Learning to Love Games by Losing
by Justin Gibbons
July 24, 2017, 8:01am
Gibbons log: Stardate July 23, 2016- First play of Scythe. Got second place. Solid game.
Gibbons log: Stardate August 3, 2016- Third play of Scythe. Second place again. I think this game needs a little work. Something is wrong.
Gibbons log: Stardate who cares- Fifth play of Scythe. SECOND PLACE AGAIN! Even though I got a personal best score! This game is so unbalanced/broken/design-flawed/infuriating! I hate this game!
My Board Game stats app serves as a reminder of how I used to view a game that I could do well at, but not win. I would say I’m a decent gamer. I’ve played hundreds of games and have a respectable board game collection. And somewhere along the lines, I got used to the idea of being a winner. All. The. Time. Or at least that’s how I saw myself.
Suddenly, I hear the sound of steam-powered metal and this game called Scythe rolls up and shells my poor farmer-self back to my home base. Turns out, I’m not the iron-clad warrior I thought I was.
I went through the typical things gamers do when confronted with this shocking reality. Blame the game. Blame the designer. Blame the design. Blame the people you play with for not helping YOU, yes you, win the game. I got to the point where I thought I did not like the game (even though, obviously, something kept me coming back).
Gibbons log: Stardate February 6, 2017- going to try Scythe one more time. But this time, just go and enjoy it. I know I won’t win. Second place is just fine.
The result of this play? I did get second place. Again! I’m a serial-second-place scorer in Scythe (take that, alliteration!). But something changed this time. I had a lot of fun playing! I enjoyed being with my friends. I enjoyed the concepts in the game. I even started watching what the winner was doing, and suddenly all these layers of strategy started appearing, which amplified my enjoyment of the game even more. I was noticing strategic options I hadn’t seen before, and felt freedom to explore and try new things. What was going on?
Turns out, there was never a problem with the game, although I certainly tried to find a problem. There wasn’t a problem with my game group. The problem was with me. I had become so competitive with myself and with others that my objective in board gaming had become this;
Win at all costs.
That’s a tough thing to see, and even tougher to overcome. You see, this objective I had created for myself is something that ties into the fabric of board gaming. It ties to something we all wrestle with. And that is this big question; Why do we play board games?
Board games are for the most part a competitive endeavor. You are challenging your mental, observational, strategic, dexterous, and sometimes emotional might against other competitors in effort to achieve a victory. Even when playing a cooperative game, you are still competing against the unseen enemy…the game (so evil, the game can be.) Our competitive instincts are in play while we play! Since board games are competitive, we play them to win, right? If you’re not going to try and win, why play at all? Amiright? Well, yes. And, no.
There is nothing wrong with desiring to win, or being a competitive gamer. There is nothing wrong with winning. I would even argue that board gaming is amplified when all players are seeking to challenge themselves and each other in solid competition (as opposed to the joker who shows up and jib-jabs through the rules and acts like Radho on speed through the game, not caring what happens one way or another). The problem becomes when that competitive drives becomes too predominant, and becomes the only drive. At this point, you have a hyper-competitive gamer on your hands. I was (and still strive to resist being) a hyper-competitive gamer. And it can be toxic.
How to know if you’re hyper-competitive (and its effects)
Sometimes it’s great to pause and check ourselves. There are a few things I noted about myself during my Scythe experience that became glaring, blue-core, linen-finish signs that I had become hyper-competitive;
- Singular purpose to gaming- I showed up to win and win only. This was my standard of if I would leave satisfied or not. This minimizes other values in gaming, which I’ll get to later.
- Building frustration- I was frustrated after each game session, and noticed I was getting increasingly frustrated after each loss, causing me to unjustly dislike a game because of my own problem. Eventually this leads to not being able to enjoy gaming if you don’t win.
- Blame gaming- I would quickly jump to flaws in game design, flaws in other players who didn’t do what I needed them to do, flaws in the balance of factions. If you find yourself blaming everything because you can’t win, you’re there. This only annoys everyone in your group who wish you’d just congratulate the winner and enjoy their company.
- Rampant AP- Hyper-competitive players often are a tremendous source of Analysis Paralysis (AP). While there is plenty of time needed to learn new games, I’m talking about the moments where the game screeches to a halt because a player is playing so hard that they must figure out the most optimal move on every. single. turn. These super-long turns obviously frustrate other players and cause them to detach from the game (ironically, the opposite effect the hyper-competitive player is having). This may even cause the other players to not want to play with you again, in fear that you will make any game feel like Twilight Imperium. If you find yourself devouring the clock to make the optimal move, you’re hyper-competitive. Pick something and move on.
- Rewinding- This intersects closely with the above, but when someone takes a full turn, and right as the next player starts, they want to take everything back and start over because they can get one more dollar or point out of a different option, they are playing too competitively. Sometimes it’s best to learn from your mistakes. Rewinding will similarly frustrate players and cause them to avoid you on game night. This ain’t Blockbuster. Stop rewinding.
- Study Hall- Some people need to study rules ahead of time because that’s the best way they learn the game. That’s fine. But some people study rules, watch videos, read strategies, and take entire days to learn games just so they can show up on game night and prove their superior study skills to others. This undoubtedly only leads to rage when you don’t win, and taking it out on other players or the game. It can turn you off to games unfairly.
- Fear- A byproduct of being hyper-competitive is fear. You fear losing, so you just don’t play. Or maybe you’ve won once, but you don’t want to experience losing that same game, so you never play it again. Hyper-competitiveness can paralyze players from enjoying a wide breadth of new games, and fully exploring games they’ve played out of fear that they will lose. Obviously, this byproduct of hyper-competitiveness can lead to a bunch of the other signs above including being overly studious, having serious AP issues, rewinding turns, etc. People who fear losing resort to whatever it takes to win.
Learning to Love Games by Losing
If you find yourself to be a hyper-competitive gamer some change of perspective is needed and will pay off in dividends. For me, I had to re-examine the big question Why do I play board games? And that answer shifted to;
Play to win, but enjoy the people and the experience.
Being a player that other players enjoy is a much better and higher value than winning. After all, I can’t play games very well if I alienate all the people I play with, can I? (Unless I become a strictly-solo-gamer. I picture this person as someone with a lot of cats). Deep down, I care about the people in my game group. I want to have a good experience on game night. So I should want them to have a good experience as well.
With that said, here are some ways to reorient ourselves to cure the hyper-competitive itch.
- Treat the game night experience as more important than the game itself. The game is part of a game night, but not the entire thing. Enjoying the company of friends, building relationships, and eating delicious snacks are all part of the event.
- Put other players’ enjoyment above your own. If they’re having fun, consider that part of your win. If they aren’t, do what you can to eliminate yourself as part of their frustration.
- Play competitively, but when stuck, just try something and move on. You don’t have to get everything right all the time. You can most-often improve your strategy by failing.
- Put the focus on improving your own score over winning the game. If you’re going to be hyper-competitive, let it be with yourself, seeking to refine your skill in the game. Going into a game night with this focus creates freedom to try new things and enjoy the act of playing.
- Cheer for other people and celebrate their victories. You’d want people to do this to you, so congratulate your friends with something as simple as “good game, nice win!” Sometimes when teaching a person a new game, I don’t go “guns blazing” with my best strategy. I take the opportunity to try things I don’t normally do. If I lose, so what? If they win they are more likely to play it again and that’s an even better win for me.
I don’t play to lose. But learning to lose well creates freedom in gaming. And it creates a lot more enjoyment for the game group. By walking into a game of Scythe embracing that I could lose, and not caring if I did lose, I was able to relax and enjoy the game much more. I made my plays learning experiences. Sure, I may lose far more than I win, but I’ll be able to test strategies in different ways that may one day congeal into a fantastic strategy that nets more wins than losses. And if not, oh well, you can’t win them all anyway.
Gibbons log: Stardate March 22, 2017- Seventh play of Scythe. AND I WON! I’m glad I stuck with this one. The work was worth it. And this game sure did teach me a few things outside of the game itself.