Sunday March 07 2010

Why I don't like Carcassonne

This morning, just before I woke from a dream, I was asked why I don’t like the board game Carcassonne. Truth is, I’ve never played it, but I’m not particularly interested in it. It’s not often that you’re challenged on why you don’t like something by a total stranger, so saying so is a lazy way to get out it.

But this chap challenged me on my opinion, and that’s a game I do like. I talk a lot of shit most of the time, mostly so I can look at what I think from a different perspective than inside my brain. It’s a way of testing out ideas. If they can withstand public scrutiny I’m vindicated, if not I get to change my mind. Being challenged is an opportunity to clarify what I think. Trouble is this comes across as trolling, and people have learnt not to feed the troll, or they’re too polite to interject or just not sure enough of their own opinions.

Carcassonne game board

Photo from Wikipedia Licensed CC-BY-SA

So why don’t I like Carcassonne? Or the challenges of board games in general—in my dream Carcassonne wasn’t anything like the actual game, and serves better as a proxy for all games of its sort. And in fact, some of these complaints probably don’t even apply to Carcassonne.

Non-representational: I like to look for patterns in things. This is easier when they’re self-evident. Board games tend to rely heavily on abstraction to keep gameplay simple and focused. Carcassonne is a very stylised approximation of the idea of fortified cities, but breaks the suspension of disbelief in favour of the game mechanic.

Investment of time: I’m pretty impatient, and it takes too long to learn how to play a new board game. This alone isn’t such a big deal—most things worth doing take time to master—but board games don’t have the same level progression you’d find in most modern video games. There’s often no steady development of skills, you’re just thrown in at the deep end with all the other players. This helps replayability, and is arguably more fun for the experts who just want to get cracking, but it’s toxic to noobs. Also, they take too long to set up and play out.

Harsh defeat-state: Arguably this is also true of multiplayer modes in video games, but board games are missing the checkpoint reloads that make dying in an FPS easier to bear (up to a point). Combined with how long it can take to rise out of noobdom, this can be pretty dispiriting. This is more true of some board games than others; I’ve never been very good at Chess, and most of the time the people who ask for a game know what they’re doing. Some people take intellectual reward from losing at Chess, by analysing the mistakes that led to their defeat. I don’t.

No safety-net: Often these games can seem intolerant of mistakes, another mark of a steep learning curve. It’s frustrating to invest a lot of energy in a long board game only to have it all whipped away from you by a schoolboy error. This is also fatal for turn-based games, where the fear of fucking up leads to indecision, and bored opponents. This is why I’ve lost interest in Scrabble.

Human opponents: Yes you can play board games as a team, but you’re still competing against other friends. I much prefer cooperative games with a shared common enemy that’s preferably controlled by a machine, or someone I don’t have to empathise with. Like a rival school.

Popularity: I’m often deeply suspicious of things that are popular, just as I am of the outrage directed at something universally unpopular. It can often be hard to distinguish between a game having a fan base and having fan boys. This is pretty off-putting, as it’s easy to conflate admiration for lazy judgment and a lack of critical thought. Also these games are often popular because they’re clever and this seems like a cheap trick to disguise something that’s not fun.

Complexity: I like things that are simple to grasp. Board games have too many rules, and too many edges for you to stumble on, only to suffer at the hands of the experts who learnt them long ago.

These are some of my hang-ups, and I’m mainly exposing them here as a mind hack to see if they withstand public scrutiny. I’m pretty sure there are glaring flaws in my reasoning; people obviously play and enjoy these games, and I’m hoping they can change my mind. Vindication is overrated.

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