I most often play games with people that I care about. Sure, I attend con and events where I may sit down at a table with a new crowd, but the vast majority of the time I’m sitting across the table from someone I share a long history with, both in games and in life. These friends and family are the people I care about more than anyone else, but as is often the case, they are the people that have the potential to get under my skin and push my buttons. It makes sense that in a hobby build around competition, winners and losers, and outthinking the opposition, the potential for tension exists.
I’m an interesting case, because from an early age, I’ve had a real temper. When I was a kid, I could go into a rage in a snap. The problem (I’ve realized after years of self-reflection) is that I process my emotions very quickly. I can go from happy to sad to angry to happy again pretty quickly. If I blow up at someone, I’ll be fine in a few minutes having processed and dealt with that emotion (albeit in an unhealthy way). The target of my outburst on the other hand, could reasonably be upset for hours.
This was the way I used to be anyway. After years of running into this problem again and again, hurting some people around me I really cared about, and honestly growing up a bit, I’ve found myself much better equipped at handling the triggers that would’ve set me off in the past. Simply recognizing that I have the potential for fast changes in my mood has been enormously helpful in combating it. This doesn’t mean that it never happens to me these days, but the incidents are getting further and further apart.
Back to board games. I’m sure most people have heard of the term Rage Quitting. The moment when frustration in a game reaches a boiling point and someone storms away in anger. With any luck, you’ll avoid a table flipping incident, but even at the best of times no one wants to play with a rage quitter.
I rage quit a year and a bit ago. I had brought home for the holidays a coveted copy of the then not released Rising Sun to play with some family and friends. I had been very excited to get it to the table and to play with that particular group. If you’ve played Rising Sun, the Eric Lang epic set in feudal Japan, you know that much of the game is based on diplomacy, negotiation, and betrayal. Well, the exact circumstances are not important, but I ended up getting betrayed and…well it didn’t go over well. There was some unpleasantness and suffice to say the game did not finish.
See, there are certain games out there, I refer to them as Jerk Store games, that encourage underhanded jerky behaviour. You will be rewarded to screw over your opponents. Games included on that list for me include Tammany Hall, The Resistance, Cyclades, El Grande, and so many more. Of course, any game could be a Jerk Store depending how you play it. So much of the interactions we have with people are determined by the spoken or unspoken social arrangement we enter into. And let me be clear, I love these types of games, but they do sometimes get a bit gnarly.
A while back I used to play with only one group of people, and we’d bang out the same games over and over, Catan, Puerto Rico, Dominion, lots of space for jerkiness there. One night we were playing another favourite, Caylus, and my friend was set to have a big round. I had a choice to make: screw him over with the Provost, or let him have his big round. Now for most of you reading it’s probably a no brainer. Make the obvious right choice for the game you’re playing. Well, as a gaming group we tended to be pretty nice, and this one player was particularly sensitive to being picked on. I screwed him over, and he sulked for the rest of the game. I ended up winning by one point, proving that I had made the right move.
Most people will hear that story and think it was bad form on the part of my friend, and I agree, but one trick that I have learned when entering into a Jerk Store game is that a pre-emptive discussion can go a long way towards making the experience more enjoyable for everyone involved. When I’m going to play something with the potential for mean decisions, I try and tell people that in advance. It gives them a chance to ask for a different type of game or allows them to truly embrace mean choices, while more easily containing them to the tabletop. We didn’t have that conversation before our Caylus game and the result was an annoying experience for all.
It’s easy to be contemplative about the bad emotions that we can feel playing games, when I’m calm, well-rested, and tapping away on my keyboard. It can be a different thing altogether in the moment of the game. I have come a long way towards getting my emotions in check, but last year when I flew off the handle over a Rising Sun game, I would’ve thought I had them in check when we sat down to play.
The moral or the story is that in life, we need to learn our lessons over and over again. I may learn from an experience and consider that knowledge to be part of my arsenal, just to be tripped up by a similar situation a few months down the line. We never stop learning and we never stop growing. The two things that have helped me the most in the gaming department is communicating with the people involved so we’re in agreement of the type of experience we want to have, and having self-awareness of your own personal shortcomings. Those two small things will ensure you get to continue to game with the people you care about.
Oh, and I’m happy to say that I still game regularly with the folks from that Rising Sun game. Just this week, we played The Godfather: Corleone’s Empire (another Eric Lang Jerk Store title) and no one got killed…well, lots of people ended up in the Hudson, but it was all board game related.