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7. Magic the Gathering
The grand-daddy of all collectible card games, Magic the Gathering starts off innocently enough. You buy a few pre-made decks and play a few games with friends. Maybe you start playing regularly over lunch, or to break up the usual board game night. It’s fun, unpredictable and quick.
And then, someone gets good at it; someone starts to take it seriously.
They start buying booster packs, constructing better and better decks. They buy cards online to fulfill this combo or that combo. Perhaps they even reach back into the game’s horrendous back catalog of banned cards to construct decks that no one has any hope of winning against. They use a multitude of computer programs to run the probabilities on their combos and optimize their mana pool.
What used to be a friend is now a monster. You have to start consulting the rulebook, the real one that’s hundreds of pages long, to figure out whether he can actually do that or whether that card is even legal anymore. You have to confront this jerk who was once your friend, because the game isn’t fun anymore. Either that, or you have to join him in an arms race that will suck up both time and money, and probably not be very fun.
And the worst part is, this is exactly what the designers of Magic want to happen. This is their business model, selling as many cards as possible to as many people in the eternal quest to dominate the competition. Their business model is based around people being jerks.
It’s a very fun game for the intellectual type. Deep analysis, thousands of variations and so forth. But unlike Magic, if you lose chess, you deserved it. There’s no random chance, no ‘buying better cards’. You made every move and luck had nothing to do with it. You have no one to blame but yourself when you lose on the chessboard.
And the other person knows it. If you manage to play casually, chess is a great game, but it rewards obsessiveness. The slightest bit of time reading over the thousands of books on the game will give the other guy such an edge it’s no longer fun playing unless you begin studying to. And forget about ever competing with people who played since they were eight years old and have every opening seared into their brain.
So you sit there, hating your friend for being good at something.
At least this game has the good taste to announce its intention to encourage your friends to lie, cheat and double-cross you in the rules themselves. Illuminati is a game of conspiracies. Not little conspiracies, but the big ones – the ones to control the entire world. It’s actually a favorite amongst paranoid libertarian types who think there are real elites out there trying to manipulate the entire world. (If so, one would think they’d be competent enough to run something else as smoothly and secretly).
And, according to the rules themselves, cheating is only illegal if you get caught and deals aren’t worth the air they were spoken with. Every game is based around deals whispered away from the table, and double-crossing everyone you’ve made alliances with. There’s technically a possibility of a shared victory, but this actually makes the double-crosses even worse, since there’s this possibility of you and your friend actually making it to the end together. Of course, you don’t dare trust him either, so you had your own double-cross in the works.
And thus, the bitterness rises, distrust is sown, and all goes to hell shortly afterward.
4. Dungeons and Dragons
Technically, any fantasy role-playing game can fill this spot. But let’s face it, most of them are just D&D with slightly different dice. The original basement dweller game, Dungeons and Dragons has all the right things to be about coming together as a group. After all, you and your friends are a group of adventurers, facing danger and going on quests in the name of all that is good.
Except the game decided to give some other options as well. And there’s this other guy at the table whose job is solely to make your life a living hell.
To begin with, the rules clearly give the option of playing characters guaranteed to turn on the rest of the group, sell them down the river or leave them to rot in a pit trap. The entire Evil alignment demands players act in the most selfish and grievous ways possible, and that whatever party unity might exist is dropped at the moment’s convenience. That’s right, spend three sessions trying to get to the Necromancer King’s chambers, and all the work is for naught because the villainous tyrant offers the Neutral Evil Fighter a sack full of gold and he goes through the rest of the party like nature’s little blender.
And that’s expecting that you have a “good” dungeon master. While there’s guidelines for not completely hosing the players, they are just that, guidelines. The dungeon master can throw whatever he wants at you, and many take great glee in doing so. He can construct puzzles and traps that “you should have figured out” right before ten million gallons of lava comes spewing out. Add magic into the mix and the dungeon master can do whatever the hell he wants, and often with a smug look on his face that he “got you”.
The rules don’t help. The core rules are arcane, long and weird, especially when it comes to combat (you know, the most likely times you might lose your character), and ripe for interpretation and argument. So, you are sitting around your friend’s dinner table, listen to two people who were previously good buddies screaming at each other about the rules and the fates of people who don’t even exist.
Well played, Dungeons and Dragons. Well played.
Ah, Risk, a staple of every family’s game closet. How could you get more innocent and classic than a game of Risk? Unfortunately, most people don’t realize the friendship-consuming monster they’ve let into their home until it’s too late.
After all, what could go wrong with a game about the entire world going to war for global domination?
The first thing about Risk is how long it really takes. It starts off easily enough, a few conflicts here and there. And then the armies start really building up. Entire continents trade hands, which takes forever to roll. Most of the game involves grinding through defenses with some hope of having pieces left to defend your own frontiers in the coming assault. So, roll after roll, and since one player’s turn might last forever, you don’t really have much to do if two players in another part of the board are slugging it out.
And then there’s the fact it encourages your friends to gang up on you. Manage to get hold of Asia? Everyone agrees they have to put a stop to that, and you spend four turns watching your best friends turn on you like wolves. And don’t you dare look like you might start to have a hold on Australia.
2. Vampire the Masquerade
Okay, while Dungeons and Dragons just makes it possible to be a jerk, Vampire the Masquerade all but demands it. You see, Dungeons and Dragons at least operates in a world where heroes can theoretically exist and fairness is possible. But not Vampire the Masquerade, nor most of the associated World of Darkness line. No, they live in a world where the unfair is enshrined, the horrible is put on a pedestal and the main characters are supposed to be conniving bloodsucking jerks.
Oh, and thanks to a system which calls for the characters to potentially frenzy the moment anyone says anything nasty to them or looks at them funny, the Storyteller (their oh-so-artistic rewrite of the Dungeon Master) can compel the characters to become raging bastards against their players’ wills. The rest of the rules aren’t helpful either, since the publisher White Wolf actively decries their existence while also writing two hundred pages on badly defined combat maneuvers. So, yes, arguments will happen. Violent ones.
Well, at least the book actively tells you their game is about drama. They just fail to tell you what kind. And don’t even get started on the snarky high school in-fighting that comes with the live action variation on this green-faced beast.
To add insult to injury, many players will firmly state, if you aren’t being a complete bastard while playing this game… you aren’t playing it right. Which brings us to…
Diplomacy is a game of international intrigue, set at the end of the 19th century. Various powers wage wars and maneuvers over Europe, and the game is impossible to play without making complex negotiations with your fellow players and making plans based on their actions. So, yes, the game is about making promises and then breaking them at the right time, often ruining minutes if not hours of preparations by the players.
This is the grand king of games that destroy all that is beautiful and good between friends. It will consume. And it is best played over email because otherwise you’ll be in range of physical violence from your fellow players.
The game proudly boasted at one time it was one of Walter Cronkite’s favorite games, which makes me believe there was true darkness in that man’s soul. It’s also a favorite of Henry Kissinger, which just confirms suspicions I already strongly had.