I used to build. Now I’m an aggressive fun murderer
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a builder. No matter the game, I’ve always preferred to focus on getting resources, expanding slowly and lashing out only as a last resort. But, as I’ve gotten older, my play has gotten more aggressive. I started defending my territory, often beforehand. I did little raids. Before I noticed it, I was attacking first. And I started having more fun than ever.
Building up is, in many ways, the default approach to gaming. Particularly on the tabletop, there’s an expectation that you’ll trade resources, construct buildings and perhaps slightly meddle with the opponent while doing it. Even in video games, getting new weapons, raising armies and going up levels is a good chunk of the experience. This is especially true of economic games, my favourite genre.
In other words, the building experience is not any special treat. It’s the norm and you cannot play much without encountering some or much of it. The last two games I’ve reviewed, Ark Nova and The Castles of Burgundy, hinge entirely around this concept. And the former not only does so, it does so in a spectacular snowball manner where the more you build, the more building up you can follow it with.
But, perhaps due its popularity, and my many years of play, this kind of bulking up has grown stale. As the economic advantage deepens and your resource stockpiles dwarf the opponents, the strategy required to win dwindles. At some point, it doesn’t matter if your finer skills are lacking. If you have more production, units or power than your opponents, you can overwhelm them with raw force. Any mistakes made can be compensated by better and faster development, to the point any opposition is moot.
By its own nature, building tends to be a solitary experience. In an ideal world, you would rather not interact with the opponents at all. Rather, you hope they stick to their base and wait for the inevitable demise. Sure, they might beat you to the punch, but when you have been a builder for as long as I have, you’ll steamroll the average opponent simply because you have more experience than them.
Either way, that’s a best case scenario. Since a long-term victory is inevitable, the real game is decided earlier. That is, your opponent will prevent you from building up leisurely. There will be feints, raids, a little hate-drafting and even a bit of diplomacy so you don’t run away with the victory unopposed. How you deal with aggression will determine your success as a builder. And if aggression is really the key, why not go a bit further? Why not be the one to start it?
BECOMING THE BAD GUY
Look, I didn’t set out to the villain. Rather, my descent into darkness started as a way to defend myself. One day, while playing Roads & Boats, I got scared. They could take my gold, you see, just with a little planning. Gold I had mined and transported halfway across the map. Without it, I could no longer win. So I hatched a plan. If they could take my gold, I would take theirs first.
Now, they actually didn’t steal my precious metals. Hence, my naked attempt at securing more gold came a little stronger than usual. But it was still the right move. And, more importantly, it was fun. Shoring up the flaws in your defenses by going on the offensive is clever. It’s the sort of interesting strategy I like to see in games. And given how I still remember so many years later, also a memorable one.
One could think this was only fun for me, though. Perhaps my friends at the table did not appreciate having their gold stolen. But nothing could be further from the truth. Since I started playing aggressively, I’ve been commended by it. They say matches are more exciting and that I bring an element of surprise to otherwise stale games. While stressful, being attacked brings a level of intensity that building up rarely can.
After all, aggression forces players to make more (and more difficult) decisions. It introduces a degree of chaos. With fewer resources at our disposal, we are forced to make sacrifices we wouldn’t in a more constructive scenario. And since we need to defend ourselves, we may no longer rely on the same tried and true strategies. We’ll need to improvise and involve ourselves in ways we might not be used to.
AGAINST THE GRAIN
However, I do admit I’m being mischievous. There’s this belief that attacking other players is unfun, unstrategic or just plain rude. Sometimes, it’s even derided as bad game design or bullying. In the analog realm, there’s a trend to tone down all player interaction,which results in games best described as multiplayer solitaire. And I enjoy challenging those assumptions.
I don’t do it out of spite. Rather, I believe the joy and interest of games is diminished if we only focus on building. There’s so much strategy, and enjoyment to be derived from attacking, drafting the cards your opponents might need, trying to be first, valuing your own position and, yes, defending. Even building is more fun when it faces its natural checks and balances. The variety of skills required for it increases, making games deeper and more enjoyable.
Conversely, some of the worst game experiences I’ve ever had arose from players being afraid to go on the offensive. That game of Diplomacy where nobody wanted to betray each other was an extreme example, but the endless games of Terraforming Mars some have aren’t. Sometimes, players are so afraid of coming across as mean-spirited that they no longer try to stop one another before it’s too late.
By taking the mantle of the aggressor, I serve as an example. I can show that aggression is nothing to be scared of. That it’s no more and no less of a valid, entertaining strategy than any other. The fear of ruining the mood can be so strong sometimes, that players will actively throw the game rather than prevent one another from winning. By firing the first shot, I prevent that fear, even at the risk of becoming a target!
Because, in the end, aggressive play styles have their place in gaming. They shouldn’t be feared or frowned upon. They can spice up our matches, show us depth we never knew existed or just be plain fun. And I plan to do my part, starting with you.