‘Bored’ Games?

I actually like board games; and no, I am not five years old. Not talking about the tabletop RPG, that most nerdy of activities, not talking about chess, fantastic though it is, not talking about su doku and the whole ‘brain trainers’ kettle of fish. No, I’m talking about the stuff we first learned to play as kids, where a coloured board, some dice and a few cards combine to create possibly the most stereotypical family play environment imaginable.

I am not, however, part of a vast subculture here, for whilst board games do have a reasonably healthy ‘hardcore’ market among older gamers (a category I do not consider myself to belong to), and there is an awards ceremony (the Spiel des Jahres) is specifically to reward excellence in board game, but it is an undeniable truth that the majority of bored games are marketed for and sold to young children and families. Moreover, the very concept of grown adults playing board games is considered an inherently strange one, and god forbid that you ever try to lead a ‘normie’ over to the boardgaming cause if you don’t expect to be treated like some form of primitive. As with so many things, I don’t consider this an ‘issue’ so much as something relatively interesting, so I thought it might be interesting to delve into for a short post. Hey, gotta write ’em about something.

The story of why no self-respecting adult can get away with playing board games begins with the games themselves. Consider this; what two things do games like Monopoly, Risk, Snakes & Ladders and Battleships have in common? Firstly, that they are all highly popular and everybody knows about them; these are the board games we learnt to play as kids. Secondly, they are truly awful. Something like Snakes & Ladders is an entirely futile task based solely on throws of a dice, which anybody older than about four can work out, whilst something like Risk takes absolutely forever to get through a game of (as well as being far too fiddly for its own good). Monopoly combines the worst of both worlds, being simultaneously hugely reliant on luck and godawfully long, not to mention the fact that it’s a family game based, basically, about being mean to one another, whilst Battleships combines both of these features (albeit in a slightly less interminably long format) with incredibly formulaic gameplay and being amazingly easy to cheat on. And those are just the examples I can think of in my head; there enough other famous games (and quite a few more not-famous and equally awful ones) with similar issues, whilst stuff like Cluedo and Trivial Pursuit, whilst not as bad, are somewhat uninspired by nature. Compare that to something like Settlers of Catan or K2, which are simple enough to learn (once one of you knows the rules), incorporate enough skill and strategy to be fun and don’t take seventeen and a half hours to play through (these style of games usually fall into the category of ‘German style’, for the record… but I really don’t want to delve into that now)

This begs the obvious question… why do we end up playing all these terrible games? The answer is, of course, to do with when we start playing board games- as children. As previously mentioned, children are by far and away the biggest market for board games, and it is considered almost an integral part of ‘normal’ middle class family life to have a few board games in the house- something to prevent the kids from ruining Mrs. Jones’ petunias or watching too much rubbish TV. So, parents pick something that is easy for a child to get their head around and, just as importantly, won’t tax their mental faculties as they try to learn the rules. The simplest way of doing this, of course, is for them to just buy the games they played as children, the ones that absolutely everyone knows the rules of, the ‘old favourites’ such as those mentioned above. This is why classics like Monopoly are so enduring, and why everybody knows why they work, which encourages parents to buy them, which means people learn them as kids, which means everybody knows them, which means… and so on down the vicious spiral. This, combined with the uncomfortable fear factor of trying to play a game whilst not fully understanding it or (horror) potentially losing to one’s offspring, puts a lot of parents off branching out with their choice of boardgames, which is perhaps understandable.

The ‘child factor’, incidentally, adds another push factor to the idea of playing boardgames when older. As boardgames are only really played by parents as a diversionary tool whilst their children are young, they become very much associated with our childhood days. Given that every child and teenager always wants to forget those embarrassing days way back when, this means that in our slightly older years, we actively reject the idea of board games as being ‘for babies’, and are frequently reluctant to open our mind to them (again, understandably). And, if we get into the habit of not doing something during these pivotal developmental years, the chance of us ever doing it in later life becomes increasingly slim.

Board gaming is not for everyone; I, for instance, would not consider myself massively enamoured with it, as they are usually a lot harder to get into than most other game formats since they don’t have any form of tutorial, and are often not taught word-of-mouth by an experienced player as card games are. They also frequently don’t have quite the same scope or ability to be artistic with their storytelling as other forms of media; but that doesn’t mean that they can’t be fun, can’t be serious, can’t be dramatic, can’t be funny, can’t be entertaining, or can’t be compelling to play. Board games need not be ‘bored’ games, although they easily can be; every so often, it’s worth giving something new, a decent shot.

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Attack of the Blocks

I spend far too much time on the internet. As well as putting many hours of work into trying to keep this blog updated regularly, I while away a fair portion of time on Facebook, follow a large number of video series’ and webcomics, and can often be found wandering through the recesses of YouTube (an interesting and frequently harrowing experience that can tell one an awful lot about the extremes of human nature). But there is one thing that any resident of the web cannot hope to avoid for any great period of time, and quite often doesn’t want to- the strange world of Minecraft.

Since its release as a humble alpha-version indie game in 2009, Minecraft has boomed to become a runaway success and something of a cultural phenomenon. By the end of 2011, before it had even been released in its final release format, Minecraft had registered 4 million purchases and 4 times that many registered users, which isn’t bad for a game that has never advertised itself, spread semi-virally among nerdy gamers for its mere three-year history and was made purely as an interesting project by its creator Markus Persson (aka Notch). Thousands of videos, ranging from gameplay to some quite startlingly good music videos (check out the work of Captain Sparklez if you haven’t already) litter YouTube and many of the games’ features (such as TNT and the exploding mobs known as Creepers) have become memes in their own right to some degree.

So then, why exactly has Minecraft succeeded where hundreds and thousands of games have failed, becoming a revolution in gamer culture? What is it that makes Minecraft both so brilliant, and so special?

Many, upon being asked this question, tend to revert to extolling the virtues of the game’s indie nature. Being created entirely without funding as an experiment in gaming rather than profit-making, Minecraft’s roots are firmly rooted in the humble sphere of independent gaming, and it shows. One obvious feature is the games inherent simplicity- initially solely featuring the ability to wander around, place and destroy blocks, the controls are mainly (although far from entirely) confined to move and ‘use’, whether that latter function be shoot, slash, mine or punch down a tree. The basic, cuboid, ‘blocky’ nature of the game’s graphics, allowing for both simplicity of production and creating an iconic, retro aesthetic that makes it memorable and standout to look at. Whilst the game has frequently been criticised for not including a tutorial (I myself took a good quarter of an hour to find out that you started by punching a tree, and a further ten minutes to work out that you were supposed to hold down the mouse button rather than repeatedly click), this is another common feature of indie gaming, partly because it saves time in development, but mostly because it makes the game feel like it is not pandering to you and thus allowing indie gamers to feel some degree of elitism that they are good enough to work it out by themselves. This also ties in with the very nature of the game- another criticism used to be (and, to an extent, still is, even with the addition of the Enderdragon as a final win objective) that the game appeared to be largely devoid of point, existent only for its own purpose. This is entirely true, whether you view that as a bonus or a detriment being entirely your own opinion, and this idea of an unfamiliar, experimental game structure is another feature common in one form or another to a lot of indie games.

However, to me these do not seem to be entirely worthy of the name ‘answers’ regarding the question of Minecraft’s phenomenal success. The reason I think this way is that they do not adequately explain exactly why Minecraft rose to such prominence whilst other, often similar, indie games have been left in relative obscurity. Limbo, for example, is a side-scrolling platformer and a quite disturbing, yet compelling, in-game experience, with almost as much intrigue and puzzle from a set of game mechanics simpler even than those of Minecraft. It has also received critical acclaim often far in excess of Minecraft (which has received a positive, but not wildly amazed, response from critics), and yet is still known to only an occasional few. Amnesia: The Dark Descent has been often described as the greatest survival horror game in history, as well as incorporating a superb set of graphics, a three-dimensional world view (unlike the 2D view common to most indie games) and the most pants-wettingly terrifying experience anyone who’s ever played it is likely to ever face- but again, it is confined to the indie realm. Hell, Terraria is basically Minecraft in 2D, but has sold around 40 times less than Minecraft itself. All three of these games have received fairly significant acclaim and coverage, and rightly so, but none has become the riotous cultural phenomenon that Minecraft has, and neither have had an Assassin’s Creed mod (first example that sprung to mind).

So… why has Minecraft been so successful. Well, I’m going to be sticking my neck out here, but to my mind it’s because it doesn’t play like an indie game. Whilst most independently produced titled are 2D, confined to fairly limited surroundings and made as simple & basic as possible to save on development (Amnesia can be regarded as an exception), Minecraft takes it own inherent simplicity and blows it up to a grand scale. It is a vast, open world sandbox game, with vague resonances of the Elder Scrolls games and MMORPG’s, taking the freedom, exploration and experimentation that have always been the advantages of this branch of the AAA world, and combined them with the innovative, simplistic gaming experience of its indie roots. In some ways it’s similar to Facebook, in that it takes a simple principle and then applies it to the largest stage possible, and both have enjoyed a similarly explosive rise to fame. The randomly generated worlds provide infinite caverns to explore, endless mobs to slay, all the space imaginable to build the grandest of castles, the largest of cathedrals, or the SS Enterprise if that takes your fancy. There are a thousand different ways to play the game on a million different planes, all based on just a few simple mechanics. Minecraft is the best of indie and AAA blended together, and is all the more awesome for it.