Friday feelings: How the metagame saved Snakes & Ladders

On Christmas day afternoon I found myself in the company of two young ladies: a 10-year-old and an 11-year-old. One had said they wanted to play some games, so I said sure – what shall we play?

She ran off to their selection of games and came back with Dobble. Solid choice. But after one game (which I lost) she headed back to the shelves for another pick.

This time, she returned with Snakes and Ladders. Less solid. There’s so much wrong with the game, it’s difficult to know where to start: it’s 100% random, there are absolutely no decisions made by the players and it has the potential to, quite literally, go on forever. As the game is 2,000 years old, it can be forgiven – but that doesn’t explain why it is still on everyone’s shelves today. But hey, what do I know? It’s Christmas day, I asked a child what they wanted to play, and this is it – I made my bed, time to lie in it.

The first two games (I kid you not) were relatively short, but I won them both. Another thing about a game such as this is you can’t even throw it – I would’ve loved to lose the second game and perhaps then we’d have called it quits, but no: a third game was demanded. Worse still the 11-year-old had decided she wanted in on the fun, so it was going to be a three-player game.

But why had she asked to play? Basically, because it was clear (from both the noise level and the physical histrionics) how much fun we were having. My first win was played out in relative calm, but as I began to close in on victory number two my young opponent began resorting to all the dirty tactics she could find in her imagination’s playbook. Dice were told off. Prayers were sent heavenward. Dice, seemingly forgiven, were kissed and stroked and coaxed into rolling/not rolling certain numbers. Then, when they largely failed to cooperate, there was much wailing in disbelief.

Game three essentially saw too little girls ganging up on me. Double the histrionics, double the volume. The game went on forever. I lost count of the times someone went down the biggest snake. But eventually the roof was raised with cheers; I had been vanquished. And you know what? I had a really good time playing. And if I was in the same company I would happily play again (although no, I wouldn’t ask for it…).

I guess the point, if we need one, is this: a game does not need to be well designed to create a good gaming experience. This seems obvious, but how do you express that in reviews or ratings? For example, take the Firefly board game. It rates 7.4 on Board Game Geek and is in the top 300 games of all time – despite being, mechanically, an utter shit fest. It lasts a minimum (minimum!) of two hours and is, to all intents and purposes, just as luck-ridden as Snakes and Ladders. The difference is, it looks gorgeous and does a great job of evoking the theatre of the show’s ‘verse.

Snakes and Ladders, on the other hand, averages a 2.8 on Board Game Geek – leaving it a lowly 16,588th in the rankings at time of writing. It barely scrapes into the top 750 children’s games. To be honest, 2.8 is probably a fair rating. But if you asked me which game I most enjoyed playing last time I was asked to play it – and which I’d rather play again – it’s fair to say Firefly wouldn’t get a look in…

2 thoughts on “Friday feelings: How the metagame saved Snakes & Ladders

  1. Very perceptive comments, Chris. Gaming is a social experience, and some games are more about the surrounding experience and less about the content. In this particular context, the nature of the game is almost immaterial – it’s simply a vehicle for “the noise level and the physical histrionics”. The concept of “winning” is a way of having fun, but decision-making input into that is not relevant.

    A game dressed up more, but basically still a luck-fest, doesn’t cut it, because more mechanics are irrelevant and just get in the way.

    • Its true – it shouldn’t cut it, but for many it does. I think you have quite a big community who basically want an RPG, but don’t want to role-play. For them, games such as Firefly and Battlestar Gallactica manage to convey theme and structure, on which they can do the lowest level of role-play to make up the difference.

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