rules, rituals…and another r-word? “rasputin”, maybe?

You know you’re a tabletop game nerd when you don’t understand why other people don’t find them as fascinating as you do. And you know you’re a rules geek when you reach for the instruction manual almost eagerly, with a glint in your eye.

I am both. You can probably understand without trouble the concept of a board-game obsessive, but a board-game obsessive that is also a rules geek is something rarer. Put it this way: I’ve happily spent an hour composing a forum post that makes a detailed, multi-paragraph argument about the interaction of the Moat and Noble Brigand cards in the game Dominion. (Dominion is much like a board game, but is played entirely with cards. You also know you’re a tabletop game nerd when you realize that calling yourself a “board-game nerd” will be clearer for most readers, but the inaccuracy makes you wince.) I’m the sort of guy who will joyfully perform a close reading of the card text and think about the significance of text placement (below or above the horizontal line?) and I’m willing to cite the game designer’s comments in a forum post as though they constituted case law.

photo by Sandy Redding via cc

photo by Sandy Redding via cc

So, yeah, that’s the kind of nerdery we’re talking about.

I was raised by a former lawyer, so that explains why I like to argue the finer points. It doesn’t, however, quite explain why I just like to know the rules inside and out, or why I am almost a connoisseur of rules. A good set of rules, for me, is a small triumph in a chaotic world – it answers disputes, addresses unlikely yet theoretically legal game states, and leaves no logical possibility unexplored.

One bad sign for a set of rules, I find, is if a player has to monitor her own honesty and simply make decisions in good faith. For example, in 7 Wonders — a game I used to play a lot — all the players make their choices at the same time once per turn, and when they’ve all agreed to proceed, each player announces whether he’s “building” or “burying” a card from his hand. There might be some strategic advantage in waiting until your opponents have announced their intentions so you can rethink yours before choosing, but it’s technically illegal. By the rules, at least, you’re supposed to make a decision and stick to it, even though there’s no real mechanism for enforcing this.

I’ve fully relished 7 wonders with my friends, but it’s hard to imagine the game scaling up (at least in its tabletop incarnation) to a competitive level of any sort, where personal trust isn’t holding the players together, just for this reason.

I thought of this a couple of weeks ago, when the US West team was punished after it was determined they had thrown a game in the Little League Softball World Series. The loss provided, it seems, a clear strategic advantage in the tournament: US West had already guaranteed their advancement in the tournament but were concerned by the Central Iowa All-Stars. By throwing a game against US Southwest, US West would allow Southwest to advance instead of Iowa and avoid a showdown with the stronger team. From the NPR story:

West allegedly benched its starters, swung at pitches in the dirt and bunted on two-strike counts, resulting in an 8-0 loss. The team did not record a single hit.

They clearly broke a rule – let’s just take it for granted that they were in fact taking a dive – and let’s grant, too, that the bylaws of the tournament clearly prohibited this kind of move.

Yet this would seem to only encourage not compliance or sportsmanlike conduct, but simply a more Machiavellian approach. Next year’s coach, in the same position before a similar game, would do well to sidle up to a second-stringer and mention, casually, “Give’em hell out there today, and completely put out of your mind the fact that losing this game would actually be strategically advantageous for us. Hold on a second…are you thinking about that right now? Dammit, what did I just tell you not to think about? And while you’re at it, don’t even think about thinking about pink elephants or Roko’s basilisk.” (Pause.) “Are you thinking about any of those things I just told you not to think about? After I just told you not to? What is wrong with you, anyway, for crissakes?”

This rule, in other words, is a fabulous idea if your intent is to foster coach-player interactions that are replete with utterly confusing mixed messages.

photo by Michael Elleray via cc

photo by Michael Elleray via cc

That all said, I’m not going to be playing little league any time soon, so why do I want good rules, anyway? What do I care? I suppose it’s because I like the ritual of games, of any stripe. In most of my life, I don’t believe in ritual, unless you count my almost-daily patronage of Quizno’s or my nervous habit of double-checking that the front door is locked every morning. As rituals go, though, these are fairly devoid of symbolic substance.

But then there are games, with their tokens, their drama, and their artificial laws. In their commitment to rules, sports and board games are nearly identical: In both, we agree to set aside rational concerns and abide by more-or-less arbitrary conventions (touchdowns are worth 6, not 5 or 7; the pawn always moves forward, never backward) in exchange for a ritualistic drama boarding on the ceremonial. We know it’s manufactured and secular, but what the hell, we savor it anyway. For this suspension of disbelief, however, we need rules. Making it up as we go along is too ambiguous; we might wake up and realize we’re just playing make-believe.

Maybe I still haven’t answered, though, why we need detailed, specific rules, ones that cover contingencies and prevent us from taking advantage. Here it is, in all honesty: Even as someone with a strong-enough conscience, I’m a competitive guy. I know that if I can, I will be an aggressor. For the span of an hour (or three), I will quite joyfully play the role of your antagonist and enemy without guilt, but to take on that ritual role, though, it’s easier if I know the limits and how much elbowing aside I can allow myself of the people I normally call my friends.

Or at least that’s the best explanation I’ve come up with. Unlike my games, I’m happy to have loose ends in my essays.

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