By Robert Florence on January 14th, 2014 at 9:00 pm.
I want to talk about the “click”.
I saw the click just a few days ago, playing a game that the other player hadn’t ever played before. It’s a click you can see, like a switch flipping behind a person’s eyes. What’s better than seeing a person you like finding enjoyment in something? It’s amazing when you see it – really satisfying. Yes, even when that click goes click at a point when the other player is HAMMERING you into the ground. It’s also a click you can feel, and I want to talk about the times I’ve felt it – and I hope you’ll maybe share some of the times you’ve felt the click too.
Click to read on.
What is the click? And what does it have to do with board games? Let’s say that the click is a moment of realisation – a flip from a state of procedural progression to a state of awakened pleasure. When you listen to a piece of music, and that music is just playing there in the background, not distracting you from what you’re doing? That’s fine. That’s always nice. But sometimes, listening to a new piece of music, the click happens, and you turn towards the sound. If you’re reading, your head goes up. If you’re vacuuming, you turn the vacuum off. You stop. The click makes you stop.
“Oh, this is something.”
It’s fitting that we talk about the click on a PC gaming site, because the best PC games made us go click. I remember the point, early in Deus Ex, when I realised that I didn’t need to do what the game was suggesting. I tried something, it worked, and I felt that switch flip inside. It’s not just the realisation that something is special, it’s the realisation that the thing has completely pushed your buttons. “This isn’t just something special, it’s something special for me.”
Skiing in Tribes. Click.
“Get down on the floor!” in SWAT 3. Click.
Opening your eyes in Proteus. Instant Click.
Laying the last block of your first shelter in Minecraft. Click.
And so – board games. Yes. Nothing clicks like a board game clicks. Board games live or die by their clicks.
I’ve been playing Battlefield 4 a lot recently. I mentioned “procedural progression” earlier, and that’s exactly what Battlefield 4 feels like. It’s fun, and it’s something to do, and it tears my days away in half hour chunks. It never clicks. There’s absolutely nothing special in there, not for me anyway. But I like it a lot. I’m explaining this because I want to make it clear that you can enjoy something without feeling any special pull inside you. Not everything flips your switch, and not everything has to.
WHAT CLICKED WITH ME
In Cosmic Encounter, right from the get-go, you realise that the rules you’ve just read and learned are only part of the story. Each unique alien under player control brings new rules and exceptions into the game.
“I can do this.”
“That’s cool, but I can do this.”
In my very first game, when I had to stop and think about how these randomly selected alien powers would affect the whole dynamic? Click.
In Mall Of Horror, a zombie game I’ve spoken about many times in this column, there’s a point in the game where you access a security camera that lets you see where the zombies will attack. This information is secret, and yours alone, and you can share it or lie about it. You can use it to negotiate. It gives you power, and the other players look at you with hatred because of it. And those looks? That moment? That secret knowledge? Everything that will happen because of it? Click.
In Magic: The Gathering, you learn to play by playing. You lay out lands, and generate mana. You spend that mana to get some cool cards out of your hand and onto the table. All you care about is getting a cool monster out there so you can attack your opponent. But then, always, something happens. A couple of cards you know nothing about come into play together and something happens. Some kind of synergy makes itself clear. And your mind just explodes with possibilities. Click.
In Mage Knight, when you realise how flexible your cards are, and how your own mind is the only thing stopping you from getting the best out of every one of your turns. Click.
In Spartacus, when you negotiate for influence to get a card into play, and instantly stab your ally in the back. When you get the chance to thumbs-up or thumbs-down an opponent’s gladiator. When your weak gladiator freakishly beheads a champion in the arena. Click. Click. Clickclickclick.
What I saw a few days ago was a click during a play of Coup. Board games are fun, but many of them are just procedure. I will happily play a game of Cluedo, but I’ll never feel anything. I’m just hitting my marks, like an actor in some hoary old play. Games like Carcassonne are the same. I will play if I must, but I’m just scoring. Just accumulating points. Truly special board games will make you go click. And nothing makes players go click like Coup. Every time I play it with new people, it’s a hit. And every time, I see that moment when the game comes alive. It’s usually when a player realises that you have to be naughty to succeed at Coup. It’s usually when a player realises that success or failure is completely in their own hands.
In Coup, you always have two characters under your control. And every character in the game has a special power. In your turn, you just declare which character you are using, and use the corresponding power. But here’s the deal – here’s the clicker – you don’t have to show your character. You can lie.
“I’m using my Captain to extort two coins from you.” And everyone looks at each other. And someone says “No way do you have a Captain.” And someone else laughs. And that player, that liar, takes the coins and sits back. “Everyone okay with that? No-one challenging me? You all believe me? Cool.”
A smile. A look. A flicker behind the eyes.
I know many of you like board games. But how many of them have actually made you go click? Can you point us towards the game, and the moment where it happened for you? I’d hate to have missed something that might work for me too.
See you next time for my Game of the Year 2013!