Why Failing at Tabletop is More Satisfying Than Winning at Video Games

Jun 25, 2014

The last month or so of my life has been pretty interesting: I'm spending my summer working at my school, which by itself doesn't present too many challenges. The thing is, this is my first summer truly away from home. I've been a college student for three years, sure. I've been on my own, but that was with plenty of other students on campus, my food already paid for, and with a job that until now has just paid for Steam games and action figures. Now I'm actually on my own; I'm learning to cook things other than mac n' cheese all the time, and, well...I'm still working out the other parts.

Currently, my belongings are still in boxes from when I moved off of campus over a month ago, including all of my consoles. My belongings were separated and stored between three different places until just a few days ago. My PC has only recently found its semi-permanent home in an apartment that I'm not even going to be in come September. Just two weeks ago, I was still living out of boxes in my friend's apartment. I didn't have any will to unbox and wire up my consoles just for the sake of playing one or two games, nor did I have the time.

My point being - I haven't touched a video game in quite some time (okay, there's the exception of my never-ending obsession with Threes... but that's a time filler more than anything). Sure, there was a weekend round of Mario Kart 8 somewhere in there, but almost all of my interactions with gaming this summer have been through tabletop gaming. I even brought both my Vita and 3DS on vacation last week, yet I never once plugged either in. Instead, I played the pocket version of Ascension with my girlfriend (and lots of Threes on the side).

And you know what? It's been just as fun. Maybe even more so.

I will gladly blame Wyatt and Brandon for this.

Beginning a new tabletop game is way different than picking up a video game for the first time. With video games, the learning process is largely unspoken: It's entirely possible to pick up a controller, fiddle with the sticks for a bit, and figure out what most of the buttons do through trial-and-error before even leaving the first room. Even if there are tutorials in place to teach every minute detail of a game's engine, often it's possible to skip them entirely without reading a single word. With tabletop? Not so much. As a newbie to the whole thing, every new game game is a learning process. Just making the first move in a Heroclix game with Brandon took nearly 20 minutes. By the time we got to the hour mark, maybe a total of five turns had happened.

"Okay, so the number next to movement says I can move 5 squares. ""Oh, wait - there's a little box around the number, lemme check my character card to see what that means.""The character card says I can use these three abilities. Can you check the rule book and tell me what those are?""Wait, I'm about to move over a square with a blue outline, can I do that? ...It halves my speed? Wait, I don't have a boot for my movement icon, I have a dolphin. Does that mean I can swim? So it doesn't matter if I walk over this blue square anyway?"

Not every tabletop game is nearly this complicated, but the learning process was definitely not something I was accustomed to compared to regular 'ol gaming on a screen. Summoner Wars, a relatively simple chess/card game hybrid, is pretty easy to learn the rules of at first - draw cards, summon stuff, move three guys, attack with three guys, discard, end turn. Really, this design choice just allows for the complexity to be within the cards themselves: I found myself getting wrecked because I wasn't reading the abilities on the cards themselves closely enough.

I'll be honest, I have a pretty short attention span. I read my Twitter feed at a mile a minute, often while multitasking and working on three other tabs at the same time. Video games sometimes hold my full attention because they appeal to multiple senses - sights, sounds, and touch via a controller (taste and smell wouldn't be a good idea to implement into a game like Outlast, so I'm perfectly happy fulfilling those senses with snacks). With tabletop, though, it takes patience and good reading comprehension. Often, rules won't make a lick of sense until you see a game in action for the first time, which means you'll probably lose your first couple of rounds when learning. Unlike with a game where you can zone out and click a few buttons, you have to be fully present when playing a tabletop game. Paying attention, reading the rules, and asking questions are vital to your enjoyment.

Granted, it helps to have friends when starting. I'm lucky enough to have Wyatt demo nearly every tabletop game I'm interested in for me, guiding me with instructions as I need them, rather than all at once in an intimidating rule book. Often he kicks my ass, and then I reluctantly impulse buy whatever game we were playing because I want to play it again. Of course, the transaction usually happens while Wyatt is laughing manically over my shoulder, but it's one I usually want to make regardless of my lack of money any given time of the week.

Why do I do this to myself, you ask? I mean, that's like asking why one chooses to continue playing a Mario game after dying a couple of times, but I'll enlighten you.

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Tabletop stimulates my brain in ways other games tend not to - whereas most of the video games I play rely on reaction time and twitch reflexes, tabletop makes me sit and think. I mentioned video games being physical in the sense that you're interacting with a controller, but in tabletop the sense of touch is applied to the pieces themselves. Whereas using a controller to move Meat Boy around is akin to controlling a tiny helicopter via remote control, tabletop is more hands-on. Every time you make a movement on the board, it takes conscious consideration of the rules and strategies you're using. It may just look like you're moving a tiny chunk of plastic from square A to B. Internally, though, that physical action holds a lot of significance.

That significance is the key to what makes tabletop just so satisfying. One of my biggest takeaways from Wyatt's "Why I love Wargaming" article was the comparison of tabletop being to games as books are to movies. No matter how awesome that pre-rendered cutscene may be, it'll never live up to the images your brain cranks out during a lively round of a tabletop game. The best example of this is the stories people collaboratively make when playing Dungeons and Dragons, but even a simple round of Zombicide can result in a plethora of war stories of near misses and exciting encounters (see the above photo - two humans trapped by enough zombies to kill them twice over if they don't fight their way out in the next turn. Not to mention the abomination preparing to barrel its way right down the street.).

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"We're screwed, aren't we?" *Cue Wyatt's stifled evil laughter*

All this being said, I'm still terrible at most of the tabletop games I play. Brandon has been kicking my ass match after match in Heroclix, and Wyatt has been laughing maniacally every time his minions overwhelm us in Super Dungeon Explore. Yet, failing at tabletop is way more satisfying than progressing in any of the linear shooters I've bought during the Steam sale. Even when I lose, I'm learning how to be a better player. In taking the time to learn the rules of these games, I'm learning how to strategize more effectively and more quickly, and that is more fulfilling than any video game I've completed this summer.

Zoë Wolfe

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