Why do we play?
My major in college was philosophy, and you may find it interesting to know that one of the most common degrees among professional game designers is philosophy. I have read many blogs and even books on the process of game design and it is filled with the same patterns of thought as you find in a philosophical discipline. Philosophers want to comprehend human consciousness. How is it that the human mind is able to understand anything? Why? The same sort of person who is driven to understand the understanding is the same sort of person who ends up playing and designing games. That's been my experience.
Many blogs have been written on the topic of motivation in gaming. By far the most famous was a series written by Mark Rosewater concerning the Spike/Johnny/Timmy player profiles. Rosewater's categories have since defined the paradigm of the discussion. The general takeaway is that people play games for three main reasons (corresponding to the three player profiles): 1. competition 2. self expression 3. big splashy moments. However, the topic continues to evolve and over time people have realized that there are other factors that don't fit. Some people just play games because they are collectors. Collecting is their first love, and they just play as an off shoot. Some people play merely as a social excercise. Some people like to watch others play, and only participate as a way of connecting with the people the watch. And so on.
If we take a step back and get more fundamental in our thinking, it seems that people play games for two broad reasons: 1. to pass the time (entertainment) 2. to feel a sense of accomplishment. People like to fill their days with activity rather than just lie in bed. Even if the activity is mental, they will do something rather than nothing. We read books, watch movies, play a game of solitaire, take a walk, write a poem, surf the internet, call a friend, whatever. Different people have different tastes and we go with what we like. It seems too simple, but in the end, maybe that is the best answer we can get.
Generally as we are doing things, we like to feel that the activity matters. It has to have purpose and meaning, or at least feel that way. It doesn't matter whether that purpose is "real" or not, whatever that means. It just needs to mean something to us. For some, that sense of accomplishment comes when they win a competitive contest, whether against another person, or against an arbitrary standard or goal, like getting under par when golfing. Some people get a sense of satisfaction by solving a Sudoku puzzle. A previously uncovered mystery has been solved through deductive reasoning. This same puzzle solving drive leads a deck builder to uncover cominations that "break" a game (that's a topicc for another day). Some people find inherent value in exploring varios role playing scenarios. Imagine a local actors group who engages in improv acting exercises. The leader says, "Okay, Tim, you are a KKK grand dragon, Kim, you are a member of the Black Panthers, and Joe, you're Jesus. Ready? And... action!" We want to know how that situation would turn out. If actors can create a plausible scene, it teaches something about humanity. Yet, what is the difference between a group of improv actors and a weekly D&D playgroup? There are different rules for deciding what to do, but the differences are less than you might think.
To summarize, I find it most enlightening to think of people as possessing a complex mix of various motivations when gaming. Each person has their own gamer personality profile. The motivations are, broadly speaking, found in four major categories, and each category is itself complex and made up of different subcategories (which I won't bother to analyze here).
The categories are:
1. Puzzle solving: Using various methods to uncover information that solves or completes some mystery. Methods include trual and error, deductive reasoning, and/or inductive research, etc.
2. Competition: Turning gaming into sporting, the player is not interested in necessarily solving anything, but in executing previously mastered techniques or strategies in the most impressive way possible.
3. Exploration/Expression: Here a player is focused on making unique individual contributions to community. This could be through role playing or novel deck design, but the point is to introduce to the world a previously unwittnessed combination of elements
4. Spectating: Focusing on gaming as entertaining pasttime, a player is motivated to enjoy the inevitable unfolding of an algorithm, or the sporting contest of two others, or to take in the improvised creation of others. The player plays to connect to that which he or she enjoys watching
Now that I have described my understanding of player motivations I want to make a quick observation about the history of gaming and then connect all this to LOTR LCG.
Before the contemporary era of gaming, people thought very differently. Games were idle amusement or wasteful dangers, like gambling. Even as gaming became more socially acceptable and sophisticated, people couldn't get around comparing games to sports, and making it all about winning. Can we have professional gamer leagues, like we have with football? Again, Magic the Gathering defined the conversation. People could earn a living in competitive Magic, but the vast majority of plaayers didn't care or even try to do that. In fact, there was a backlash against competitive gaming as players employed shaming language to condemn people who would "pay to win" or "netdeck" or "min/max" "tryhard". In many playgroups it was viewed as morally repugnant to be good at the game. Certain cards or decks would be banned in the interest of fun. Today, we see the trend of shaming competitive players as a fully accepted practice, even if it is not really taken seriously. My explanation for this is that people used ethical outrage to communicate something that they could not really articulate for lack of vocabulary or social tropes. They wanted to simply say that in their gamer personality profile competition was not a high priority. They wanted to express themselves, or spectate. They had different goals. The modular nature of the Magic game mechanics had introduced to the world, for the first time, a single game that could incorporate all of the different motivations into a single player community. Dungeons and Dragons never spawned that kind of conflict because there is no possibility of competitive D&D
Now, at long last, I address the specific game we all play and love, LOTR LCG. This was the first game, ever, to combine deckbuilding, and an expanding cardpool, with cooperative gaming. The only other game that even came close was Sentinels of the Multiverse, which was a raw kickstarter driven innovation that gave players a coop experience with premade decks. Yet even that game is barely comparible to LOTR LCG. Fantasy Flight really did something special when they made this game. Now, with the new Arkham Horror LCG they hope to follow that up with another success.
The interesting thing about a coop LCG is that it is not driven by competitive motivation. I would say that it hits the other three pillars pretty hard, but it especially satisfies the motivation to explore and express. LOTR LCG is like a role playing game that you experiance as a deckbuilding game, like Magic or Netrunner. However, since it is non-competitive there is no real conflict between types of players. Nobody complains if you netdeck. In fact, it would be nice if more people would try those decks out. It is true that cards can get OP and/or nerfed, but such cards do not "destroy the meta" because there is no competitive pressure to use those cards to win against the meta. Players simply choose not to use broken cards (something they can't do in a competitive environment). I think people have a hard time adjusting, and this game represents a culture shift.
For me, I tend to be strongest on the pillars related to explore/express and spectating. Competition and Puzzle solving are less and less important to me. I like to just say, "let's see what happens!" I approach the game like that improv acting group. Probably my most fun experience ever playing LOTR LCG was when I built an orc killer deck around Frodo, Dwalin, and tactics Merry and tried to beat all the orc heavy scenarios in the game. It turns out, that's super fun. I used to get all pumped to play nightmare quests because I wanted the challenge, and sometimes that is still fun, but these days I get super pumped when an easy quest comes along because I know I will end up running like 100 different decks against it, just to see what happens. The uber hard quest stay in the box unplayed.
I have started to explain these things when I introduce new people to the game and it has been dramatically successful. I say, "Look, I know you want to just play one of my decks to get the hang of things, but I won't let you. I have yet to see anybody enjoy this game without building their own deck. This is a different kind of game. The goal is not to win, but to win only in your own way. When you do that, you will love this game." When I explain that, people get it, and then they see the game for what it is and enjiy it much more.
Consider a few things as you play. Most games have a huge cardpool, but less than a third of the cards are even playable. In this game nearly all the cards are playable. Consider digging deep into a small handful of your favorite quests. If your goal is to puzzle solve and master the game (which is fine) then you will ultimately always use power cards that 1. draw cards 2. accelerate income 3. cheat expensive cards into play (a very good tale) 4. ready characters 5. create infinitely repeatable combinations, etc. These effects ignore the specifics of the quest but always work. If your goal is to see what happens consider avoiding these effects as much as possible and focus on cards that are only good against threats specific to that quest (Dwalin). Playing thematically is always fun. Try to understand who you are as a unique player in the community and approach the game so as to always offer something consistent with that uniqueness. Develop a reputation and show appreciation for the unique contributiins of others.
As always, I hope you have enjoyed my thoughts and found them helpful and encouraging.