Is mastery of a game truly possible?
As gamers we like, by definition, to play games. Some of us then like to get good at those games, and a few really value achieving a level of mastery of those games. I’ve been thinking about what exactly that means, and in particular what it means in relation to games, meta-games and heuristics.
Last first of that list, for those who don’t know, heuristics are the rules of thumb that a player uses to make themselves better at a game. They are the bits and pieces of general rules that you start to pick up after a few plays that make you better at that game. On the first plays of most games of any complexity they can be quite overwhelming, and players will often make early turn moves that end up wasting actions and putting them on the back foot, learning which parts of the complexity to discount from thinking and which early actions to take on for the best range of options are basic heuristics for a game. For most ‘thinking’ games, this is learning the game.
There are exceptions, dexterity games generally don’t have heuristics in anything like a traditional sense, nor do many communication games. As a rule, though, Euro games in particular rely very heavily on heuristics to give players a sense of progress on repeat plays, and its through the refinement and application of those heuristics that mastery is usual seen as being gained. A set of powerful and well refined heuristics will generally give the player that possess them an insurmountable advantage over a player without them.
The problem is that engagement with heuristics is not direct engagement with a game. As a player builds up more and more layers of heuristics, they interact with the actual game less and less, they are, at best, interacting with the meta-game connected to the game. Meta-game is the part of the game that are not actually the game. The classic example is the constant struggle of deck-lists in most CCG/TCG tournaments. Having a deck-list that is powerful against the deck-lists generally seen at tournaments is a meta-game around the game that is being played, but often it is the meta-game that decides the champion at tournaments. In heuristic heavy games the meta-game of battling heuristics rather than the game being played decides the winner. Chess is the classic example of this, at its top level it is for the most part not a game of players selecting moves to play against their opponent, but selecting move sequences, highly sophisticated heuristics, to pit against their opponent's move sequence heuristics.
Interestingly, many Euro games arguably build their popularity around the necessity of learning heuristics in order to play, much less master them. For those who are not fans of the genre it can be one of the most off-putting and frustrating parts of them, giving rise to the sense that the owner of the game is always the winner because experience easily outweighs all other factors. It can result in themes being almost actively chosen as being un-representative of the mechanics of the game since otherwise they might offer a short cut to learning the heuristics of the game.
At its extreme end, it could be said that mastery of a game like Chess in its modern competitive environment involves actually playing the non-meta-game of Chess as little as humanly possible. Any casual gamer who has dipped their toe into the competitive side of their chosen part of the hobby will often have a feeling for this side of things, the frustrating sense that unless you have invested the time into building up, or simply farming from books or internet forums, the correct heuristics for your chosen game there is little to be done with inherent abilities or capabilities. The question is, is it possible or desirable to master such games without mastering their meta-games, how does this effect a gamer’s experience, and how should game designers react to it?
Frankly, it is usually a tightrope act answering some of these questions. Depth tends to require and produce heuristics, and oppositional heuristics tends to create meta-game. Meta-game is not game, but it can be enjoyable and most of the biggest games take advantage of that. The biggest issues come when gamers are not made sufficiently aware of, or worse, are misled about the meta-game involved before starting play. Additionally, by requiring that they spend longer engaged in the study of the meta-game than the playing of the game a designer can be placing their game into a niche, if potentially successful, area. Games need to walk a line between a set of heuristics that offer a sense of depth without allowing such a wall of them to be built between the player and their game that the game itself cannot be touched by the vast majority of players.
When considering heuristics in game design there are probably two paths to consider, the more Euro game route of leaning into the nature of desire for heuristics, and the alternative path of building in non-heuristic mastery to a game.
Euro game players want to build up heuristics, they will often be actively unhappy if a first-time player has any chance of beating an experienced player, not a small chance, but any chance. I often think of this as the Agatha Christie mystery version of games, where a presentation is made of all the parts being there at the start to work out the answer, but often vital clues are simply not presented. If it was possible to solve the mystery on page one some people would find the book horribly disappointing, so it is made impossible, while presenting as entirely achievable. As such many Euro games are built to lay in tactics that appear entirely logical after a play through but that no first-time player would ever attempt, or even that they would have no way of knowing that it was possibly a viable tactic. Often these will be based on items such as stacks of cards or tiles, even with lists such that a first-time player is, in theory, on a level playing field. Learning your deck or the spread of cards is usually here touted as a good thing, an option for a sense of progress.
Non-heuristic mastery is a rarer path to go down, and increasingly an interesting one. An excellent example for this side of things is a game such as Mysterium. For those who are not aware, Mysterium is a game where one player tries to communicate to a set of others by offering them abstract and surreal images. If they communicate their information successfully in time all players win, if not they lose. There are few, if any, heuristics for Mysterium, but there is absolutely a mastery curve to the game with players seeing victory coming more and more regularly over repeated plays. Controlled or limited communication games often allow a path to non-heuristic mastery, as do dexterity games. Dexterity games can still suffer from the sense of being won by the player who has simply played them the most, but they rarely suffer from a sense of non-direct engagement with the game itself when this happens.
What do you think? Does it matter when a game’s meta-game interposes itself with the player? Or is it just another layer to the experience? Are heuristic skills just another skill of a game, or are they separations from it? Does it matter if a player has developed a heuristic from experience or acquired it from another source? Are there other non-heuristic methods of mastery that you’ve seen or admired?