Category Archives: games

The Worst Game Ever Played, Part Two- The Why NOT

You very well might regret this. But a promise is a promise.

Last week I laid out some of the reasons we play games so much (though likely not as much as we’d want). This train of thought left the station when I received a package from my best friend Bill Michaels.

{William Louis Michaels, truth be known. Born less than two weeks and closer than six miles away from me, to a family that my folks were already friends with. They SAY they did not consult on the first or middle name… seems kind of karmic to me. So sure, we’ve been best friends since ever.}

So Bill Michaels and I played these games in a box, with friends and without, maybe a dronkzillion hours, maybe more. We two were pretty well matched overall– he was more patient, I sometimes took a risk that worked. Remember back then, no PC games, no internet. You sent in money for a wargame and you waited 6-8 weeks, which is like four years in teenager time, and then you ripped it open and played until you couldn’t see whether it was still light out.

These were some of my fondest memories. Then three weeks ago, my best friend Bill Michaels sent me this in the mail. And now it’s quite possible our friendship is over.

Scrimmage: The Football Wargame (?)

The name of the game was Scrimmage. I have not been so profoundly disappointed and revolted since the last time I ate Brussels Sprouts. {My dad made me eat Brussels Sprouts because Grampy was still living with us and we didn’t want to make him feel bad. I ate them last, and then went to throw up immediately.}

But my best friend, all my friends together plus my dad couldn’t make me play Scrimmage again.

That’s how bad.

They Were Trying. (Very Trying)

I get the idea though. In the mid-70s two things in my life were taking off in popularity: professional football and simulation wargames. The former, perhaps you already know? All the guys at school followed their pro teams, but my high school wasn’t rich enough to field one. And the nerd-geek group (which included a couple athletic guys rolling dice with us, on the down-low) was just discovering these incredibly complex, involved wargames that you could send away for in the mail, or even subscribe to. People were starting to play these simulations of famous battles like Crecy, Borodino, Midway; or even replay entire wars or the course of an empire’s conquests. The scale could be that big; four hundred die-cut counters stacked up in rows, each turn might represent a year or fifty, the stakes were maybe the survival of the Roman Empire. We ate that stuff up with a spoon.

And someone got the idea that the nation’s fast-becoming-most-popular sport and this nice new niche hobby would be like chocolate and peanut butter. So they put them together.

And it was a disaster.

I KNOW You Didn’t Play It!

I told you that before, remember? So my challenge on this blog was to convince you that a game you never tried was in fact the worst one ever made. Let’s review those reasons and how Scrimmage so perfectly does not fit them.

Because You Might Win

Behold the rules. You cannot read them. Seriously, I forbid it.

Nobody wins in Scrimmage. I mean it. Bill Michaels and I tried  to play it twice, and he may have convinced someone else to try with him. We got nowhere, because the game-play in this simulation is beyond-words complicated and mushy. At the snap of the ball, all the offensive linemen try to lay a hit on the defender nearest them, you know. But Scrimmage made you parse out each Movement Point, the penalty for trying to turn when a defender is adjacent, etc. and so forth to drive you utterly mad. You rolled probably two or three times to determine if, in fact, your left tackle had made some kind of contact (two more rolls to figure out if the defender was, in fact, stunned by this and to what degree). And then the left guard tries to hit his guy, and so on down the line. Nothing, absolutely nothing happened automatically or could be skipped or collapsed into another step for the sake of time.

I am not kidding you, thirty die rolls and at least ten minutes before I could proceed to the part where the QB tries to hand off the ball to the RB.

Scrimmage turned 1970s high school boys crazy about football into 1970s high school girls, who not only had no idea who won, but almost universally did not care. Think about that- this game made high school boys not care about football.

Because You Are Getting Better

The incredible lack of enjoyment bled over into any hope for improvement here. We knew immediately, this was never going to be the next chess, or Risk, Diplomacy etc. So first off– how could you get any better without an enormous investment of time? And it was time-out-of-time for us because the scale was reversed. If you spend a half-hour moving pieces around and rolling dice, you want that one turn to represent the movement, risk and possible death of thousands of people over the course of a year, or maybe twenty. We spent a half hour of our young lives to simulate the first maybe seven seconds of a single play. You can’t improve when you start out so far behind; nobody can hope to get less-far behind.

Because You Learn Something

Here’s where the game, pardon the pun, really fumbled. This wasn’t like an historical wargame, where you absorbed the rules and took the setup and take-down time on your back because you might see something about the factors that led to victory in ancient days. Those games taught us that (I know it wasn’t for everyone, but trust me)– we delighted in learning together that yeah, missile fire can be important but dude, you can’t leave those guys uncovered they have NO DEFENSE up close. You celebrated when the leader’s morale roll got ten thousand men to turn around and rally back. You enjoyed how your opponent rushed into the canyon where your artillery could really make him pay.

Because you weren’t insane enough to want to ACTUALLY do any of those things. We all WANTED to be generals of the armchair variety.

Leaves you feeling a little… flat?

But football we wanted to PLAY. And we could watch the real thing every weekend. We longed to be better at THAT; or failing that, we wanted to be more knowledgeable fans of the game. But what does turning your square-cut counter to the right facing in a six-sided hex teach you? Luck plays a part in a lot of games, but it’s no substitute for the gladiatorial quality of football. How does rolling a die actually blast open a hole for your QB to scramble upfield?

So this was a non-starter from the jump– nobody wanted to get better at moving football counters across a hex map, full stop.

Because Something Hilarious Could Happen

Dude, the magnetic  football game with the vibrating board was ten times more fun.

Make a quick list of “outrageous things in football”. {People who hate the sport, you’re all excused, save your snark for the next political rant on FB.} The rest of you, consider:

-Touchdown celebrations

The Scrimmage map doesn’t even have end-zones on it. The rules say there was a problem at the printer, and there an end. So when you score, you literally leave the field.

-Hard count or roughing the passer gives you a first down

There are no penalties in Scrimmage. No rules for them whatsoever. All the players behave themselves perfectly. As I think on it this was a dramatic flaw- you’re already rolling the die a billion times, why not have some kind of panic-roll to simulate a flag on the play? But that’s bailing the Titanic with a slotted spoon.

-Field Goal try whacks the upright

Again, no rules about Field Goals. In fact there is no kicking of any kind in the game. Did they miss the part about the foot, in FOOTBALL?

-Trick play results in score

This is one thing they DID allow for in the rules, and some of the counters have words on them like “Lat Pass Left”. Again, a flea-flicker would require at least thirty-five minutes and eighty-seven die rolls to run. Who’s tricked, your opponent? I’m thinking “no” on that one.

The game with the folded-paper triangle that you knocked with your fingers was a heart-attack thriller compared to Scrimmage. I have watched the Giants lose by thirty points and had more fun.

So, Thanks Bill Michaels FOR NOTHING!

Seriously, I really enjoyed thinking back about just how dreadfully bad this game was, and it all started when my best friend couldn’t even get a dollar for it at the local yard sale. So he decided to send it to me, probably the only other guy in the multiverse able to appreciate just what a white elephant it was. Priceless, in that sense.

Thanks Bill. Play on!

I have played games ever since. Role-played for decades, planting the seed for a writing vocation that’s counting down to a million words in print. I have designed simulations for my history classes about the Boston Massacre Trial, the war of ideas during the French Revolution, life and death in a small English village during the Bubonic Plague, Romans versus Christians in the early centuries AD, and many more. My high school and college friends bathed in games, and it’s become a big part of me. Another close friend just put me onto Hearthstone last week.

Always, always games.

And that one was the worst.


The Worst Game Ever Played? Part One

I have played games all my conscious life, honestly. Surely they are legion, even if you confine yourself to the games that come in a box with rules (which I am). Few things attract my soul more deeply than this notion of orderly, fairly rigorous play: that there are turns to take, rules to observe, other people also putting their attention and love into this activity. I have had various jobs, lived in different states, grew in one family and helped make another… it’s a full life. But always games, always games.

And I don’t think I could possibly tell you which one was the best.

But the worst? No hesitation.

It’s not even close.

Why Play?

I deliberately never studied Psychology so I could diagnose all the reasons why people engage in leisure activity. The main reasons were that it sounded like hard work, and also that I was too busy playing games, see… but I confess I also didn’t want anything to spoil the fun.

And that is kind of a worry isn’t it? That we’re not really playing for any good-enough reason to keep at it, once we learn more. I bet nobody on earth plays as much as they want to. Yet we don’t manage to take the steps which that revelation would entail. But there is a layer of lip-service out there, to the effect that yes, there are good effects from a sense of play (which always comes off different, somehow, from actually spending time playing). Again, I didn’t study that stuff.

But I still think I’m an expert on games. Based on the whole 10,000-hours thing. Actually, if that’s what it takes they probably should create a new level above “expert”. Dude, I’m a Game Master. That’s true, I can rustle up witnesses if you don’t believe me: that title’s mine. So listen up as I lay out the reasons why people play games.

Again, this is not about heaping sand on the beach, or volleyball, or “playing chicken” on a narrow road in a muscle car. Those things are play, sport and suicide, respectively. I’m talking about GAMES here, but I’m letting out hopscotch, tic-tac-toe, most anything that makes sound effects on a console, and about a billion other things you get caught doing without having finished your homework. All games, yes, but all out.

  1. Comes in a box
  2. Has rules

What, did you think I was kidding before? So with that in mind, why do we ever play THOSE? Sure, sure, “there’s nothing better to do right now” and “it was fun”- but those just lead to something else at the root of it. Keep asking why. Then see if you agree with my list.

Because We Might Win

Actually, I never beat Bill Michaels at this one… therapy?

There’s  a word for someone who plays a game a thousand times and doesn’t win once. And there’s a couch for that person to lie on while he tells his troubles to a trusted counselor. But the REST of us, you cannot deny, have to feel a little tug in our core, somewhere between where we get hungry and where we need to pee. That tug that sees a bit of glory ahead, and that involves of course a level playing field, something you could win that would be fairly won. Yeah, we all kind of like that.

Example: Chess might be hard, but you can’t ask for a more even contest. It’s you and one opponent (exception: See Double Bug-House if you want to make your brain squirt out your ears in an effort to escape). There are just the same number of pieces, the same kind. Sure, maybe he gets to move first, but you play white next time. Game on.

Because We’re Getting Better

Good games don’t have to be ones where you win all the time- in fact, you know the game’s not good if you do, because of the first “why” above and then adding the Categorical Imperative. But it’s fine to lose, it can be great to lose even a lot of the time, if you know the way you play is improving. You get closer, maybe start to win more often.

Example: Magic: the Gathering is a collectible card game (CCG) which lures you to find just the right cards that bring you victory. You try new combinations, you balance out how much land to how many creatures; your deck does better. Of course you learn you’ll never get that holy grail of THE deck, the one that wins no matter what. You pick your poison, you keep staring at that one card you REALLY love until you find a way to make it work with the others. And not coincidentally, you go out and buy more cards because you never have the ones you need… hey, great games are fun, not always cheap.

Because We Learn Something

Quite aside from getting better at the game itself, many of the ones I played-including the worst in history- were war-game simulations. A lot of these were quite complex and I get that not many people are really into those. But especially as someone in love with history, to see the game designers demonstrate a principle– like the speed of cavalry, the power of missile weapons and the importance of morale– those were very illuminating moments for me. I walked away thinking about that, win or lose, and it made me understand books I read and classes I got to teach with greater comprehension.

Example: Pandemic shows you in a very simple way just how quickly diseases can go from “we got this” to “oh, yeah, spot of trouble here I guess” to “HOLY CRAP WHAT WE GONNA’ DO NOW”. It’s also cool because players are cooperating, not competing. Doesn’t matter who cures the damn virus– take my city card, use my free ride, just get your butt into the lab pronto and get that vaccine before it reaches Buenos Aires.

Because Something Hilarious Could Happen

So much for the rational and graspable, to quote a great First Officer. I’m very much on that side of the ledger myself– I inherited my Dad’s competitive spirit and something about simulations simply turned me all the way ON back in high school. It’s been a perpetual motion machine since, still running like a top. And yet…

I can’t deny…

Sometimes the game just goes sideways and I’m so here for that. And there are games practically designed to do such things. The rules build in chaos, they seem to account for odds and method and all the usual, yet you realize that in fact the game bears a subversive agenda, something that has little to do with winning or losing. And you actually start to want THAT. Most role-playing games end up like this at some point and it would take five more blog posts to lay out even a tiny fraction of the situations I’ve been present for. But you can read about a few of them…

Example: Rumors is out of print now I believe, and it’s not for kids. Draw a few cards with moral behavior questions on them. Quiz your soon-to-be -former-friends with these Yes/No questions in an effort to make them answer the way you figured. If their answer matches yours, you discard and come closer to being “out”, thereby winning. They, of course, resist this outcome: everyone chooses “Depends” as their answer, leading to the group chanting “ON…“, forcing the questioned person to elaborate. Anyone may call BS on that expanded answer, and the group votes with either a halo or a pitchfork. The accuser or the defendant suffers extra cards as a penalty.

The point is, one person invariably starts to challenge every question– not because they think they can win, but because they believe they will hear something scandalous about someone they only thought they knew. The game goes out the window and some of the players end up holding half the deck but laughing until they’re weak.

There may be a fifth reason; in fact, I cannot shake the notion that there is. But time presses, I’ve barely set the table and still have not once mentioned the worst game ever played.

I promise I will next time. No, God as my witness, it’s horrendous. Appalling. The opposite of every reason I listed. It’s the uttermost bottom of the world in terms of game play.

You won’t recognize it. And when I’m done explaining you’ll be glad of that.

For now, make sure to list your favorite game in the comments below. And then, when’s the last time you played it?