Tonight was an extended game night, the first we’ve had in a while. We played The Princes of Florence, one of my favorite games of all time. And I was so stressed out the entire game that I’m a little surprised I didn’t have an actual panic attack.
I consider Android: Netrunner to be one of the finest game designs I’ve ever experienced. I also just flat-out can’t play the game with any seriousness; the act of play stresses me out so much that I feel completely exhausted, wrung out, useless after even a single match with someone. I enjoy teaching the game, but playing competitively? I just can’t do it.
What do these two games have in common?
They’re both driven by knife’s edge decisions. Winning or losing often hinges on bidding just once more–or not–in Princes, on making that daredevil run against an unknown server–or not–in ANR. And they both have many of these kinds of decisions over the course of a single game. Any one of them could secretly be the one that costs you the game, and both games make you painfully aware of this fact; it tends to be in the final accounting in Princes, but you often just flat-out lose ANR if you make the wrong choice.
This sort of super-tight decision-making process does not go well with my demeanor. Anyone who has played more than a couple of board games with me learns two things pretty quickly:
- I’m delighted to teach you a game and help you in your first couple of plays, and
- I am really, really competitive once you know how to play.
I manage to hide a third thing most of the time in my adulthood, but sometimes it becomes obvious too:
This is a holdover from a childhood spent for the most part as the only kid in the family, a childhood where people made the crucial mistake of letting me win games that I shouldn’t have won just to keep me happy. I have worked hard over the years to get over this particular problem, and I’d say I’m about 60% there at best.
It doesn’t help the situation that I’m pretty damn good at most board games, even when I’ve never played them before, and so have a high winning percentage; that just makes the voice in the back of my mind think that I deserve to win more, and makes it petulant when I don’t.
In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if part of why I love teaching games so much is that it is an inherently imbalanced situation: I’m more familiar with the game than the people I’m teaching, by definition, and so am all the more likely to win. Ugh. (Fortunately, I also enjoy teaching other things that aren’t about winning or losing, and love learning from people who know more than me, so I think I’m only somewhat horrible here, not completely so. Still: ugh.)
So: tonight’s game of The Princes of Florence was with four other players. Two were new to the game and two had played before. One of the returning players got into a very good position by the second turn (of seven) in the game, and I didn’t like how the future looked from that point on until the absolute last moment of the game. I was actually rocking on the bench where I sat the entire, a giant ball of stress-wires firing constantly in my head. Said returning player commented that he had never seen me so freaked out at a game. (It’s true; he and I never played competitive Android: Netrunner, or he would have seen it before.)
I ended up winning by a small handful of points, so the little voice in the back of my head says, hey, all that stress was worth it. You won, right? But that’s definitely wrong. Like I told another of the players–one of the two who had never seen the game before, but who came in a strong third–I probably play at somewhere around 90% of my hypothetical “peak skill level” when I’m not stressed out and hyper-focused on the game, rather than the 99-100% when I am. But the experience is at least ten times more enjoyable for me when I’m not buzzing in semi-terror at every move of the game. Is performing 10% better at the cost of feeling like I need to take a two-hour cold shower afterwards worth it? If lives were on the line, perhaps. For an evening out with friends? Absolutely not.
A game I love and play a lot is Dominion. It has a large strategic depth as well, but also a lot of randomness, brought on by the shuffle of the cards. I stopped playing Dominion at that 99% level ages ago, because the luck of the draw had a much larger effect on my wins and losses than that 10% improvement. And because of that I can play Dominion back to back for hours, winning and losing and having a great time the whole way through.
I need to be able to play like that with every game. And maybe, hopefully, spelling it out like this will help; the first step is admitting you have a problem, after all.
As it is, if I don’t play Princes again for another six months or so, I’m fine. I’ve had enough of its knife’s edge for now… at least until I figure out how to blunt that blade.