It won’t seem like it at first, but this post is eventually about games.
Lately I’ve been asking to borrow friends’ iPods for a moment and asking whether it’s OK for me to look at their “Top 25 Most Played” playlist. Partly I want to get a feel for the music they like, partly I want to see what I might be missing.
So far all the teenagers’ iPods I’ve looked at have something in common: the songs that come up as most-played are no longer their favorites. As we scroll through the list of songs they’ve heard the most, the kids say something like, “Oh, I used to like that. I don’t like it anymore.” And when we’re done with the list it turns out that the reason that so many “old songs” are coming up on their most-played list is that when they first got their iPod they didn’t have much music. They listened to what they liked over and over again, and now their tastes have moved on.
My iPod, and the iPods of the grown-ups whose Top-25-Most-Played lists I’ve seen aren’t like that. My list of most frequently played songs matches my widely scattered musical tastes.
But the teen-iPod trope got me to thinking about games. Which games have I played the most? Would they be games I played often because I didn’t have much to compete with them at the time, or have grown-up games overtaken the games I liked as a kid? (I’m not trying to account for all the family board games, card games, and chess/checkers games I played as a kid, nor am I thinking about roleplaying games—I’m thinking about face-to-face hobby games, though my definitions may flex differently than yours.)
The results are mixed. Of my five most-played games, two fit the teen-iPod pattern. The game I’m guessing is #5 is the only one I play a lot these days, though I could be talked into playing #2 and sometimes get in a game of #3.
ONE, Melee/Wizard. I played Steve Jackson’s pre-TFT man-to-man combat games nearly every day for years as a teenager. I played an awful lot of solo games, but also a lot of games against my brother, kids from the neighborhood, and every once in a while people at a game club. Melee/Wizard’s wonderful tactical combat had a big impact on my roleplaying habits, leading me away from D&D’s abstract system. I was interested in something grittier and AD&D’s assumptions didn’t make much sense. I tried The Fantasy Trip, the game that grew out of Melee/Wizard, but found it soulless. Instead I got into Runequest and didn’t look back.
TWO, Shadowfist. Robin Laws’ and Jose Garcia’s excellent TCG landed me my first full-time job in the industry. As a huge side benefit, Lisa loved the game and we played two-player and multiplayer games all the time at home. She played Architects, with just a hint of Lotus, and she cursed me for so clearly preferring the Dragons and designing too many good-guy hero cards.
THREE, Magic: the Gathering. When M:tG came out I was unemployed and had just started landing freelance game-writing contracts as a side effect of corresponding with Robin Laws. Lisa and I loved Magic. We stayed up all hours playing multiple games until she had to crawl into bed so she could get up for her job as a ski instructor. A couple months into our Magic lifestyle we had a game, and a ‘conversation,’ that changed my life. I was playing with a giant 100+ card deck while Lisa was playing with the then-regulation 60 cards. I held on for hours with under 4 life points, and around 2 a.m. Lisa finally put me out of her misery. She was pretty ticked off at my refusal to die when I’d had no chance to win. She leaned across the table and said, “You call yourself a writer. You call yourself an editor. You can’t even edit a deck.” Stunned in the brain, I sat at the table while she went to bed. She was right, I’d just been playing with everything I liked, hoping some crazy Rube Goldberg-style synchronicity would manifest and carry me to victory. And that was a fair indictment of my life as a writer. So I stayed up another hour and a half and built two slim and nasty Magic decks. In a game-playing sense, Lisa came to regret that moment, because she likes to win. But in a life-adjustment sense, turning me into an exceptions-based editor and designer has been paying off.
FOUR, Knights of the Round Table. This was a stapled light-rpg booklet I ordered by mail from Lou Zocchi back in 1976. The internet says it was designed by Phil Edgren, I can’t find my old copy any longer. I loved its system for hand-to-hand knightly combat in which each player chose a maneuver, then compared their attack to the opponent’s attack to determine their chance of hitting and doing damage. It was a simple but surprisingly effective game of guessing, bluffing, and luck, or at least that’s how I felt about it back then. My brother and I and the other kids played it all the time, usually as a straight combat game, occasionally as an extremely simple rpg on a map of the realm I’d drawn with colored pencils. I can’t remember talking with anyone else who knew the game.
FIVE, Three-Dragon Ante. My simple family card game riffing on D&D’s dragons will eventually overtake the games above it, since I play it regularly with friends, family and co-workers. It’s no accident that all five of the games I believe are on top of my most-played list are hobby games I’ve been able to play with members of my family.
I’ll continue the list in a later post.