a rickety bridge of impossible crossing

when play isn't fun

I have a weird latent yearning to participate in grand strategy games. I'm drawn to thinking about them in a way most people would never suspect, based on the kinds of games I talk about. I dream of playing big tabletop games with beautiful detailed maps that take up an entire dining room table, but I think about computer games like Crusader Kings, too. I've never enjoyed playing any of these games, and when I try to watch people play them I have no idea what the fuck is going on, but I want to enjoy them, and I don't really know why?

I think part of me suspects there's a beautiful complexity that would be incredibly satisfying if I could only wrap my mind around it. That feels like the only possible explanation, because why would people play them if their experience is similar to mine? I look at something like The Campaign for North Africa1 (BGG link) with its advertised play time of up to 1500 hours per game, and wonder if anyone's ever finished one. What could compel someone to spend that much time? How could one possibly play enough to get good at it? How does anyone start playing it? Trying to learn as I play with people who know what they're doing would be an unbearable chore, because it'd just be them telling me what to do for hundreds of hours. But on the other hand, how long would it take for a group of players to get through a game if none of them have ever played? I feel like I'd want to take a class about it first or something.

That's an extreme example, but even a smaller-scale wargame like Axis and Allies is something I feel like I could never be good at. I don't know how one could even come up with a strategy in a game that takes 10 hours to play. How could any human be able to determine whether an action taken on turn 3 that won't pay off until turn 30 was good or bad? How could they remember what worked and what didn't in a way that allows them adjust their strategy for the next game? Someone would just have to tell you how to play. And then what's the point? At that stage, you're not playing, you're just following a set of instructions.

I feel the same way about chess. I've never enjoyed it, because you can't just play and figure out how to do well. It's too complicated for that. You have to study. You have to look at other games, read explicit strategy books about what to do in what situation, memorize strategies about how to open strong and how to respond to what opening. In a sense, the goal is to turn yourself into the best human chess AI you can. If your goal is to compete, anyway.

If you're just messing around with a friend and neither of you have read chess theory, you can play chess, but you won't get much out of it. I don't, anyway. We just sort of make moves arbitrarily and go with our guts, but other than exploiting really obvious blunders like a piece that's been left open to attack for no reason, there's no satisfaction there. Whenever I win a game of chess, I'm never able to explain why. Whenever I lose, I can never say what I did wrong that I'll try not to do next time. Other than just "try not to fuck up as much".

All this is fine, I just don't play chess. Or wargames. But I wish I knew what other people feel when they play. I wish my brain worked in whatever way their brains do, at least sometimes. Maybe if I could derive pleasure from studying these complex games, it might help me unlock some greater understanding of something. It might make me better able to look at the complex problems in my own life and have some ideas about how to solve them. I yearn to have that level of understanding about something.

Maybe the problem is that I fundamentally look at games as something I do for enjoyment, and if I'm not enjoying it, I do something else. Some people clearly play games for a different reason. What motivates someone to want to be the best chess player in the world? Or to finish a game of CNA? What do they get out of it? Once you're at that level, I can't imagine it brings anything resembling joy. But if joy isn't the point, what is?

The closest I've ever come to getting invested in a game like that is Civilization. It was either the fourth or fifth one. I bought it cheap back when I bought video games I knew I'd never play just because it was old and on sale for a couple dollars. But after years of not playing Civilization 4 or 5, I decided to give it the ol' college try. Its reputation as an approachable strategy game made me feel like it was my best chance of understanding the appeal.

I got into it. For a bit. I was playing on one of the easiest difficulty levels, and the "one more turn" syndrome the series is famous for got its hooks into me. Because I was playing on baby mode, I could pretty much stumble through without any major calamities. I was advancing through the ages and building up my tech tree and amassing a nice little empire. I made it several hours into my first game.

And then, I stopped. I abruptly and completely lost interest. I realized I had no idea what I was doing or why I was doing it, and couldn't think of a good reason to keep doing it. It was addictive, but I was getting nothing out of it.

When I first played with a rubik's Cube, I twisted it randomly a little bit to see if I could figure out what the deal is, and then I put it down forever. A rubik's cube isn't a puzzle. I can't "solve" one in the sense that I can solve a jigsaw puzzle or a sokoban. Nobody can. Okay, maybe Albert Einstein could've, but for everybody else, the only way to "solve" it is to read the book and memorize the algorithm for solving it. Once you know the steps, you can put it back in its original state. But what's the point? Where's the satisfaction? If you memorize the steps for baking a cake, you at least have a delicious cake to eat when you're done. If you painstakingly follow the steps for assembling and painting a plastic model, you have a cool gundam to look at when you're done. When you learn how to solve a rubik's cube, it just looks like it did when you took it out of the package. You could've just left it like that and said you solved it. That's a more satisfying trick than following the instructions, IMO. Lifehack: one weird trick to make all your friends think you know how to solve a rubik's Cube.

To me, play is about exploring, messing around, having fun and learning as you go. I'm opposed to forms of play that are about discipline and following instructions. But a part of me will always be fascinated by it. I want to know what other people experience that I clearly don't. Maybe it's time to move past denial and accept that some knowledge is beyond my ken 🦝

  1. Unfortunately one of the more overtly colonialist examples of the genre, but I'm using it as an example because of its legendary complexity↩