot of times, people sort of assume that a rule or system will be broken or boring or whatever either after only one play or maybe even just from reading the rules. But as I often rant about concerning reviewing a game after just one play, sometimes the reality of things aren’t what they first appear.
In fact, every time something like this comes up, I think about outspoken RPG designer Luke Crane. He’s designed games like Burning Wheel, Mouse Guard, and a number of other cool non-mainstream RPG’s. And something he noticed a lot was that people would look at his game, see some of the “non-traditional” elements in it, and decide to just ignore them when they played. Then they’d get all over internet forums somewhere and complain about how terrible the game was, which would piss Luke off to no end.
Now, did those guys out there have the right to house-rule Luke’s games? Of course. But once they did, they had no freaking right to complain about Luke’s game since they weren’t playing it “right”, meaning as Luke designed it. As I heard Luke say one time, “if you pull the back off your iPod and stick your dick in it, you void the <freaking> warranty.” So once you go and void the warranty on a game by sticking house rules into it, don’t go and complain about how broken the game is with your half-butt playtested house rules hanging out all over it.
And that’s basically what my concern was over Castle Panic. Even from way back when it was released, I heard a number of people comment about how the “winner” was just silly and it should just be played fully cooperatively. But then, if you make that assumption, don’t go complaining that there’s no real decisions when you neutered the main decision point in the game by your initial decision to house rule it.
Oh come on… You know you wanna do it…
The “Spirit” of the Game
The other main way I hear people making judgements about not playing a game “right” has more to do with the “spirit” in which a game is played. Now, this is a lot harder to define and a crap-ton more sticky than just calling out a rules error, but I’ll try to make at least a few coherent points about it.
I guess my first question is whether or not you can define a “right way” to play a game. I have a feeling that this sort of thing is what make that other listener perk up and get a little ill. That the basic presumption of one person telling another that their way of getting enjoyment from a game is “wrong” is practically offensive. And certainly I could imagine some sort of internet trauma in that person’s past from some raving blowhard telling him that he had no right to enjoy a game in one way or another.
So for the most part, I agree that, much like the nekkid dude with the wooden bits up his nose, you can choose to play a game in whatever “spirit” you want. But at the same time, there are a number of specific cases where a lot of us don’t mind judging others quite so much:
1) Analysis Paralysis – Sure, he’s already been thinking about his move for 5 minutes and still hasn’t rolled the dice yet in that game of King of Tokyo, but who are you to tell him that he’s “playing it wrong”?
2) Not Playing to Win – She’s not really into strategy much, so she just decided to make pretty designs with her pieces. Of course, that makes her totally unpredictable and is greatly helping the person to her left, but do you have any right to judge her “incorrect” play?
3) Kingmaking – He really doesn’t want to sleep on the couch tonight, so he does everything he can to make sure his wife wins the game… Can you blame him?
So what makes it “okay” to judge these sorts of activities or approaches to play while making other judgments about play style are totally inappropriate? Well, first and foremost, it’s about the Social Contract of the people around the table.
So, what’s a freaking Social Contract? Simply put, it’s the agreement, whether spoken or not, about how a group will interact. And specifically in our case, how a group plays games. So the basic crux of the whole “you’re not playing it right” complaint is actually more of a disagreement concerning the social contract in question rather than anything else.
Therefore, if a group has basically “agreed” to play at a certain pace (again, either formally or informally), and then one person uses far more time to think about and carry out their moves, they are breaking the social contract of the group by indulging their analysis paralysis. It’s basically putting your own desires and opinions ahead of those of the rest of the group; being selfish by demanding that you have fun at the expense of the fun of others.
But if you agree with that point, how is it any different than the typical “Puerto Rico poo-poo head” complaint? If a more casual player sits down with a seriously competitive group of Puerto Rico players and then plays “wrong” by intentionally making suboptimal moves “just to have fun with it” that gives the game to another player, isn’t the casual player also breaking the social contract? Haven’t they “ruined” the game for the rest of the players by the way they chose to approach the game? I’m not saying that the other players have the right to be rude to him or anything, but aren’t they justified to feel like he wasn’t playing “right”?
What is much less valid, however, is when someone from one group makes a judgment about someone in another group (usually across the vast expanse of the internet, of course). If your group likes to approach Loopin’ Louie as a seriously competitive dexterity game, who am I to judge by claiming that it’s “just a silly kid’s game” or that you “take it too seriously”? So, in general, as long as you aren’t having your fun at the expense of others, why should it matter to me?
The “Intent” of the Game
But there’s one other thing I want to mention before leaving this subject. What about the “intent” of the game, particularly as defined by either the rules or acknowledgement of the designer? Should that have any impact over whether you’re playing it “right” or not?
The main example of this that I can think of is when people say that a game like Descent or Mansions of Madness “should” be played more like a roleplaying game, where it’s sort of a semi-cooperative game in which the overlord/keeper/game master person “takes it easy” on the players all in the spirit of everyone having a good time.
But to me, if the game was designed and established to be a competitive exercise between the overlord and the players, then that’s how it should be played. And if one side or the other is too strong and would have to go easy on the other to make it fun, is that the “spirit” of the game telling you to play it semi-cooperatively, or is it just a broken or imbalanced game?
And you know, I certainly don’t have the answer to that one. I have a feeling it’s still somewhere in the middle, where I have the right to complain about the game failing in its stated goal, while they have the right to stick all the plastic minis up their noses and roll around nekkid together on the copious cardboard map tiles.
But what so y’all think? Have I not written this whole article “right”? What house rules do I need to make to my argument here?