Game Theory

It’s the middle of cold, grey, January, I’m firmly back in the work trench (reached 80,000 words on the first draft of The Silvergreen Sea yesterday and celebrated with a cup of tea), and the Christmas board game season already feels a long time ago. Now, I love board games, although I sometimes struggle to find the time and willing participants. Or the patience to deal with some of my slower friends, who feel the need to over-analyse every possible combination of moves and dice rolls (if you’re reading this, you know who you are). Part of the problem is that, for too many people,  board games are soured by childhood recollections: repeated losses at chess, over-competitive older siblings, blazing rows over the Monopoly board. It’s a sad irony that, while board games have improved tremendously over the last few decades and there are now available countless different options suitable for every taste, the most popular games – and the ones most people think of when ‘board games’ are mentioned – remain those of yesteryear. Monopoly. Scrabble. Risk. Cluedo. Trivial Pursuit. What all these games have in common, besides the fact that they’ve been around for decades, is that they’re utterly terrible.

 
What makes them so very bad? Well, it varies. In the case of Trivial Pursuit, it’s the awful quality of the questions – trust me, as a former question-writing professional, I know of what I speak, and there’s no way those questions would pass muster on The Weakest Link. Oh, and the endless bloody dice-rolling. With Cluedo, it’s the fact that every single time, you guess the weapon and murderer quickly, then spend ages trooping across the board to get to the next room, only to get pulled into the %$£&ing billiards room just when you’re almost there. Scrabble – at least when I play it – degenerates into people trying to block off the triple word score and arguments over whether ‘xi’ and ‘qi’ are permissable words (they TOTALLY are). Monopoly and Risk both have that you-get-eliminated-early-then-the-game-goes-on-forever quality. Yet despite their terribleness, these games continue stumbling on like zombies that just won’t die, spawning endless special editions themed as Sherlock or Star Wars or – appropriately – The Walking Dead.

 
What games, then, are better? Well, one game I’ve played a lot this season, and which I unhesitatingly recommend to anyone, however scarred by that round of Diplomacy (‘The game of interminable backstabbing!’), is Ticket to Ride. It’s fun, it’s simple, and you get to build steam trains to Constantinople. It’s a perfect ‘gateway game’ as boardgamegeek.com would put it. As a fantasy writer and reader, however, I always like to check out games based on created worlds. I’ve had some issues with Tolkien-based games in the past, and the game of Game of Thrones sounds a bit too much like Diplomacy for my liking, but I absolutely love the Ankh-Morpork game, hiding my secret identity as Vimes or Vetinari whilst playing cards like Rosie Palms and Death (‘HELLO’). This Christmas I got to try its sequel, the Witches game, which sadly, wasn’t quite so good, not least because you don’t get to be either Granny Weatherwax or Nanny Ogg. The game features a rule – which my husband decried as ‘stupid’ – that, if there’s ever 3 elf tokens on the board at once, everybody immediately loses. This rule didn’t make much sense to me either, and I realised this must be because I hadn’t actually read the appropriate book (‘Lords and Ladies’) – so I did, immediately, and a fantastic read it is too, one of Pratchett’s best imho. And now the elf rule makes sense.

 

arkham horror game

The Arkham Horror board game in action. Set up for 1 player (no, really). Picture from boardgamegeek.com

Eldritch beings which cause everybody to lose suddenly are the main feature of another game based on a fantasy world, Arkham Horror. This game is quite immersive in the world of HP Lovecraft, but it’s definitely a whatever-is-the-opposite-of-a-gateway-game. There are Sanity Tokens which look like little brains. You fight monsters and the Doom track advances. Then Azathoth awakens and destroys the world, which means everyone automatically loses. Or you could play against Cthulhu instead, in which case you fight for a couple of rounds and then he devours everyone (this also means you lose). It’s a co-operative game, so inevitably, you all lose together. Supposedly the game does have victory conditions, but I’ve not seen much evidence of them in action.

 
Although I’ve yet to encounter a board game in which there actually isn’t any victory condition, many video games have a ‘Survival Mode’ where you just keep going until you die – and I’m old enough to remember when all video games were like that. I commented at my writers’ group that this is, of course, how it works in real life. ‘Life – the game with no victory condition’ – a very January sort of sentiment. Then one of my writerly friends came up with the more optimistic view that you can define your own life victory conditions, which got me thinking. Maybe one day – if I keep writing, and get lucky with those unseen dice rolls – I’ll be able to play a board game based on a fantasy world I’ve created myself. And If that ain’t a victory condition, I don’t know what is.

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A vanishing pleasure?

Happy new year all, and welcome to my 2014… it’s not been a stellar year so far, but there is at least plenty of time for it to improve. And early January is always enlivened by the new shiny objects received at Christmas, including of course several books to add to the reading list. I should really try to make some more headway with said list and spend less time looking at Buzzfeed. My reading habits have been put to shame by my husband, normally quite a slow reader, who has munched through 5 books in the past couple of weeks, exhausting all available volumes of interest. So today we ventured out to Waterstone’s to get something new.
It’s funny how, over the years, Waterstone’s has gradually transformed, without actually itself changing all that much. I remember when it was an ogre of the high street, gobbling up lesser shops like Dillon’s and Ottakar’s and putting poor independent booksellers out of business. Now it’s a beleaguered symbol of old school retail, under threat from the evil empire of the Amazon, a fire kindled under its profits. I don’t actually have that much sentimental attachment to Waterstone’s, not compared with late lamented Borders and its very generous approach to allowing customers to read books in store, or Blackwell’s in Oxford which nurtured me through my academic career. But I was struck today with the sheer joy of book shopping, the pulse-quickening sensation of walking into a whole building dedicated to books, and being able to wander around tables covered in books and shelves full of books, and browse through hundreds of the things, picking them up, feeling the weight, flipping through them, admiring the covers of the special editions, the gloss and the matte, the hard back and the soft, the fiction and the non. And then the excitement of walking out with a fresh purchase, longing to get home to try it out, every book a present waiting to be opened. I love reading physical books, I love having them on my shelves, and I love shopping for them. I don’t know how much longer book shops as a species will last, but I’ll miss them when they’re gone, and I’m going to enjoy them while I can.