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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Dream Game

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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: Civilization V fanMicrobadge: I completed the 2022 VGG challenge: played 25 video games or played for 250 hours
After half a century of trying out games, enjoying them, and finding shortcomings in them, I can't help but ask myself what my dream game would be like--a game without any shortcomings, one that suits me perfectly.

Usually I've supposed I was in the midst of a process of elimination. I'd sample games and keep only the best, and someday I'd stumble upon one that's absolutely flawless (by my lights, though others might find fault with it). But when I dare to take a reality check, I begin to realize the process is never-ending, because there's no such thing as the perfect game. I'm looking for a Platonic ideal in a world of ordinary phenomena.

So, I don't take my quest seriously; I know I'm just picky and easily disappointed and will never be anywhere near completely satisfied with any game. Nevertheless, I gotta be me. So I'll probably always be evaluating games and debating with myself over which to spend time on.


One factor I regularly bump up against is difficulty (level of challenge). It used to be maddening when I was younger, because back then I aimed to master any game I chose as a favorite. And if mastery proved difficult, I'd worry. I realized it takes time and practice to get good, but I still didn't feel I could afford the setbacks or headaches. I wanted a game I'd prove to be a natural at. If it was the game for me, I figured I'd be a prodigy and achieve mastery pretty easily.

Now I've grown used to the fact that I'm still a novice at chess, checkers, go, and other games I learned when I was a kid. Clearly I'm not up for putting in all the hours of disciplined practice it'd take to excel at those games. So I may as well learn to be content with the level I'm at.

Still, I get nearly enraged anytime I blunder badly in a game I've played a lot of. Last night, it was Age of Wonders III. I started a small-map game just because I hadn't played in a long while and wanted to remind myself what it was like. But I started losing units in tactical battles right away. Then I tried to fulfill a quest but accidentally razed the wrong watchtower and couldn't get to the right one soon enough. Finally I quit the game in a huff, concluding that I was too stupid for it.

I prefer a game I can more or less cruise through, at least on an "easy" or "normal" level, knowing I'll never go very wrong. Whatever I do, I'll be able to bring things back around to where I finally win.

I want the game to have higher difficulty levels too, though--greater challenges for the times when I'm in the mood for them. That way it's a game I can grow into and learn more about.


Game length is another factor. Seems like just about every evening I look over my collection of installed games and see too many long ones. "I'm not going to start into that," I say to myself, "because it'd take forever to play." What I want is something to fill up the couple hours I have available.

But it also has to be a game that will leave me with a feeling of accomplishment. Ideally I want to have won it. Alternatively, I want to have achieved something remarkable and then found a good stopping point, where I can happily save the game to be resumed later.

Yet, I don't want the stopping point to be at the end of a chapter in the game's ongoing story. That's because I might not get back to the game anytime soon. If it's a cRPG, and I save after a battle or encounter or at the end of a chapter, I'll feel I have to resume play the next evening or pretty darned soon. If I let the game sit for months, as I sometimes do, I'll struggle to pick up the story thread. And if that happens often enough, I'll start resenting the story, wishing it weren't there.

Ever-expanding games are also a problem. That's the case with 4X games. You start out small but gain territory until you've created a huge management problem. Then you get tangled up in war as well. The "just one more turn" phenomenon in Civilization is mostly due to the player's fear of saving and putting the game away, then having to get reoriented to a very complex situation next time. Better to keep playing while the whole situation is fresh in mind.

So, my dream game would last for just one sitting--an hour or two, maybe three or four at the most.


And yet, I love getting totally immersed in any game I play. I want to lose track of time and become thoroughly absorbed in what I'm pretending to do. So it won't do for me if the theme is sketchy or if the game is designed for two or more players and isn't interesting enough with just one.

Oddly, abstract games can work for me. I still play chess, checkers, go, rummy, backgammon, and other games (usually on my phone), and I find them interesting and engaging enough. At my novice level, a decent AI opponent poses sufficient challenge to keep me thinking. And I enjoy the mental exercise.

Other times, though, I'd rather play at something--pretend to be out to conquer a world or a galaxy, or heroically fight my way through a dungeon or some fantastic realm. That kind of game typically has a story to it, or at least an open world to explore, and either of those things can present a problem.

I mentioned one problem with a story above: it lures me on and makes me feel obligated to play regularly and see the story through. Often I don't want to do that; I'd rather play for a couple hours and then let the game sit for months until I come back around to it.

Another problem with story-based games is that the story is necessarily finite. Oh, there might be sequels, but a given story has a beginning, middle, and end. Since to me all games ought to be replayed again and again, it feels very weird to arrive at the end of the story and realize I'm finished with the game. I might treat it like a novel and "reread" it someday, but otherwise I'm just done. I'm too used to games like backgammon where the last turn is followed by, "Let's play again."

Open-world games have the same two problems, I suppose: (1) as long as there's more to explore, I feel compelled to keep moving around and not let the game sit too long, and (2) once I've finally explored everything, there's nothing left.

So my dream game would have a strong theme--capture my imagination and take me somewhere. But it'd also have a random map/scenario generator. I'd be playing the same game over and over (the way I feel a good game ought to be played), but it would be markedly different each time--new map, new adversaries, new trap locations and victory sites, etc.

Some Contenders

The games I like best and play most often do fit the dream-game criteria described above, for the most part.

One example is Dominions. The random map generator is good, and I can also randomize my own nation or opponents' nations. There are also victory options and other settings to add variety to the games. And yet once a game starts, right away I'm on familiar ground and know what to start doing.

There's a rich fantasy/mythology theme to get absorbed in, but the only story is that of what I do and what my rivals do. There's no extended script. And although there's a world to explore, it's a partly known world from the outset: you can see all the provinces, but you don't know where everybody lives or where the magic sites are.

It can be too big and long a game for me, but I don't have to go there, so I almost never do. I just choose a small or medium map, depending on how long I feel like playing. Once in a blue moon I'll play on a large or huge map, but then I usually set it up as a team-vs-team game so it plays faster.

Other games of the Dominions type that I like a lot include Warlords II Deluxe, Master of Orion, and Age of Wonders. I might include Heroes of Might and Magic too.

Tales of Maj'Eyal is another game that has been working well for me. That and other roguelikes. At least some parts of the map and some encounters are procedurally generated, so no two games are exactly alike. In addition, it takes a lot of practice, skill, discipline, and luck to make it all the way through to the end. So, although there is an end, I'm unlikely to arrive there for a very long time, if ever.

A nice feature about ToME--and Darkest Dungeon and similar games--is that something meaningful and satisfying can be achieved during a single sitting. If I only have time for one or two dungeon runs, that's fine. Each one is fun and ends up feeling like a real accomplishment (if I survive).

The problem with roguelikes is that they can be too hard. I'm more likely to get frustrated and abandon the game than see it all the way through, because it gets harder and harder as you go along. That's just the opposite of Dominions and 4X games like Master of Orion. In those, the major players are powerful and dangerous at the end, but if you're in the lead, you've won, and you can just casually mop up. But in a roguelike, you're about to have to face the final boss in the end, and that's apt to be a serious challenge even if you're all leveled up and ready.

Another kind of game I've been enjoying is the sub sim. I like Silent Service II, and lately I've been playing Crash Dive. Full-blown simulations like Silent Hunter tend to be too much work for me, so I'm happier with the lighter titles that play more like arcade games.

On low to medium difficulty levels, I can usually sink some ships and evade the escorts. And I can fit a few battles or a whole war patrol into a single sitting. Also, the engagements are randomly generated, so I get plenty of variety.

As to immersion, well, it's kind of a pun when it comes to sub sims. But there's plenty of both kinds of immersion. One thing I especially like about this sort of game--any simulation--is the realism. In other games, I can make believe I'm someplace else, but a sim makes me feel I'm really there. For that reason, I come back around to Silent Hunter III every now and then just because it looks and sounds and feels so much more like real life.

So, I've got some pretty dreamy games to enjoy. They're just not quite up to my dream-game standard; they all have some shortcomings. That is, if I were in a complaining mood, I could find something to complain about in each of the above-mentioned games.

The underlying trouble, though, is that I also have shortcomings of my own. If some games are too difficult, it's because I'm not smart or disciplined enough. If some are too long, it's because I lack patience or tenacity. And if some aren't immersive enough for my liking, it could be because my imagination is lacking.

I'm pursuing my dream game, but I'm changing all the while. So I suppose I should consider it a big win if I discover a game that's a great fit for me right now. Might as well leave the past behind and deal with the future when it comes.
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