Fair play in an unfair world

I played El Grande for the first time tonight, despite owning the game off and on for over twenty years. It was tense, highly strategic, and deeply intriguing the whole way through, and I’m angry that I had never managed to get it to the table before.

But it was clear, during the game, that one of the other players thought that I was picking on them. Specifically, there was a point where I gave a different player–someone new to this whole “complex strategy games” thing–some advice about what they could do; they followed that advice, and then a turn or two later it set up a situation where I benefited greatly1.

My first response to this was something close to outrage. Of course I wasn’t trying to game the system in my favor, and how dare they think that that was the case? But this person hasn’t played all that many games with me and isn’t aware of the precepts I bring to the table.

The first and most important precept is this: I want everyone at the table to have the best time possible. For newer players, this often means giving them suggestions as to what they could do, in an attempt to winnow down the often overwhelming field of choices that modern board games can provide2. For other players, it means keeping far away from their decision process. I tend to err on the “help” side, and try to keep myself in check if I feel like what I’m doing is steering too close to my alpha-gamer tendencies, but of course this sort of thing isn’t perfect.

The problem comes in a game like El Grande where just about every decision a player makes hurts someone else at the table. The game has very few “just good for me” moves; almost anything that improves your position on the board is messing with someone else’s plans, or even directly stealing points from them.

Now, I try to be scrupulously fair with my advice–and I’ll admit that there is almost certainly some unconscious bias as to the hints and tips I give, no matter how hard I try to make that not the case–but when anything I suggest is, by design, going to hurt someone at the table, I can understand why it might seem like I’m trying to inveigle some advantage under the cover of providing in-game suggestions3.

This is hard for me. I can of course just sit back and never provide any advice at all, but I know that for some people that would make for a quantitatively worse experience, and I’m definitely one of those “some people.” I like looking for the great move another player has lying in wait, even when they don’t see it themselves. I think a game’s more interesting when people are playing at close to the same level, and if I can help nudge it in that direction I feel almost obligated to do so.

But I think I need to be more careful when it comes to games like El Grande, where every move has deep and lasting consequences that can sway the game hard one way or the other. It’s a tough line to walk, given my propensity for advice, but a line I clearly need to get better at finding.

Fortunately, everyone seemed to really enjoy the game, even the person who felt picked on, and we had a discussion afterward that (I hope) cleared the air. I don’t like that that had to happen in the first place, though, and I’m going to give serious thought to how I should manage similar situations in the future. Hopefully it’ll result in even more fun at the table for everyone involved, which is right in line with my first precept4. And any game night with no hurt feelings is a better game night indeed.

Reeling, in a year

Today marks a year since I retired.

Here’s one of the questions I get asked the most: do you have any regrets about retiring so young?

I have to bite back the glib answer, which is, man, do you even know me? I have regrets about everything. I’m pretty sure that there’s no major decision in my life I haven’t questioned furiously before, during, and after making said decision, for hours, days, months, or even years. I still feel bad about the way I answered some Very Important Questions1 when I was sixteen, and those were twenty-three years ago. Regrets? Yeah. Yeah, I have them. I have them all the time.

Another common question is this: does being retired make you happy?

(It’s worth taking a moment here to note that, while I’m never angry with people who ask me these things, they seem to be coming from a place of mild bewilderment that someone can retire before the age of forty without the excuse of being makes-cigar-wrappers-out-of-hundred-dollar-bills rich2. The world at large is still very confused by us lean-savings early-retirement types.)

And, to be honest, sometimes I’m not happy at all. I lead a pretty lonely life, and one of the biggest things I lost when I stopped having a job at a vibrant company was a large, easily-available social circle. Getting people together to hang out when outside of work is hard, and I still haven’t cracked that particular code a year in. I went from always having a person or two I could chat with in a moment of downtime to sometimes going for a week or two where the only people I speak to face-to-face are the cashiers at Walmart. They’re nice and all, but it’s not exactly high-level social interaction.

But.

Let’s change these questions around a bit, starting with the last one: are you happier, now that you’ve retired?

The answer to that question is an unequivocal yes. I had a rough time at work the last couple of years. The social aspects were great, never mind the food and the board games, but I didn’t find the job itself very satisfying, and could feel myself getting unhappier by the day. There were times when I had to take vacation for a week or so, not because I actually went anywhere–if you’ve read much here you know I’m not much of one for travel–but because I needed to get back the energy required to actually be able to show up for work again.

(There was a coworker of mine, a younger person who I regularly chatted with in regards to our careers. They were unhappy with their position, and I told them that they needed to grab hold of one of the many opportunities the company offered to move upwards and outwards, that being unhappy in a job was one of the most exhausting places to be in life, that they had years of working professionally ahead of them and they needed to make the best of them. Their usual response was: great advice, buddy, but have you ever thought of taking it for yourself? And they were right, of course. I was one of those jerks who didn’t practice what they preached.)

So, sure, some days I wake up and feel like I’ve made a poor decision… but most days I wake up and go: Yeah. Yeah. This is right. This is what I want to be doing right now. Am I happy? Maybe. Maybe not. Am I happier? Abso-freaking-lutely.

Let’s go back to that first question now, and take another stab at it: Do you have enough regrets about retiring early that you’d choose not to if given a chance to do it all over again?

And the answer to that question is as easy as the answer to the last: Absolutely not. I made the right decision then, and I’d make it again in a heartbeat if I had to. Retirement’s not regret-free, but nothing is, at least for me. That doesn’t mean I won’t change my mind in the future, of course, and one of the things I intentionally planned for is the ability to change my mind if I need to3. But regrets are a part of life, and every decision made is another decision unmade, every road traveled a path not taken.

And my footing is firm.