Scrabble to the Death

I read a post by my friend SinSynn at the House of Paincakes network last night.  It was about online trolls, but he mentioned in passing that he doesn’t play miniatures games primarily to win.  Neither do I, and it brought to mind a personal revelation I had a little while ago.  I was chatting to my partner about a game I was playing, the mobile scrabble clone Words with Friends.  I’m in a few continuous matches with people when I ride the bus in the morning, and one of my friends, let’s just call him Roland, is a guy I had a friendly rivalry with as an undergrad.  We were both top of our respective high schools in English and we actually became friends when I helped him with a crossword he was doing in the bar.  That sounds pretty uncool, I know.  But we were drinking beer at least, and hey, we were wagging a lecture!

So I play Words with Friends casually, and Roland keeps beating me.  He’s top of the leaderboard out of everyone I know who has the game, and that’s a lot of people.  I find myself trying really hard to defeat him, to play as well as I can, and I was complaining to my partner that when it’s my turn I usually knock out a word in two to five minutes, but against Roland it takes me days to make a move, because “I’m actually trying to beat him.”

She laughed at me and when I asked what was so funny she said “that’s so you.  I think most people are always actually trying to beat everyone they play.  I bet Roland always tries his best.”  And you know, she’s right.  So I started actually trying to get the highest points I possibly could from every word in every game.  My game dramatically improved in a couple of weeks.  One person I was playing with resigned when my score doubled theirs and did not challenge me to a rematch.  Everyone else I was playing either lost to me or mysteriously improved as well, and scraped a victory.  But the list of friends I’ve never beaten is now down to one, when before the number of friends I had beaten was er . . . one.

I’m trying to figure out why I’m like this, and why I don’t play games seriously as a rule.  I now play a total of two games in this way: Words with Friends and Street Fighter.  It’s an enjoyable way to play, and seductive; it gives you a feeling of accomplishment and it’s simple.  You don’t have to deal with any social grey areas involving such things as sportsmanship, or taking responsibility for your opponent enoying themselves.  You just focus, and you assume that they’re doing the same, and you get down to it.

Why do we play some games in this way and not others?  Are all games even suited to playing seriously?  I doubt it. 

I know that many people today play all games this way, and I’m fairly certain that this is a new development.  In the 19th and early 20th century even sports were played in what is sometimes still called a “gentlemanly” manner.  Now people play Scrabble like they’re dicing with death.  What happened?  I could take a few stabs at it, but I’d be much more interested to hear what other people think first.

Till next time,


9 thoughts on “Scrabble to the Death

  1. Von says:

    If I were to hazard a guess, you do it because you have a friend who (for whatever reason) makes you -want- to do it.

    I didn’t really care about the endgame in WoW until I fell in with a guild who do, and who frequently want a third or fifth hand for something challenging, and starting to tag along with them meant I was dying lots and not contributing very much, and it made me up my game a bit.

    Same with Warmachine; Warmachine was a fun knockabout game that I couldn’t take at all seriously, until I started playing with some Nationals-calibre players, and I pretty much had to up my game in order to get anything out of the experience besides “line models up, move models once, remove models”.

    With Magic I’m currently in the odd space where I have to play casually in some environments (the housemates aren’t that into the game and just want to build some decks and muck about with them) and semi-hardcore in others (the gang I go on holiday with play semi-competitively and their idea of a weak/inefficient deck is my idea of a pretty strong one). The decks I build vary depending on the people with whom I’ll be using them – you can look at it either as throttling back for casual play (playing something inefficient to take the edge off any cut-throat tendencies that I might have) or ramping up for, ah, more challenging casual play (attempting to iron out the kinks and awkwardnesses from the decks that I build ‘because I like X’).

    It’s not the game and it’s not you. It’s the people around you.

    • beat ronin says:

      You know, I never thought of that, but I’m really glad you said it. I’ve had an idea slowly coming together for a while now that different games have different micro-cultures that have grown around them, and that people run into trouble when they violate the norms of those cultures. What you said really feeds into that larger idea.

      I learned to play Street Fighter as a teenage boy, my friends and I mercilessly smashing each other as we all sat in front of the SNES or huddled around the arcade machine. It never occurred to any of us to tone down our aggression or go easy to acknowledge the feelings of someone who might just want to play a relaxing game. This has shaped the way I approach that game and others like it, no doubt about it.

      Many men these days have learned miniature wargames as teenage boys, especially the big mainstream ones. Being children of the 80s and teenagers of the 90s, my friends and I learned Warhammer just before the competitive streak of adolescence really kicked in. There’s probably something in that.

  2. SinSynn says:

    This is an interesting topic, because pretty much everybody plays ‘games’ for different reasons. Whether it’s professional sports- we’ve all seen grown men cry when they lose the big game- or something like tabletop mini games. They may all fall under the heading of ‘games,’ but the level of commitment varies wildly, depending on how ‘serious’ the game is.
    I always feel bad for the pro golfer who blows a 3 stroke lead on the last hole. A few bad shots and he’s out a million dollars or more. Now THAT’S pressure.
    I play mini games for fun, cuz inside my tiny lil’ mind I can see the troopies blazing away, dying heroically or saving the mission with a well-timed grenade toss.
    It’s all in my head. I play to share a fun experience with my ‘opponent.’ I work a lot. I play to win at work, cuz that pays my bills. Playing mini games is a way to escape that grind, and playing with a friend just doubles the fun, to me.
    Now that we’ve entered an era where winning a big tourney will also land one a big payout, attitudes are changing.
    I’m telling you, man- soon all the top players will be wearing endorsement hats and shirts, or some nonsense.
    I just wanna play, man, and see what jumps off.
    There are already ‘pro’ video gamers (Starcraft, League of Legends, etc), and in places like Korea, these cats are heroes.
    How long could it possibly be before a game like Warmathingies introduces a pro tour circuit, or some such? It can’t be many years away, I think.

  3. SinSynn says:

    Von, as usual, raises a good point.
    I always forget about MtG.
    If any game is going to start producing ‘pro players’ and some sorta tour circuit, it’ll be Magic the Gathering.
    I’m just not big on card games, unless it’s some sorta ‘strip’ variant with a female involved.
    Hyuna musta talked with Megan Fox, cuz I got what looks like a Korean restraining order in the mail the other day.
    I might not read the language, but all these court orders look amazingly similar.

    • beat ronin says:

      I just realized SinSynn, you’re like a plumber or whatever in New York who is obsessed with tentacles and nubile women. You’re hentai Mario 😛

      Yeah, I’m actually pretty certain that Magic already has a pro circuit. Someone told me once you can make 20-50 grand a year playing the big tournaments, and the official tournament rules are a properly drafted legal document. Also, I heard that several top poker players have started out on Magic.

      I’m not so sure about table top wargames being suited to this sort of play. I know that a lot of people would definitely like things to be the way you described, with pro Warmachine players commanding Korean Starcraft levels of status, but I’m not sure the games are tight enough for that. And I don’t mean that they’re badly written (though some are), just that there are many facets to them that necessarily involve interpretation or just flat-out randomizing, e.g. measuring, guessing, dice rolls. You’d need a referee for starters, and probably people to measure with lasers or something, and tournament dice. I’m struggling to find an analogy, but I’m trying to say that for a miniatures game to be tight enough for people to put real money and status on the line in competition it would not look much like the games in their current form. For one thing, I assume pros would all have their armies painted by pro-painters.

      OK here’s an analogy: Olympic fencing. What is supposedly a sport designed to measure people’s skill in sword-fighting has for competition reasons become two people facing each other on a precise strip of rubber, with “weapons” that are basically wires stuck to a grip that is nothing like any sword grip in history, scribbling in the air in an effort to score electronically measured points according to really tight rules. It tests agility and reflexes and skill, sure, but it’s got less in common with actual sword fighting than UFC does.

      Does that make sense at all? Although it’s fun to imagine a dry golf commentator voice going: “and here we see Sandwyrm’s Khador force, masterfully painted by Angel Giraldez, arrayed for battle.”

  4. Von says:

    Magic definitely has a pro circuit. By way of illustration; there’s a tournament on in London this month with a £2000 prize pool. That’s more than I make in a month. I might actually be chasing that if I were anything like good enough at the game, or wealthy enough to invest in a top-end deck to take to it – as it stands, with that kind of cash on the line, I know the play will be above and beyond the likes of me.

    If any miniatures game were to introduce a pro circuit, it’d be Warmahordes. It’s the logical end step – the game bills itself and is structured as a tight, highly competitive tournamenter for the skilled gamer. Maybe Kings of War, too, just because it’s so controlled?

    Don’t get me started on fencing. I hate pistol grips. Hate hate hate. They give me terrible wrist cramp and I can’t feint properly with them. Give me a decent French grip (the one that’s actually shaped like a ruddy sword hilt) and a heavier blade any day.

    • beat ronin says:

      I must admit my brief encounter with western fencing was foiled (ha) by the pistol grip. I had a go at it, but I just couldn’t get past it. Too sporty and streamlined and yeah, cramps. Everyone knows swords have straight hilts.

      I’ve been thinking of getting some friends together and doing some historical reconstruction fencing, you know like puzzling out Highland broadsword or something with some stout sticks and a Ye Olde Booke. Looks like fun I think.

  5. Von says:

    Try English longsword. Apparently it’s great fun, though a little murderous on the wrist.
    Or, if you want to have a crack at fencing, try epee and insist on a French grip. It feels a lot more like proper swordfighting – anything’s a legitimate target and you actually hold it like a sword. With a straight hilt.

    • beat ronin says:

      Hmm. I’ll look into the longsword thing. I’m really into Highlanders at the moment though because I’m reading Arthur Herman’s How the Scots Invented the Modern World.

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