When is it okay to not play?

As we all move in to summer after what has been a difficult two years for our hobbies, Kris takes some time to talk about when its a good time to say “No” to the offer of a game, and why it may be better for both you and your opponent to not play!

I should open this article by saying that a lot of this is based on my own experiences as both a player and an event/community organizer over the years, and whilst I think the advice may be helpful to some, I don’t think it is a cure all for all of the issues I will talk about, nor do I think it will be applicable to everyone who reads it, but the TLDR is that talking to each other is a good thing, and more communication with people you plan on spending extended periods of your precious hobby time with can’t be a bad thing, but enough of my get out of jail free cards, lets look at when I think it’s ok to say “No, thanks.” when someone asks you for a game.

I have been playing miniatures games for well over half of my life at this point. I can’t remember exactly what got me started, but I remember my first White Dwarf magazine and I remember painting my first Space Marine in the mid 90s. Warhammer Fantasy, Warhammer 40,000, GorkaMorka and Magic: The Gathering, and HeroQuest were big parts of my High School years, I remember getting together with my friends on weeknights and weekends and playing games and trying to balance that with time on the Super NES or Playstation, but one of the things that stands out in these memories, is how much I enjoyed winning, how much work I put in to new list ideas, different decks, building new models or just getting whatever edge I could by studying the rule book late into the night.

I will never say no to a game of HeroQuest…

I look back on those times now, and still enjoy telling the stories with my new friends of how one over-powered combination, or a lucky dice roll won me a game, or how much easier it was to learn new rule sets, and you know what, my friends now have similar stories to me from their teenage years.

Contrast that to now and one of my favorite games of the last decade is Star Wars X-Wing: Miniatures Game, a game with a vibrant, well organized competitive scenes, in fact the Organized Play support from then publisher Fantasy Flight Games was one of the big draws of X-Wing, I knew I would get games, and I knew there would be events to go to, but now, I organize more events than I play in, when I travel to the World Championships, it is on a Press Pass to do event coverage rather than to compete.

Why is that you may wonder, and the answer is really quite simple.

I don’t like myself when I play X-Wing competitively.

Now let me be clear. It’s not that I cheat, or try to exploit rules, or anything like that.

I just find that if I am playing a competitive game, my focus shifts from the enjoyment of the act of playing the game to winning. Every dice roll takes on a significance that I do not apply to it in a casual game, my thought process shifts from enjoying a game with someone to the result of the game being more important than the act itself.

I don’t like how those changes make me react to things, and I end up focused on the results of dice rolls (good or bad) rather than the experience of playing the game. I can still feel the frustration of missing the cut for X-Wing Worlds because (in my mind) a series of may attacks over multiple turns only resulted in average damage (which my opponent was able to heal) and when my opponent finally got a shot, he spiked damage and I rolled below average evades. I can remember the series of moves that caused that result, I can picture the openings of the game and how we traded ships for advantages until we were 1v1, Darth Vader vs Corran Horn. I can’t remember what my opponent looked like, I can’t remember what we spoke about while we played for the 75 minutes we spent together, but I remember the dice rolls…

Is there a more boring way to talk about games, “I rolled 3 hits, then they rolled a blank and 2 focuses…”

I have similar stories about Wins and Losses in various game systems over the years and what I find silly is that I knew I was like that long before I made the choice to not to take games as seriously anymore. I was already selective in how I practiced, and how I played games when I was not practicing for an event.

I had been talking about the Social Contract of playing a game for years before I finally moved on to where I am now, and this moves us on to the crux of the article, saying “No” when someone askes if you want a game.

To steal a phrase from my days trawling some of the early internet forums looking for people to talk to about Warhammer 40K, there is a generally accepted split between types of players, Fluff Bunnies and WaaC Players.

Sticking with the 40K analogy, the extremes can be shown with a nice clean Space Marine example. Space Marines in the era that I am talking about had a squad size of between 5 and 10 models in a squad. In the background for the game, Space Marine Chapters generally followed the Codex Astarties for their organization, meaning that they were divided in to Squads of 10 Marines with a Sargent, a Special Weapon and a Heavy Weapon. When deployed to the battle field they could subdivided in to 5 Marine Combat Squads, and this was something you could do with a 10 model squad in the game.

The Fluff Bunny may build a list centered around squads that were 10 Marines Strong and then plan on using the versatility to deploy them as Combat Squads during a game. A WaaC Player however would take 6 Marines in the squad as this was the minimum amount to gain access to both the Special and Heavy Weapon, maximizing the Fire Power of the squad whilst minimizing the cost of the squad, allowing you to fit more in to your overall list.

Sometimes sticking to the Codex can go too far…

The Fluff Bunny would argue that this is against the background for the army, the WaaC Player would argue that its perfectly legal in if Games Workshop didn’t think you should be able to they could have made them a squad size of 5 or 10 like they did in previous editions.

The silly think is that both players are correct, but this is the Internet and so the conversation inevitably devolves and both players are happy that they never have to play each other, and as silly as most internet arguments can be, the resolution is also correct…

OK, maybe some of the internet name calling that happens in those “conversations” may not be correct, but stay with me.

Both of those players want something different from a game that they play.

Both players may want to win their games equally as much, but that does not change the approach to the game being diametrically opposed, which means that if they did sit down to spend 3 hours playing a game together they probably don’t come out of it feeling fulfilled, regardless of how each layer acts whilst playing.

When I am being a Fluff Bunny, I care more about telling a fun story with my games, I will make sub-optimal choices in list building, and they will carry over into the game where I focus more on trying to get a fun cinematic moment to happen, or to progress a larger story than that which is occurring on the table, and being honest, sometimes this story may only be in my head, for my army.

Getting my Army blown off the table in turn one without getting to activate half of my units is not fun, there is no cool story there, and I would leave the game feeling unfulfilled regardless of how cool my opponent was.

But, flip this around.

When I am acting as the WaaC Player, when I am practicing for an event, and fine tuning a list idea, what do I gain from the experience of blowing a Fluff Bunnies army off the table in a single turn? I as the WaaC Player would also be left feeling unfulfilled, as I didn’t learn anything about my army, I didn’t see a match up I am likely to run into, I just spent time setting up, rolled some dice and packed away.

This is why the social contract between players is actually so important…

I don’t know, I like Sponge Bob and Rainbows…

More and more, games are played in a games store, the “Pick Up” game model where there is a standard points size, a standard array of missions to play and for games like X-Wing, even a standard timer for how long each game should last, but what all of this standardization does not, and can not take in to account is that there is no standard player.

Everyone plays games for different reasons and taking the time to talk to your opponent beyond “Hey, do you want a game?” to ask questions about what type of game they want to play, what they want to get out of the game, and making sure that it is possible for you both to get a positive experience from the game can lead to a better time all around.

Gaming should not be a Zero Sum experience, whilst only one of you can win the game and someone has to lose, if you take the time to talk to each other first, maybe, both players gain from the time spent together.

And, if after talking to your potential opponent for a few minutes, you think you want something different from the game, its OK to say “No, thanks.” maybe next week you can pre-arrange a game where one of you brings something more in line with the others expectations, but ultimately, you don’t have to spend your limited hobby time playing a game you are not going to enjoy, and whilst finding the right fit can be hard, it is only possible if you have those conversations before you sit down!

Good Luck, and Happy Gaming