So one day a woman came into my shop and told me she was interested in strategy games. I thought “Strategy games, great, my favorite kind of game.” This was going to be easy. I asked her if she wanted me to show her any miniatures games like Warhammer 40K, Warmachine or Anima Tactics. She gave me a funny look and said no, she wanted to see strategy board games. Ok, so I started showing her some of the military and political games like Memoir ‘44 and Twilight Struggle. Again she got this annoyed look on her face, and then she said “No, not that kind of game. I want to play a strategy game like Puerto Rico.”
This shocked me. This lady thinks Puerto Rico is a strategy game?? My first thought was this lady doesn’t know anything about gaming.
But then it dawned on me. Of course Puerto Rico is a strategy game. It’s just a very different form of strategy game than I had ever thought about before. Why hadn’t I seen this earlier?
Let me explain. I’ve played Puerto Rico once and have no plans to ever play it again. Now don’t get me wrong, I “appreciate” Puerto Rico. I know that it is one of the most popular Eurogames around and has a very high rating on Board Game Geek. But for me it was just a math game (I call it the “Excel Spreadsheet Game”). It was all about developing the right resources in the right order so that this resource would magnify the value of that resource. At the end of the game the player with the most resources wins. There is almost no theme or storyline to the game. It is simply an elegant resource management game. For me resource management is work, not fun.
In terms of gaming I had always thought that “strategy” was a term related to maneuver of units on a map, not manipulation of resources without a map. But this lady was right, proper manipulation of resources was a “strategy.” This was a new idea to me.
From this I developed the concepts of “spatial” versus “math” strategy games. Spatial strategy games tend to be very visually oriented, like Chess. Players see the board and are required to imagine what the board will look like in 2-3 or more moves. Really gifted players have developed their visual skills to the point they can play many Chess games at once while blindfolded (the current world record is playing 35 games at once while blindfolded). I am a very visual thinker, and that’s why I’ve always been attracted to spatial strategy games.
But a lot of gamers are much stronger in math than me, and prefer to view the world more abstractly. This is hard for me to describe because it’s not the way I think, but I know it’s true. I remember the first time I ever played Power Grid, another excellent resource management game like Puerto Rico, but with a slightly stronger theme/storyline. About two-thirds the way through the game I finally figured out the basic mechanics and developed a strategy for winning, although it was far too late to actually win. At about this time one of the players turned to another player and said “Wow, Bob, you’re going to win in three turns by $2, and there’s nothing I can do to stop it.” Bob looked back at him and said, “Yeah, I know.” Sure enough, that’s how the game ended. I was flabbergasted. I could hardly tell what the current score was, let alone what the score would be in three turns. These guys could see something I couldn’t see. Because it was math.
Then one day I was in the store watching a debate between a bunch of us gamers about which was the better game, Chess or Go. To me, Chess was obviously the better game. But some of the people there were arguing – in a very civilized way – that Go was clearly the better game. And that was the final piece of the puzzle for me. Some people have analog minds, and others have digital minds.
Chess is primarily analog because it is spatial. To me, “analog” means a continuous flow or move. A piece on a Chess board moves from one space to another in a fluid move. The move of a cavalry unit as it charges in a miniature war game is also fluid and continuous. I can move the piece or unit on the board, but I can also visualize its move in my mind. Further, Chess has a number of different pieces with very different characteristics and moves. Moving those pieces in concert with each other to maximize their power is the heart and soul of Chess.
Go is digital. There is only one kind of piece in Go, they are either black or white, and they do not move on the board. Go is much more static and abstract than Chess. Placement of the Go pieces in a pattern where they inter-support each other and destabilize/eliminate the opposing pieces is the heart and soul of Go.
So where does this take us? And how do you tell which kind of player you are? Knowing if you are an analog or digital gamer will help you find the games you’ll enjoy most, and avoid wasting money on games you may find more frustrating than fun.
If you are an analog thinker, like me, then you think visually and have fun thinking visually. Thinking visually comes naturally to you and it helps you to relax. You are probably attracted to games with little characters or that have maps of places that your pieces move around on. Good examples would be Risk, Axis & Allies, Monsterpocalypse, and miniature strategy games.
If you are a digital thinker, then you think more abstractly, and have fun thinking about math and problem solving. You are probably attracted to games with elegant mechanics that operate more like equations. Good examples would be Puerto Rico, Dominion, Agricola, or Magic the Gathering.
Having read the above, it should be pretty easy to tell which kind of player you are. But if you’re still wondering, try this simple test. Fold your hands together in front of you with your fingers interlocked. Now look down and see which thumb is over the other. If your left thumb is on top, then you are probably a left brain dominant thinker, which means you are probably a digitally minded person. If your right thumb is on top (like mine), then you are a right brain dominant thinker, which means you are probably a spatial thinker.
Don’t believe me? Google search “right left brain” and start checking out the many articles about this on the net. I have given this test to hundreds of people over the years, and have found it to be about 95% accurate. Basically what you will learn is that if you are a left brain/digital thinker, then you think in bursts of short brain waves. Your are very good at multi-tasking because your brain is able to compartmentalize problems and think them through in discrete thought packets. That’s why you’re good at math. If you are a right brain/analog thinker, then you think in longer brain waves. When you think of multiple topics in a short period of time, your thoughts tend to overlap and are not discrete. You make weird and funny associations because of this, which can lead to confusion and creativity all at once. It takes longer to think visually, and the long brain waves make it easier to think this way (I read about this long ago and have found it to be true, at least in my experience). It will be harder for you to learn certain things because you need to build a visual model of it to learn it. But once you do, you will be able to visualize outcomes more easily.
In the end, every game has digital and analog characteristics. But some slant very hard one way or another. In addition to the games mentioned above, here are lists of games that I consider to be analog or digital:
- Virtually every miniature war game
- The vast majority of war board games from Risk to East Front
- Abstract strategy games like Ingenious, Yinch, Blokus and Hive
- Adventure games like Descent, Castle Ravenloft, Last Night on Earth, Zombies or Nuns on the Run
- Go, Cribbage, Dominoes, or Othello
- The vast majority of Eurogames like Stone Age, 7 Wonders, Dominion, 1960 Making of the President, Caylus, El Grande, and Cyclades
- Abstract war and political games like Twilight Struggle, 2 de Mayo, and Hornet Leader
- Collectible and Living Card Games like Magic the Gathering, Pokemon, Legend of the Five Rings, Game of Thrones, or Munchkin
This brings us to games where there is a strong balance between digital and analog play styles. Both kinds of players will enjoy these games and can compete very effectively against each other. The interesting part is that if you were able to enter the mind of each player during the game, you would find that this player is playing it as a digital/abstract game, and that player is playing it as an analog/visual game – very different approaches to the game. But you would also find that they are both having a lot of fun playing.
- Top-selling Eurogames like Settlers of Catan, Ticket to Ride, and Carcassonne (everyone should own these three games)
- Most war games like Federation Commander, Up Front, Labyrinth: The War on Terror, and Shogun
- Collectible miniatures games like Heroclix, Star Wars Minis, and Axis & Allies Naval Battles
- Any Role Playing Game
I hope this helps you find the games you will most enjoy. It should also help you figure out what kinds of games your friends and loved ones enjoy.
Tell me what you think. This idea is a work in progress and I will revise this article when I get it more refined. I’m dying to read your comments.
Game Empire Pasadena