What’s in a Game? Part 1

I have met people that play D&D, and only D&D, that call themselves gamers. Or perhaps their thing is Call of Cthulhu. Maybe they live and breathe GURPS. But when they play an RPG, they play the same one every time.  Or maybe they are heavily into the electronic gaming thing. Sure they play lots of different games, but they stick to one medium.   They don’t play table-top games of any stripe. Don’t misunderstand me, there’s nothing wrong with that. If that’s what you like, by all means have a great time. I think  it’s kind of cute how they call themselves gamers, though.

I am a gamer. I have a bookshelf near my office that is just loaded with RPG systems. The reason they are near my office is because I don’t have room for them in my office with all the other books I keep there.   I’ve run or played most of them, and read all of them more than once. I have another shelf in my basement dedicated to board and card games. I had a young guest come to my house once, and when she came upstairs, she looked at me with eyes wide and said, “You have seventy four games.”

“Those are just the ones you can see”, I replied.

That was a couple of years ago. There are more now.

My one weakness as a gamer comes in the field of electronic games. My wife and I decided early on to keep video games to a minimum in our house, so we have a Wii. Our only other platform is the one I’m typing on now. But I don’t mind that, because electronic games, while they can be tremendous fun,  lack a key element I get out of a game.

I get to play with people.

Like many writers, I tend to be reserved around people I don’t know very well. I’ve gotten better at it over the years, but I am usually the guy in the back watching what everyone else is doing.  Put me in a room full of total strangers and a game we can all agree to play, though, and I’m at the center of the action. Games provide an instant framework, a built in topic for conversation, and something fun to do all at once. You can learn a lot about a person by playing games with them.

So for the next few posts, I’m going to write about my favorite games

I’m particularly fond of co-operative games, where players win or lose as a team. There are many out there, from the day long epic battle that is Arkham Horror, to the quick playing Forbidden Tower. My personal favorite so far is a game called Pandemic, from Z-Man Games, in which researchers and scientists from the Center for Disease Control battle plagues in a race against time. It’s quick to learn and you can play a complete game in about an hour, an invaluable trait for a game when your family is as busy as mine gets. With the On The Brink expansion, it has enough variations to make the game extremely re-playable. I still haven’t played the Mutation variation, but I am eager to.  The game is challenging to win, and fun to play.

Another excellent co-operative game is Witch of Salem, from Kosmos. Set in H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, the Witch of Salem pits intrepid investigators against horrors from beyond the stars. A mad priest named Necron is trying to open a gate in Arkham Massachusetts to allow a Great Old One into the world. If he succeeds, the people that don’t get eaten immediately will go mad, then get eaten. Investigators travel the town, sealing gates and defeating monsters while they gather the information they need to stop Necron. I have yet to win this game in my several attempts, but I’ve come within one turn of winning twice, only to have hope snatched from my grasp at the last second.  Like Pandemic, you can play a full game in about an hour, give or take. It’s slightly more complicated than Pandemic as well, but it plays smoothly once you have the hang of it.

On the other end of the complexity scale is  Arkham Horror, from Fantasy Flight games. Like the Witch of Salem, Arkham Horror has ordinary mortals battling for survival in a town swarming with monsters zombies and . . .things. Another Lovecraft inspired game,it also features a Great Old One stirring and consequences most dire looming. While you can play Witch of Salem in an hour, Arkham Horror takes nearly that long just to set up, and can last eight hours or more easily. I have only played this game three times, and only finished it once. However, the game plays like a well written story, with quests, treasures and even some possible plot lines.  If you have a day to set aside, a game of Arkham Horror can make it a memorable one.

For an interesting twist on the co-operative game, I like Betrayal at House on the Hill, a re-release by Avalon Hill games. Several friends get together and explore the old House on the Hill for a lark, and wind up battling for their lives when one of them goes mad and tries to kill them. Or possibly they want to keep them from saving someone else, or maybe even take them home to their own dimension and save them in little jars on their shelves.  The beauty here is, you really don’t know. In terms of re-playablility, I have never seen any game that is the equal of Betrayal. The players build the House as they play, drawing room cards and placing them as they explore. At a randomly determined point in the game, a random player becomes a traitor. There are fifty possible haunt scenarios, each with its own set of winning conditions for each side. Most of the time you will know who the traitor is. Sometimes you won’t. And in a few cases, there isn’t a traitor at all, but something else threatens your lives and/or souls. So far, the game seems balanced so both the Traitor and the Heroes have an equal shot at victory. It has a wonderfully creepy atmosphere, and fairly intuitive game play.

If you have friends over and an hour or so to spare (Or a day or two in the case of Arkham Horror,) a game can be a great way to have fun. The games I mention here have kept my family happily entertained for hours. I think they would do the same for you.

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2 Responses to What’s in a Game? Part 1

  1. Sam Gafford says:

    Like yourself, I’ve never been a social person. I’m more likely to be identified as a serial killer at a party than a “fun guy”. As such, I understand completely the desire to gather together with like minded people to have a game or two. It helps us bypass many of the things that make social gatherings so painful. However, I can see something of the appeal of online gaming in that you can pretty much do it whenever you want and you avoid some of the hassle of trying to find a time when everyone can get together for a game. And you raise a good point that many gamers only play certain games. I was certainly guilty of that and think it’s partially due to a comfort level more than disinterest. Still, few things can compare to a group of friends coming together over a game and creating moments that you will remember forever like when a friend, playing Superman in a DC RPG I was running, opened up a lead chest to find a chunk of green Kryptonite and running out of the room like a little kid who switched onto a Rob Zombie movie by mistake or another friend (Hi, Tom!) in the same game who was playing Green Lantern and was being crushed to death by Brainiac’s spaceship (the skull with tentacles) AND COULDN’T THINK OF A DAMNED THING TO DO ABOUT IT!

  2. dreygeaux says:

    Thank you, Sam, for making my point. 🙂

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