Last week I sat down with my friend Ricky and we got out Ghost Stories. We did this with a sense of dread because this game has beaten us time and time again. In fact, neither of us have ever won at this game. I still love the look and feel of the game. Selecting my monks and finding out what powers we will be using, selecting our enemy, and placing out the villager tiles, all done randomly. I love the first few rounds and working out how best to use the board and villager abilities, watching the first few monsters come out. Then, sometimes completely out of the blue, hitting a string of ghosts that summon other ghosts, seeing them fill up monster slots and then watching my monks get annihilated. Finally, slowly resetting the cards, putting the monks away, returning the tiles to the box and closing the lid and sitting there with the hope that the villagers might find the peace in death that we couldn’t provide them in life.
5 years I have owned Ghost Stories and you might think I would be embarrassed admitting that I have never won a game. I am a little. Especially when I have friends who can regularly beat it at the normal level we use. Yet I play games that I lose to regularly, and I’m fine with that. I play Twilight Struggle which I have never won against a human opponent, I often lose in Small World and these are easily in my top five favourite games. New games and old I play them and I lose often. And I don’t care.
Recently I was struggling through a game that I will leave nameless for the moment. The last half of the game was not that fun for me and I stated that at the end when we were discussing how it went. We tallied up the score and I had won by a good margin. The comment made to me was, “I don’t know why you’re complaining about the game, you won.” I found that an interesting comment. I always play to win, but winning is not why I play. That’s because games provide me something more than just a chance to win. If winning was my goal I would only challenge my four-year-old daughter to games. But winning does not provide ample motivation on its own. I can go to a games night and play 5 games and win zero times, then other nights I can win every time. I usually don’t feel better about one night more than another. Winning is not my goal for play. When I do play, it is to enjoy the company and to get excited by a new puzzle. I savour the game’s ability to make me excited about what is happening on the table in front of me. The adventure of play is the exciting part. Trying new things, seeing how my plans unfold, watching the randomness of dice destroy my plans or provide me victory. It is all part of the experience. Winning does not ensure that experience, nor is it a guaranteed pathway.
If winning is not why I play then why do I play to win? This comes from a value of always trying to be a good opponent and to respect the other person who has joined the game. But this can take many forms. I know that I want other players to be at their best when we play a game. I only feel rewarded by a victory when I have worked hard and earned that victory and I suspect others feel the same. Conversely, I find it patronizing when people give me the victory. It communicates that they care little about the game or the time spent together. Because of these considerations, I do not want to leave my opponent thinking that I do not respect them enough to give them anything other than my best. This is not to say I have to destroy an opponent to feel good about a game. I love a good co-op game as much as the next person. In fact, I even like luck based games. I just believe that a good gaming experience is best when everyone involved is trying their best. This is even true of party games that require little effort. Even in party games, I am only happy when I am giving my best. However, this may not mean the same thing as playing the game to beat others. This may seem contradictory, but I think it holds to my primary value of giving others my best. In party games, the focus is on the social element and that is where I try my hardest. When the group requires me to be relaxed and jovial I work at providing that. I am giving my best, but in a way that is meaningful to the group.
If you want to consider the implications of why I hold this value than simply try to imagine how someone doing the opposite would behave. I do not think it would be that hard to imagine, as I am sure we have all experienced it. In a competitive game, the person applies little effort or does not care if they make a good decision. When you win against such an opponent is it rewarding? If you are playing a social game and a person chooses to pout and not join in the fun, do you like playing with that person? I think we owe it to each other to be at our best because it creates the best experience for gaming. When in doubt, play to win, but don’t make winning your reason to play.