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Specialize! Diversify!

Greg Aleknevicus

November, 2002

A recent letter I received got me thinking about the merits of playing a game until it was, as the writer stated, "thoroughly experienced". This is an interesting concept and one that has occupied my mind for the last several weeks (at least). I suspect that most of the readers of The Games Journal have very similar habits when it comes to playing games—the more recent games are played much more than older titles and these are themselves replaced as even newer titles appear. Older games are played with less and less frequency as so much time is devoted to the latest Essen or Nuremberg release. Certainly the excitement that surrounds these two fairs would lead one to think this is probably true. Often when an older, well-regarded game is played there's a sense of rediscovery to it. "Wow, I forgot how enjoyable Foobar is. We should play it more often." In short, there appears to be a natural tendency for players of these types of games to "diversify", that is, to play many different games rather than "specializing" in very few (or one). I don't think this can be said of all game players as there seems to be certain varieties of games that attract a more specialized involvement. This shouldn't be taken as implying that there's an absolute division though. There are many players that enjoy playing a wide variety of games while at the same time concentrating more strongly on one particular game. I'm speaking in generalities and not specifics.

So who are these players? "Diversify" players seem to be mostly made up of the so-called "strategy board gamers". That is, the average Games Journal reader. "Specialists" seem to have a much greater number of subspecies:

The Collectible Card Gamer. One word: Magic. The granddaddy of all collectible card games must surely have created more specialists in a shorter time than any other game in history. The idea that a propriety game can have become so popular as to be able to support professional players after less than 10 years of existence speaks volumes. It may have been the marketing behind the game that led players to specialize to such a great extent but the truth of the matter is that once a player starts playing Magic he/she is likely to ignore most other games. Magic: The Gathering cards The CCG-gamer also tends to be somewhat serial in nature. That is, a player will be "into" one game, almost exclusively, for a period of time before abandoning it in favour of another game. I think one of the biggest factors that contribute to a CCG-gamer specializing is the meta-gaming aspect. Most (all?) CCG's have the feature of deck-building; purchasing and collecting certain cards into customized decks. Sometimes these are purely tactical in nature, creating a deck that is stronger than others, some are "thematic", a deck that emphasizes the back-end story of the game or cards. Since this deck-building is primarily a solitaire activity done outside the confines of actually playing the game it can tend to become obsessive for some. There are many players that state that the greatest portion of their time with a particular CCG was in buying cards and constructing decks and not actually playing the game.

The Miniatures Gamer. Games typically played on a tabletop recreation of some battlefield using metal or plastic miniatures for the combatants. Napoleon-era battles seem to be one of the most popular genres here although certainly there's a tremendous variety of backgrounds and situations. Obviously a great amount of time is spent on these games assembling and painting one's "army". In fact, I'd suggest that for many miniatures gamers more time is spent on this part of their hobby than actually playing. In some sense the game is not even the most important aspect but rather the recreation of certain battles or scenes. Certainly the time, expense and effort involved in creating some of the more involved scenarios, particularly those based on real life engagements, would seem to indicate that there's more to these than "just a game".

The Encyclopaedia Gamer. Sorry but I couldn't come up with a better name than this but perhaps it is the most accurate description available. I'm thinking of games such as Star Fleet Battles or Advanced Squad Leader, games with a veritable, well, encyclopaedia of rules. Usually volumes and volumes of such rules to the point where ability in the game is often the extent to which one knows these rather than any inherent tactical or strategic ability. This category practically demands that its players be specialists in that they're required to know so many rules that playing the game casually is simply not possible.

Go boardThe Abstract Gamer. The classics: Chess, Checkers, Go and the like make up this category and are the "ur-specialists". Whereas in most of the other categories the players will usually have some experience with other genres I suspect that many in this category play a single game with virtually no desire to play anything else. (Before people start writing in to give me anecdotal to the contrary be aware that I know there are plenty of Go (or Scrabble or whatever) players that enjoy other games. Ask around a Chess or Bridge club if the members play other games though and I think you'll find that the most do not.)

To me the most interesting of these "subspecies" is this last variety, the Abstract Gamer. Well, most interesting in comparison to the diverse tastes of the strategy board gamer anyway. The other three types all seem to have very specific, somewhat obvious reasons as to why they're specialists and so a comparison seems less involved. The typical abstract game also seems to have much in common with "our" types of games. They usually have short rules, equal starting positions and short playing times. There's also very little "extra-game" time required other than thoughts to strategy.

Theme vs. Abstract

If these games share similarities then what are the differences? The most obvious, practically by definition, would be the theme-ing (or lack thereof). Games, as recreation, are a form of escape, perhaps even an adult equivalent of make-believe. It's not socially acceptable for an adult to dress up and pretend to be a cowboy so playing Way Out West is likely to garner far fewer raised eyebrows. As such, it seems plausible that a wider variety of themes would be desirable. One week you can play at being a pirate, the next a collector of antiquities. This time, you're a leader of an ancient civilization, next time an intrepid explorer. Now before everyone starts rolling their eyeballs insisting that "well, I'm not playing these games as a substitute for make-believe" note that I'm not suggesting this is the main reason why these games are played only that this might suggest why a variety of these types of games are desired over a single game. Either way, abstract games naturally lack this pre-built theme-ing. I'm certain that some Chess players envisage themselves as political masterminds manipulating people behind the scenes but this is entirely at the discretion of the player. They're free to attach whatever, if any, theme they like to an abstract game. Any need to play differing roles from week to week can be accomplished within their own imagination.

Two-player vs. Multi-player

The next, somewhat obvious difference between these two genres is simply the numbers of players that they usually accommodate. The overwhelming majority of abstract games are of the two-player variety. Even many four player games such as Bridge or Spades are played with partnerships and so remain two-sided affairs. On the other hand most strategy games are multi-player and I think that this is one of the biggest deterrents to specializing in games of this type. What difference should this make? Well, I assert that the nature of multi-player games is such that greatly increased skill in this type of game rewards specialization far less than a two-player abstract does. Multi-player games tend to be self-balancing to a degree—if one player is winning then the other players will shift their attentions to this leader to pull him or her back. This seems to be a natural process that most people pick up on very quickly. This is perhaps best explained with the following story Pitt Crandlemire wrote about the World Diplomacy Championships: Two players were being particularly difficult to negotiate with. After the game Pitt talked to them and it turned out that their reluctance was due to the fact that they knew he had won the Championship the previous year and so they did not want to enter an agreement with a "superior" player! In short Pitt had been penalized for his success. Yes, there is a reward for becoming good at multi-player games; it's just not as pronounced as it is for a two-player game. It seems natural to me that players are more likely to want to specialize in games that are more apt to reward them for this.

While this would seem to be one plausible reason for not specializing in multi-player German style games, what about the plethora of two-player, German-style games? Well, to be honest, I'm not sure this reason applies in these cases. It should be noted though that I don't think there's any one reason that causes specialization or diversification, it's a blend of them all. If two-player, themed strategy games are part of the "diverse" players collection then it may be for reasons other than the ones that are behind the inclusion of the multi-player ones.

Depth of Game (Reward)

I think that perhaps the single greatest reason why a particular game would lead a player to specialize is the degree to which that game rewards such specialization. Very clearly the game of Rock, Paper, Scissors is entirely random in nature. It doesn't reward skill at all and so the idea of a player specializing in it seems ridiculous. There are games that do reward skilful play though and I feel that these are more likely to entice a player to specialize. It's a natural desire in humans to want to be good at an activity whatever that activity happens to be. Games are no different and so if I study and play Chess and feel that I'm able to increase my ability at the game then I'm more likely to continue along this line. If I devote time and energy to the game with no perceived increase in my ability where's the incentive to continue? Perhaps enjoyment of the game itself is reward enough but I believe that such a situation is likely to result in a player looking for a greater variety of game, essentially diversifying rather than specializing.

Rewarding skilful play isn't a binary quality though, some games do it more than others and, importantly, some reward it to a greater depth. By this I'm referring to the level of reward offered for continued study or play of the game. Consider Tic-Tac-Toe: Most likely when you first played the game you had wins, losses and ties in approximately equal measure. No doubt you soon realized that you could play the game much better and, in fact, could always force either a win or a tie. So there is a reward for skill in Tic-Tac-Toe, you were able to increase your ability through play. It doesn't contain any depth though, you're able to became an absolute master at the game in very short order. This very basic principle applies to other games as well. I think there are very few proponents of themed, German-style games that would argue that they have the same depth of such long-standing classics as Chess or Go. While there may be many subtleties and strategies in Tigris & Euphrates I find it unlikely that hundreds of books could be written about its end game alone. This isn't to suggest that all abstracts have this level of depth but I feel it's safe to say that in general they possess more than the German style games do. This is due, in no small way, to the longevity of the classics. Many have had centuries or even millennia to change and modify their rules to achieve this great depth, something that doesn't seem possible for recent designs. It will be interesting to see if recent abstracts such as Octi or Gipf are able to maintain interest as time marches on. I believe that their survival as games is largely dependent on just how much depth they possess. Even more speculative is whether any of the themed strategy games will survive for long periods of time. The oldest games that would seem to qualify would be Monopoly and Pit and even these are less than a century old. Still, this is digressing from our main point of concern.

Your Point Is?

I'm sure these aren't the only reasons behind the specialize/diversify issue but I do think they're the major ones, at least in terms of the abstract vs. themed issue. Specialization isn't limited to the types described above and can also apply to themed strategy games as well. I recently toyed with the idea of playing one game on a semi-regular basis. The idea being two-fold; first it would encourage skilful play as the players became more experienced. Second, it would allow us to "fully experience" all that the game had to offer. Stephenson's Rocket was chosen and I did manage to play the game quite a few times over the subsequent weeks. For whatever reasons (quite likely some of the above described ones) it's unlikely that I'll continue to play the game with the same regularity. Yes, I enjoy it as much as ever but it does not seem to be able to sustain the renewed excitement that other games have for certain players.

Are there any consequences of specializing? I'm sure there are and I've always been somewhat suspect of people that were involved in a game "too" much. (He said sitting in a room full of colourful boxes, sitting at a computer used largely to discuss his obsession with others.) The obsessed fellow muttering Chess moves to himself in Searching For Bobby Fischer is certainly an extreme example but perhaps it's a warning not to be ignored? One of my favourite passages is the following:

"That is certainly a refined and ingenious recreation," said Federico, "but it seems to me to possess one defect; namely, that it is possible for it to demand too much knowledge, so that anyone who wishes to become an outstanding player must, I think, give to it as much time and study as he would to learning some noble science or performing well something or other of importance; and yet for all his pains when all is said and done all he knows is a game. Therefore as far as chess is concerned we reach what is a very rare conclusion: that mediocrity is more to be praised than excellence." - Baldesar Castiglione, Etiquette for Renaissance Gentlemen (1528)

It may simply be that I like this quote as it agrees with how I feel about the subject but I believe there's a certain truth to it. I've been intrigued by the observance that great ability or skill at one "specialized" game rarely transplants to another. That is, a player that has spent a great deal of time playing Chess is not guaranteed to be particularly good at Go or Checkers. I suppose one of the reasons for this is that such players by their very definition have little interest in other games. They're not "game players" but rather "Chess players" or "Go players". This seems to be in contrast with "diversified" players where great skill at one game does seem to transplant to other games. Certainly there are games that some players are better at than others but in general I've found that if Bob is good at El Grande, Bohnanza and Modern Art, he's likely to be good at Volldampf as well. Again, this may be justification on my part though as I'm certainly inclined to a "diverse" point of view.


This brings me to my last point. I'm certain that a non-game player might read this article, look at the games I play and find it amusing that I consider myself a diverse player. A lot of these games are very similar and you could make an argument that they're not really that diverse in the grand scheme of things. A lunatic might think he's a well-rounded person because on one day he thinks he's Napoleon, the next Alexander the Great and every Friday he's Julius Caesar but I'm not sure many would agree with him. It's certainly something to keep in mind before one gets all pleased with oneself for being of such diverse interests. Still, I do realize there's a great forest out there but sometimes we do need to ignore it and focus more closely on the trees.

In summation I can say that there's very little risk that I'm ever going to vary from my status as a "diverse" gamer. This (and the entire proceeding article) should not in any way be construed to mean that I think this is at all superior to those that prefer to specialize. There's a lot to be said for playing a game repeatedly and becoming very skilled at it. Hopefully this article has helped explain why.

- Greg Aleknevicus

(This article originally appeared in issue #15 of Counter Magazine.)

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