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Next Generation Board Gaming

Next Generation Board Gaming

I saw an article just recently about the release of a new version of Scrabble, friendlier and less competitive than the original. The article title indicated that it was designed to appeal to the young generation, putting ‘less competitive’ and ‘inclusive’ in scare quotes, as though one should wonder why anyone would want such features in a board game. I encountered the article in the context of social media feeds where posters were mocking Gen Z and decrying this as “woke Scrabble.”

I gathered that these posters were Gen Xers, and that the editor who picked the title of the article probably is as well. My generation likes to pick on younger people for not being tough enough. But I don’t see what their problem is; this new Scrabble version, called “Scrabble Together,” seems like a perfectly cromulent game to me. To me, it’s simply part of a trend that’s been going on for years, where cooperative and team play games have grown in popularity. These games are suited for socializing in large groups, and I think they are a good fit for the peer personality of the Millennial generation.

As Neil Howe and William Strauss put it in Millennials Rising, this generation is special, sheltered, and team-oriented. A chiller version of Scrabble is perfect for a generation more interested in fitting in and playing it safe than in standing out and taking chances. In fact, Neil Howe identifies board gaming as one of many pastimes Millennials have favored as they have embraced youthful restraint, in contrast to the wild days of my generation’s youth.

The board gaming hobby has really taken off in the past couple of decades, as I have noted in other posts. I remember the very beginnings of the new wave of board games back in the 1990s, when Millennials were children. As the media caught on to the trend when Millennials became young adults, articles started appearing associating the board game revival with their generation. I’ve certainly enjoyed watching Millennials swarm into gaming conventions and game stores, and even sometimes feeling like the wise old guy teaching them a thing or two as we play a game together.

I would say that the board game revival belongs to both Millennials and Generation X, as this article by a Gen X board gamer describes. And in all fairness, the Boomer generation deserves credit for giving us many of the prominent designers of the tabletop games that are so popular today. But Millennials really have taken board gaming to a new level, folding the hobby in with social media and streaming video platforms, and adapting it to their mode of life.

It’s been quite remarkable to observe, and since board games are something of an obsession for me, I’m glad that it’s happened. I look forward to playing Scrabble Together some day, possibly chilling with some friendly Millennials at a game day hosted by a local craft brewery. ‘Cause all we’re trying to do here is get along and have a little fun.

The Solo Boardgamer

The Solo Boardgamer

What do you do when you want to play a board game, but your BFF who plays with you has gone away on a trip and left you home alone?

Why, you play board games solo, of course.

And no, I don’t mean playing a board game on your computer. I mean actually breaking out the physical game that comes in a box and setting it up on a table and playing a complete game. Not playing a pretend game where you are taking on the role of more than one player, but rather a single player game, with rules specifically designed for one player.

There are many multiplayer board games that have rules variations for solo play. In some games there is a goal, and you win or lose depending on whether you achieve it. In other games, you just play, calculate your final score, and then get ranked based on that score. Some games come with an “automa,” which is a set of special rules and usually a deck of cards to simulate an opponent taking actions on the board.

Me getting ready to lob an asteroid at Mars in a solo game.

Others, like my favorite, Terraforming Mars, just give you a challenge. You play the game as the only player and try to reach a certain game state within a fixed amount of turns. In the games I’ve played this week, I am trying to reach a certain score within 12 generations, showing how good I am at terraforming.

Is playing a board game by yourself really any fun? Well, yeah, if you are as much of a game addict as I am. You get the same challenge of figuring out your optimum strategy, the same tension as you’re not sure if the next random card draw will be in your favor or not, or if you’ll be able to achieve the game’s goal by the final turn.

And you get the same visual and tactile pleasure of working with physical components, which is why it is better playing on a tabletop than playing on a computer screen, even though it takes time to set up and break down the game. I feel the same way about multiplayer games, and there you get the bonus of face to face social interaction. And truthfully I would rather play a game with others than play a solo game, if the option is available.

But when it isn’t, a solo game will do. I’m not the only one who enjoys solitary board gaming, either. There’s a whole community out there; you can find them on social media sites and board game forums. It’s enough of a thing that there are articles about it, with recommendations of games to play when it’s just you and some time.

So if you find yourself hankering for a board game when there’s no one else around, see if any of the games on your shelf include solo rules. You just might find yourself enjoying solitary gaming as much as I do.

See how nice Mars looks after a few hundred years worth of terraforming?
Boardgames For Just the Two of Us

Boardgames For Just the Two of Us

When I lived in North Carolina, I used to go to a lot of game nights at people’s houses or at game stores, and play multiplayer tabletop board games. When Aileen came into my life, my priorities changed – I started traveling more, and going to see shows. But I kept up the gaming when I could, and Aileen joined me sometimes, even going to some of the same game nights and game conventions I was used to attending.

Then I moved to Pennsylvania, into an apartment about halfway between Aileen’s house and where I worked. I made an effort to recreate my gaming lifestyle, by going to a game store nearby that had open boardgaming on Friday evenings. I had only just started to make a habit of it and make friends there, when along came the pandemic.

During lockdown, I moved in with Aileen. There would be no game stores or game conventions for awhile, but we did play a lot of two player games. And still do. I’m very lucky to have a BFF who will play boardgames with me. Shared interests and activities is part of what makes our partnership work.

The games we like to play come in different forms. Many of them are lighter games, for when we have limited time or energy. They take an hour or so to play, and usually are in the modern vein of games that require strategic thinking. They are complicated enough to be challenging but simple enough that we might also bring them with us when traveling and be able to convince others to play with us. They are multiplayer but they play fine with just two players. Here are a few examples:

An old (1980s) photo of me playing Scrabble with Aileen.

A perennial favorite is Scrabble, which is easy to set up, and can even be played when a little unfocused, with the TV on and while socializing. Aileen and I have been playing since we first met as teenagers, long ago.

Scrabble has also always been a popular game in the extended Barrera family, one which we often play at family gatherings. I remember playing with my chain-smoking, hard-drinking aunts when I was growing up; they taught me that the game can be competitive and can be played ruthlessly.

When it’s just the two of us, Aileen and I often play modern-style games that are designed for two players, of which there are many in this Golden Age of boardgames. These also tend to be lighter, with quick set up and small footprints. Here is a short list of specifically two-player games we have played a lot:

Now my favorite kind of strategy board game is one that’s a bit heavier and takes at least a couple of hours to play. These require a more serious commitment of time and energy, as well as ample table space. Luckily for me, there are some of these that Aileen likes and is willing to play. The one we’ve played the most is Castles of Mad King Ludwig, which we call “the castle game.” If you follow me on social media, you have seen me post lots of pictures of the castles I’ve built.

Another one is Grand Austria Hotel, which we call “the hotel game,” and have even played while staying at hotels. This sometimes requires some creativity finding enough surface space to set up the game.

I made a more or less complete list of these kinds of heavier games that we play in two-player mode. I did this on BoardGameGeek using a format called a “GeekList.” I’ve already brought up BoardGameGeek session reports on this blog. A GeekList is another way one can contribute on that site; it can also be a convenient way to track games or even to hold an exchange or auction of some kind.

In the case of this GeekList I made, it’s just a collection of… My Favorite Medium Weight Multiplayer Games to Play with 2 Players. I hope you enjoy looking through it and, if you are lucky enough like me to have someone to play with, I highly recommend the games on this list as suitable for just two players.

The Old Grognards Are Fading Away

The Old Grognards Are Fading Away

Grognard” is a word for an old soldier, but the term also has a special usage in gaming circles, meaning “Someone who enjoys playing older war-games or roleplaying games, or older versions of such games, when newer ones are available. [Example:] James is such a grognard, he only plays the original edition of Dungeons and Dragons.” I’m thinking about this term because I’ve been updating an old web 1.0 site that I still maintain which has some gaming content on it. As I’ve gone through the pages to clean up the content, I’ve discovered dead links which, from the structure of the URLs, clearly belong to the early days of the world wide web, and to an earlier generation of Internet users. That’s expected, since I set up the site twenty years ago. Often there are usernames embedded in the URLs of the dead links, and I have to wonder – what happened to those users? Did they move on to popular platforms, to social media? Did they just give up on updating their web sites and let them die off? Are they even alive any more?

I was updating my old site because I wanted to add some pages dedicated to a fantasy war game called Titan, which I used to play a lot back in the day. Both of the designers of this game, I have learned, are deceased. They would have been from the first generation of grognards, and they died too young. Their legacy lives on in the fan base surrounding their creation, but I have to wonder, how many of us fans are from the older generations, too? How many gamers from the younger generations are even aware of this old game’s existence, given all of the new games available today?

Don’t get me wrong – I’m grateful for the board game Renaissance that we live in today, with it’s incessant stream of new titles. I love trying out new games. But each wave of new board games can seem like a tidal flood, pushing the old games away. My little web site update project, revisiting an old game with an old style, has made me acutely aware that time is passing by the old ways. It’s left me with a wistful and nostalgic feeling. Will anyone miss us old grognards when we’ve all faded away?

Board Game Session Reports and Why I Like to Write Them

Board Game Session Reports and Why I Like to Write Them

I’ve mentioned the web site BoardGameGeek on this blog already. It’s a fantastic resource for board gamers, with a vast database of every board game ever created, past, present and future. By “future” I mean announced but not yet published titles, not that the web site has time travel capabilities!

It’s also an online community where board gamers review, discuss, clarify rules for, and share their experiences with board games. So as well as being as a resource for information about games, it is like a social media site for board gamers, albeit in the older forum-based format from the early web. If you go to my user profile, you can check out content I have uploaded, as well as see our entire board game collection.

One kind of content I really enjoy is the Session Report. This is a post linked to a board game (each board game has its own page and forums) that is about a session playing the game. Typically it would be about one play of the game, though I suppose one could write about playing the game multiple times in one report.

I like to write, and this format gives me a nice outlet. When I play a game, if it seems like a memorable time or if it brings to mind some point about strategy or etiquette, or any connection to anything for that matter, then I will think about how it could be written up as a session report. I usually try to get it written down within the next few days, before the memory has faded, and then I submit it on the BoardGameGeek site. It has to go through a period of moderation before actually appearing on the site, presumably to screen for irrelevant submissions.

Here’s an example of one kind of session report that I like to write, which tells a story. It’s like a little piece of fiction. This is actually the report with the most likes of any report I have written, and it’s based on a solo play of an adventure-style horror game:

This is another story format session report of a solo game, but it’s a play of a resource and development strategy board game, so some creative license is employed to turn it into a narrative:

Here’s another one that gets into a strategy discussion, with other uses contributing in the comments section. If you are not familiar with the game, it might not make much sense. This one is more useful for people who have played or want to play the specific game:

This one brings up a point about game etiquette, with other users weighing in on both sides of a question in the comments:

This is a report on a game played in the distant past! I dredged it up from long-term memory. I was delighted by the amount of engagement it got. I’m sure this is because so many users are from the older generation, like me. I plan a few more reports like this one:

I have written 36 or 37 Session Reports on BGG so far, which has earned me a Copper Session Reporter microbadge. When I get to 50, I will earn the Silver microbadge! The full list of Session Reports I have written is here:

I hope that people enjoy reading these reports as much I enjoy writing them.

How Board Games Saved My Life

How Board Games Saved My Life

In my last post I presented my “Board Game Biography” – a summary of my life of playing board games. There was one paragraph in there where I mentioned a period in my life when I was in a deep depression. A “dark night of the soul,” so to speak. I think many of us have been there. In my case, board games played a role in pulling me out of that darkness. In this post I will tell that story.

How exactly I got into this dark state isn’t important at this juncture. Let’s just say I had been going through some tough times, and had recently lost my job. I was living alone, in a big house which I was house-sitting for some friends who were living abroad. This was when I lived in the Research Triangle in North Carolina. I had all my possessions Tetris’d into a Fonzi-space; ie. a finished room over a garage. Some of my stuff was still in boxes in the garage itself.

I was seeing a psychiatrist, and was taking medication. Prozac, to be exact. I was in my early 40s, and I suppose I was having a severe midlife crisis. There’s something almost cliché about the whole affair. But I shouldn’t downplay it: I was very deeply depressed.

I would sleep until noon or later. When I awoke, it felt like a huge, oppressive weight held me down. Like the whole firmament was pressing down on me. I didn’t want to be awake, but inevitably I would be forced out of bed by the pestering cats. In addition to house-sitting, I was cat-sitting, and the creatures needed to be fed. Despite existing in a dark fog, I was able to muster the energy to briefly emerge from the darkness to take care of necessary tasks, such as feeding the cats, or feeding myself.

I suppose you could say that the cats saved my life, with their incessant daily pestering – with their very existence, which created an obligation on my part. They kept me on life support while I robotically went through my meager routine. After feeding them, I would go and lie down on the couch in the living room, and I would sleep the day away.

If you’ve never experienced a feeling of having no interest in life or any desire to do anything, I’m not sure that I can explain it to you. It’s just where I was in that time. All that I cared to do was the barest necessities to keep myself alive, and then I just wanted to shut down. Like I was a robot with no function to perform, in a state of suspension.

In the evening I would stir, and feed myself. Then would come my busy hours – I would watch the late night news on TV, and then the late late night talk shows, until the wee hours. And then I would go to bed. Rinse and repeat. I would do nothing but sleep and watch TV, day after day.

I should have been looking for work, and I suppose I must have had some savings to burn through, because I didn’t bother. I must have gone out for groceries from time to time, or I would have starved. And I know I was going to my appointments with my psychiatrist, because he eventually gave me the advice which was to be the springboard out of my deep, dark place.

I was neglecting other responsibilities. One day I noticed a flyer taped to the front door. I’m not sure why I opened the door at all, or if I saw the flyer from outside. It was a citation from the town, warning me that the grass in the lawn was too high, and that I would be fined if it was not cut down by some date in the near future. I had not been mowing the lawn, as I was supposed to do in my role as house-sitter. It looked like a wheat field. I took care of it, and learned how hard grass is to mow when it gets that high.

Another thing I learned was a bit about how the post office works. I would usually only check the mail once in a blue moon. I didn’t leave the house for days at a time. When I checked the mail, the mailbox would be stuffed. It would be a struggle to extract the contents. One time, surprisingly, the mailbox was empty when I checked it. It should have had some mail, considering how long the intervals were between the times when I looked inside it. But no mail came any more, not even days later. I called the post office to find out what was going on, and they told me that they had stopped delivery because it looked like no one was picking up the mail. Apparently that was their protocol. I assured them that I lived at the address, and they confirmed that they would resume delivery.

As you can tell, I had some inkling of an ability to function when needed, though for the most part I was wasting my days away doing absolutely nothing. I was constantly in a very depressed mood. I was talking things through with my psychiatrist, and he suggested that what I needed was a social life. I really wasn’t seeing anyone at all, since I lived alone and was unemployed. He thought that the best thing was to use a hobby or interest as a way to meet people.

A logical choice for me was board gaming, which I had done a lot of in my life before, just not recently at this time. There was a game store I knew about not too far from the house where I lived, and I figured they must have some kind of regular open gaming, which is normal for board game stores. The hard part was going to be getting me to change my habits and actually go there, given my state of mind.

The first thing I did was drive to the store and just check it out from the outside. I figured out that they had board games nights weekly on Wednesdays (I think this was posted on the outside window). I resolved that I would attend. On a following Wednesday I drove to the store, but I couldn’t bring myself to go in. Or even get out of the car. I turned around and drove back home.

Every Wednesday thereafter I got a little closer to participating in the social event of board game night at this store. The next Wednesday I actually got out of the car and walked up to the store before I turned around to go back home. The Wednesday after that I went into the store, walked through it to the back, then turned around and left. The store was full of people sitting at tables, playing board games (maybe about half a dozen tables with a few people at each one).

Why was this so hard for me? If you’ve never experienced agoraphobia, let me tell you it is no fun. For me, it was this intense anxiety and self-consciousness when approaching or potentially mingling with a crowd of people. I just wanted to run and hide, which is exactly what I had been doing for months now, living in my shell of despair, alone in someone else’s house, with no company except cats. But that little inkling of a voice inside me was telling me that I had to overcome this fear, or I would be trapped in my shell forever.

On my next visit I entered the store, and this time I walked more slowly through it. I found a table where a guy was sitting alone, setting up a game. I asked him about the game. I must have said something like “that looks cool.” It was a wargame called “Commands and Colors: Ancients,” and he was supposed to play with someone who hadn’t shown up yet.

This is the game that began my journey of recovery.

And then he invited me to play. He said his friend wouldn’t mind if I took his place, that his friend would understand since he was running late. So I sat across the table from this guy and he taught me how to play. His name was Henry, and I am eternally grateful to him for inviting me to be his opponent in Commands and Colors, and thus to begin my journey of recovery from depression and isolation.

His friend did show up, and just as predicted was cool with sitting with us and watching as we played. I don’t remember who won the game; it was probably Henry, since this was my first time playing. But I had plenty of opportunity to play more games with him in the future, and even joined his role playing group.

Eventually, I started going to a different game store, and met even more gamers. From there I got hooked up with other fun game nights at people’s houses, and a really cool board game convention in the area. There is no doubt that this increased socialization did wonders for my mental health. My psychiatrist had the right idea, and I thanked him in the best way I could – by stopping my medication and never seeing him again.

I got a new job in 2007, and when my friends for whom I was house-sitting returned stateside, I started looking for a house of my own. In the summer of 2009 I bought one and moved out of my friends’ house. I said good-bye to them and their cats. All the stuff I had crammed into the space above their garage exploded into a three bedroom townhome. Suddenly I had lots of space to work with.

I had moved on to a new and better phase of my life. In some ways, my dark time was a bit of an aberration. I usually have been a socially active, fun loving person. But I also have had bouts of depression going way back into my past. I hope that this story might help anyone reading it who has experienced or is experiencing mental health problems. Know that there is a way out, that the dark night won’t last forever.

I believe that at the root of mental health is having meaning in life, that it is better to address the need for meaning and purpose than to rely on medication, which is at best a stopgap measure. For me, board gaming as a hobby and being part of the very large community of friendly gamers has been an important source of meaning. For you, it might be something different.

In this one case I describe in this story, the kind invitation of a friendly board gamer willing to play with a total stranger helped to pull me out of a very dark place. And that is how board games saved my life.

My Board Game Biography

My Board Game Biography

Considering how much I love to play tabletop board games, it’s a little odd that I haven’t posted about the subject so much on this blog. That’s partly because I started In the Zeitgeist amidst the political turmoil of 2016-17, and stayed focused on generations-based political and social analysis. There was a lot going on in my personal life to post about as well. This blog was meant to be part commentary, part diary, and I had a lot to say about what was happening around me, just not about what board games I was playing.

But believe me, throughout all of the troubles and changes of these times, I have been playing lots of board games. It is one of my favorite hobbies, one that I’m passionate about, and it’s a wonderful form of escapism and distraction from the real world. I am a very imaginative person, and love to immerse myself in a game setting and just imagine that I’m off in another realm, playing some other role. And I really enjoy strategy games that make you think, and solve problems.

In this post I’ll relate my gamer biography.

I honestly couldn’t tell you when I started playing board games. It must have been when I was very young, in the 1970s. As a Gen X kid, I would have been exposed to the classic board games of postwar America. I mean games like Monopoly, Clue, Careers, The Game of Life. If you’re from my generation, you played them too. Then at some point I got into the more nerdy strategy board games that were available in that time period. A major company of that era was Avalon Hill, which made board games such as Titan, Diplomacy, and Civilization. I played all of those games with my nerdy high school friends.

When I started college at Virginia Tech, I joined a club called “The Wargamer’s Club.” I met a bunch more nerdy gamers there, some of whom I am still in touch with after all these years. We played games such as Illuminati, Nuclear War, and Cosmic Encounter. These are all games that could be considered “old school.” They had rules that were a bit more chaotic and luck-based than is the norm in board games today. There is actually a significant rift between the style of these older games from American companies and the modern style that began in Europe in the 1990s. More on that in a bit.

Another game that was very popular in my college and immediate post-college days was Axis & Allies, a World War II based wargame. Some friends of mine and I were so obsessed with this game that we ended up expanding it with extra rules and creating our own maps for it, so that we didn’t get bored playing the same game on the same map over and over. The game itself has a great system, and now there are a myriad of versions and variants with different maps, focusing on specific theaters or time periods of the war. But back in the late 1980s and early 1990s we didn’t have these new versions, so we had to make our own.

In the mid 1990s I was still in my college town, working at the University’s Computing Center. It was there that I was first introduced to Eurogames, by a work colleague who started a lunch game day (we played every Wednesday). He introduced some of us at work to a new wave of board games that was coming out of Germany. The first one we played was “Die Siedler von Catan,” which translates to “The Settlers of Catan.” You may know it today as simply “Catan.” It has become quite popular in the United States, and today’s young players weren’t even born when it first came out!

Me holding my 1st edition copy of Die Siedler von Catan

We played other games coming out of Germany in this time period, such as Entdecker, El Grande, and Modern Art. We ordered our copies through a web site called The Game Cabinet, downloading translations of the rules in English, since the games came from Germany and usually only had German rules in them. We all got hooked on these new titles, and would put in big combined orders to save on shipping. I still have all these old German editions of the games in my collection, too.

What was so appealing about these new board games? Well, they tended to have more carefully balanced and streamlined rules than the older ones. There was less luck involved, and more structured play that always took you to an end game in a reasonable amount of time. There was also no player elimination, so everyone got to play all the way to the end. You were trying to optimize your score versus that of the other players, not necessarily trying to tear down what they were building up in a bid to be the last one standing, as it used to be done. This was the beginning of what became known as “Eurogames,” to distinguish them from the American style of games we had been used to.

Over the years since, there has been a veritable explosion of board games in this style. The hobby has taken off worldwide to heights unimaginable back then, and there are so many thousands of titles it boggles the mind. You might call it a board game Renaissance, and even the mainstream media has caught onto it. If you know me on social media, I’m sure you’ve seen all kinds of interesting board game pictures in my posts.

But before we get to the state of board games today, more of my board gamer biography. I left Virginia in 1996, and after a bit of wandering ended up in North Carolina. I met more people there who liked tabletop gaming; I guess it’s just inevitable when you have a certain mindset that you will meet likeminded people wherever you go. One game I remember that we liked a lot back then was Twilight Imperium, which is an epic space exploration and empire game featuring massive space battles. It was really more in the older style of board game or wargame, with rigid turn orders and intense conflict, and it could also take a long time to play. I guess the old style still had its appeal.

At some point in the 2000s I stopped playing games much, and in fact entered a dark period in my life, where I fell into deep depression. I became a complete recluse, never leaving the house except for necessary errands, which included seeing a psychiatrist. My psychiatrist recommended reviving my social life, and suggested that I might have some hobby that could be a way to meet people. Board games was an obvious choice. So, with much personal effort, I got myself back out there and started going to a local game store (“FLGS” is the conventional term) and my board gaming life picked up again. This would have been around 2007.

I met new people, discovered new board games, and even started going to board game conventions in the area. These are gatherings (like any other convention) where all you do is play board games for days on end. There are even bigger game conventions (I’m sure you’ve heard of them) which include other kinds of games, panels and guests, cosplay contests and merchant dealers – they’ve got it all! I’ve been to a few of those, but honestly I prefer a smaller local convention which is mostly people who know one another, where it’s easier to find a game to play and to focus on the gaming itself.

The mid-2000s would have been about the time that the board game hobby was really taking off, as I already mentioned. Meanwhile, I recovered from my mental health issues, bought a house, and progressed in my career. It was like my personal life and the board gaming world were sharing a trajectory of rising growth and prosperity. There was an endlessly flowing cornucopia of new board game titles, and ample opportunity to play them with different gaming groups. My game collection grew and grew as I picked up copies of the new games that I liked the most. I was now heavily into modern style board gaming as a hobby, though I pretty much stopped playing wargames, which I do sometimes miss.

In 2013, I attended my 30th year high school reunion, where I met up with my dear old friend, Aileen. We reunited in life, and started travelling a lot together. Much to my delight, she also likes to play board games. In fact, we had played games together back when we knew each other in high school. She came to some of the gaming conventions that I was already attending, and we brought games with us when we travelled, playing in the hotel lobbies or suites where we were staying. In 2018, I sold my house in North Carolina and moved up to Pennsylvania, where she lives.

Then, in 2020 when the pandemic hit, I moved in with her. We combined our board game collections, which at this point consists of many hundreds of titles. I do my best to keep them organized, by theme and by type of game (for example, abstract or wargame), and by size of box (since they store more easily that way).

Aileen is ready for a game of Stratego

We continue to play board games when we can, though not so much at conventions or game stores since the pandemic began (but just last weekend, we did go to our first game convention in over two years). Mostly Aileen and I play two player games. We’ve even dug out some copies of games that we played back when we first met as teenagers. For example, not too long ago we played the old classic, Stratego. Yes, we have the same exact copy of the game that we played together in high school!

After careful deliberation, I make my move

I also play online sometimes with some of my North Carolina friends. A lot of board games, new and old, have digital implementations, easily accessible online. Sometimes you can play them for free, sometimes you have to buy them like any other computer program. I enjoy online play well enough, but much prefer sitting around the table, interacting in real life with people, and physically manipulating the components. There’s just something especially satisfying to me about that tactile and physical presence aspect of board gaming.

I’m very grateful to be living during this Golden Age of Board Gaming, even though I know I’ll never have the time for all the games that are out there. It’s enough to have time at all for the fleeting pleasures of life.

If you like board games, you probably should check out the web site BoardGameGeek, where you can learn about every board game ever made, and join an online community of board gamers who review, discuss, and share their experiences with board games. You can check out my user profile there to learn more about me, and even see our collection, which I maintain meticulously. I even made a GeekList (that’s a BGG thing) about that Axis & Allies variant that we played so much back in the early 90s. There’s a lot more I could write about my life of gaming, as this post hasn’t even touched on other kinds of games, such as tabletop roleplaying games or collectible card games, which I’ve also played a whole lot in my life. Who knows, they might be subjects of some future post.

A small sample of our board game collection, including some of my old German edition games

Mind Over Matter in a Game of Chance

Mind Over Matter in a Game of Chance

Last Christmas we got a cool new board game, called “The Quacks of Quedlinburg.” Its theme is brewing potions, and its primary game mechanic is drawing ingredients out of a bag, trying to draw as many as possible to score the most points. But some ingredients, if you draw too many of them, will cause your potion to explode, costing you points. You don’t want that! Tension comes from the fact that you need to keep drawing to get points, but you might go too far, and – BOOM!

Good game design requires some feature like this to generate tension, to keep the game interesting. This particular mechanic, in game design terminology, is called “push your luck,” and it is a pretty reliable way to do it. But there’s another thing about this mechanic that I wanted to bring up: apparently some people have more luck to push than others do. I say that because Aileen wins the game every time we play!

We must have played half a dozen games by now, and every time, when she is drawing her ingredients, they come out in a nice friendly order and she scores a lot of points, whereas I draw the dangerous, exploding ingredients and have to carefully consider whether to keep going (push my luck) or settle for fewer points. I end up falling behind in points, and then complain to Aileen, “this game has no catchup mechanism,” to which she usually replies, “you only say that because you always lose.”

Aileen offers an interesting explanation for the disparity in our luck. She says she does well because she doesn’t care what she draws out of her bag, whereas I am motivated by fear when I draw, and so my anxious energy is affecting my outcome. It’s poisoning the potion, so to speak.

Could this be? Could one’s attitude about a random event actually affect the random outcome? This has been studied scientifically, by the parapsychologist Helmut Schmidt. He conducted experiments on mental influence on the results of random number generators (recorded on computer disk), and found a statistically significant deviation from chance expectancy. What’s fascinating is that an effect is shown even with prerecorded events, providing no one inspects the record before the subject attempts to influence the results.

But how can this happen? An answer lies in the primacy of consciousness model of the universe. In this model, mental reality manifests in parallel with physical reality. Mental objects of experience – thoughts, intentions – are quantum objects just like the physical ones that surround us in the material world. They come into existence in the same way that the physical world does – by the collapse of the quantum wave function by unitive consciousness, which is the fundamental ground of all being.

Going back to my game of Quacks, when I draw from my bag, unitive consciousness simultaneously collapses the wave function of my mental experience (carefree or anxiety-ridden) and the wave function of my physical draw from the bag (favorable or unfavorable by the game rules). In my individual ego-consciousness, I experience either exultation at a fortuitous draw or frustration at an unfortuitous one.

But the quantum dynamics of my mental experience – the meaning ascribed by my mind to the outcome of the random draw – is tangled up with the quantum dynamics of the physical draw itself. By worrying about a bad draw, I am skewing the probability distribution of the physical event. My expectation is biasing the result! That is how this is a case of “mind over matter.” I need to learn to be chill when I’m drawing my potion ingredients, to open my mind up to more possibilities.

This model even explains Schmidt’s strange finding that mental influence can affect an already recorded (but not observed) random number generation. The collapse of the wave function (“state vector” as the experimenter puts it) occurs in the moment of conscious observation, and no sooner, as implied by the famous double slit experiment. In other words, until the record on the computer disk is observed, its state is undetermined, just like that of Schrödinger’s cat.

You might not give much credence to the work of Helmut Schmidt, since he was a “parapsychologist,” a field which is generally considered to be pseudoscience. But haven’t you ever been playing a game with dice rolling and experienced the right number (or wrong number) come up just when you needed it (or dreaded it) the most? Maybe in a table top roleplaying game, where the story meaning is particularly entwined with the dice outcomes, where the fate of a beloved character hinges on a critical hit or miss, or on making or failing a saving throw. I know I’ve experienced it.

I’m sure we’ll play Quacks again, and I will try to release my fear and let the flow of good luck come to me. But I will have to fight my own nature. My competitive edge and my ego-identification with the outcome of random draws from a bag is what tangles me up, even though there are no real stakes in the game other than whether or not we’re having fun.

Where do I get this stuff? If you’re interested in learning more about primacy of consciousness as a model of reality, a good place to start is the book “The Self-Aware Universe” by Amit Goswami.

Steve Barrera vs. the A.I.

Steve Barrera vs. the A.I.

It hasn’t come up much on my blog, but I am actually really into board gaming. It’s odd that I don’t blog about it; maybe I don’t want to mix business and pleasure, I don’t know. But anyway, I have been blogging about these coronavirus times, and how life has changed so much this past year. And one way that it’s changed from my board gaming hobby perspective is that I have fewer opportunities to sit down for tabletop gaming sessions. I haven’t been to a gaming convention since January!

So one way to compensate for that lack of real life gaming is to play digital versions of favorite games. I don’t mean video games; I mean computer programs that simulate board games, and there are actually quite a few good ones. You can play online against other people, or you can play a “local” game – meaning no network required – against the computer itself. You play against simulated “A.I. player” opponents.

Which takes me to the topic of this post, which is the quality of the A.I. opponents. What I have found is that for some games they are very good, and for others – not so much. Some games I win against the A.I.s every time, and others it’s more 50/50. Now there are two possible explanations for this: 1) I am better at some games than at others or 2) the A.I.s are programmed better for some games than for others.

I stole this graphic from a book about
A.I. game programming.

It seems obvious that it’s a bit of both. But then you have to wonder, in the case of both explanations: why?

Is there something about my cognitive psychology that makes some game designs or mechanics easier for me to figure out than others? It honestly seems that way to me. I generally do well at board games, but there are some that I struggle with compared to others. There are some that I have never won playing against other humans, even though I have won against those same people at other games. I’m sure that other board gamers understand the experience. So there must be some correlation between how my intellect works and what sorts of games I am good at.

As for the programmed A.I.s, well, there are two possibilities to consider. It could be that some games are inherently easier to program A.I. players for than others, and it could be that some programmers or programming teams made a better effort at the A.I. programming than others. Let’s face it, these projects have limited timelines and bugdgets, and if the programmers only made the A.I. so good before release day, that’s just the level of A.I. that everyone will have to live with.

A screenshot from Terraforming Mars, one of my favorite digital board games and one where I always beat the A.I.s.

If some games are easier to program A.I.s for than others, then the next question is – what are the parameters that make for a game that can be mastered by A.I.? Probably the most famous example of such a game is Chess: it’s common knowledge that a computer program beat a world Chess champion, back in 1997. And it just keeps getting worse for the humans. Another game that humans might as well retire from is Go.

Now, Chess and Go are both games that are simple in their rules, but strategically very deep. They also have no random elements, meaning all possible future paths of a game are determined, given the current game state. Computers have an innate advantage over humans in these sorts of games in that they have much more capacity for information storage, which allows for plotting ahead many moves – pretty much the key to winning these kinds of games.

The board games that I prefer have more complicated rules, generally because they are simulating some real life scenario like exploration and development, or world-building. They are what we call heavily thematic games. And they have some randomization to them – typically a deck of cards that are shuffled and dealt out, or drafted, to the players. This means the outcome isn’t deterministic, and there is some luck involved. You can have an advantage by chance, not just because of superior information processing ability.

But you would think that, even then, the A.I.’s would reign supreme. They just have to include the stochastic factor of the game in their algorithms. The only advantage humans should have might come from intuition – the old ‘gut feeling’ that might be able to predict, or even influence, random outcomes. This is a tantalizing possibility based on the idea of primacy of consciousness, but I won’t get into it any further in this post.

Now another thing about Chess and Go is that they are both games where you can be ranked compared to other players. If you are lower ranked than another player, you pretty much have no chance to beat them at the game. Improving your rank requires much practice. This is because of how strategically deep these games are.

The board games I like really aren’t as deep, despite being more complex in terms of total rules. I wonder if it would ever make sense to have rankings for such games; the closest thing to that would be win rates and high scores as tracked on the online gaming platforms. But those statistics alone don’t constitute a ranking in the Chess sense; they aren’t as strong a predictor of who would win a game, in part because of the random element.

Probably ranking systems for all these different board games won’t emerge, because there just isn’t as broad an interest in them as there is in classics like Chess and Go. And probably no A.I. will ever be programmed that plays them perfectly, to prove once and for all how inferior humans are. No one will bother to take the time, given how many of these board games there are and how niche they are.

Maybe when the Singularity comes, the A.I. net will finally get around to mastering every known board game, and put us humans in our place. Hopefully it will let us play against “dumbed down” A.I.s as we while away our pointless lives in our soylent green pods. It will help to pass the time.