At first glance, board-gaming may not look like the most physically demanding activity out there – if you go too far down the miniatures-based route, there might be a few moderately weighty boxes to lug around, and there’s probably some kind of collateral health-risk from all the junk food that game-shops tend to be stocked with, but overall, it doesn’t look too threatening.
I don’t swim any more, or cycle. My knees and ankle can’t really handle squash, and the 5-aside football kick-about I used to attend has folded from lack of numbers. I have an exercise bike, but I don’t use it as often as I ought to: on the other hand, I don’t drink much, and have never smoked, so I ought to get through the weekend without keeling over.
For better or worse, gaming is my main hobby. Aside from individual pursuits like reading, painting, or watching TV, it’s the thing you’re most likely to find me doing on a free evening or a weekend.
A lot of gaming takes place at home: Lord of the Rings the Card Game, Pathfinder ACG, Zombicide, or a whole host of other, more infrequent, games will get wheeled out to play with my wife, or with visiting friends.
For some games though, home is not where the game is. My wife’s interest in gaming is far more coincidental than mine, and it’s fairly rare for her to suggest a non-cooperative game: if I want to play Dice Masters, or the Game of Thrones LCG, I have to venture to the FLGS.
In gaming circles, Friendly Local Gaming Store (or FLGS for those too lazy to type long-hand) seems to be a default phrase, and the “F” is usually thrown in without too much thought. I’m grateful that my Local Game Store actually is Friendly, with nice staff who are welcoming and supportive to the community that play there, as well as being knowledgeable about the games they stock.
Beyond the staff itself, there’s a good gaming community – for most of the games that people play regularly, you can post on the Facebook group, or speak to the owner and someone will sort you out with an introductory game of whatever it is you’re wanting to try out. I’m actually publishing this article the day after showing up there for part of a 24-hour board game marathon, and playing several hours worth of enjoyable games with a bunch of mostly strangers.
That said, a lot of the games that I go to the shop to play are competitive games, and ultimately, you will get friction between a friendly shop and a competitive game. Many of the people who play Game of Thrones are fairly competitive; chances are – particularly if there’s a tournament coming up – that they will want to test out decks, will arrive with a specific plan for how the evening is going to pan out. There are also a lot of people who already know each other from different contexts, who will arrive en masse to play. This makes sense, and is probably a good thing – if your game’s community has cohesion around things other than the game itself, it’s probably going to do better in the long-run.
Still, it can be fairly dispiriting if you’re not part of a clear sub-group like that: you arrive for casual play to discover everyone else is paired-up and mid-game, then continue to sit there, and watch as they finish that game, and launch straight into a second or third, without anyone offering to swap out. Obviously, if it’s not a tournament, then nobody’s under any obligation to play anyone in particular – or anyone they don’t want to play. It’s only natural that people want to play against their friends, but the feeling that this creates isn’t always the best.
I doubt that many, if any, of these people are consciously excluding others – it’s easy to get absorbed in what you’re doing, and most people’s top priority when playing – especially a game like this which requires so much concentration – isn’t going to be constantly scouting around for new arrivals so that you have an opportunity to stop playing.
Counting the Cost
Competitive gaming tends to be expensive. For most games I play at home, once I’ve purchased the initial thing, I can leave it there – my OCD may make me go out and buy a load of expansions, but if I leave it, we can carry on playing just as we’ve always done.
For a competitive game though, every time a new wave of stuff comes out, there is the chance that it will contain something completely game-changing. If I skip a Game of Thrones chapter pack, or a new wave of Dice Masters stuff, am I still going to be able to play enjoyable games as my deck / team becomes more and more outdated? Probably not.
I enjoy competitive gaming – I’m glad that there’s that type of environment out there, where I can exercise my brain in a different way to when I’m playing co-op. I don’t particularly mind losing even, although there are certainly play-styles which can lead to some fairly negative experience (biggest personal peeve is when the opponent sits down at the start of a match with the clear intent of running the clock down for a draw, closely followed by manipulating the score-system with a deliberate tie). What I don’t enjoy is not playing these games. Eventually, there comes a point at which I’m not going to pay for components I can’t use, or things I don’t enjoy gaming with.
On a good day, I can pass for a fairly normal human being (well, “normal” for a games and comic-book shop).
I don’t have all that many good days.
On a bad day, I can be hit by a flare-up of long-running depression and anxiety that can leave me borderline agoraphobic, or any one of a number of minor ailments aggravated by a medical history far too long and tedious for this blog. In other words, normal every-day difficulties of getting myself to the shop, getting a game or two played – the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to – can become more of a problem, more of a big deal than they have any business being.
As I attempt to draw together the slightly diverse strands of what I’ve been talking about today, I find myself at a bit of a cross-roads.
If I spend £20 a month (chapter pack + tournament entry fees) for a game I play one or two evenings per week, plus one weekend, then that feels like a fair deal, and something worth doing. If I spend that money and only play the game once or not at all, then it feels like a waste – and for the reasons discussed above, it’s harder than it might look to not pay the money in the month you can’t play, then just slot back in a few weeks later.
I really enjoy both of the competitive games I play – the Game of Thrones card game manages to put a remarkable amount of complexity into a game that still captures thematically the books I love (and the TV show which mostly winds me up…) Dice Masters is a fun exercise in probability and dumb luck that could be truly brilliant if it were made by a company who believed in careful, consistent wording, proper play-testing and a sane release schedule. As a result, I don’t want to give either of them up. That said, if I knew that playing them wasn’t going to be a real option, I’d stop spending my money there.
The difficulty is being stuck in the twilight. Making the massive psychological effort to leave the house in the evening, to go and play a game, only to not end up playing that game. Adding that evening to the memory bank for next time you try to psych yourself up to play.
In a lot of ways, this post isn’t going anywhere (I should probably have warned people on that score earlier) – it’s largely just thinking out loud. It certainly isn’t meant to be a plea for “everyone be extra nice to me, and offer to give me a game” if you happen to be local to me.
I would be curious to know other people’s thoughts though – I can’t imagine I’m the only gamer out there with something of a love-hate relationship with organised play. How do you decide when to cut ties with a game that you enjoy but find too much of a strain to keep up with? More generally, what can we do as gamers to ensure that Game shops full of friendly people are actually friendly, welcoming places for folk to turn up to?