Category Archives: My Life With Games

My Life with Games (part 31)–Papers, Please

Are you nostalgic for the Cold War? Does the life of a petty bureaucrat sound thrilling and exciting? Want to grapple with the moral ambiguities of being the face of a system you can’t totally support? Then Papers, Please is the game for you!

Okay, yes, I could totally sell this one better. Like how this game is truly a game design tour de force. How the intersection of game mechanics made me feel more like I was playing a roleplaying game than a puzzle game. How there’s even something oddly enjoyable and thrilling about…well…doing paperwork.

But maybe here’s the best selling point of all. In his preface to The Screwtape Letter, C.S. Lewis writes:

“I live in the Managerial Age, in a world of “Admin.” The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid “dens of crime” that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voices. Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the office of a thoroughly nasty business concern.”

Papers, Please is, in part, an exploration of this idea in video game form.

First, here’s a link to the trailer for the game.

The core of gameplay is the view that you see in the trailer. You are behind a desk, interviewing the various people attempting to cross the border at your crossing. You have a rulebook, giving the details of the various items you need to watch for. If you discover discrepancies in the paperwork, you highlight the discrepancy to ask the applicant for more information. Sometimes this resolves the issue, while sometimes it necessitates a denial of entry or even detaining the applicant for further questioning.

So that’s the game. Review paperwork, then stamp “Approved” or “Denied” as appropriate. Or, rather, that’s the core of the game.

See, you’re on a clock. So you’re doing this processing in realtime. It’s not that any one applicant has a clock. It’s just that your workday ends when you’re out of applicants to process. 

And that’s where the next aspect of the game enters play.

You are paid piecework. So, the more applicants you process, the more money you get paid. Mess up, and you’ll get citations, and eventually your pay will be docked.

And each day, you have to go home and pay the bills with the money you made. Because you have a family to feed and keep warm. You have to pay the rent. Get lax on these duties, and your family can get sick and even die. It happened in my playthrough. I lost two family members to disease because I couldn’t afford both food and heat, and then I couldn’t afford medicine.

So, your performance at the checkpoint directly impacts your ability to care for your family. 

With me so far?

Now comes the next twist.

The applicants you’re processing at the checkpoint aren’t ciphers. They have personality. They’ll talk to you. Sometimes they’ll ask you for favors, or they’ll overshare. Like the woman who mentioned that her husband had just gone ahead of her in line. Or the other woman who slipped me a note, telling me that the man behind her was her pimp, intent on selling her once they entered the country, and please, oh please, don’t let him through.

So, what about that, right? The pimp’s paperwork is in order. I’m supposed to let him through. But should I? 

 But there’s even more! Your country is embroiled in a tense geopolitical situation, which means that the rules for crossing becoming increasingly arcane and difficult to enforce. And then there are the foreign terrorists, hopping the wall and throwing bombs. And then there’s the homegrown resistance movement who appeals to your patriotism to aid them.

There’s probably even more. I’ve only played through the game once. But, without a doubt, the core gameplay activity of processing paperwork is only a small part of the overall game experience. 

This isn’t just a game about playing “One of these things doesn’t belong”. This is a game about morality at the intersection of competing loyalties.

By my count, my character had at least four competing loyalties: 

1) His government 

2) His family 

3) His country (not the same thing as his government) 

4) Humanity in general 

 Following the rules of applicant processing demonstrated loyalty to the government. Making enough money to provide for his family’s needs demonstrated loyalty to them. Aiding the resistance movement demonstrated loyalty to his country (at least in my mind!) And sometimes bending the rules at the checkpoint demonstrated loyalty to humanity.

But these loyalties do not live peacefully with each other. And, as the game goes on, you are forced to make choices between them.
In my game, I tried to juggle my responsibilities. I tried to do good work at the checkpoint, though I’ll admit that much of this was motivated by my desire to pay for my family’s needs. So, yeah, I accepted some kickback from one of the border guards for detaining people, but I didn’t change my actions. I figured that if I could get a little bit extra for food for my family while still doing my job, then there was no harm. I wasn’t looking for extra reasons to detain people, though maybe I was a bit harsher than I might otherwise have been. I mean, maybe. And I was a patriot! So when the resistance movement contacted me, I jumped at the chance to help.

That was morally grueling in its own way. At first, the resistance only wanted me to look the other way when certain people were coming through. though, as the news came out about bombings against government buildings, I knew that I was culpable. And then came the day when they asked me to kill. And, God help me, I did.

Things came to a head when my superiors announced that there would be an audit of my actions at the checkpoint. I knew that there was no way that I could come through that audit without incident. One of the regulars at the checkpoint had told me about a way to get forged passports to get across the border to a neighboring country. (It was an…unusual…relationship.) But it required real passports from that country as a base. So I began confiscating appropriate passports from people coming through the checkpoint. The day before the audit, and I’m still one passport short. I’m going to lose a family member.

I can’t risk it. I have to leave tonight. So I get three passports for me, my wife and my child. My wife’s mother heads for her hometown to try to disappear within the borders of our country. I don’t know if she made it.

As the game ends, I wait at another border checkpoint. This time, I’m the one clutching bad paperwork, praying that the clerk is unattentive. I hand over our papers. He goes back into the office.

I hear one stamp. I hear a second stamp.

Then there’s a pause. It feels like eternity.

And then a third stamp. I heave a sigh of relief. Then, we cross the border, safe but exiles.

Papers Please was a morally exhausting game.  I tried to do the right thing, but I’m not sure I always did. I know that I screwed over perfectly innocent people at the end of the game in my mad dash to get passports for my family.

Papers Please was also an amazing game. There are apparently 15-20 possible endings for the game, which means that your playthrough could be totally different than mine. I’m also impressed by its ability to take core gameplay that doesn’t seem all that interesting and make it fascinating.

But even more, I appreciate that this game managed to make an artful statement through the application of game mechanics, not merely narrative. And it’s an important lesson.

The System will not save you. The System will not give you the guidance you need. The System can never encompass the entirety of a situation. The System can never replace wisdom. The System cannot tell you what is right. And so, at times, the System must be resisted. It must be fought. It must be overturned.

Or, to quote from the Foundation series, “Never let your sense of morals stop you from doing what it right.”

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My Life with Games (part 30)–Flower

Last year, due to the generosity of my father-in-law, we were able to purchase a PlayStation 4 for Crystal and me. This was pretty exciting, because, you know, video games! Also, Sony has been aggressively pursuing partnerships with those weird, offbeat indie game companies that make the sorts of games that fascinate me. So the PS4 was a shoo-in. And, yes, I’ve played a couple of AAA games, but most of my gaming has been with indies.

Like Flower.

Flower is one of those games that seems like a conscious effort to see how far the video game formula can be successfully stretched. It’s not very long; the playthrough video I’m using for this post is only 100 minutes or so, which is the length of a shortish movie. The concept is weird, as I’ll explain in a few minutes. I’m not even sure that it’s all that difficult to play; Hope (age 5) was able to play through it with only occasional assistance from me.

And yet, what a profound experience.

SPOILER TAG: yes, there will be spoilers. You have been warned.

ADDITIONAL NOTE: I’m going to be hyperlinking a lot in this post to a playthrough of Flower. This way you can actually see and hear what I’m describing.

So here’s the conceit of the game. You are a gust of wind, or the dream of a flower, or a dancing flower petal (the game is kinda vague on this point) that is flying around a landscape filled with flowers. It is your job to touch all the necessary flowers to open the next segment, where you will find more flowers to touch. When you touch a flower, the game plays a musical note, based on which flower you touched. Some sounds like chimes, while others are choral stabs. So your flight is a musical experience. In addition, as you touch flowers, you accumulate more flower petals in your wake. So, you begin as a single petal, and you become this multi-colored streamer of beauty, swooping and twisting in the breeze.

Here’s an example of what I mean. Don’t worry about watching too much; you’ll get the idea pretty quickly.

Pretty, isn’t it?

But there are other things going on. The main menu shows each level as a flower in a pot on the window sill of an apartment. Each level opens with a little cutscene of a dark, broken city, which contrasts sharply with the bright colors of the gameplay levels.

Or does it?

Because as you proceed through the levels, the sun is going down. You progress from daylight on levels 1 and 2 to sunset on level 3 and twilight on level 4. The world is getting darker around you as you flit from flower to flower.

And then there’s The Moment.

Flower is a testament to the power of effective user experience design. By the time you reach level 4, the game has instructed you well through patterns and wordless hints. You have learned that accomplishing a given task unlocks a new area, and you’ve learned what that unlocking looks like. For example, on level 4, you are led from area to area by a series of street lights that turn on as you complete tasks. The lights on the electrical wires turn on, one by one, leading to the next lamp, which initiates the next area. (It looks like this.)

And that’s why The Moment works so well. Check it out.

The black smoke. The pulsating red light. The dying grass. Suddenly the idyllic world you have been playing has been desecrated. Ahead of you lies wreckage and ruin. But the game has taught you well. You must go forward. And so, suddenly, you find yourself moving through a wasteland of pollution and metal. Lightning flashes in the distance above a dark, twisted citadel. The level terminates, and you find yourself feeling, “What happened to my beautiful, happy, relaxing game?”

Which brings you to level 5.

I consider level 5 of Flower to be one of the crowning achievements of video game design. All the work of the previous four levels begins to pay off here.

The color is gone. The sun is gone. Instead, rain pounds out of a black sky, occasionally lit by lightning. All around you, twisted girders punch out of the ground. High voltage electrical wires crisscross across the sky.

And then, as you attempt to find and touch the flowers huddled around the level, you discover something new. If you touch one of the girders, you receive a powerful electrical jolt. The screen shakes and flashes, you hear a zapping sound, and even the controller shakes and buzzes. You feel like you’ve been zapped. Every person I’ve watched play this game yelps and almost drops the controller the first time it happens.

And worse, the petals that you have been accumulating burn up into wisps of smoke.

When I played this game for the first time, I suddenly began to be afraid that it was possible to die in this game, burning up in a flare of electricity.

So, on level 5, you do not swoop and flit through the air. Rather, you crawl through metallic wreckage, oppressed by the sky, threatened by the land, dwarfed by the dark landscape that you wander. I’ll be honest; it felt like passing through Mordor.

The level reaches its climax as you are hurdled down a series of canyons, where spearlike girders thrust out of the canyon walls as you desperately try to avoid being “shocked” over and over again. Pieces of metal fall from overhangs as you try to dodge, and you are so far from the happy place where you started in level 1.

And then, physically and emotionally exhausted, you emerge from the canyons, and before you is the city. Walls made of grey buildings forbid you, and yet the end level swirl beckons.

Admittedly, this is where the game gets a little heavy-handed, but in the moment, I didn’t care.

Because, as you head toward the end of the level, it simply fades out, returning you to the main menu, with level 6 unlocked.

And, of course, you dive right in, because you can’t end on a cliffhanger like that, right?

Level 6 starts right where level 5 left off. The end level swirl is still there, so that’s where you head. And when you enter it, everything changes.

A single flower grows up, but then it begins to radiate power. And, with an explosion of light, color and life bursts back into the world.

The color returns to the grass. Flowers sprout up. And you…you are glowing brightly with power.

The grey forbidding city still stands before you, its entrance webbed over with girders. But something feels different. So you head into the girders, braced for that terrible electrical shock feeling.

Instead, the girders explode before you, and you enter into the city.

The first area is covered with girders, but now you can destroy them. As you fly around, shattering metal, buildings grow from the ground and take on color. Where there was once greyness and death, there is color and life.

The emotion has shifted, too. At the beginning of the game, you are happy and carefree. Levels 4 and 5 destroy that. But, in Level 6, the mood changes again. You aren’t carefree anymore, true, but neither are you afraid. You are focused and determined. You have discovered your strength, and there is a battle to be won. Every time you hurl yourself at another piece of metal, it feels like punching back at the darkness. You have passed the trial of night, and you have now come to usher in the day.

As you work through the level, you can still see the citadel of twisted iron in the distance. Clearly that is where you must go. And, eventually, you arrive at the gate of the tower. It looks like the entrance to hell. And yet, as you storm in, it cannot stop you. The once-fearful girders that spear from the ground fall before you as you force your way inside. And then you are at the base of the tower, shattering it from within as you ascend.

And then, as you burst out of the top of the tower, there is a moment of transcendent beauty. And the world holds its breath as, in a final eruption of life and color, the metal tower is transformed into a giant cherry blossom tree, showering blossoms upon the newly reborn city.

The closing scenes show the city again. All is clean and sunlit. Even spaces that you saw earlier in the game are clean. And the closing image is of a little flower, growing in the crack of a sidewalk. And…fade out.

***

When I sat down to play Flower, I was looking for a light, mindless game. I was wanting something cute and simple. I was taking a mental health day, and I wasn’t really in the mood to be challenged. So, I was especially susceptible to the bait-and-switch that the game inflicts on its players. I was caught completely off-guard by The Moment and the raw emotion of the last third of the game.

I won’t lie; when the game was finished, I lay back on my bed, emotionally wrung out by the journey I had just taken.

Part of it was my appreciation for the game’s stance on “the city”. The city isn’t evil. It’s just been overtaken by darkness. It is in need of rescue. Level 6 is all about the redemption of the city. You free it from bondage and make it a place fit for human habitation again.

But there was a price. And the price was a passing through darkness. As a player, you are not equipped at the beginning of the game to face the darkness. No, rather you must pass through the night yourself. And, in some way, that is what qualifies you to become a part of the redemption of the city.

In other words, this game told me my story back to me.

What if my suffering isn’t just coincidence? What if it is a necessary part of my becoming what I want to be? What if I need to suffer in order to feel, to care, to empathize with others? To be able to sit across from someone and truly engage with their sorrow? What if I need to hurt in order to find the passion to shield and shelter others?

What if I needed to crawl between an oppressive sky and a dead earth, simply to be ready, willing, and able to bring color and life into the lives of others?

What if it hasn’t all been in vain?

P.S. Thanks to Catfroman for the four-part playthrough that I used. Note that this was the PS3 version. The PS4 version is even prettier. The links to each video are here: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4.


My Life with Games (part 29)–Showdown

I’ve lived with Showdown for over six years now, so I forget that many of you reading this may not actually know what in the world the Showdown project was about. For that matter, it’s been a fairly tumultuous stretch in my life, and there are a number of you who didn’t even know me when I started to work on Showdown. So, for all of you, let me tell you about my new game Showdown.

Here’s the basic pitch from the book:

Showdown is a roleplaying game about two people locked in a bitter struggle that can only end with the death of one of them. It’s for two players and should take between 60 and 90 minutes to play. Over the course of play, you and your opponent will be fighting over two things: the outcome of a climactic duel between these two foes and the history that led them to that duel. Win the duel, and you get to choose who lives and who dies. Control the history, and you get to shape why they fought in the first place. How did it come to this? Who’s the hero? Who’s the villain? And who’s left standing when the dust settles?

Raise your weapons and prepare to face the truth.

When I designed Showdown, one of my goals was to create a roleplaying game that would fit into a boardgame-sized social footprint. Most roleplaying games are events, requiring multiple sessions of 2-4 hours. Even back then, my life didn’t really afford the opportunity for much of that sort of thing, and the demands on my time and energy have only increased. But most people can find 60-90 minutes of time to play a game.

I also wanted a game that made creativity easy. Instead of presenting the players with a wide-open canvas, I used the rules to hold the players by the hand by asking specific questions of each player. “How do you attack your opponent?” “Who exactly was there with the two of you?” “How did she succeed against you?” By asking small questions, the game makes it easier to create a compelling story. “Say anything!” is hard, but “say this” is a lot easier.

I also wanted a game that gave some thought to the user interface of the game. As I’ll discuss in a moment, players are already tracking two parallel stories in their heads. I wanted the game to remember as much as possible for the players, freeing them to focus on their developing narrative. Thus the special Showdown cards, helping to track information for players.

So, what’s gameplay like?

Each game is composed of two entwining narratives. The first narrative is that of the unfolding duel to the death between the two characters. In this narrative, each player is describing the ways that their character is attempting to win this final confrontation by killing the other character. Success in this narrative represents your character getting the upper hand over the other character, and ultimate victory in this narrative gives you the right to decide who survives the duel and who is killed.

Because, for certain, one of your characters will die.

So, why wouldn’t you always choose for your opponent’s character to die?

Because of the second narrative, which is composed of a series of flashbacks, stepping through the history of these two characters. The first flashback of the game shows the first time these two characters met, and the succeeding flashbacks unfold their history of these characters’ interactions, which we know must lead ultimately to this climactic battle. Success in this narrative represents your opponent’s character being revealed for who he truly is.

See, as you make your character for this game, you create four Qualities that complete the sentence “I think I am [a]….” For example, “I think I am a generous person” or “I think I am next in line for the throne.” When you succeed in a flashback, you take your opponent’s character sheet, cross out a Quality, and replace it with something that finishes the sentence “…but really I am [a]….” The replacement has to subvert or diminish the original Quality in some way. So, for example, “I think I am a generous person, but really I am a manipulator who uses money to get ahead.”

Qualities are privileged by the rules; any narration has to be consistent with them. So, you start the game thinking you knew who your character is, but in reality, you have no idea.

Another way of putting it: you have two kinds of hit points in this game, and one of them is your self-image.

By the time the game comes to an end, you may discover that your character is so vile that you’d be happier seeing him dead than alive.

So, on each turn, the two of you set up what you’re trying to do in the duel and then what you’re trying to do in the next flashback. Then you both choose the dice you will roll to attempt to come out ahead. Higher numbers are better for dueling, while lower numbers are better for the flashback. So, if you really want to get ahead in the duel, choose your d12, which is the highest die. If you want to get ahead in the current flashback, choose your d4, which is the lowest die. You then roll two dice of the kind you selected, one for the duel and one for the flashback. This means that a lucky (or unlucky) die roll can still let you win both the duel and flashback…or lose both.

Lose the duel, and you lose the die you played. Lose the flashback, and you lose one of your Qualities.

Play until someone is out of dice.

That’s essentially the game.

I’ve noted in the past that my life has tended to reflect whatever game I’m working on. There’s a weird “life imitating art” vibe that turns up for me. That has certainly been true for me with Showdown. This stretch of my life has possibly been the most painful in my life, in part because my ego was laid bare for me to see, and I didn’t like it very much. God has exposed so much in my life and in my heart which was bad for me and those around me. And I guess it’s been good, but I know that it has hurt. A lot.

It’s hard to discover that maybe you haven’t been the hero of the story, the way you thought you were.

When Showdown was in playtest, my friend Ralph Mazza commented that he really wanted to see a variant where Qualities had a third statement, something like “…but now I’m becoming [a]…” with a redeemed version of the negative Quality. Something like “I think I am a generous person, but really I am a manipulator who uses money to get ahead, but now I’m becoming a wise investor in other people’s dreams.” He wanted to see a way for Qualities to come through the fire of revelation and be redeemed. It wasn’t the right choice for the game, but I’ve thought about that suggestion a lot over the last year as we’ve been finishing up Showdown. Because it certainly feels like what God has been doing in my life.

It’s good that life doesn’t always imitate art.

So, yeah, that got kinda deep. I should also say that Showdown is a ton of fun. Ordinarily, by this point in a project, I should be tired of playing the game or even thinking about it. But I haven’t. I’m proud of all my games, but I think that Showdown is the most fun of all my games. At least so far!

Showdown is available at DriveThruRPG. I’d love it if you would check it out, maybe pick up a copy, and then spread the word.


My Life with Games (part 28)–Freedom: The Underground Railroad

One of the reasons that I play wargames is to engage with history. (Well, the historical wargames, that is. OGRE doesn’t count.) I find that I use them as jumping-off points to engage with history, especially history that I only dimly know or understand.

Last summer, Ralph gave me a game for my birthday that has prompted me to begin a deeper exploration of the Civil War. That game was Guns of Gettysburg.

Ha! You were expecting me to say Freedom, weren’t you? Well, have patience, and all will be revealed.

As I worked to wrap my mind around the rules of Guns of Gettysburg, I found myself realizing that I actually knew very little about the history of the battle and what had prompted it. Sure, I had watched Gettysburg, but that was years ago. I also realized that I didn’t really know all that much about the war itself. Sure, I knew about its place in American history, but I didn’t feel like I had a really good handle on what had actually happened. Events. Names and dates. All those sorts of things.

At the same time, Ralph showed me another of his Kickstarter acquisitions: a game called Freedom: The Underground Railroad, which is a cooperative boardgame about the Underground Railroad, smuggling slaves out of the United States and into Canada.

It seemed like a face-punchy kind of game. But, hey, I’m the guy who designed A Flower for Mara, right? Face-punchy emotional gaming is what I do.

Crystal also really wanted to be able to play. She likes being able to explore issues through games as well, and this was definitely her kind of thing.

And so, last night, we sat down and played Freedom.

I have a lot of experience with cooperative games. While games like the original Arkham Horror have been around for a while, the game that seems to have put cooperative gaming on the map is Reiner Knizia’s Lord of the Rings. One of the next explorations of this gaming space, Shadows over Camelot, added one of the major genre twists with its traitor mechanic. Now, you couldn’t be sure if someone at the table was opposing your work, trying to cause the group to fail. These two games head up the two sub-genres of co-op play: “pure” co-op games like Lord of the Rings, Pandemic, and Eldritch Horror on the one hand and co-op games with traitors like Shadows over Camelot and Battlestar Galactica on the other hand.

Some of these games play as intellectual exercises. It’s hard for me to get emotionally involved in the narrative of (say) Eldritch Horror. Sure, it can be frustrating as the game beats you once again, but nothing personal is at stake. Sure, the world got destroyed by an Elder God, but that’s what happens sometimes in Mythos stories, right?

But people connect differently with different themes. It’s a bit harder to shrug off Sauron’s triumph in Lord of the Rings as the hobbits fall one by one to corruption. For some, there’s a real sense of failure as the world collapses under the weight of several diseases in Pandemic. And, when the Cylons get the upper hand in Battlestar Galactica, it can feel tragic.

Well, let me assure you right now: Freedom: The Underground Railroad feels even worse.

Here’s the basic sketch of the game. Collectively, the players are trying to move slaves from plantations in the South through the North and finally into Canada. They do this by purchasing and using conductor tokens that allow the moving of a certain number of slaves. Once used, these tokens are essentially gone, and the game has a limited supply.

But that’s not all. It’s not enough to simply rescue slaves. You need to rally the support of the populace. This is represented by support tokens that need to be purchased in order to win. In addition, the conductor tokens are divided into three groups. You can’t buy from the second and third groups until you unlock the right by buying enough support tokens.

But that’s not all. Five slave catcher pawns roam the board, moving in the direction of escaping slaves. A slave catcher that moves into a space with a slave sends him back to the plantations by way of the slave market.

What’s the slave market? Well, every turn, more slaves arrive in the plantations in the South. Oh, did I mention that each plantation has a limited capacity? And that any excess slaves are “lost”, a euphemism for God-knows-what? And that if you lose too many slaves, you lose the game? And you can’t just move slaves out of the plantations, because each space can hold only one slave?

So you need to keep the flow moving north, because there are always more slaves coming, and you need to make space, but you need money to move the slaves but you need money to raise support, and the slave catchers are always roaming, and there’s never enough never enough, and you feel the noose closing in because those aren’t just cubes they’re people…people…who are suffering and maybe dying and there’s just too much too much too much.

And just a couple turns in, I realized a harsh truth.

We were going to lose slaves.

A lot of slaves.

And there was nothing we could do about it. If we focused our efforts on not losing slaves, we weren’t actually going to be able to put forth the necessary effort to actually rescue slaves.

And so I hardened my heart, performed the moral calculus, and traded lives for lives. These people drew the slave catchers’ attention so that these people could get through. These people were lost so that these people could escape. We weren’t playing favorites; who could? It’s just that he was closer to the border and we could get him across but that means that we couldn’t get her across and I’m sorry I’m sorry.

At one point, Crystal started spinning the tale of how this cube was the husband, going ahead to prepare the way for his young wife, still in Boston, and I said, “Please. Don’t. I can’t.”

We had to buy 16 support tokens and rescue 22 slaves without losing more than 24 slaves. We had eight turns.

At the beginning of turn eight, we were still short two support tokens and six slaves. I was sure we were going to lose.

At the end of turn eight, we had purchased 16 support tokens and rescued 23 slaves. We had lost 24.

I’ll admit, I cleared the “lost slaves” board quickly so that I didn’t have to contemplate it. I didn’t want to think about the human suffering that we had simulated. The fact that we had won–successfully saving many lives and achieving victory for the abolition movement–mitigated the slow twisting feeling in my stomach, but only barely. And what if we had lost?

Because how could you live with yourself, after having made the decisions we had made? And what if it were real? These weren’t undifferentiated cubes. They were each people, each made in the image of God, each with their own story. And, in the end, we lost more than we saved.

But would it have been better to have never tried? Would it have been better to turn a blind eye? Wasn’t it better to have tried to strike back against evil, even at a cost?

In my own life, I have invested myself into peoples’ lives. Some of them have responded well, and I have seen their lives flourish as a result.

Others…others made bad choices or turned away or just disappeared from my life.

And I know that I balance them out in my mind, how this person’s success somehow counteracts this person’s breaking my heart. Because somehow, the math has to add up. It needs to have been worth it all somehow. And so you make the trade-offs in your heart, telling yourself the lie that somehow it can all balance out in the end. That one life saved pays for one life lost.

But the mute testimony of a cardboard tile with 22 wooden cubes tells me otherwise. Yes, celebrate the rescued.

But mourn the lost.


My Life with Games (part 27)–Tokaido

If you’ve known me for any length of time, you know that I’m quite the Japanophile. Have a look at this picture of my desk at work to establish some of what I mean. And so, picking up a game themed on the Tokaido, the most famous of the ancient highways in Japan, shouldn’t really be that much of a surprise.

And look at it. It’s so beautiful….

But I resisted for a while, largely because I didn’t want to pick up yet another game. I’m trying to focus in on what I have, remember? (Only fair to moderate success, I’ll admit, but that’s still a concept I’m holding before myself.)

But then my birthday came around, and I had birthday money, and I realized that Tokaido would be perfect to play with Justice. Because it’s so simple and straightforward and peaceful. And so I bought it, and I’m glad I did.

This will make the most sense if you glance at this picture of the game board.

Sigh. So pretty….

Anyways.

That line across the board is the Tokaido, with its 53 stations (like Hiroshige showed us). You start at Kyoto on the left and travel towards Edo on the right. Whoever is furthest in the back takes the next turn. On your turn, you move as far ahead as you’d like (but not past the next inn), and do what the space says. As a rule, only one player per space. Each space lets you take a different sort of action, which boil down to different ways to score Journey Points. For example, in the village, you can buy little souvenirs. At the temple, you can donate coins. At the hot springs, you can bathe. At various points, you can stop and look at the scenery. From a pure mechanical perspective, these are mostly little set collection mechanics that score points. Simple and straightforward. Each player also plays a particular character, who gains a little power that lets him take advantage of certain stops along the road better than normal.

And that’s it.

You may be asking, “But where’s the game?” Oh, but you’re missing it. There’s a subtle interplay between two mechanics. First, since there’s essentially only one player per space, you can block other players from taking actions that they want by simply moving there yourself. On the other hand, if you move too far ahead in one go, you’re letting the other players take several turns before you get another one. How badly do you want to secure that next hot springs? Enough to let your opponents make several stops behind you? How much has your rush cost you?

And that concept is why I love this game.

You don’t win Tokaido by getting to the end of the road first. That would be a race game, and Tokaido isn’t about racing to the end.

It’s about having the most enriching journey. It’s about savoring the experience of traveling down this highway. It’s about pausing to gaze at beautiful landscapes or poking about in little local shops or sampling the local cuisine. It’s the opposite of rushing.

As I’ve read up on this game, I’ve seen a number of people throwing around “Zen” as a description of this game. I think that’s true, but not for the reasons that are often offered. Most people zero in on the peacefulness and simplicity of the game, and I won’t argue with that at all. But I think something deeper is going on that makes Tokaido a Zen game.

More than anything, Tokaido is a celebration of mindfulness, of being present in the present, of being truly here, wherever you might be.

I find myself currently locked in a battle with myself to be slower, to be softer, to be mindful. I’ve spent so long rushing from meeting to meeting that it’s become my default mode. But I want better for myself and my family. I don’t want to feel the pressure of the “next thing” bearing down on me. I want to be in the moment, wherever I am. If it’s time to work, then I’ll work. If it’s time to hug my daughter, then I’ll hug my daughter. I want to move slowly enough to see the beauty that God has placed all around me. I want to be, not just do.

And Tokaido celebrates this approach to life. It reminds me that victory isn’t found in efficiency and speed. It’s found in the celebration of all the good gifts that I’m being given every day as I journey through my life. And maybe this beautiful game will help me practice what I want to live.


My Life with Games (part 26)–Agricola

It’s Father’s Day, and that seems like a good day to blog about Agricola (pronounced “agricola“).

If you don’t know, Agricola is Uwe Rosenberg’s board game about…farming. No, seriously. That’s what it’s about. You have a little player board with your farm, and you take actions like “Plow Field” or “Bake Bread” or “Build Fences” to build and develop your farm. At the end of the game, whoever has developed the most diverse farm is the winner. There are twelve different categories to score points in. Things like how many cattle you have or how much grain you have or how many family members you have earn you points.

Ah yes, family members. Let’s talk about that for a moment.

Agricola is a worker placement game. This means that the center board is something like a menu of available actions. You take your turn by placing one of your workers on an action and doing what it says. That action becomes unavailable for the rest of the turn for everyone else. This is where a lot of the tension in the game comes from. You sit there thinking, “I really need to take that wood for fences, but there are a lot of sheep over there, which would also be good. And maybe I should expand my hut to make room for a baby.”

Because, you see, everyone starts with two workers (the farmer and his wife). But, over the course of the game, you can gain up to three more workers by having children. Yes, the time scale of the game is a little vague, but it means that you can gain the ability to do more work on a turn by having children to help you. (There’s also an animal breeding mechanic, which means that this game is also full of SEX!)

Of course, having children is expensive, because of the harvest mechanic.

The game is played over 14 rounds. At the end of rounds 4, 7, 9, 11, 13, and 14, there’s a harvest. At this time, you must pay two food for each of your family members. How do you get food? All kinds of ways, really. You can eat vegetables or grain. You can bake bread out of grain for more food. You can slaughter and cook animals. Pretty much all the ways that you’d think. Of course, this means that you probably need a good oven to have a good food conversion rate.

And if you don’t have enough food, you have to beg. Each food that you don’t have earns you a begging card, which is worth -3 points. You need to understand that most of those twelve scoring categories earn you four points at most. Even one begging card is enough to brutalize your game. A few, and you may as well yield the game.

Agricola wants you to try to get ahead, but it will punish you for not feeding your family. Harshly.

And so, that’s what gameplay becomes. You try to juggle your resources between the need to maintain your farm and family and the desire to “get ahead” in victory points.

It might be obvious by this point that I have a fairly complex relationship with Agricola.

Let me be clear. I think that the game is a wonderful design, fully deserving of all the acclaim it’s received. I love how the game can be easily expanded and tinkered with through the modular Occupation decks. I love the feeling of seeing your little farm grow and develop over time. If I had a physical copy, I’d totally pimp it out with animeeples and vegimeeples, just like everyone else does. I love the effect of “planting” a stack of three grain in a field and harvesting over time. It’s just so cool.

And I respect that Agricola is a game about the common man. You’re not being heroic. If anything, Agricola glorifies and dignifies the everyday occupation of the ordinary individual, living a quiet life. It’s not a game about conquest. It’s a game about the regular rhythms of life. In this way, it’s truly beautiful.

In fact, it does such a good job of modeling the everyday occupation of the ordinary individual that it can stop being fun.

I don’t do the budget in our family. Crystal is much better at handling finances than I am. Nevertheless, I feel the fact that we have limited resources with which to raise our six children. And it’s hard, sometimes, to make all the necessary choices and sacrifices to try to get everyone what they need and still somehow to “get ahead”, whatever that means.

Sometimes, it’s a struggle just to get good food on the table.

Admittedly, we’re not subsistence farmers, and we’ve been closer to the edge than we are now. And yet, the constant vigilance over spending, the constant demand from some area of the household that is lacking funding, the long struggle to save up enough to get that nice thing, the raiding of those savings when an unexpected expense arises…. All these things manifest in some way in Agricola.

And if you get it wrong, your children go hungry, unless you hang your head, swallow your pride, and beg.

It’s rare that subject matter in games gets to me. After all, I’m the guy who loves Diplomacy, remember? But Agricola strikes awfully close to home, and I play boardgames to escape my life, not to engage it. (That’s why I play roleplaying games…but I digress.)

And, until recently, this is where I would have ended this post. But a couple of things happened over the last few months which have also affected my relationship with Agricola.

The first is that I was a playtester for the Agricola iOS app which just recently released. (Check it out! My name is in the credits and everything!) Given my relationship with Agricola, this may be something of a weird move. But I figured that, since I wasn’t a raving fanboy of the game, I’d actually be able to offer a different perspective to Playdek. Also, honestly, I wanted the chance to test something for Playdek. They did a great job, by the way. (Check out this trailer, from just before it released. So cute!) Somehow, through a combination of the cuteness of the game and the ease of play, this app sold me on a game I’d been ready to do away with.

Second, as part of preparing for some game design work with Crystal, she and I played Agricola for the first time in a few years, just the two of us. Our previous games had been four- or five-player games, and we found that two players was much more forgiving. (Rosenberg’s game Le Havre is similar in this regard.) It makes me wonder if maybe four- and five-player Agricola is better suited for more advanced players. But two players was…well…it was kinda fun!

With this sudden increased exposure to Agricola again, my respect and appreciation for the game has increased. The fact that Playdek very generously gave the testers a copy of the iOS app helped, too. Now I can play whenever I want.

And maybe my initial emotional reaction has faded. Maybe additional system mastery has enabled me to better maneuver through the game and be more successful. I certainly think that the time I’ve spend with Le Havre has enabled me to better understand Agricola. I still think that I prefer Le Havre and Caylus to Agricola. But perhaps my relationship with Agricola has been salvaged, which is good.

But still, there’s a little uneasiness for me. Because Agricola is not escapist, and it touches on economic realities that shape my everyday life. And that’s just not as relaxing as I’d like my boardgaming to be.


My Life with Games (part 25)–Jungle Speed

If I were to consult my log of games played on Boardgamegeek, I’m confident that I know the game that has logged the most plays. It’s not Netrunner or Tigris & Euphrates or Go or some other deeply intellectual game that I’ve waxed eloquent about.

Nope. Rather, it’s a small yet boisterous game called Jungle Speed. Even allowing for the short length of a game, I have logged many, many plays of this game. More than any other by a sizeable margin.

This merits some explanation, I think.

Hmm. In this case, a picture might help. This picture shows all the cards and pieces from Jungle Speed. (Except that this picture has one of the silly plastic totems, instead of a proper wooden totem.)

So, that hourglass-shaped thing is the totem. It goes in the middle of the table. Then you deal the cards out to the players, so everyone has a stack of face-down cards. Then, starting with whoever won the last game, you take turns flipping cards over from the top of your stack into a new stack in front of you. Oh yeah, an important note: you need to flip the card away from you. No fair peeking before everyone else sees.

This continues until the weird shape on top of your face-up pile matches the weird card on top of someone else’s face-up pile. Then both of you grab for the totem. Whoever gets it gives his face-up pile to the other player, then puts all his face-up cards on the bottom of his deck.

There are, of course, special power cards that mess with the rules. The “Color Match”, which makes cards match on colors and not shapes. The “All Flip”, which makes everyone flip a card simultaneously. The “All Grab”, which means that everyone can just grab for the totem.

Continue until someone gets rid of all of his cards. That player is the winner!

The space where I brag

I’m good at Jungle Speed. Really good. Like, I don’t want to brag, but I’ve played with some of the fastest players at GenCon, and I emerged victorious many times. But that’s not why I’m writing about Jungle Speed. (Well, maybe a little bit.)

Jungle Speed has become an important part of our local gaming culture. It allows us to be loud, obnoxious, trash-talking jerks in an environment where that is completely expected. Playing Jungle Speed around here involves macho posturing, bombastic trash talk, and the occasional application of physical violence. (Come to think of it, it’s a bit like professional wrestling, except Jungle Speed isn’t staged.) Players have been pulled around tables during grabs for the totem. This has broken a couple of tables. Actually, when Crystal built our newest table, it was designed with Jungle Speed in mind. It’s a pub-height table, in part to require standing play of Jungle Speed and therefore reduce the incidents of table-dragging. It worked, too. The grab struggles have now shifted to roll around the table edge. Design for the win!

Because of the ridiculous nature of the game, it has also produced the most epic stories of gameplay. Like the time that Raquel was playing after her appendectomy and was dragged across the table because she didn’t have the good sense to let go. Or the time that the table broke during play and we continued the game anyways, holding up the tabletop with one hand and playing the game with the other. Or the time that Jeff and Katrina ended up tussling on the floor in a fight for the totem–and Katrina *won*. Or Ralph’s Jungle Speed scars. Or the time that Samuel was sleepwalking and ended up joining the game. And so on and so on….

Now, Jungle Speed doesn’t actually have to be this violent and aggressive. In fact, the rules as written are a bit tamer than how we tend to roll. And, to be fair, not everyone is as keen about the intensity level of Jungle Speed, preferring to watch the insanity, rather than participate. For that matter, I don’t always have the energy to participate myself. It can be quite draining.

And here’s where I could make the deeper game design point about a game being more than the sum of its parts or talk about the role of local culture in shaping games or that kind of thing.

Instead, I’ll just reiterate that I’m the best Jungle Speed player that I know, and I accept challenges. If you want to step up, you know where to find me. Remember, you can’t leave the table until you’ve won at least once.


My Life with Games (part 24)–XXXXtreme Street Luge

Thrill to the awesome exploits of the XXXXtreme street luge community*. Cruise tracks and pull radical maneuvers just like your favorite sliders*. Experience the high-riding life of fame, fortune, and adventure*! Look vaguely like Vin Diesel!

“This may be the best thing ever posted on a livejournal*.”–Elizabeth Shoemaker

*back cover text is almost entirely made out of lies

–the back cover text of XXXXtreme Street Luge.

When I started this series, I wasn’t expecting to write about XXXXtreme Street Luge. For that matter, I had totally forgotten about it and its impact on my life. And, really, why would I be writing about a game that I played exactly one time?

But last Saturday, suddenly, I remembered XXXXtreme Street Luge, and I knew. I knew that I had to write about it.

What is a roleplaying game?
What is this game?
How do I play?
What is this book?
Who am I?
What am I doing here?
Why are you holding a knife?

–the opening text of XXXXtreme Street Luge

XXXXtreme Street Luge is a roleplaying game designed by Ben Lehman (of Polaris fame). It is freely available at his website. In fact, you should just go read it now. It’s just 12 small pages. No, really! The pages are the size of 3×5 cards. You’ll finish it in no time. There’s even a picture! Of Vin Diesel!

(I knew that would do the trick.)

Back? Good. Doesn’t look like much, does it? But I think that it’s a brilliant game. Or, at least, a game that figures large in my emotional understanding of myself.

So, I’m going to break the game down for you as a way of getting at my point. (And because I know that some of you decided to skip reading the game.)

You all play street lugers who look vaguely like Vin Diesel. That’s actually how you create your character. Of the seven stats, you pick three in which you are like Vin Diesel. These are rated as 8s. Everything else is randomly generated with a six-sided die.

(Note: there are special rules for playing this game if you are, in fact, Vin Diesel.)

You also have fame, which is equal to the number of people who think you’re famous. You start with a fame of 1, because your mom thinks you’re famous.

Oh, right. You’re also supposed to pick three goals for your character that have nothing to do with street luge. These are things like “Get a better job than my current soul-sucking one” or “Get a date with the pretty girl from Accounting” or “Finish writing my novel” or whatever. We’ll come back to these in a bit.

The game is then played in two phases: luge and bullshit.

Permit me to explain.

During the “luge” phase, you play out a post-luge hangout at someone’s house. You’re all laughing and talking about the latest race, which one of you won. The point is to share little snippets of retrospective about the race.

That’s right. You don’t play out the race. You play out the telling of the story about the race. You then draw cards to determine if your stories earn you prestige, which is temporary renown, which can turn into fame. So, that’s cool. More fame means more people thinking you’re famous for being an amazing street luger!

Of course, if you don’t gain any fame, then you lose a point of fame, because you’re obviously a washed-up has-been.

Then, during the “bullshit” phase of the game, you focus on the rest of your life. You choose one of your goals and try to achieve it with one of your stats. This requires drawing three cards and having their values all be less than your stat value, which can be up to 8, if you recall. If you manage this feat, then you succeed at that life goal!

Then, back to the luge phase.

Now, a couple of twists. If you have the highest fame, you’re allowed to use your fame to accomplish a goal instead of using one of your stats. That represents getting your fans to help you accomplish your goal. So, it’s good to be the king, right?

And then there’s the other twist: dropping out. You can decide to quit street luging. This means that you aren’t around for the post-luge banter. This means that you’re not earning prestige, so you’ll begin to lose fans. But, instead of drawing three successful low cards to complete a goal, you only have to draw one. Your days in street luge are over, but maybe you can finally finish your novel.

Whoever completed all three of his goals first is the winner.

dedicated to all the dudes on the Forge
–dedication from XXXXtreme Street Luge

I’m pretty sure I played XXXXtreme Street Luge in the summer of 2009. (Yeah, for those of you keeping track, that’s the period of this blog post.) But it was definitely the closing of an era.

The Forge was folding up. It was a long slow process, but it was inevitable. The diaspora of the community was dispersing some of the best people to parts unknown. The discussion wasn’t as sharp as it had been. The life and joy were disappearing.

It was the death of a scene. Even if you’ve never been involved in hobby gaming, surely there’s been some scene that you’ve been a part of. Something that was wonderful and vibrant and beautiful and…you know…important. A part of your life. And then, one day, you woke up to find it slipping through your fingers.

And you even wonder if it had ever been as important as you once thought.

And that’s exactly what XXXXtreme Street Luge is about. It is a critique of the Forge scene, circa 2008. It is sending up the scene in all kinds of ways. The “luge” phase is about posturing in Actual Play posts .The fame mechanic is about micro-fame in a niche of a niche. I particularly appreciated this bit from the frontmatter of the game: “This is an ashcan, which is indie-gamese for ‘I didn’t do any playtesting.'”

Unfair? Maybe. Incisive? More than I care to admit. Funny? Well, yeah, though in that uncomfortable way that really true things can be funny.

And, still, whenever I read the rules about dropping out, it hits me in the chest. Hard.

Because maybe we were all lying to ourselves when we thought that we were changing the world. Maybe we just had stars in our eyes and folly in our hearts. Maybe we were just too idealistic. Maybe we valued this thing too much.

Maybe I valued it too much.

But I didn’t want to let go.

I still don’t want to let go.

And XXXXtreme Street Luge stands in my mind, forcing me to face hard questions. Do I love the games? Or do I just love the acclaim? Am I actually engaging with my life? Or am I just hiding from it?

But it refuses to answer the question. Because the game holds out the possibility that it can be done. Sure, it’s really hard, but you can actually achieve your goals through street luge. You don’t have to give up one to have the other. Maybe you really can have it all.

And I was planning on ending here, but I think I’m going to go one further.

Because, while I’m willing to own my past faults, I’m not willing to allow the world to define what is valuable, either. There are many who would look at what I love as being a waste of time, before they return to their own games of business, politics, and success. Is climbing the corporate ladder–or growing an organization–really more valuable than my design? Or is that just another way of looking for micro-fame, just in a different niche of a niche? Why is crafting a thing of beauty not considered “serious”, but yielding your identity to achieve organizational fame is somehow acceptable and “important”?

I have learned that people get defensive about topics, not because they have strong beliefs in those areas but because they want to have strong beliefs in those areas. I want to believe that what I do has value. Maybe one day I’ll believe it enough that I can stop defending it.

Lest I wrap with self-pity or melancholy, I’ll close with this. The Forge Midwest convention was this last weekend, and apparently people were playing XXXXtreme Street Luge. From all accounts, they were having a blast.

Because, really, who doesn’t want to look like Vin Diesel?


My Life with Games (part 23)–Minecraft

I’m totally cheating on this entry, but I wrote a guest post for Pete Figtree on why I love Minecraft, and it seemed to fit with this series, so I’m including the link to it here.

Community Voices: Seth Ben-Ezra’s Top Five Reasons He Likes to Play Minecraft

Enjoy!


My Life with Games (part 22)–Diplomacy

I have read many articles on strategy and listened to many “old hands” talking about the Lepanto or the Hedgehog, Juggernauts, Steamrollers and such like. However, when it comes down to brass tacks, the only really effective way to win is to have at least one good alliance. In a seriously competitive game it is the opponent who knows the one RIGHT way to persuade players to ally with him who will win through every time. The answer? THREATEN YOUR OPPONENTS WITH PHYSICAL VIOLENCE.–Jeff Smith

Time to talk about another one of my favorite games: Diplomacy.

If Go is the gaming equivalent of spiritual harmony and enlightenment, Diplomacy is its dark mirror, a game of lies, treachery, and deception, and no, I’m not repeating myself. To play Diplomacy is to enter a pit with six other combatants to knife fight in the mud and dark.

Diplomacy is also the most engaging game that I’ve ever played. I don’t mean merely that it holdsmy interest, though certainly it does. I mean that I can feel that the whole of my being was being tested by the game. The game requires your mental acuity, your political prowess, your skill in dialog, your short- and long-term planning ability, your tactical abilities, and your intestinal fortitude. The only thing missing is a test of physical endurance, though dealing with the crawling sensation in your gut as the time ticks down to the revelation of orders could come close.

Diplomacy is also, surprisingly, a game with historical merit. For a relatively simple ruleset, it manages to capture all the geopolitical hotspots in Europe. Play this game, and you’ll understand why World War I happened.

Diplomacy is a triumph of game design. Playing Diplomacy is a gaming experience like no other.

Rules

Diplomacy is the art of saying “Nice doggie” until you can find a rock–Will Rogers

The rules to Diplomacy are not as elegant as the rules for Go, but they come surprisingly close.

The seven players take the roles of the seven European Great Powers at the beginning of the 20th century: England, France, Germany, Italy, Austria, Russia, and Turkey. The game is played on a map of Europe, which is divided into fifty-six land regions and nineteen sea regions. Thirty-four of those land regions are supply centers, which are significant areas to control. Each Great Power starts with three of these centers as home centers (except Russia, who gets four) and the remaining twelve begin the game as neutral. The number of supply centers that a player controls sets the number of units he has on the board, so gaining (and losing) supply centers is how you gain (or lose) units.

Units come in two favors: armies and fleets. Armies go on land, and fleets go on sea (and coastal land regions).

Only one unit can exist in a space. Therefore, in order to enter a space, you need to be stronger than anyone else entering that space. Since all units are of the same strength, you need to have additional units supporting your move to be successful.

Can other players’ units support you? Of course they can!

There’s no randomness in this game. Success is based purely on the support you’re able to muster.

You win by capturing eighteen of the thirty-four supply centers, which is just over half of the available centers.

Now, there are some rules for disrupting support and for using fleets to convoy troops, but that’s essentially the game in a nutshell.

Well, except for one important bit. Players don’t take turns in this game. Instead, they write down orders for each of their pieces, which are then revealed simultaneously. What this means is that you can’t count on that other player actually supporting. You need to hope that he will do what he said and write your orders accordingly.

Combine this simultaneous revealing of orders with the zero-sum realities of the board (to win, you will have to take territory from your neighbors), and a vicious game rapidly emerges.

So, gameplay alternates broadly between two phases. During the diplomacy phases, you run around to six other players, trying to broker deals, pass (mis)information, coordinate attacks, and generally try to get a sense of what the game state actually is. Then you submit and resolve orders, based on your diplomacy.

And then you pray.

Lather, rinse, repeat, until someone wins, or a peace is negotiated. In this case, everyone still alive shares the draw.

Lessons

Diplomacy is more than saying or doing the right things at the right time, it is avoiding saying or doing the wrong things at any time.–Bo Bennett

I tend to judge my entertainment and media fairly strictly. Part of the measure for greatness in my book is when a work expands past its boundaries to instruct me in life. I’ve shown how Go fulfills the criteria, but Diplomacy has had a similar impact on my life. I’ve learned a number of valuable life lessons from playing and reflecting on Diplomacy.

Diplomacy has fundamentally shaped my understanding of planning. More than anything, Diplomacy reinforces the sentiment that I’ve seen frequently expressed: planning is invaluable, but plans are worthless. When you play Diplomacy, you absolutely must have an all-encompassing plan. And I don’t just mean for yourself. I mean for everyone. You must determine the actions that all the Great Powers must take, and then you must determine what you need to do and say to make those actions occur. At the same time, you have to understand that this plan that you have devised is almost certainly not going to happen. Of necessity, you will have to revise your plans or simply discard them and improvise in the face of the unexpected. The end result will look nothing like what you had envisioned, even if you win. But, without a definitive plan, you will be without a foundation for improvisation and iterative planning. Instead, you will be flailing, and the other players will be able to tell. And the sharks will begin to circle.

In a related lesson, Diplomacy has taught me to be careful in assigning blame to myself when plans go astray. Yes, it’s definitely important to evaluate your performance to see if there are lessons to learn. But sometimes, the answer is that there simply was nothing to be done. Sometimes you did everything right, but it still didn’t work out. I think that this is a hugely important life lesson.

Another lesson I learned from Diplomacy has to do with…and here words fail me. I’ve sometimes talked about professionalism or maturity, but I don’t feel like those quite capture what I’m talking about. This is the quality of being able to control your emotions in service of the greater good. It’s about being able to identify the power dynamics of a situation and act accordingly. Sometimes this means humbling yourself in front of someone who just clobbered you. Sometimes this means being magnanimous in victory, turning an enemy into an ally, albeit reluctantly. If you don’t know how to kneel, you will be eliminated quickly. If you don’t know how to manage your conquests, you will breed resentment and sow the seeds of your defeat.

A related thought has to do with the role of lying in the game. Every novice in Diplomacy revels in being able to lie, cheat, and deceive in this game. This only proves that they don’t really know how to play the game. Diplomacy isn’t about lying. It’s about building trust. Sometimes, it can be about betrayal, but even betrayal first requires trust. Some players have bragged that they’ve been able to play effectively without ever lying. This is how. They are able to build coalitions and maintain those relationships I the face of difficulty. You know, like actual diplomacy.

But there’s more.

If Go has taught me about relating to God, then Diplomacy has taught me about how I relate to my neighbor. And that’s not always pretty.

Remember how I said that you need to approach Diplomacy with a comprehensive plan? The way I’ve expressed this in the past is that the game presents you with six tools that you’re going to use to win the game. Some of these tools are the weapons you’re going to use, some of them are going to be your patsies, and at least one of them is probably going to be the Boogie Man that you’re going to demonize. Everyone has a role to play in the story you’re about to tell. There’s just one problem. This sort of thinking is essentially dehumanizing. Ally or enemy, you don’t have their best interest in mind. They are all tools to be used and then discarded.

And I could be pretty good at it, too.

And so, Diplomacy continues to reinforce for me a basic truth: I’m still a bastard who needs Jesus.

But there’s more than just that.

Back when I was playing a lot of Diplomacy, I was considering my behavior in games as opposed to my behavior in life. What were good things that I did in games that I didn’t do in life? As I evaluated my play of Diplomacy, I came to a conclusion. When I play Diplomacy, I play as a teacher. I actually enjoy equipping people to succeed at their goals. Of course, in the game, I wanted them to succeed at goals that helped me. But teaching is actually core to how I interact with the other players, and it’s something I do in real life.

I’m a teacher, someone who works in the difficult of guiding and advising people as they seek to be successful. Diplomacy taught me this, too.

But I think I’m done with Diplomacy. In part, I don’t feel like I have the excess capacity to devote to playing the game well. My responsibilities have increased over the last few years, and I just feel too tired to put quite that much into a game. But more than that, it requires me to draw on parts of myself that are probably put to better use in more positive ways. But I don’t regret the time that I spent on this game. If you have a chance to try it, you absolutely should.

But it’s time for me to move on.