Beginner’s Luck: a Defense for a First-time Player Taking the Win

We have all experienced it- we are playing a game and there is someone in the group who is just learning. The entire game everyone at the table is privileged to see various cards they are holding and hearing “what does this mean?” or “what would you do with this?” They are trailing in resources every time you check, their board looks sparse. As you tally up the points at the end of the evening it turns out they have achieved not only the win but a record high score. nobody can believe it. You count up their score a few more times and it remains. They have crushed even the most experienced player at the table.

Here is how they did it:

1. they were not perceived as a threat. Negotiations favored them- when the choice between giving points to an experienced opponent or a new player, the new player got them.

2. Every time a move or a play came up they received the advice of everyone at the table.

3. Giving that advice distracted the other players from their own strategies.

4. Do-Overs- “oh, Shoot! I meant to…” New players are often allowed a few mulligan moves.

5. “Are you sure you want to do that?” the mulligans are often initiated by the other players.

after the cheering/groaning dies down the inevitable phrase is uttered by the champion beginner, “I don’t even know how i did it!”

Well, now you know.

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The Language of Board Games

The Ladybug Game

The Ladybug Game

After Easter dinner, my six-year-old niece Anabelle declared that she wanted to play The Ladybug Game. She loves this game because she usually wins. If you’re familiar with it, you know that it is pure luck; there’s nothing you can do to purposely win – or lose. Once the cards are shuffled, the winner is determined. The fun is watching it all unfold.

This year, my niece’s Ukrainian Grandma Valentina joined us for Easter dinner. She’s the reason I didn’t bring any games along – not because she doesn’t like them, but because she doesn’t speak English. I pictured her joining us for a game of Dixit; it would most likely be frustrating for her. I thought it was best to leave the games at home.

But Anabelle insisted on playing The Ladybug Game, and I obliged. My aunt joined us, as well as Valentina. She had already played several rounds with Anabelle over the past couple weeks and knew how to play. In fact, you don’t need to know how to read to be able to play the game – a good thing for someone who speaks a different language!

We laughed so hard when my aunt kept on drawing aphid card after aphid card, not moving off the starting space until Anabelle had nearly won. Anabelle won two games; Valentina won one. And I loved that we were all able to enjoy some time together, laughing over a board game, despite our language differences.

Board games vs. War

“War is not like a game of chess where you can sit down to a cup of coffee afterwards and talk about it… the end of a war is one where one player is no longer in existence.” -Matt Snyder

 I recently attended a discussion about just war. Which I could not help but relate to our passion for board games. I’m not going to discuss, myself, which or what in war is just but rather the relationship between justifying actions in war and actions in board games. I don’t mean to, in any way, make light of a serious topic like the justification of warfare nor to justify individual instances in any war, in fact, I mean not to.

One thing my wife and I enjoy about board games is discussing the actions we took and the reasons behind our choices. People who play with us may find themselves in a passionate discussion about what we would have done if it was us, or what, in the case of a partner game, the other should have done. Playing games together allows us to learn about the people we play with, how they think, how they make decisions, and as a result, building relationships. In order to defeat an opponent you must know them well, to love them so much that you can begin to predict the decisions they will make.

You have to take into account the proportionality of the actions you are taking.
“How much will it cost me to make this particular move?” is sometimes obvious “if I place my last worker on this farm (in Carcassonne) I will have none to place on my next turn unless I can close this city or end this road.” But how does that affect your opponents, they may need to tie up a meeple to offset yours or place a piece in a different place. My point being that the ramifications of our actions should be thought out as far as possible. The better you know and understand your opponent the better you can predict the moves they will make. This supports the get to know people through gameplay as discussed in player evaluation.

What drives us to play games?  Why are games like war? What is the relationship between war and competitiveness?

“It’s nice to get together and play and compete, without having to know each other that well beforehand” -Heidi Roland

Competitive gameplay- We want to win, we want to reach higher goals, set records, yet we also desire the risk of losing: a game where we cleverly or ‘by-the-skin-of-our-teeth’ win. In gameplay we want the other to have a chance, to extend the game by a tie, sending it to overtime, something most rational people do not desire in war.

No war can be entirely justified, just like we make mistakes in gameplay.

When is war just? How does that relate to board games?

According to multiple sources including St. Augustine and the U.N.

A.  Declared by a civil authority
Often when playing a game you will lose if all your moves are reactionary and only vengeful. Planning and strategy when deciding your moves are a large part of why we enjoy games and how, often, we win.

B.  To restore justice
This is why we must always play a tie breaker or if in losing that we go best of five then best of seven.

C.  After all peaceful methods have been exhausted
When do you make a sacrificial move or a take that action at a cost of another move you’ve been planning because you know it will cause the other to take a loss?

D.  Have an expectation of reaching a reasonable goal
My wife and I both quickly tire of any game where one person consistent loses no matter how much we enjoy the mechanics involved. When one of us no longer has an expectation of achieving a reasonable goal.

If only in a war situation we could have that cup of coffee afterwards and learn the why behind the decisions each player had made and play the game over again, but when war is declared, there is no coffee left in the carafe.

The drive to win games is similar to our drive to win wars, but our drive to play games is far from our drive to fight in war.

Player Evaluation

In a card game like gin rummy, you don’t choose the hand of cards you begin with, and you don’t know what you’re going to turn over from round to round. The players start out on unequal levels, you’re subject to the currents of chance, and you have to find the best way to navigate through and come out on top. It’s no wonder we borrow from the language of games to describe situations where “you have to make the most of the cards you are dealt.” In both life and games, sometimes things fall in your favor, and sometimes they fall against you. Analog games are thus a great reminder that some things are in the hands of Lady Fortuna, and all you can do is concentrate on the one thing within your control: hatching a strategy for doing the best with what you got.

-Brett & Kate McKay from The Art of Manliness

In the blogpost I just quoted, the author points out three groups board games fall into:  strategy/skill, luck/chance, or a blend of the two. I prefer games that have more chance than my wife, who loves most to match her wits and skills against mine and whoever might be playing with us. As I think about our personalities this intrigues me, because she is very analytical. She enjoys knowing the cause and how to effectively affect it. I am better at rolling with it, making decisions and choices as they come up rather than planning ahead and having a “if they then I…” point of view.

I used to think one of the best ways to gauge a person was their response to a car breaking down. I think that is a good way to see someone in a truly trying time but I now believe that much can (and should) be learned from playing board games together. How do they react when they are losing? Do they get angry? Do they mope and give up? Do they strategize and determine the best way to overcome? Do they quit caring if they win and continue with a “might as well try off the wall moves” to learn out of the box ideas for the next game you play?

There are other areas of board games that can tell you about their personality; What game do they pick? Which is their favorite? Are they willing to try new games? Do they prefer party games or two player?
The more you get into board games the more you start to evaluate friends and family by the gaming experience. I encourage you to ask some of these questions, but remember it helps a lot to add to each question one simple word- “why?”

A Personal Gaming History {Kristen}

One of the first board games I remember falling in love with was Enchanted Forest by Ravensburger. My younger brother and I spent hours playing this game of memory, strategy, and luck set in the land of fairy tales. I loved the hidden treasure aspect, and also trying to cover up either surprise or disappointment when peeking under pine trees. Now that I think about it, I’d probably still love this game.

As I got a little older, I discovered Catch Phrase and Pictionary. They were both favorites at family gatherings. I loved that you didn’t need to be the best artist or most accurate describer to win (though that never hurt), but you did have to be on the same wavelength as your teammates. I’ll never forget the moment in Catch Phrase when my cousin Heidi said, “Um, I think he was a prince in Asia.” I shouted “Mohammed Ali!” Heidi’s “Yes!” was met with puzzled expressions and much laughter.

In high school, my group of girlfriends and I absolutely loved Balderdash. In fact, the 1997 edition of Beyond Balderdash is still one of my most favorite games. I could say I’ve played that game with 100 different people over the last 17 years and I probably wouldn’t be far off. I admit to recycling a few definitions several times. “A yellow mold that grows on rabbit droppings” is quite convincing, no matter the word. Ha!

In college, my roommate Missee was a fellow lover of games. We hosted game nights every Thursday night after Intervarsity (Campus Crusade or ER) for three and a half years. There was a regular group, but we always had different people joining us. Some of our favorites were Mafia and Telephone Charades.

After college, one of my game night friends, and I drove down to visit Missee in Missouri. Missee invited a few of her friends over for game night and our friend taught us all how to play Settlers of Catan. That opened up whole new worlds of game playing. I ordered a copy of my own upon returning home. This eventually led to games like Carcassonne, Puerto Rico, Dominion, and Citadels.

Just a couple years ago, I became friends with Brett and Reagan and shortly thereafter we discovered our mutual love of games. Since then, we’ve enjoyed many game nights together, along with our friend Becky, who also happens to be Brett’s cousin.

We have many hopes and dreams for this little corner of the internet, but mostly we just want to share our love of games.

Why board games?

I was thinking about when I was in high school, people would get together and play video games. Things like LAN parties and hooking up several systems and TVs in one room and how, for the most part, as far as I am aware board gaming has taken that over. People still play MMOs (Massive Multiplayer Online) but when they get together, it is a little less electric.

What was before that?
Poker and card games: bridge, whist, euchre, rummy and rook. Also some classic board games: scrabble, parchessi, and monopoly. Games have been a tradition for a long long time.

Why do I like some games and not others?
I enjoy far more games than my wife, who is more particular in games. But why is that?
The other day one of our group suggested a game called “Love Letter,” I immediately thought “ughh” (you have to understand my typical gaming group is three gals and myself) but I am always, like them, willing to try a new game.
We read the backstory, the rules and dealt the cards. It was a quick learn, the deck is 16 cards with 8 different variations. You keep one card in your hand and draw a second, you must then chose which of the two to discard and perform the action on the discarded card- like peek at another players hand. The goal is to have the highest number in your hand of the people playing at the end.
It turned out to be a very fun game.
But, “why?” still haunted me. I can’t say it was the story or theme, although “Fleet” is one of my favorites partly because it is boat themed.
The story or theme can play a part in why we might pick up a game and play it. The game mechanics are why we will play it again and again.
I plan to write about different game mechanics in detail more later but it is important to understand that each player has different mechanics that they like better than others and learning which ones you prefer can help to find games you would enjoy as well as recommending games to friends and family, especially groups that may not often play games and are afraid that your favorite game requires more setup and explaination than play time.

Rain or Shine

“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.”

-Elizabeth Barrett Browning

1. Board games provide a purpose for gathering around a table with friends.

2. Board games stimulate and nourish the body, mind, and soul. (no game is complete without snacks)

3. Board games are boundless in their enjoyment. Day or night, rain or shine, summer or winter, at home or not at home. Male or female, short or tall, young or old, cat-lover or dog-lover. Today there is an astounding diversity of board games, card games, and party games. The word “dull” should never apply to board games. The word “fun” should always apply.

I am still in my beginning stage as a game player, maker, and connoisseur. As a kid, I replicated the board game Clue with card stock and magic markers because I didn’t have money to buy it. On our first date, Brett taught me to play Cribbage, and seven months later he presented me with a deck of cards and diamond ring. Join me on my journey toward a greater and deeper appreciation of board games and gamers.