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Games as Metaphors

United Kingdom
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Original Post

Today I've mostly been meeting about art budgets, graphic design, kickstarter plans and similar issues. None of these make for a particularly exciting blog post so I went hunting around the internet for inspiration and came across this post. The author finds confidence in using Agricola as a metaphor for various life events, such as the value of focus when faced by an apparently tempting deal.

I've decided to write about five games and what lesson they can teach about life in the broader sense. I'll skip the classics, Chess and Go metaphors have been done to death (yet it's a testament to those games that we haven't run out yet) and I've already talked about how a game of chess changed my perspective on life.

Let's start with mafia, or werewolf, in which a group of townsfolk try to weed out traitors before they're all killed. Most scenarios achieve a careful balance by pitting a group with superior numbers against a group with superior information. If the town operate together they'll easily win, but they do not know who the scum are and they'll be trying to manipulate the town to fail. The number of scum wins teaches us something important about people:

"You cannot trust people to act in their own best interest."

There are a lot of times that disaster is blamed on greed or treachery, but ultimately a lot of the things that go wrong are not due to master manipulators doing evil and twirling their moustaches. It comes down to people being genuinely bad at acting in their own best interests and a lot of the time things can get better if you work with someone to recognise how they're hurting themselves rather than trying to be a direct opposition.

This reminds me of a conversation about the nature of Settlers. I once had a player express to me that they preferred the three player game as the limited number of opponents makes it easier to play the game without doing any trading. Anyone with experience of the game knows that leads to inevitable defeat, but it's at the extreme end of a more important pattern.

"Stop thinking of everything as a zero sum game."

Trading is important because when it's done right both people gain. In theory, in a simple trade, both players gave up one resource that they obtained from one roll and gained the same amount. In practice both gained something that let them build a thing in exchange for something useless. This pattern is more evident in life than in the game as interactions between people where no physical goods almost always benefit both parties. The benefit of a kind and true word to the recipient far exceeds the cost to the giver.

When I think about games that have had anything to teach about the nature of words you might expect a word game to come to the fore. On reflection I think that Space Alert has more to say on the subject. A cooperative played under time pressure with changing circumstances and deliberate communication blackouts really focuses communications. Communication time costs are magnified, the person speaking and their listeners all use up the same quantity of precious precious seconds. Which leads me to think:

"If you have something important to say, think about how to say it before you say it."

In the game thinking about the most succinct way to put something across or even whether to reply (If someone asks 'who can do X by turn 9' it's normally a waste of everyone's time to say 'I can do it by 10' until you're sure nobody will respond.) In terms of life it normally takes much longer to clear up a misunderstanding than it would to think about the message on the first occasion and worry about it later. Of course as any politician will tell you, you're not always aware of what will turn out to be important before you speak, hindsight can be a pain that way.

The value of hindsight is especially apparent where a game has a quick playtime, mistakes are easily identified and the reasons for them can be untangled. I was recently introduced to Hanabi which meets all of these criteria. When someone made a mistake it was often preventable, either in the way in which clues were given and interpreted or in that someone with no information was forced into a discard by the previous player. Victory depending on being quick enough and picking up on and understanding these incidents.

"Learn from mistakes. Anyone's. Often. Quickly. Well."

Learning from other people's mistakes is easier said than done. There's rarely as sharp a lesson when you're not the one suffering for an error and taking another's perspective can be tricky. Still, a lot of the things that you can both see will be the same and you'll have some idea about the things that you understand that they don't. That's often enough to work out where they want wrong and to avoid the same pitfalls yourself.

I'm going to jump off the rails I've built for myself and bring up Twilight Imperium as the last game in this series, because I really like it and this obliges me to mention it whenever I write about more than two games at a time. The lesson though is not really from the game itself, but more in the game's negative attributes. It takes a huge amount of time to set up and play, if you want to get a game in you'd best put aside a day and make sure all of your friends buy in to spending their days playing that game. It's tricky to organise everyone to get together and sort out the logistics, but it's nearly always worth it in the end.

"Always make time for friends."
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