Weekly Little Big Planet: looking to the sky to save me

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Well, I can’t say I wasn’t warned. The designer of Missile Works asks right there before the level even loads, “Can you work out how to use the grappling hook to your advantage in this steampunk-inspired factory? This is a grapple heavy level.” I barely paid it a moment’s thought. I don’t think even a “pshaw” flitted through my mind as I waited for the level to load. Can I work out how to use the grappling hook to my advantage? Please. Dude. I was born to grapple hook.

Can I verb that?

That image above is my little sackboy trying to figure out how to use the grappling hook to his advantage by grabbing a missile and swinging it around and under the platform upon which he is standing. I’ll ballpark this and say that what is pictured above is something on the order of his 25th try at doing this. Finally getting it was sweet but I almost gave up. I was so close to giving up. Sometimes you just don’t get it.

Speaking of not getting it…

After the jump, the horror…the horror

I have only played the Arkham Horror board game two times, so I’m willing to entertain the idea that it is way too early to be making this kind of judgment about it, but it is possible the game is just too hard for me. Look, I realize it sounds like I’m just trying to further carve out my little niche as a guy who plays games like…well…a dingus, but that’s really not what I’m doing here by saying that. What I’m trying to do is be honest with myself.

A man’s got to know his limitations. I believe our 43rd president coined that one. Wise man.

I’m not saying that I don’t like the game. Far from it. And I’m not saying I won’t try it again. I’m just saying that I’m not sure the game is ever truly going to click for me, and after a marathon session of playing the game last night with a few friends I’m curious as to why that is. I have been on something of a board game kick of late, thanks to a group of friends who are nuts about them, and I have been loving this. Now, by a “board game kick” I must assert that I mean I’ve played one or two games a week during this period. A week here and there saw heavier activity, but for the most part one or two games a week, with emphasis on the lower number. Still, considering the amount of time these types of games take to play–last night’s took around four hours–that’s a lot of gaming for me. Again, I have been loving this, I just cannot afford too many hours of it. My kid is too little to take himself to the movies and our Pokemon White team is not going to level itself.

I’m not sure what to do about Arkham Horror, though. It is such a beautiful game, frustratingly beautiful. Once it is laid out with its expansions–last night we played it with the Dunwich Horror expansion–you can add dauntingly to that description. Stacks and stacks of beautiful cards, lovingly kept and separated into piles with game boards only a dining room table with its special occasion leaf inserted can reasonably accommodate. Every time I see the layout in person I feel excited and frightened. Not because of any experience with the world of Cthulu, mind you, but just because that is the particular power this game has over me. Couple this with the very specific affection a couple of my friends have for the game and I cannot help but want to love it. ‘Affection’ may be too mild a word now that I think about it. Reverence. Yeah. Let’s use that instead. The fact that these buddies of mine want me to be a part of the experience makes this all the harder. I want so badly to be good at it. But sometimes…well…

Let’s just say I’m not up to the task.

Which brings us to good intentions.

This falls into a couple of categories. First of all, Arkham Horror is a co-op game. Everyone playing is working together to win as a group against the game, so to speak. Defeating monsters and closing the gates of Arkham so that more monsters cannot pour through. The idea of this, this collaboration, appeals to me deeply. While I like fragging my friends in a shooter as much as the next guy, I get more out of co-op. Part of this is related, I think, to that thing in me that makes me love playing the medic in certain games. Charging for the safe room in Left 4 Dead is a blast, but healing my teammates while going through the levels of Killing Floor is far more gratifying, even though the game isn’t as polished and is ultimately far too glitchy to continue playing on a regular basis at the LAN party. I love that support role, which made playing Chief so great the first time I played the Battlestar Galactica board game. But I digress.

The thing that is weird about Arkham Horror is how my fellow game players react to my ineptitude. That’s what I meant when I brought up good intentions above. The problem here, as I realized for the first time last night, is that when playing a co-op game like Arkham Horror, it is in the best interest of your cohorts to help you with your decisions. What you’re deciding to do affects the team, after all. So, let’s say my character, in this case Bob Jenkins, The Salesman, has an encounter with a monster, in this case Wizard Whateley. What I should be doing is figuring out for myself whether it is wiser to fight this guy or sneak past him. There is ample information at my fingertips to help me make this decision. Numbers and icons on the monster’s chit. The numbers on my investigator card. The amount of Sanity and Stamina I have. My possessions. This is a wealth of information. What I end up doing, however, is asking for advice. Well. Actually. Pleading for advice. Because there’s too much information. Several times last night I found myself just staring at all my cards as I tried to suss out what they meant for a potential battle the next turn and feeling as though I were reading something that had nothing whatsoever to do with English. My brain refused to process the information. So, as a result, I’d ask for advice.

Intentions, then. One friend would try to nudge me. I’d hem and haw, knowing I should carefully read the cards but feeling self-conscious about the fact that we were turning the corner on hour three of playing the game. A second friend would respond, further nudging. The first friend would process the information on my cards for me, look at where I was going, and move from nudge to advice. The second one would debate with him. Those two would eventually come to a consensus. That’s when I would look to my third friend, the game’s owner and the most experienced gamer at the table, and ask him what he thought.

His response? Smile. Shrug. “Whatever you want to do.”

“Come on,” I’d say, trying not to sound desperate.

“Seriously,” he’d respond, smiling with a mixture of joy and compassion, and maybe a little annoyance. “Whatever you think.”

What the hell kind of way is that to act? Frustrated I’d go with what friends One and Two suggested.

Eventually friend Three went off to the bathroom. “Why does he keep doing that?” I asked to no one in particular.

“Well,” said number One, somewhat sheepishly. “I think he’s trying to help you. Get you to learn the game for yourself.”

Blam. Talk about an epiphany. In a flash I saw that he was absolutely right. In his tone I heard that he respected this, but he had been reluctant to do it himself because he wanted us to win and felt bad for me. But our other friend, number Three, was taking a longer view. He wanted me to learn. Teach a man to fish…

You see, in a straight-up competitive game this is less of an issue. The friend teaching you the game is often your adversary, so asking him for advice is only going to take you so far. You’re going to have to learn the game while playing it or you’re going to get smoked. In a co-op game you have a crutch, and in a game like Arkham Horror, which has so many facets, this crutch is turning out to be a killer for me. The best intentions of the folks I’m playing with are not to blame for this, at least not predominately. The fault lies with me, with a need to please and help my teammates. And let’s be honest, fear of failure plays a part.

This calls to mind lessons I’m learning as a parent about letting my kid do things for himself. Letting him struggle. Letting him fail at things sometimes so he learns them. Of course the stakes are quite a bit higher with me learning a game like Arkham Horror. Failure at his level means spilling milk on the counter when he makes his own breakfast. Failure for me means a creepy spider god implants his little broodlings on my character card and eventually devours me. My kid has it easy.

A couple of weeks ago I was listening to two of my friends talk about co-op board games. I had just started falling in love with co-op, and thought Arkham Horror and Battlestar Galactica were the cat’s pajamas. I thought of them as essentially the same thing. So I was confused when my buddies, both far savvier board gamers than I, expressed impatience with the former and fondness for the latter. I didn’t really get it at the time, this almost impatient vibe I was getting off of their conversation about co-op like Arkham, but I think I’m starting to. Battlestar combines co-op with an element of the adversarial, which both takes away the crutch for a novice like me, and removes the burden of all-out babysitting from guys like them. There is still collaboration, but also a sense of human danger. Ironic, seeing as that danger comes from your friends playing as Cylons.

So I’m not sure Arkham Horror is ever going to click for me. I now realize, though, that the only way it is going to is if I decide to try to play it myself by taking chances and carrying my own weight. This doesn’t mean I can’t consult my cohorts. But it does mean I can’t keep allowing them to make my decisions for me. Otherwise, I’ll never get it.

Beautiful. Frustrating. Daunting. And exhausting. All which turn out to be satisfying in this board gaming world that is so new for me. But, in the end, will that be enough to keep Arkham horror in my repertoire? Is the game worth it?

I expect a couple of friends will be wanting to clock me for asking that question. Too bad. Unfortunately no one can be told whether Arkham Horror is worth it. You have to find out for yourself.

Click here for the previous Weekly Little Big Planet

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