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Hidden Depth

W. Eric Martin
United States
North Carolina
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(This column first appeared on on Sept. 25, 2007. —WEM)

I recently ran across a quote from Greg Aleknevicus, editor of The Games Journal – a fantastic (and unfortunately defunct) online gaming magazine – that struck a chord:

I've come to the conclusion that the vast majority of games have depths that are hidden to those who play only a few times. So much so that I think it's unwise to assume that you've seen all a game has to offer after your second play, no matter how simple the game appears. [For example,] I agree with another gamer's assessment of Coloretto – there just doesn't seem to be much there – but experience has taught me that this is most likely due to the fact that I don't like the game enough to seek any depth it may have.
Many gamers complain about a vast flood of games being released on the market, claiming that they can play a game only once or twice before their fellow players (or they themselves) move on to something else. While this habit is, of course, self-imposed and one that players could eliminate if they really wanted to, I understand the desire to try out new games and see what designers have created. Who am I supposed to be, and how do I interact with others? How are we moving the bits around this time? And so on.

One consequence of playing games only once or twice, however, seems to be a willingness by some to categorize games quickly and be done with them. I experienced this recently with Galaxy Trucker when two first-time players started discussing the game's flaws the minute it ended. "It's too luck-based in the spaceship construction," they claimed. "Maybe you should be able to ignore the component connections and just place pieces anywhere. And the adventure cards are too harsh. There's no way anyone can survive their intergalactic journey."

Sixty minutes after learning about the existence of this game, they had already dissected it, catalogued its flaws, and filed it away mentally. They knew the game cold.

To be fair, both of them said they'd be willing to play the game again. They didn't think it was awful or even bad; they had merely detected certain problems with it. What fascinated me, though, was that rather than change the way they played the game, they wanted to change the game itself.

I've played Galaxy Trucker all of three times, but even with that meager level of experience, I could see what would improve their chance of success in the future:

• Knowing the components I: The first time you play a game with a puzzle aspect, such as Galaxy Trucker's building of a spaceship in real time in which you grab components from a central pile of parts, you'll likely stink at it. You don't know what type of components are in the game; how common the different type of connectors are; whether you should settle for a piece with two smooth sides (cutting off future building possibilities) or put it aside and keep looking; which parts you should hold in reserve for use later in the build round; whether to add the laser cannon now or hope to draw a piece that will fit between it and the rest of the spaceship; and so forth.

After three games, I now have an idea of when sections of my spaceship are good enough, but I'm sure that my opinion of when to settle will change after more experience with the game.

• Knowing the components II: A game of GT lasts three rounds, and the adventure cards you encounter in the second and third rounds are tougher than those in the first. Until you see those cards, you don't know what to expect during the spaceflight, which means you don't have a good understanding for how to build the ship.

• Using the tools the game gives you: During the spaceship building round, you can spend time examining some of the adventure cards that you'll encounter in that round, which can give you a huge advantage over other players.

In the first game I played, my opponent looked through all the cards he could, then loaded up his ship with cargo holds, especially ones that held hazardous cargo. I focused on building my ship and paid no attention to him, so I was surprised by the slow, barely defended ship he had built – but once the round started and we turned up planet after planet, with him grabbing lots of high-scoring goods while I had almost no storage room, I could see the advantage of planning ahead while building your spaceship.

(I relearned that lesson in my third game after we encountered pirate after pirate in the third round and all died. None of us had installed many cannons on our spaceships, and once laser fire knocked off a few of those cannons, we were easy prey for the pirates that followed. If I had thought to look through the cards, I would have installed cannons on every possible surface.)


Perhaps a better example of Greg's statement in action is the way in which people dismiss the abstract game Qwirkle as not having much there or of being an exercise in who draws the best tiles. I've played the game more than sixty times, mostly with my wife and a friend in my local game group, and our playing has definitely evolved over time. We've become better judges of what the other players are trying to do when they make a certain play: Is that all that he can do, or is this a set-up to encourage me to play something that he'll add to again? We can block off scoring opportunities better. We know when to throw away tiles in the hope of something better and when we're better off dumping junk on the board. We manage our hand of tiles better to shoot for the endgame bonus. We create a tight board with more interlocking plays, akin to expert Scrabble players.

I happened to teach Qwirkle to a Scrabble fan recently, and although he's a smart guy, it was interesting to see him make sub-optimal plays similar to what other first-time players do. He was blessed with multiple hands that had four matching tiles, but he made long, spidery rows for few points rather than sit on the tiles and build toward larger scores. Despite his awesome draws, I beat him because I knew the game better and outplayed him.

Obviously not every game is right for every person. For any given title, you'll find people who think it plays too quickly or drags or is too luck-based or has a rich-get-richer syndrome or benefits the player to the left of the new guy or any of a dozen other problems. But the problems aren't always inherent to the game; perhaps the game just doesn't suit your tastes.

Another possibility, and the one that seems the most probable given my experience, is that you're not willing to give the game a chance to reshape your tastes.


A related story: Back in 1997, I bought an album by The Chemical Brothers called Dig Your Own Hole. I'm into electronic and dance music and had gone nuts over the lead track "Block Rockin' Beats", so I bought the album the first time I saw it. While most of tracks were enjoyable, if not all up to the level of the song I already knew, I despised one song so greatly that I would skip past it whenever it came on. The track, "It Doesn't Matter", exemplifies all the worst traits that people ascribe to electronic music: It's repetitive, hollow and soulless.

Or at least I thought it was. But every so often I wouldn't skip the song, and after a few listens, I started to get into its booming rhythm. I was entranced by the droning vocal, which functioned like a vibrating chair for my mind. I like this awful, unartistic song.

Two years later, I bought the next Chemical Brothers album, Surrender, and went through the same process with the opening track, "Music:Response". Part of the keyboard work sounded like an angry electronic bird from an Edgar Allen Poe adaptation, sitting above your bedframe and emitting an endless peeping that doomed you to never sleep again. Speaking with a friend who sings in clubs helped me listen to the song in a new way, and I grew to love it.

Naturally the next album had yet another song that irritated me ("It Came From Afrika"), but by this point I had learned to trust their abilities and just listen to it in the context of the album.

What I've learned from these and other experiences is that I'm a poor judge of what I like. That might seem like a ridiculous statement – after all, who else should be able to judge your tastes better than you? – but I've seen it proved again and again with television shows that I initially found unwatchable, books that at first seemed tedious, food that I couldn't stomach, and so on.

So why should I dump on a game that I've played only once or twice? I know that I haven't seen all the game has to offer, so I try to keep that in mind when writing about it. That doesn't mean that when a game hits you the wrong way or leaves you shrugging your shoulders you need to build a long-term relationship with it. No one is forcing you to play a game repeatedly until you learn to love it or throw yourself, Alex-like, through a window to escape your misery. Just keep in mind that the game might not be the problem. The problem might be you.
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