By Kieron Gillen on June 8th, 2009 at 8:07 pm.
I think I’ve played it perhaps once, but it’s so long ago and so foggy it could be that I’ve just seen a game played – or even that I’ve been vaguely aware it was in compendium box-sets. The lady hasn’t a clue. She hasn’t even played draughts (or checkers), though when we start, its jumping mechanics seem familiar. Probably through familial Othello. That is, the board game. Not the tragic downfall of a cross-race love by a right jealous dick fucking it all up.
We read the rules. We play. We have fun. This is somewhat surprising.
Okay – you may be like us, so not know how this baby works. The board looks like each.
It’s for 2 or 3 players. Each person takes one triangle of pieces, and has the aim to move them all to the opposite corner. You can move one space at a go, which makes it appear to be a somewhat hard slog to get anywhere. However, like Draughts, if there’s a space clear on the far side, you’re able to jump over other pieces. Also, like draughts, if there’s another move they can make from the jump where they find themselves, they can make another one. And another one. This can be either your side or the opposition – and since the paths cross one another, it’s basically like two teams of champion jump-froggers attempting to get across a crossroads. With no traffic. Though jump-frog teams in traffic does sound like a splendid idea – perhaps as an APB mob. Unlike draughts, if you jump over a piece, it remains fine.
In other words, while an unexpected sort of scenario, the rules themselves are dead simple. I have a move. Then you have a move. Bop-bop-bop. Eventually, one person or the other is going to win, unless you forget which triangle you’re aiming at.
We play the entire game without a clue who’s actually winning. The Lady has more pieces near the end but I’ve got more pieces in there. Was moving them up to fill the triangle a good idea or a bad one? We haven’t a clue, and we chuckle about it good-naturedly. We’ve got the main strategy is to create these long chains of jumps to get you to where you want to, while stopping your enemy using your chain to move where they wants to go – while simultaneously trying to use their pieces to help your cause. But how do you do that thing? And is it right? Who knows?
Neither of know what we’re doing, really, but we’re oddly fine with it. In fact, of all the less familiar games we play Chinese Checkers is the one we enjoy most. When we’re so ignorant, how? Surely we’d be pissed off?
I think it all comes down to the all important clear goals. We may not understand the fine parts of strategy and especially tactics, but we understand how to win the game. I have pegs here. I want to get pegs over there. And no matter how shit I am, I can do that. We were ignorant, but not lost. Conceptually, the game had a safety-net which caught us. We didn’t get it, but we got it. Or to put it another way, we weren’t lost.
That’s what I like most about Chinese Checkers, and it’s something which transfers back to many videogames. Purely mechanistic Tutorials are over-rated. Knowing how you move your “piece” is a small thing. What’s more important is knowing where you want to move to. In non-abstract games, look at the effort that developers like Valve do in terms of guiding the player’s eyes to where you want to go. And the second a linear first-person shooter game fails to provide the correct amount of direction, the game just falls apart – both the illusion of the world, but more importantly, any sense of how you’re playing the game. You running around a closed room looking for the one exit place which is a tad too in shadows is primarily unsatisfactory because – fundamentally – you’re no-longer playing the game. As shit as we were at Chinese Checkers, we were always playing Chinese Checkers.
Not that we were totally enamoured by all of Chinese Checkers. It’s got another classic problem of strategy games – at least how we played it, the endgame was just going through the motions. The game was at its strategically most exciting when all the pieces are jostling in that central area. When the majority of the pieces had passed, we were left with the final few stragglers heading home. The sweeping moves across the board in a single turn were long forgotten, with a preponderance of single steps. Worse, these were single steps when the opposition were no longer near. We weren’t playing against one another any more – we were just playing separate games on the same board, with our bad moves being where the victory could have turned. For the last few minutes, it was clear the victor had already been decided – however, due to our lack of ability to read the game directly, we were unable to ascertain it with a glance. We didn’t play again, but I suspect the unsatisfying endgame is always going to be there. Hell – it’s the sort of endgame which isn’t an endgame at all. It’s actually *post* game, in that the game has been won or lost already and this is just the equivalent of credits tediously rolling. This maps to a lot of PC strategy games – multi-player ones obviously, but single-player ones like the Total War games too. I always feel what’s often described as rage-quitting when people leave a head-to-head strategy game is less based on rage, but on boredom – the realization that the game is fundamentally over. Yet a capitulation can be especially unsatisfying in a videogame where the Sturm und Drang is a big kick – you need to see them perish. Hell, the graphics guys didn’t spend all the time making explosions for nothing and I’ve had it robbed from me!
I mention most of this to set up an essay later in the series. There’s a game here with a damn good solution to this. I just don’t think it’s a method that’s easily transferable.