On Being a Loser

When playing a game, the goal is to win, but it is the goal that is important, not the winning.

– Reiner Knizia

I don’t have the original source for the above quote, but it gets thrown around so much that I just have to believe he did say or write it at some point. And I have to agree with it.

I’ve never understood the traditional quadrennial sacking of international football managers when their teams fail to win the World Cup. I mean, seriously – there are 32 teams at the beginning of the finals. They can’t all expect to win. That’s just misjudged expectation. And so it is when I sit down to play a game, be it face-to-face or (increasingly these days) online. We can’t all win. But we can have a really good time trying.

I’ve just finished my first ever game (against someone who isn’t me, anyway) of Vlaada Chvátil’s Through the Ages: A Story of Civilization. I was playing against Olly in a 2-player game on Boardgaming Online. It certainly wasn’t Olly’s first game, and I certainly wasn’t expecting to win… but I wasn’t quite expecting the utter demolition I experienced. Final culture score? 245–108.

Through the Ages is an utterly brutal game, where a mistake in round 3 or 4 can still be haunting you (and ruining your civilisation) in round 20. Being as inexperienced as I am, I made a few mistakes through Age I (the first third of the game), which led to me falling behind in pretty much everything later on. The major problem was falling behind in military strength, and during Age III, Olly suddenly bumped up to pretty much double my military strength and engaged me in a War Over Culture. (He said he was actually being kind by not waiting for Air Force technology to come out, which would have allowed him to attack me with “Napoleon in a plane”. Kind, maybe, but it still nearly wiped me out, score-wise.) I hadn’t really been competitive up to that point, but at least our culture scores had been on the same order of magnitude. Not after that war. I think it was something horrific like 106–13.

Not in a plane, but still a very effective military leader

Not in a plane, but still a very effective military leader

But the whole thing was fun. Really enjoyable. Yes, it felt like I’d been punching myself repeatedly in the face for most of the game, before Olly came and kicked me in the back of the head later on… but it was fun. And that’s the key thing.

Take Galaxy Trucker (another brutal Chvátil game, come to think of it…). Yes, players with more experience are more likely to win, but the real fun of the game isn’t in the winning – it’s in watching your ships being blasted to bits, reduced to a single, drifting crew cabin, hoping and praying it doesn’t reach open space and need those engines it doesn’t even have. It’s a game that encourages you to actively enjoy failing. Well… it depends on your demeanour, I suppose. But the Shut Up & Sit Down guys love the brutality.

Where am I going with this? I don’t really know. I love playing games. I play to win, and winning’s a little icing on the Grand Cake of Game, but I enjoy it either way, win or lose.

Olly and I are just kicking off another Through the Ages now, so it’s a good thing I don’t mind losing…

One thought on “On Being a Loser

  1. Simmo

    Nice post – I often think exactly the same about football teams and their managers. When I was playing rugby, I’d much rather have lose a good game than won a bad one.


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