I hope it’s not too much like saying “I like fun” to say that I like games. Growing up, my family had a slew of board and card games we would play, supplemented by my father’s custom cardboard board games. My brother ran Dungeons and Dragons campaigns in our den; who cares if my Gnome Illusionist was the least useful character. The addition of a Commodore 64 to our household may have been one of the most impactful events of my life (ok, ok, puberty is a close second). To this day, I still play a ton of games, namely Magic the Gathering, online Flash games, Big Boggle, and the occasional tabletop game when I can amass the people for it.
As stated above, one of the reasons for liking games is that they’re fun. I don’t want to suck the fun out of it by saying each game is also an educational experience, but I have found a lot of parallels between certain games and situations I encounter in the outside world. They apply specifically to games which involve developing resources (money, products, energy), and then utilizing them (buying properties, selling products, spending energy to accomplish goals). In those sorts of games, there’s always a tricky balance between amassing your resources and using them.
The balance involves having enough resources to do the things you want to do, while investing enough time to develop your resource pool. If you spend too much time developing your resources, the game often ends with your owning a ton of the tools to win the game without having ever done anything with them. If you spend too much energy on the utilization of the resources without building the infrastructure first, your opponents will often fall behind at first, but then surge forward faster than you can keep up at the end. Like I said, it’s a tricky balance, and it’s often the most important thing to figure out when learning a new game (ok, ok, puberty is a close second).
Recently I learned a new tabletop game called Puerto Rico, which is all about developing and using resources. The game takes place in Puerto Rico back in the time when ships had sails. The players take the role of plantation owners hiring colonists to grow various crops which they can then sell for doubloons or for points to win the game. They can use the doubloons to purchase buildings that make it easier to do any of the in-game actions, or to give more victory points at the end of the game. It’s a complex and fun game with a lot of different decision points.
It also exemplifies my point about resource development versus utilization. There are so many different areas to develop; you have to acquire settlements, man them with colonists, and earn money. There are also so many ways to utilize the resources you’re developing; you can sell your goods for money, ship them to gain victory points, and purchase buildings. Even when you purchase the buildings, you have the option to buy buildings that will allow you to produce resources more efficiently or buildings that will allow you to acquire more victory points. The game can end suddenly, so you don’t want to be caught with tons of goods that were never sold or shipped. But if you spend all your time acquiring victory points, you won’t have enough products or doubloons to go for the best buildings in the game. And all along the way, you need to make sure you have enough colonists to produce the resources you’re trying to get. It makes my head spin, but I’m slowly learning a strategy that works for this game.
I love to play online flash games, as they have the advantage of being both engaging and free to play. One of the better ones I’ve come across is a game called Rebuild 2, a turn-based zombie apocalypse survival game. That should be enough to sell you right there. In the game, you play a crew of hold-outs from the zombie invasion, barely scraping by in an urban landscape. Your goal is to rebuild civilization, which can be accomplished a number of ways (drafting a constitution, curing the zombie disease, escaping in a helicopter). Before you can do that though, you’ll need to find refugees, build farms, perform research, expand your territory, keep your population happy, and of course, blow up some zombies. The whole game has a creepy atmosphere with one of the best soundtracks I’ve heard, and it has enough tension to keep you on the edge of your seat for hours at a time.
The first thing you notice in the game is the conflict between having people join your camp and producing enough food to support them. In fact, you start the game at a loss; your group is eating more food than you can produce. You have to quickly begin to clear the zombies from surrounding farms and expand your territory. But as your territory gets bigger, you need more people in order to claim more territory, which results in more food required. This tension is one of the critical ones in the game, and one you have to keep an eye on all the time. I found this to greatly add to the sensation of desperation as one of the few surviving people in a zombie landscape.
At the same time you’re balancing the food versus population issue, you have to continuously improve your defenses, as the zombies get more powerful as the game progresses. If you’re not careful, you’ll have sent all of your military units out to reclaim a building just as the zombies decide to storm your walls. You also have to develop builders, leaders, scientists, and scavengers, and you have to decide when to stop training them and when to start using them. Stop training too soon, and the structures take too long to build. Give them too much time, and your camp will not have enough of the defenses they need when the zombies attack. It’s a great game, and a great example of deciding between resource development and utilizing those resources.
There are many more games that have this dynamic that I don’t have time to get to: Magic the Gathering, Dominion, the entire Tower Defense genre of flash games, and one of my new favorite games, 7 Wonders. They all have a different way to acquire that balance between building up your resources and using them. Even the vicious and evil game of Monopoly has such a dynamic. Buy your hotels too soon, and you won’t have enough money to upgrade your more expensive properties, which earn more money. Wait too long, and your opponents will have bought hotels that bankrupt you before you can buy hotels of your own.
Recently I have noticed the parallel between this gaming strategy and elements outside of the realm of games; for instance, learning a musical instrument. When we learn an instrument, we know that we’ll have to spend time practicing and getting to know the instrument. So how much should we learn, or how good should we be, before we decide to perform in public? If you spend too much time just in your room alone practicing, then you don’t get the experience or the thrill of performing live. But if you get out there too soon, you may not have enough of a repertoire to put on an engaging performance. Or you might not be technically prepared enough to do well. Either of these can lead to a negative experience which can be discouraging for continuing the instrument. You need to find the balance between learning enough on the instrument to feel confident about what you’re performing, and having the confidence to decide you’ve learned enough and are ready to play out.
Another one that I struggle with in my life is web design. I teach Dreamweaver regularly in my job, and I’ve been writing in HTML since 1996. And yet, when I think of offering my web design services for hire, I’m always afraid that I haven’t learned enough. I keep telling myself that once I learn a little more about it, I’ll be ready to offer my skills for a fee. However, I know I can keep telling myself that for years and years and never feel like I’m good enough. At some point, I have to switch over from resource development to actually reaping the rewards from what I’ve developed.
So these games, in addition to being fun in themselves, can give us practice with many skills we need to utilize in our lives. We have so many resources to develop: money, recognition, skills, knowledge. And we have an infinite variety of ways to spend those resources. Understanding the balance between developing and using the tools in our lives can only lead to higher productivity and enjoyment. And of course, higher productivity can lead to more free time, which gives us more time to… play more games!