The Magic of Playing in Person

Books are very commonly the gift of choice. My rule for buying books has always been – books are good gifts if they are books I read and know are good. A book is an investment, and if I give it to someone who might spend time on it – I want to make sure it’s worth their time, and the only way I can really do it is read it myself.

In recent years my go-to gift choice have been games, but my rule for games is pretty much the opposite: I tend to buy people games that I don’t own or even that I haven’t played. This is partly because I feel like I know enough about games and my friends’ tastes to make relatively wise choices. But there’s a slightly more selfish reason which is – there are way too many games out there for me to play or own them all, so I sometimes buy games I’m excited about for other people so that I’ll get a chance to play them without having to find room for them on my ever-crowded shelf.

Recently I bought my someone Uwe Rosenberg’s small 2 player game Patchwork. It’s a lovely little game, and I enjoyed it quite a bit. It’s a fascinating little puzzle, with beautiful components, that mixes a Tetris-esque satisfaction of fitting odds shapes together into a pattern with brilliant little economy where you pay for parts with a currency that is also victory points, and turn order is irregularly determined by the management of a second currency called ‘time’. Buying a great piece doesn’t only cost you in victory points, but may also mean your opponent gets two turns before you get another one or you’ll get your income sooner (with fewer pieces on the board). It’s quite good, plays quickly and balanced beautifully for two players.

The only thing the game lacks is theme. I know it is often praised for its unusual quilting theme – but the truth is, it’s a great example of a game that violates what I call The Golden Rule, that theme should match the mechanics. Nothing makes sense if you think of what you’re doing as quilting: why do buttons provide you with purchasing power? And why are they victory points, do buttons make quilts better? And why is it that placing buttons on your quilts generates more buttons? It’s all rather confusing. I’d love it if there was a good game about quilting, but this one isn’t it. Gardens are probably a better fit. Maybe.

Nevertheless, I left Patchwork with a taste for more, and since I don’t have the game myself, I downloaded it on my iPad. I did with it what I usually do with iPad games – play it a lot for a few games, get good enough to beat the hard AI and then get kind of tired of it. I tried playing the game online against people, and though the iPad implementation is pretty great – it’s not only beautiful, intuitive and pleasant – it also manages asynchronous play quite well. I enjoyed learning the game and getting better at it, but very quickly I lost interest and moved on and stopped playing. But why?

Why did I lose interest in playing patchwork? Reflecting on this point got me thinking about the magic and beauty of playing in person. Patchwork was tremendously fun playing in person, but wholly unsatisfied on the iPad, and I had the same experience with some other games. I imagine that it could be fun playing with someone you know, a friend who lives across the ocean or on the other side of the continent. It’s also fun to practice a bit, if you’re really a competitive type and want to grind some games on the bus while on the way to game night. Overall, I felt that online patchwork lacks the magic of playing in person.

What is that magic? Reflecting on my experience with Patchwork, I had some thoughts on the magic of playing in person.

First, I noticed that when playing on the iPad, I wasn’t really making any calculations – not even very simple arithmetic. The app tells you how many points you have at every point, and even lets you place a piece and take it back, calculating how much points it’ll give you on balance. Heck, you don’t even have to count your own money – the app tells you which of the three available pieces you can buy. Though that sounds like the app saves you a lot of trouble, I find that it takes away much of the fun. Without making any calculation, my brain is doing a lot less work and the game overall is much less engaging. Sure, when playing in person you sometimes make a silly mistake when you count incorrectly but honestly, that’s kind of the fun: it forces you to concentrate and make sure you’re doing your best.

Second, though the app does a great job of recreating the board game – you never see the whole game as you do on a table. In patchwork, there’s a line of pieces that will be made available next and they go around the table. You can scroll left and right to look at them in the app, but I noticed that I don’t do it as much. It’s just a bit of hassle. It’s not something you think of very much, bit it just meant the decisions I made were all a lot more short-sighted and less strategic. And related to this – I didn’t really look at, or care, at what my opponent did. Sure, it affected me, but the a-synchronous nature of playing turn by turn games on an iPad just encourages focusing on your turn, and the little map in front of you and nothing else. Playing in person encourages looking at the big picture – laying the game across the table, taking up the space and immersing yourself in all of it.

Third, if you played Patchwork you know that it’s a beautiful game. You also know that there’s something tremendously satisfying in building a little quilt/garden/Tetris square. You take a colorful, beautiful piece and you snap into place in whatever orientation that you want it to be. The same is true for building your own farm or civilization in games like Terra Mystica, Keyflower, or Kemet. And there’s the sprawling beauty of seeing the town of Caracssonne grow, or the deserts around the Tigris and Euphrates grow over the course of game. On the iPad you have cute animations, but the experience of doing things in a board game is intimately tied to, or at least significantly enhanced by, the physical experience of assembling or building a physical object, watching it grow and participating in this miracle.

So there you have it – a bit of a taste of the magic of playing in person, and we haven’t even touched on the most important aspect which is: playing in person is a great way to hang out with people you love. I didn’t focus on that because that’s typically what most people who love board games emphasize: that they are a great way of getting to know people in new ways, or just spending quality time engaged in the same activity.

What do you think? What makes playing board game magical for you?

@tpoliticalgamer | The Political Gamer

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