When Being Terrible at a Game Is the Most Compelling Way to Play

With repeated losses and defeats, sometimes the idea of improving becomes the main attraction.

Jun 25 2018, 2:42pm

image courtesy of Minion Games

I have a perfect record at The Manhattan Project, a worker-placement board game where you compete with other players to develop the most successful nuclear arms program. I have never won it and, if I am being honest, I’ve never come close to winning. I could pretend that it’s some kind of high-minded subversion of the game’s theme (“The only winning move is not to play!”) but the truth is I’m just well and truly garbage at it.

Which only makes me want to play more. The thing about Manhattan Project is that while you can only place one worker at a time on the main action board, you can place as many as you want on the facilities you own on your personal action board. So if you’ve built wisely and efficiently, you have a powerful engine at your disposal that can make each of your turns several times as effective as your opponents’. Ideally, for every action they take, you take several.

Every time I watch my opponents build their own version of an efficient military-industrial-scientific complex, I marvel at how much more productive they are being than I am. I suddenly want to know their secrets, what the trick is to their efficiency, in the same way that I am unable to to resist reading about some new productivity system or lifehack that will definitely put a stop to all my procrastination and time-wasting.

'Factorio' is another game whose appeal has an inverse relationship with my comprehension and skill. Image courtesy of Wube Software.

All the evidence suggests that I’m not actually learning the right lessons. I’ll finish the next game having hoarded a different kind of resource that I never got around to employing, or having passed on several opportunities to build my own infrastructure because I was holding out for the perfect card.

But I don’t actually believe that’s what’s going to happen. Right now, I’m thinking about how much I’m looking forward to the next game, because I think I’ve got some really good ideas about how to tackle it. I think I’ve identified the key inefficiencies in my game and I’m dying to put my plans into practice. In sum, I think I've nailed it.

It doesn’t matter if I’m wrong and get my ass handed to me yet again. Honestly, I think I’m happier at the idea of getting better at this game than I could ever be winning it. It’s my lack of skill at it, my always-evolving understanding of the game, that’s got me hooked.

Does this seem familiar? Are there games that you’ve found more compelling by virtue of being bad at them?

Let me know in today’s open thread!