Random Ruminations

It seems to be part of my nature to reflect on all my experiences--even the hobby experiences many people consider trivial. And I reflect best when I'm typing. So, here are some of my thoughts on games and gaming. Enjoy them if you can, comment if you like.
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More Abstraction, Please

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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."
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The gaming I did this past weekend confirmed a change in my taste--or maybe just a phase I'm going through. Lately I'm impatient with highly complex games and much happier with simple ones.

Game designs usually get complex for the sake of what's sometimes called immersion. Map the game to some real or fictional world, and players will lose themselves in it the same way readers get absorbed in a juicy novel. To pull that off, it often pays to work in a lot of detail, because most people like that.

I get it, and I can enjoy it, but I don't believe I'm one of those people who thrives on detail. Beyond a certain point, the more realistic a game is, in terms of audiovisual effects and "cool stuff to do," the less I like it.

I'm reminded of Microsoft Word. It was more complicated than I needed it to be back when it first came out; and every new version has been more complex than before. Not a problem, since I learned early on to just ignore most of the bells and whistles, but I still get annoyed or frustrated sometimes when I want to do something special and have to hunt through several toolbars or search the help manual. At home, I just use Wordpad instead; it's cheaper and simpler and does more than I normally need it to do.

Some games are like Word in that sense. One of them, apparently, is Endless Space 2. I just received it as a gift which I appreciate very much, because I'd long been wanting to play this game. I was so excited that I installed it right away and began to delve into it. I stopped short, but I tried twice more over the weekend. In the end, I sighed and said to myself, "Well, this is probably a fantastic game, and it may even become a favorite someday, but now is not the time for it."

Even the tutorial points up how complex ES2 is. I'd be bumbling along, doing the basic things I do in any space strategy game, and the adviser would pop up and teach me a lesson on economic spreadsheets or show me the basics of political elections. My reaction each time was, "What? I don't care about that. Can't you just handle that stuff for me?" About the time I had to level up a leader and choose his "career path," I'd had enough.

Again, I'm not dissing ES2 at all. I'm sure it's a fine game and deserves all the praise it gets. Right now, though, I find myself overwhelmed with games of that complexity level. I want something simpler, something more abstract.

Moreover, when I reflect back over the years, I can see that this has been a pattern with me. I can trace it all the way back to when I was ten or twelve and decided chess was better than checkers just because chess has more varied moving parts. Then came my early wargaming years, when I hungered for ever more sophisticated designs (PanzerBlitz, Anzio, and 1914 rather than the "simplistic" Tactics II and Afrika Korps). In both cases, I eventually did a backflip: I realized checkers is about as good and challenging as chess, and I found that simpler wargames like Afrika Korps are among the very best.

Still, I just had to experience the bigger, more complex games. So I got into monster games like The Longest Day and intricately detailed games like Advanced Squad Leader.

When computers took over the gaming scene--and especially after memory ceased to be an obstacle--computer-game designs tended to be more complex than ever. Now the machine could take care of the tedious work like number crunching, so the player was free to get immersed in ever more complexity without it becoming too laborious.

And I guess it's pretty amazing that gaming has evolved so much in the past several decades. Games we could barely even dream of in the 1970s are readily available today--and can even be played on a pocket-sized device. But as has always been the case with me, I get oversaturated with complexity. And then I find myself wanting to go back to the good old days when games were simpler. (Maybe there never were such days, but in my imagination there are.)

Nowadays there's the false promise of electronic devices to contend with as well. They say, "Yeah, this game is very complex, but I'll make it easy for you. All you have to do is click the buttons." For a while, that's fun. Then I realize I'm doing something mindless. I'm not really playing a game; the game is playing me.

That hit me most strongly in the game Alpha Centauri. It's a big, complex 4X game like Civilization, but it's loaded with automation options. If there's anything you don't want to deal with personally, you can just let the AI take care of it. Well, I didn't want to decide what to build in every base, so I switched on the governor. I didn't want to order my formers to build this or that, so I automated them. Late in the game, I didn't want to painstakingly give explicit orders to all my many military units, so I set those on automatic too. Now, except for making a few high-level snap decisions, I was basically just sitting back and watching the game play itself.

What a wake-up call! My original intention had been to learn and play a highly challenging strategy game, and now I was reduced to just "watching TV." It was partly because the computer made things so easy, but it was also because I didn't really want all the complexity I'd thought I wanted.

I'm still somewhat drawn to complex games, but I favor those that allow me to get by with a moderate amount of high-level decision making. Examples are Master of Orion, Dominions 5, and Warlords II Deluxe. In MOO, I automate almost all battles, and I don't know or care precisely what all the tech advances do. In Dom5, I make snap decisions about magic spells and army composition, and I let my mages choose their own spells. In Warlords, I pay little attention to specific stats and just try to get strong armies to the right places at the right times. It's nice to know there's more to learn if I ever want to, but it's nicer to know that these games are fun and interesting and challenging even if I gloss over most details.

Since I have only an hour to while away during weekday lunch breaks, the games installed on my phone are all classics: chess, checkers, go, backgammon, and rummy. For two or three weeks now, I've been getting annoyed with the random factor in rummy and backgammon, so I started playing go again. What a great game! Especially on the computer, where you don't have to count points.

Go is about as simple and abstract as a game design can be, and yet it's fascinating. For me, it's also satisfying to play (provided I don't get into trouble, take it personally, and react badly). After being immersed in complex computer strategy games, go is a breath of fresh air.

Decades ago, when I first learned to play go, I thought I wanted to master it--or at least get as good as I could. I studied books and practiced on the computer all the time. But eventually, as with chess and other games of that kind, I reached a point where it'd be hard work for me to climb to the next plateau. I could see what I needed to do, but I didn't want to do it. So I concluded that it wasn't the right game for me. I dropped it and started looking for a game that suited me better.

Reconsidering that now, I'm thinking go was--and is--a fine game for me. The problem was just that I pushed myself too hard and expected to improve faster than I did. I was never going to get much past being a kyu-level player anyway. But instead of accepting that fact, I let it bother me and ended up feeling unworthy of the game.

Now, after many years of playing games like Master of Orion, I realize it's highly unlikely that I'll ever be an expert at any nontrivial game. But now--maybe just because I'm older--I'm OK with that. What pleases me about MOO is that it allows me to sit back on a weekday evening or lazy weekend and just make a series of high-level decisions that might lead to victory. I make most decisions pretty quickly and casually, but all the while I lightly picture myself as a brilliant galactic conqueror. And it's satisfying both intellectually and imaginatively. It doesn't amount to anything substantial; it's only a game. But it makes me happy.

Playing go on my phone at lunchtime makes me happy too--but only because I play it on a low difficulty level that I can handle. It's challenging enough that I sometimes make mistakes and lose, but it's easy enough that most of the time I win. And in either case, I enjoy the kind of visualizing and thinking that goes into playing go. In short, it's a great way to spend a little time.

One of my favorite games, for a year or so, has been Dominions 5: Warriors of the Faith. It has the reputation of being very complicated, but once you get past a couple hurdles it can actually be pretty easy. The main hurdle is setup: right away, you're asked to create a pretender god and set a series of "scales" to define your realm; and if you're new to the game, you have no idea what choices to make. Well, after playing many games, I can get through setup very quickly--but I still don't put a lot of thought into it. I know what has generally worked for me in the past, so I mostly stick to that. And then I breeze through the rest of the game, which mainly consists of taking over territories, as in the game of Risk. I don't have the patience to carefully study stats or figure out which units and spells work best against specific enemies, so I just throw armies together and send them forth. The occasional disaster makes me stop and rethink what I'm doing, but otherwise I just play any way I feel like playing.

Thus, I basically turn a complicated game into a fairly simple, playable one. It works in Dom5 (and MOO and other games) because the game design doesn't force me to deal with details I don't care about.

Importantly, the game design also doesn't ask me to set specific functions on automatic when I don't want to deal with them. Because when I have that option, I end up in the Alpha Centauri situation I described above. No, I want to actually play the game, not automate it. I just want the freedom to play it at a high level and fuss with only those details that catch my interest.

When I do that, I'm essentially abstracting the game. I'm focusing on abstract strategy and making generally effective large-scale moves, but I'm being careless and inefficient about tactical specifics. Overall, that weakens my game considerably, preventing me from being able to win at higher difficulty levels. But it keeps the game manageable and enjoyable. Over time, I usually work in more and more tactical considerations, just because I become interested in them, but it's not a quick or natural process for me; it gets incorporated into my play little by little over the course of years.

So, abstract games like go work for me. And complex games like Dominions can work too, as long as they leave me free to play my way (broadly and abstractly, or at a high level). The only kind of game that doesn't seem to work for me is a complex game that demands my involvement in all its many facets and subsystems, even those I couldn't care less about. I mentioned Endless Space 2 above; another example that comes to mind is Imperialism, where it's necessary to do a whole lot of land improvement, commodity trading, and resource exploiting before securing the desired territorial gains.

Even Age of Wonders and most 4X games fall into that annoying-to-me class. Not long ago I uninstalled Civilization, even though I've played every version of it since the early 1990s. I came to realize it requires me to do too many things I'm not interested in doing. I don't care if a leader has leveled up, or if I've gained access to a new social policy or government type.

I do care about the big, weighty, positional moves, though--like nearly every move that's made in a game of chess, checkers, or go. I care about the overall balance of power and what I can do, from a high level, to try to tip it in my favor.

I don't need to get "immersed" in a game to enjoy that kind of strategic thinking. The game can even be very abstract. If the game happens to also be immersive, that's fine with me; it gets my imagination involved. I just don't want the game to pester me with a cadre of advisers reminding me to take care of this, that, and the other thing. I think game designers put that in so as to get players more "immersed," but it backfires on me because I want to tell the advisers to shove off and leave me alone.

Maybe what I'm saying is that optional complexity is fine; I just don't want complex, low-level decision making forced on me. When that happens, I want to shake my head and say, "More abstraction, please."
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