Mondays are quickly becoming Warmachine nights, as I just got a couple friends of mine to join in on the miniature-based wargame. That’s not to say that means we always play the game on Warmachine night; sometimes we just end up painting, as our toy soldiers aren’t quite ready yet.
A term popped into my head, one that’s relatively obscure but quite evocative: lifestyle games.
Maybe I should take this moment to define terms, since I couldn’t seem to find one elsewhere. As I see it, a game is a lifestyle game if the player spends a disproportionate amount of time on that game in particular, rather than games in general; it often becomes a priority in a person’s time spent socializing or at leisure.
Warmachine is the latest one I’ve dabbled with. I’m also in an role-playing game campaign. I have plenty of experience with Magic: the Gathering. Clearly there’s something about these games that deeply appeals to me. I can think of plenty of other examples, too.
I’m willing to bet you know some people who have a poker night, if you’re not a part of one yourself. It becomes deeply ingrained in a person’s social life; on, say, Fridays, they meet up with their poker buddies and play.
Did you know there used to be a television show called Championship Bridge with Charles Goren? It premiered in 1959, well before poker ever aired on television. You might think Charles Goren was just a television host. Nope, he was a well established public figure because of Bridge. He wrote books and articles about the game. Heck, the show even had celebrity guests, which really preempts shows like Celebrity Poker Showdown or Dancing with the Stars.
Have you heard of Curt Schilling? He’s a baseball player, and a BIG fan of a game called Advanced Squad Leader. So much so that, unable to attend a convention dedicated to it, he started his own that took place in the off season. He made an offer to buy the game, joined a separate company trying to do the same, and how he’s co-owner of Multi-Man Publishing. He’s kind of a fan.
I know the focus of this site is board games, but I can’t pass up mentioning video games. E-sports are a thing now. There are high-level competitions for games like Starcraft, Counter-Strike, and League of Legends. These competitions are broadcast, with commentary, and spark plenty of discussion and even fantasy leagues.
Did you know that there are people who go to gaming conventions primarily to play train games? I’ve heard of the Puffing Billy tournaments, mostly centering around 18xx games, which… on second thought, I’ll leave it for another article, but suffice it to say people dig train games.
Hopefully that makes the subject clear. Now, let’s take a look at what makes these games tick.
In this article, I’m going to take the Joseph Campbell Monomyth approach to look at lifestyle games. I’m going to take a topic and reduce it to fundamental elements, carefully making them just specific enough to sound insightful but vague enough that conveniently covers a lot of bases. Not every element will apply to every lifestyle game, but, hopefully, every lifestyle game will hit several of them. I’ll be brief, but this might end up being a series where I go more in depth. Let’s see how it goes!
High Skill Ceiling
In short, lifestyle games are the kind people want to get good at playing. Whether or not they involve an element of random chance, they typically reward the better player or players, and the depth of strategy possible is generally very high. If a game is solvable, that generally means it cannot be a lifestyle game, as then the dominant strategy erases any possibility for a player to gain satisfaction in performing better at the game.
Keep this in mind: when IBM’s AI Deep Blue defeated chess grandmaster Gary Kasparov, it was considered a huge achievement in artificial intelligence. So was the recent defeat of go master Lee Se-dol by Google’s AlphaGo, an even more sophisticated AI albeit with a far less awesome name.
Going hand-in-hand with a high skill ceiling, these game usually come with a tremendous amount of variety.
The clearest example are games with a large number of internal variables, or many expansions. Magic: the Gathering has released hundreds of new cards every year for nearly two decades. Cosmic Encounter features dozens of alien races, with many more in each of several expansions. A video game, like League of Legends, can feature a huge number of characters and release new ones every so often.
More limited systems, however, can still provide mathematically stunning levels of variety. I couldn’t begin to tell you how many board states are possible in go and chess, but you sure can’t study the game by going through all of them one by one. By the way, if you fully shuffle a deck of cards, it is almost a mathematical certainty that the order of cards you get has never existed before in the history of playing cards—so you’ve got to make decisions in situations that have never, ever happened before.
I’m using a relatively loose definition of “metagame” here. Generally speaking, it’s the way you play the game before you actually play the game.
Think of Magic: the Gathering (again, I know). Players make different decks, and some decks are naturally better than others. Players gravitate towards playing those types of decks more often… so you build a deck that is particularly good at defeating the otherwise dominant strategy.
For me, I’d count just about anything you do outside a game, but related to it. I really enjoy painting models, and I’ve spent a long time reading about Warmachine strategy, different models and units, and gradually coming up with my own list. I’ve done something similar for card games. I used to spend hours at a time planning games of D&D, and a couple friends of mine are doing just the same right now. That’s not literally playing the game, but it’s still an investment in a game you will play in the future.
Finally, there’s usually some kind of social element behind lifestyle games. Like poker night, I have a Warmachine night, and a day set aside for RPGs. I’d bet dollars to donuts Curt Schilling tries to put time aside for Advanced Squad Leader. All of these require either that a social circle agreed to make a habit of playing a game, or that a habit of playing a game created a social circle. On a larger scale, you’ll see events held at local game shops or cafes, and bigger still, conventions. Or, you might just add someone you met online to your friends list after a particularly good game.
There’s a downside to all this. The same thing that make lifestyle games so compelling will often also raise the barrier to entry for newcomers.
Remember how I said bridge used to be a big deal? I’m not sure if you noticed, but it’s all but gone. Heck, you might not even have heard of bridge until I mentioned it. In the 1940s, nearly half of American households played bridge. The aforementioned Charles Goren made a name for himself by playing and writing about bridge, and it got him on television—and keep in mind there weren’t a lot of channels, serving smaller audiences with niche interests. It aired on ABC. You play bridge with a partner, so there would be a person in your life who you called your bridge partner. It defined, at least in some small part, who you were to one another and what you spend your free time doing.
The problem is that bridge is immensely complicated. Books about bridge would hit the New York Times bestseller list because they taught you interesting new strategies and bidding conventions. These were practically necessary to play the game well at all. Bridge is a simple trick-taking game like hearts or spades, but to play it effectively, you need to have a system in place between you and your partner to communicate to one another, openly but not explicitly, when you bid before each round. Rewarding, yes, but if someone wants to get into a game and it turns out there’s a lot of reading material involved… well, they’re going to look elsewhere.
I also mentioned that lifestyle games typically reward player skill, and that can make it difficult for a new player to find a satisfying game. Say you want to get good at chess. Your friend plays chess. So you learn from her, and she crushes you. That’s no fun for you. Next time she lets you win, and that’s not satisfying either. Of course she’s teaching you the game, but it’s going to take a long time before you get close enough in skill that things get interesting. You might be able to head to a local chess club but, again, that might be more trouble that that player is willing to tolerate.
Making a Lifestyle Game
I realized something while I was brushing paint onto one of my little metal men. Lifestyle games will sometimes form organically, but a publisher can foster the elements that attract people to game, and make them dedicated fans.Say a company finds a game that has deep, rewarding gameplay. They support it with periodic expansions and updates. They run events with prizes to get people to socialize because of the game. If they can, they find ways to get people to think of the game even when they’re not playing, like curating an extensive and well-developed lore.
That’s just speculation, but it’s certainly what companies do, and it works. I’m not trying to portray it as some kind of social engineering, or show you how the proverbial sausage is made. It’s no more manipulative than rules of screenwriting, for example. If you know what people like, you can make something that people will like, if you’re clever enough about it and put enough passion behind it. It’s master craftsmanship.
This might be the natural subject for me to obsess over since I made it a point to play fewer games, but enjoy them more thoroughly. Nonetheless, there are a whole lot of common elements that make a game something that people derive a deeper level of satisfaction from playing.
These have been my thought in brief on the subject, hopefully cohesive, possibly even with a valid point or two. I expect I’ll examine my points in more depth in the future as I explore and refine them. Until then, I suggest you go out and find a game worth falling in love with, and then go play it.