We visited some friends for the weekend. Ostensibly the reason for all this was to play Puerto Rico. There were four of us, and none had played it before. If you're not familiar with Puerto Rico, it's a strategy board game rather like Dominion (okay, that's a card game, but it's comparable) or Settlers of Catan. If you had a game shop, you'd put them on the same shelf. Or perhaps on different shelves, but vertically aligned. Anyway. If you're not familiar with any of those games, you're missing out on a renaissance of boardgames: a golden era of strategic, table-top gaming in which luck has been put firmly in its proper place (not eliminated, but far from predominant). Also these games are typically lovely collector's items. If you haven't played any of those mentioned, you should.
But the main point I want to make centres around those words "and none had played it before." Puerto Rico is a highly strategic game, and all of us were in virgin territory. I'm not sure I ever really appreciated how rich a gaming experience those circumstances foster: total beginners, learning together, honing inevitably imperfect strategies. In a sense, it's strategy at its purest. Nelson couldn't have ten or even two goes at the Battle of Trafalgar. He had to get it right first time. Or at least more right than the other guy. Crummy example, but you get my point.
Compare those circumstances to the alternatives. With a set of seasoned Puerto Ricans (if you'll permit that use of the word) you have honed strategy versus honed strategy. That's satisfying, to be sure. But by that stage players are going through the motions. Actually, that's a criticism that applies less to Puerto Rico than other board games, when your strategy must adapt to circumstance, and the strategies of other players, but even so, I can see veterans selecting one of perhaps three or four tried and tested approaches. In a sense, it's a test of who has best honed their strategies. That's interesting, but less dynamic, and probably allows luck rather more say in the outcome.
Even worse is the master against the novice. With a game like chess, which, thanks to it being both ubiquitous and two-player, having your rectum served to you on a velvet cushion is a great experience. All the better to learn, and take on the next opponent. But how many opportunities am I likely to have to play Puerto Rico? I know one couple who own a set. Had they played it a dozen times before, it's not that I wouldn't have enjoyed the inevitable and total annihilation (or worse, patronising concessions), it's just that it wouldn't have been quite as satisfying, and the opportunity to put those learnings to future use would be limited.
I suppose the point I am making is this. If at some point in the future you're tempted to buy a high quality strategic board game, find some fellow beginners to play with for your first go. In fact, make an evening or a weekend of it. Play two, three, four or more games. That's what we did. And it was excellent. It's not that strategic board gaming under other circumstances is deficient. It's that this way it's even more fun. I just hope those guys don't play Puerto Rico before our next visit. I have theories to test.