Solitary Soundings

Musings of a solitary gamer. "The advantage of conversation is such that, for want of company, a man had better talk to a post than let his thoughts lie smoking and smothering." (Jeremy Collier) Comments welcome.
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Back to the Tabletop--Maybe

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"‘Well, at any rate, the Dormouse said—’ the Hatter went on, looking anxiously round to see if he would deny it too: but the Dormouse denied nothing, being fast asleep. ‘After that,’ continued the Hatter, ‘I cut some more bread-and-butter—’"
"‘But what did the Dormouse say?’ one of the jury asked. ‘That I can’t remember,’ said the Hatter."
Microbadge: 2022 RPG Geek Play-by-Forum Initiative participantMicrobadge: Solitaire WargamerMicrobadge: Live and let liveMicrobadge: I speak SpanishMicrobadge: I completed the 2022 VGG challenge: played 25 video games or played for 250 hours
This particular blog was originally about board gaming. At some point I drifted back into video gaming and blogged about that instead. Then VGG came along, and I started a new blog there, just for video games. I never could keep the two modes of gaming separate, though.

The thing is, it's all the same to me. I play strategy games almost exclusively, and it's very rare that I play a game with anyone else. So, I'm either playing a single-player strategy game on the tabletop, or I'm doing it on the computer. The video games I prefer are all modeled on board wargames; the computer just saves me the trouble of setting up a game and taking it down again later (oh, and it also does a lot of number crunching and enforces rules).

Anyhow, Saturday was my birthday, and my wife surprised me with a brand-new copy of Space Empires 4X. I've read a lot of good things about it since it came out, and it sounds like just my kind of game. So I've gotten as far as clearing my table and unpacking the components.

Curiously, it looks like sort of a board-game homage to the computer game Master of Orion. Even the title and back-of-the-box text allude to Alan Emrich's coined term "4X," which has now been overused and misused for many years.

Of course, the main thing on my mind, as always, is, How do I feel about it? And as always, my feelings are mixed.

Since the game was a birthday gift, I'm reminded of my age. I'm a lot older now than I was when I first fell in love with strategy games. And I suppose I've grown a little bit jaded. Many times I've started out with wildly unrealistic hopes for a new game. I've learned, vis experience, what to expect--and it's always somewhat less than what I'd wish for. Still, I do enjoy a good game.

It also seems oddly "retro," at this point, for me to be starting into a board game. I remember, decades ago, getting a new Avalon Hill wargame in the mail (or sometimes buying one in a store). I'd just stare at it and read the box text over and over, building up excitement in preparation for the wondrous ritual of removing the shrinkwrap and unpacking the game. I had so much enthusiasm wrapped up in those games that setting one up was almost like arranging a sacred altar.

But now I'm used to new video games, where the intro is like a movie trailer, designed to invite the player in with all kinds of audial and visual teases. So, when I unboxed Space Empires 4X yesterday, there wasn't much magic to it. It was just a box of game components, the same as the many others I've accumulated. The experience seemed strangely silent and mundane. Part of me was wondering where the "movie trailer" was.

Still ahead for me is reading the rules and punching out the unit-counters. That latter is kind of a chore, but it won't be entirely unwelcome, because it's a special chore I remember enjoying many times in the past.

By the way, I'm impressed with the physical aspects of this game. The box itself is surprisingly durable, the board is well mounted, and there are even some plastic bags to hold the playing pieces until I get around to organizing them in some other way.

Reading the rules will be the interesting part. That's something I'm very rusty at. Modern computer games don't usually come with a manual; there's just a tutorial to walk you through the basics, and then, if you don't catch on naturally, you're expected to go online--to a wiki or someplace--to get more information and guidance.

One thing I used to especially love about board wargaming was studying the rules and putting them into practice. It felt like a great accomplishment to commit most of the rules to memory and understand just how they applied in every situation that came up during the game. For me, just getting to where I could comfortably and confidently play the game felt like a notable achievement. (Truth be told, I rarely went much further than that--trying to get good at the game, for instance. I was content to just know how to play.)

At any rate, playing a board game according to written rules is quite a different experience than playing a video game according to on-screen prompts. A well-designed board game comes alive once the rules are learned and play begins, but it's clear that you're working to make it all happen in your mind. In a video game, much of the experience seems more external: only the computer knows all the rules; the music and animations are coming to you from someplace else; the AI-controlled opponents may show up with faces and voices, producing the illusion that, even while by yourself, you're playing a multiplayer game.

After years of playing mostly video games, the tabletop experience requires some adjustment. As I said, just unboxing the game already felt strangely silent. Part of me will soon be asking, Why am I going through all the trouble of setting this game up, just to play it by myself?

But another part of me looks forward to the experience, if only for old times' sake. I wonder if I lost something along the way, when I succumbed to the lure of laptop computer gaming.

For a long stretch of time, I fought against the encroachment of computers on my life. I decided it wasn't good for me to become too dependent on electronic devices, so I made an effort to do most things the old-fashioned, low-tech way. But the electronic age overwhelmed me in the end.

Now it's time to revisit my board-gaming past and also learn and experience a brand-new game. And I may even have an opponent if I want one. My wife said, "You learn it first. And then, if it's a strategy game, I'll beat your butt at it."
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