Gamers will probably agree that there is no single perfect game. A few dedicated folks might pick chess or go or perhaps poker as the only game they care about, but gamers are sort of defined by their interest in the scope of games as a whole. Without that purview into games, the hobby loses some of its intrigue. What emerges, instead, is a contextually perfect game. This is the art of playing the right game at the right time, and it’s also about finding the ideal game for the individual gamer within a range of games that share mechanics or styles or themes.
I had a chance to play Ticket to Ride multiplayer on XBLA over the weekend with Doctor Mac. It was Saturday afternoon, my wife was sleeping off a headache and I was looking for something to pass the time. I had been playing a variety of demos and picking my way through GTA IV a little but I wasn’t really into it the way I had hoped I’d be. When Doctor Mac hopped online and asked if I was interested in playing something, I suggested TTR and before I knew it we had worked through seven games in a row. I’ve played the TTR board game many times, and I’ve owned most of the tabletop products at one time or another. I’ve also played a lot of the web-based PC version on Days of Wonder’s website, so this should have been just another TTR session. But for a lazy Saturday afternoon, with voice chat on my couch and a new player experiencing the game for the first time on the other end of the line, it was exactly what I was looking for in a game at that moment.
Perfection, I realized, also comes when elements of a game meet a particular gamer’s needs. I’ve spent plenty of time in the past few weeks talking about Blood Bowl and after last week’s matches I started thinking about why I’ve been so much more consistently intrigued by Blood Bowl than other Games Workshop titles. It’s not that I’m better at it than other games, I’m a consistently terrible BB player. And it isn’t that the game itself does any one thing so much better than other titles. What it comes down to is that it has the perfect confluence of complexity, strategy, mechanics and hobby elements to scratch my particular itch.
Take the other GW game that I’ve spent a lot of time with, Warhammer 40K. Thematically, I actually prefer 40K: As much as I enjoy a good fantasy setting, I gravitate toward Sci-Fi when given the choice. It’s why I’ve never been much interested in Warhammer Fantasy Battles or Lord of the Rings. But 40K, once you move past the wonderfully rich setting, is in fact just a game. And as a game I find it to be somewhat clunky. Matches take too long and the rules are by turns too abstract and yet can be too methodical. From a hobby perspective the armies are too large and tedious to put together and paint. The barrier to entry is too high. It’s not a bad game, and I’ve enjoyed almost all the time I’ve spent with both elements of the game (hobby and play). Yet when you compare 40K to Blood Bowl…
Blood Bowl, to me, is a more enjoyable game. It’s constraints in terms of playing field and available tactics add a level of elegance I don’t think a larger, more loosely constructed game like 40K can ever achieve. Most of the complaints I have with 40K can be addressed with skirmish-level games like Necromunda (which I also prefer to 40K) but at root Blood Bowl is a board game which I think reigns in some of the more tedious facets of tabletop miniatures gaming. There are no concessions for awkward line-of-sight rules or clumsy measurements to be made for movement. You have spaces on a board, and strictly defined character options that (mostly) avoid beardy customization. Yet there is a tremendous level of flexibility in Blood Bowl as you create your teams from a vast list and engage in the hobby aspect at exactly the level that fits my comfort zone. I find it overwhelming and dull to slop paint on dozens of 40K troops and then vehicles, special units and commanders. Yet I have just enough patience to crank my way through 15 or 16 Blood Bowl models.
The final element to gaming perfection is the mood-based context. There have been times when I’ll play a game I don’t really think is that great because it’s the right kind of game for my mood. A good example is Blacksite Area 51. I played the game several weeks ago (before trading it away) because I was in the mood for a military shooter. I’ve been slowly working my way through Jeanne D’Arc because while I actually like it, I don’t think it’s the best tactical turn-based RPG I’ve played, it’s what I have on hand and it fills that niche for me. The curse of the gamer of course is that occasionally you’ll find yourself wanting to play something that either you don’t have or that you can’t reasonably play right then. This weekend I found myself really wanting to play an old-school style dungeon crawler. A few friends have been playing Etrian Odyssey II on DS, but I had to wait until I could find a trader on Goozex since I don’t have the cash on hand to go pick it up. Fortunately, gaming desires lead to determination; I manipulated my way to the top of the trade list for EO II and got matched by the end of the weekend. Next week I should have the game and a full report.