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Going Head-to-Head with The Game: Face to Face

W. Eric Martin
United States
North Carolina
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Board Game: The Game: Face to Face
I've been thinking a lot recently about death, specifically my death. I'm turning fifty in 2018, and my dad lived only to seventy. Maybe I'll have twenty more years, maybe more, maybe less.

I don't know that I'm any healthier than my dad; I spend a lot of time sitting, and the only exercise I undertake is walking, mostly because I have no interest in other forms of exercise. I find bodies distracting and would prefer life as a brain in a jar — or at least I think I would. Hard to know for sure until I was jarred, at which point it might be difficult to be re-embodied should I find the experience less enticing than I now imagine.

In many ways, of course, you're already a mind in a jar. Everything you experience, every item you sense, is transmitted through your nerves to that goop at the top of your neck, which then interprets every little thing to determine what you should do about it. Pet that cat! Drink that water! Avoid that swinging log trap!

When I think about why I like to play games, it has little to do with the physicality of the games, although I appreciate imaginative, inventive artwork and graphic design that presents me with unexpected looks, with something that likely couldn't exist in the real world.

What I like about games is the competition between players, the challenge of interpreting the rules of this game designer's artificial world and figuring out how to use the material given to me to perform better than the other players. I don't have to win to enjoy myself, but I want to figure out how the system works; I want to move through this artificial space in a good way, making smart choices when I can and giving myself an edge over others. If I can play well, however we might define that within the context of the game, then I'll generally be satisfied, and if I can learn how to play better over time, then I'll like that even more, and if I can win in the process, well, that's the figurative cherry on the non-existent cake.

That approach to gaming is why I find it hard to talk about or review a game after a single playing. As I've said many times, the first time you play a game, you're playing from a position of ignorance. You might know plenty of game terminology, and maybe you've seen similar games in the past, but (ideally) this designer is presenting something new, plopping you into a jungly mental landscape and challenging you to wield your metaphorical machete to discover the lay of the land.

From that second playing on, you can now rely on the beacons you placed in the first game and explore further from there. You have a map with scribbled coordinates, and now you're going to add details, and with each playing after that, you're layering more and more of yourself onto that imaginative world and making it your own.

Board Game: The Game
I've heard plenty of people say that they've played a game out, that they've discovered all there is to see, but I never feel that way. I've played Steffen Benndorf's The Game more than a hundred times, for example, a game that some people dismiss or grow tired of because the rules are so simple, yet I find that with each playing I enjoy it even more. I've merged some part of myself with that design, and with each game played I'm honing that internal map a little more.

All you're trying to do in The Game is play all 98 cards onto four discard piles, yet it's a constant challenge, especially with new players. In many ways, the game mirrors your interactions with those players. When you don't know someone, you often fumble through conversations, trying to find topics to discuss or saying something that makes someone uncomfortable because you don't know their boundaries.

People are baffled by the skull iconography on the cards and box, but it represents the sense of dread you sometimes feel as the game veers toward catastrophe, sometimes of your own making because you chose poorly or read the other players the wrong way and sometimes because life is unfair, and in the end we all die and we just have to accept that.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
John Knoerzer, my frequent cameraperson at conventions

One of my favorite short stories is called something like "The Man Who Knew October 27, 1973". (I feel like my memory, which was never great, has lost a few switches on the track, and now I can't recall things that once found a home in my head, such as this story's precise title or the name of its author. The story resides in a SF collection somewhere in my house, a house as organized as my mind.)

In the story, the protagonist becomes obsessed with this particular date (for reasons I can't recall), buying newspapers from across the U.S. to learn everything that was happening on this particular date in cities across the country, and trying to connect everything in his mind to get a full understanding of that day's events. He decided he needed to think bigger, so he learned French, Spanish, and other languages in order to read newspapers and periodicals from other countries about the events of October 27, 1973. How could you profess understanding of something unless you tried to absorb it all? He would meet others and marvel at their ignorance of that date, of all that happened everywhere within that particular window of time. How could they be satisfied knowing so little of that day?

I feel like that protagonist sometimes, ready to play a game repeatedly to learn more about it, while others seem happy to play once, then move on. Thankfully my tablemates often indulge me since I plan to cover particular games in this space and want enough experience to do a decent job of representing what the game is and whether it does what I think the designer was trying to do. I like to think of these playing experiences as being layers of painted gauze placed on top of one another. The more of them you pile up, the better the representation of your experiences with what the game actually is and the closer you come to discovering the true nature of the game design.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Jenifer Geske, an invaluable source of information at conventions

That said, after I cover a game, I move on, rarely returning to it as other games await in the queue, with more games available than time to play them, and with more than enough sweetheart games already in place for the new candidate to find a spot in the regular rotation. Sorry, games, we had a few good moments together, but now you're dead to me. I'm sorry.

Board Game: The Game: Extreme
The Game was in that regular rotation until the release of The Game: Extreme in late 2016. My wife and I had played The Game so much that we could win roughly half the time, so we moved to The Game: Extreme, where even after more than sixty games, we win only one out of every five playings. The Game: Extreme does what it's trying to do very well: Plant mines throughout the original challenge of The Game that force you to do things you don't want to do. You need to play more cards or you can't play enough; you can't refill your hand, which forces you to play something you'd rather avoid; you have to play where you don't want to, or you have to make a bad play in order to escape that trap. Sounds like life to me, at least some of the time.

In late 2017, Benndorf, co-designer Reiner Staupe, and publisher NSV released The Game: Face to Face, a competitive version of The Game now solely for two players. My wife played twice with me and hated it; she doesn't want to fight me in The Game, but be by my side as we fight the game together. Me, I was happy to fight others, to turn the tables of The Game against someone else and leave them staring at pale bony death while I eluded it, even if only for a little while, so I took Face to Face to BGG.CON in November 2017 and that's pretty much the only thing I wanted to play, even though I indulged others in other games, just as they often indulge me.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Joe Huber, a mysterious blank of a person

The Game: Face to Face still has four discard piles, but now they're split among the two players, with each of us having one ascending and one descending pile. We each have our own deck as well, with cards numbered 2-59. Gameplay is similar to The Game, with you needing to play at least two cards each turn, but you can play only a single card on an opponent's discard pile, and when you do so, you must help them, not hurt them. On their ascending pile, for example, you can play only a card that's lower than their current top card. They are your enemy, yet you must show them compassion, the same as you should show compassion to your enemy in the real world because enemies are often just people you don't know yet.

You can play solely on your own discard piles, of course, and avoid helping your neighborly enemy, but such actions sometimes propel you quickly toward game-death. What's worse, if you play only on your own discard piles, then you draw only two cards at the end of your turn, no matter how many cards you play; thus, if you play only with yourself, you'll either run out of cards to play and die, or you'll be slow to win and die. You need interaction with others to live, just as self-help gurus always tell us. The only way to refill your hand to six cards at the end of your turn is to play on your opponent's piles, and when you do so, you must help them. Ayn Rand would hate this game.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Smoox Chen, tireless promoter of Taiwanese games and designers;
also, I finally figured out the best way to lay out the arrows for the discard piles

While helping your enemy, you try to show them as little compassion as possible, playing a 5 on a 6 on their ascending pile, for example, because making a play like that provides them no benefit at all. Look at me, you say, I'm helping you. Look at you, they say, you're barely making a difference, yet you seem very proud of yourself. They are often right.

You don't want to help them too much, though, for all sorts of reasons — and not just because you're trying to teach them to fish instead of repeatedly giving them fish. If their ascending pile is topped out at 59, then they're relying solely on one card — the 49 — to resuscitate that pile, which means that almost anything you play on that pile grants them a few more breaths. Play the 56, and they might have the 57 in hand to play, a card that otherwise would have choked them. Every window you open gives them a chance to breathe, and compassionate soul that you are, you'd rather them suffer a quick death than offer them false hopes repeatedly.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Ray Dennis, frequent gaming adversary from my time in New Hampshire

What's more, you're selfishly trying to help yourself as much as you're helping — or "helping" — them. If I can play a 5 on their 6, then maybe next turn I can play a 4, then a 3. You marginally improve their prospects, or possibly do nothing helpful at all, while ditching a card you probably don't want to play on your own piles, giving yourself a free refill, and moving closer to victory, which for this game is the ability to play all 58 of your cards first. Be sure to issue a press release about your charitable giving while downplaying the tax write-off you get in return, you capitalist monster.

Surprisingly — or perhaps not surprisingly but instead evidence of good design on the part of Benndorf and Staupe or good playing on the part of my opponents — almost all nine games I've played on a purchased copy of The Game: Face to Face have run long. I can't recall anyone dying in the first half of their deck because you always have cards to play. You'd prefer not to, of course, because they're helping the opponent too much or jumping too many digits on your own discard piles, but you might as well complain about aging or the fact that every living being dies. The results will be the same.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Ryan LaFlamme, editor of The Cardboard Republic, who inspired this essay

As with The Game and its extreme sibling, playings of The Game: Face to Face tend to run along the same lines. You're just playing numbered cards on piles, after all. How much different would you expect one game to be from another? Probably about as different as one human is from another, I suppose. We're all composed of the same stupid nucleotides, just jumbled in different arrangements. Stand back at a far enough distance, and you couldn't tell any two people apart.

Believe it or not, though, sometimes you're not at a distance at all, and you can sense how different one game is from another. Check out the cards in hand during my game with Jennifer. I was pushed to the far edges of survival with a huge chunk of my deck remaining, yet somehow I managed to stay balanced on the edge of that wave and ride it to safety at her expense.

At other times, the games feel the same the way that each morning feels the same. You have to prepare for the hours to come, you must clean yourself and eat, you must mentally organize the world you might encounter and figure out what you're going to do when certain things occur. The days all play out similarly with the same overarching goals — food, movement, safety — yet there are differences across them, presenting unique challenges to you with each one you encounter.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Beth Heile, my frequent co-host at conventions

You can sense the differences with the people, too, of course, once you get close enough. Sometimes they're antsy, sometimes calm, sometimes chatty with the game dropping into the background before it rises up again, insistent on being finished if only because you hate to leave that button unbuttoned. You had agreed to put this obstacle before you, and now you're determined to push it aside to clear your way once again, leaving you in the same state, yet different.

I often wonder why I play games, why I feel so driven to play them. In the end, they mean nothing. I'll die in time, and my opponents will die as well, and our memories will decompose with the rest of us, and we'll just have been spinning our wheels along the way. Better to spin them with someone else perhaps, share a feeling of togetherness via a mental battle, one mind tangling with another, then move on your way, content that for a brief moment you got to say, here I am and here you are. This is a crazy time, isn't it? Your life, I mean? I wonder what's going to happen next.
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