As I mentioned in last week’s roundup, I played Azul for the first time on Friday. And my reaction to it, by the end of the second round, was viscerally negative. I was absolutely Not Having a Good Time, and boy did it show; both of the other people at the table could tell that I wasn’t happy. I ended up in a distant third, which isn’t surprising for a first time playing a game I didn’t fully understand when we started, and I was bitter. Not at the loss, not really, despite that being an issue for me; it was at the game itself.
We ended up talking it over afterwards, and almost as an afterthought, I said that I felt I would have enjoyed it much more as a two-player game. Something dawned on me as I drove home from my friends’ house: why Azul, like Photosynthesis before it, was the sort of game that I would likely never be comfortable playing any way other than head-to-head.
There are certain board games that are mostly non-confrontational. Race for the Galaxy is a great example; you can definitely play better if you have a grasp of what your opponent’s going for and make use of that knowledge, and there is a tiny bit of blocking that you can do by holding onto cards across shuffles, but fundamentally it’s a game about building a better, faster, more efficient engine than the other people at the table. You can never be too angry when someone doesn’t pick the phase you wanted them to, because you could have always picked it yourself, ya damn leech.
Then there are board games that are very explicitly confrontational and wear that on its sleeve. I don’t sit down to play Risk 2210 to shower cuddles onto my opponents; I come to destroy. The same goes for a game like The Resistance, where a huge part of the experience is calling people liars and trying to verbally manipulate your friends. If you’re not in a confrontational mood, well, you probably shouldn’t play one of these types of games to begin with, and so I come into them with the knowledge that it’s going to be nasty and don’t feel put off by that experience.
Some games allow you to explore multiple strategies, both antagonistic and peaceful. When there are options, I almost always go for a peaceable approach. Part of that is because it suits my temperament more, and part of it is because I have a long and storied history of being ganged up on as “the guy at the table who knows the game,” so presenting myself as meek and non-threatening is useful to keep me from being obliterated by multiple focused death beams coming from everyone else at the table. I tend to avoid attacks in Dominion in favor of engine-building, and fight as little as I can get away with in Antike II.
Games like Azul and Photosynthesis trip some sort of Uncanny Valley switch in me, though. They have the trappings of a non-confrontational game: build your stuff! Make pretty patterns! And they seem to allow you to play in a way that doesn’t completely antagonize your opponents. But it quickly turns out that the best strategies are to mercilessly screw everyone else at the table over at every possible moment.
We played New York Slice precisely twice and set it aside because it was so confrontational, and something similar happened with Imhotep. But I’ve realized that it’s not just the combination of the confrontation and the cognitive disconnect, although that definitely plays a big part. It’s also that the maliciousness in these games feels deeply targeted. It’s not just that you’re punching someone over and over, it’s that you’re picking people to punch. And it turns out there’s a handy solution to that problem: playing with only one other person.
One of my favorite games is BattleCON, which is a “luck-free” simulation of fighting videogames like Street Fighter II or BlazBlue. And thinking about why I absolutely love BattleCON, which is as confrontational as a game can be, helped me understand what was going on in my subconscious a bit better. The fundamental goal is to beat the crap out of your opponent, to outguess their moves and land the perfect combo. So of course I’m mentally prepared for that when I sit down.
That means that the real outliers are the Risk 2210s and the Cthulhu Wars, where I don’t mind multiplayer confrontation. And I think that the difference comes down to several things:
- The heart of the game is conflict, not construction. In Risk 2210, you know there’s gonna be a lot of fightin’. Azul looks like it’s just about playing pretty pieces on your board and scoring, but really it’s about putting your opponent(s) into bad situations.
- Luck mitigates and makes stories. You keep picking on me but rolling low? That’s funny and memorable. In a game like Photosynthesis, there’s nothing I can do to stop you because there’s no way to “luck out” of a bad situation.
- Conflict-hearted games are inherently more social and more political. “I won’ t fight you this turn if you don’t fight me next” is a common sort of deal that you’ll see made at the table in those games. I think it’d be really weird to hear that at a game of Azul! Yeah, political games come with their own whole suite of issues (which I may write about at some point), but it feels right in a game like Risk in a way that it doesn’t in a “secretly cutthroat” game.
And so: I feel like I should, and will, revisit some games I’ve been dismissive of, like Imhotep and Azul. But I’m gonna do it with only one person at the table, and with the certain knowledge that, no matter what the game may look like, it’s really a knife fight in disguise.