So, last week I shared some thoughts about sequels and expansions inspired by Risk Legacy, the idea that they exist because of our human tendency to want more of the same. We want change without too much change: rewards without risk, so to speak. But because we can’t agree on the desired degree of change, we get into very passionate debates: why was Phantom Menace such a disappointment to some people? A large part of that has to do with our expectations. If J. K. Rowling decides to write another series of books, you know there will be endless arguments about whether it’s as good as Harry Potter, and so on.
But that was last week’s conversation. This week I want to focus on something else: what makes a game “fair”? Does a game need to be fair to be fun? What does our taste in games say about ourselves?
During my first game of Risk Legacy, I won pretty handily. I started off in Greenland, spread across North America fairly rapidly, and my hold on the continent was never strongly challenged — which meant I got 5 bonus troops every turn, not an insignificant number. By mid-game I’d also taken South America (another 2 bonus troops). One opponent, trapped between two others, got wiped off the board quickly and re-established a base in Australia. For whatever reason, I was more insulated from much of the warfare, and this allowed me to amass enough troops to just Sherman March through any direction I pleased.
My win meant I was allowed to establish a major city (I put Tribune, Kansas, on my map), which gives me a population bonus and lets me pick that as a starting location for future games. During the second game, I rolled highest and got first pick, so I set up shop in Tribune. The others spread out — one in Russia, one in Southeast Asia, and one in North Africa — but again they were all much closer to each other than to me (particularly because of the perceived distance between North American and Asia, I think). I was again able to take over both North and South America quickly, and with all those territories, two continents, and my major city population boost, I accumulated soldiers even faster than the first time.
When the Khan Industry clan made a move west and left its own headquarters unguarded, I was able to pile on a ridiculous number of troops in Alaska, march through Asia, and clean out their rear guard (gaining Australia in the process). By my next turn, with the number of troops available to me, I took over both other headquarters, which got me enough red stars (victory points) to win the game. The entire thing took roughly an hour, and that included teaching the game to two new players.
In both instances, even as I was conquering the world and winning the game, a little voice in the back of my head kept nagging: is this really fair? In Risk — whether it’s this new version or the original — the person who’s ahead gets further ahead. If you hold a bunch of territories, then you get more armies, letting you get more territories, which gets you more resources to buy more armies … you get the idea. “To him that has, more will be given.” And if you’ve been nearly wiped out, barely hanging on with one territory and two measly troops in it? Well, you get three troops each turn. Have fun! Don’t spend them all in one place, son!
I realized that it’s been a while since I’ve played a real Ameritrash game — I’ve been playing so many Eurogames (and Euro-style games) that I got used to the idea of games being balanced, of catch-up mechanics that hold back the person who’s in the lead and gives a little boost to the person falling behind. For instance, in Settlers of Catan, the robber steals half your resource cards if you have more than seven. If you’re able to spend them all before the end of your turn it’s not a big deal, but if you have enough cities sometimes you’ll amass too many resources between your turns anyway. (Also, in Settlers, if you’re way ahead the other players can agree not to trade with you, depriving you of necessary resources to maintain your lead.) In Carcassonne, for instance, having the most points doesn’t make it any easier to get more points. If you’re holding a valuable farm (which will give more points later), it ties up one of your meeples that you can’t use to score points elsewhere.
But in Risk, if you let somebody pull out into the lead, it’s easy for their lead to get bigger and bigger. Unless I made some serious tactical errors or rolled extremely poorly, there was really no way for the other players to stop my Die Mechaniker juggernaut. (At least with the new victory conditions in Risk Legacy, you can put people out of their misery fairly quickly. The game no longer lasts five or six hours.)
Okay, now let me shift gears for a minute to the Game of Life. I got to try out the latest iteration, the “Zapped” edition that was just revealed at Toy Fair NYC last week. You play the game using your iPad and the free app: the iPad goes in the center of the board and has a spinner on it. It also plays some cute little animations of your customized “peg” avatar, and there are America’s Funniest Videos incorporated into the game, with clips played when you land on certain spaces.
It’s been a while since I’ve played the Game of Life, but despite the bells and whistles this is still largely the same game: you make a few choices here and there, like College or Career, go back to college or have babies, and so on. When it’s time, you get a choice of a few careers, but ultimately it doesn’t make a whole lot of difference in the actual gameplay. You spin the wheel, you land on spaces, and you do what it tells you, whether it’s spending money or winning money or having kids, as if all of these events are things that just happen to you, by chance. Apparently, life is but a stream, and you are merrily swept along in its current.
My kids, who hadn’t actually played the Game of Life before, were intrigued and enjoyed it, both for the chance to play on the iPad and because they’re the right age to really enjoy America’s Funniest Videos. I wanted to know what they thought about the game later, and my 8-year-old said she thought it seemed pretty true to life. Hmmmm.
A few interesting tidbits I noticed: your salary without a college education ranges in the $140-180k range (pretty nice!), and going to college (for a $100k debt) bumps it up to $220-240k (really nice!). You do get to choose whether you’re marrying a boy or a girl, and even get to choose what sort of themed wedding you’d like to have … but marriage itself is not optional. You must get married. (You also do get to choose the gender of your babies but, again, not whether you’re having any at all.)
The biggest thing, is that the goal of the Game of Life is to have the most money at the end. Of course it is. There has to be some way to keep score, right? But although it may make sense to have “most money” be the object of many games — Monopoly, for instance — I wasn’t entirely comfortable with the idea of my kids getting the lesson that the ultimate goal of life itself is to have the most money. In fact, because that’s the way to keep score, the only reason to have kids in the game is because they’re worth money at the end. You also collect “life tokens” throughout the game, representing significant life experiences you’ve had, and those are also converted into cold, hard cash at the end.
If you’re going to play a game with limited choices and a lot of luck, then I prefer that old game Careers, in which you get to choose your own goal at the beginning, a mixture of money, fame, and happiness. In fact, it makes more sense: not everyone in real life has the same goals — in my opinion, you “win” at real life if you’ve achieved the goals that you set out for yourself, not some standardized goal that somebody else imposed on you. (Or, heck, go for the Game of Redneck Life, in which the winner is the one with the most teeth left at the end.)
Sure, these are both just games. Playing a game lets you do things you don’t do in real life — whether it’s being violent, or greedy, or dishonest; or having magical abilities or superpowers and saving helpless people from danger. I get that. But I found that I didn’t really enjoy playing Risk and Life, even though I won at both of them. It felt like my victories were as much due to chance or a good start than any superior strategy.
But isn’t that much like real life? In real life, the person with the power gets more power. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer. And although in real life you don’t make major financial decisions by spinning a wheel, we know now that a lot of things are heavily influenced by things outside of your control. Who your parents are has a big effect on who you will be, like it or not. Life itself is not “fair.” Some people get a head start over others. Sometimes the odds are just stacked against you from the start.
So why don’t I like playing these games? Why is it so important to me that players don’t get left behind in a game? Why can’t I just enjoy my crushing victory over my puny foes?
As I hinted at the end of my last post, maybe it’s because I’m a bleeding heart liberal. Perhaps I like Eurogames and their catch-up mechanic because I have socialist leanings, and I think that the person in last place should be given a little more assistance, that the person in first place should be held back a bit. Maybe uber-capitalists are more likely to enjoy games in which money begets money and the loser is left in the dust. I don’t know, I’m finding out about myself as I go along.
In America, we like to believe in this dream that everyone is created equal, that everyone has the same opportunity for success, whether that’s measured in fame or fortune or something else. Even when we see evidence that it’s not true, we hold onto that ideal — but we disagree on how to best make that a reality. We disagree about what is fair. We have differing opinions on what will fix it.
In the same way, board game designers have different ideas on what makes a game “fair,” what makes a game “realistic.” The choices they make may be a reflection of how they see the world, or perhaps the way they want to see the world. Perhaps the games I enjoy most are those for which I’m most closely aligned with the game designers philosophically. What about you? What makes a game “fair” for you and what makes it fun? Is it the same thing?
What I do know is this: most of the time, I love playing games even when I lose. But I know some people are miserable unless they’re winning. As a host who wants people to keep coming to my game nights, I want to feel like everyone is having a good time so they’ll keep coming back — and so I want everyone to have a fair chance at victory.
So far I’ve signed my Risk Legacy board twice now. That means I’ve got two major cities to choose from. Next time I play I’ll start the game with two missiles. I imagine I could use a similar strategy, and unless the other players really coordinate to attack me, I could build up another unstoppable force and tighten my grip on this particular board. Pretty soon, nobody will want to play my Risk Legacy board against me. I will have vanquished my foes, crushed my enemies. There will be no one left to fight.
And that would be a hollow victory indeed.