Memory — wait, what was that?

For this week’s Tuesday discussion, I wanted to have a quick chat about the usage of the ‘memory mechanism’ in board games. Not every game relies on a player’s memory, but plenty of games utilize the ol’ elephantine memory glands here and there.

There are some game titles that fall into this category from a “card-counting” perspective. In other words, games in which a focused memorization of cards that have been played and a quick ability to calculate ratios and percentages can provide a leg-up against opponents. I’m not saying these games are designed for card-counting, but they naturally allow for it. It is my perspective that most people either don’t want to card count or don’t have the ability, so I’m not too worried about this set of games — I’m not looking to compete in a money tournament.

I can’t even remember what a full house beats, let alone worry about card counting.

On the flip side, there are games all about memory –> the memory-match games that many children usually end up with (they come in practically every franchise-version) or a game like Go Fish, in which recalling what cards have been requested by and from certain players is the key method for gaining advantage.

Those are the extremes of this topic. I want to focus, though, on board games that are not ‘memory’ games, but end up being designed in such a way that memory is required. My discussion is from this personal philosophy: memory is a very biased mechanism and that game designers do their games and their players injustice when they require memorization as a key to winning.

Generally-speaking, board games fall into a range of luckiness vs. skill/strategy. Games that tend to be ‘lucky’ games can be fun because the activity involved is enjoyable. Serious gamers, though, generally want to be able to challenge themselves personally and their opponents during a game. Thus, games with skill or strategy are preferred. In my mind, skill games are most successful when the skill being presented is the main focus of the game. Thus, a straight-up memory game works because players engage in this type of game with the intent of challenging each other on a skill –> their memory. Miniature golf, bowling, horseshoes…these are all games of skill. Players develop strategy to assist and strengthen their play, but skill is generally the most important aspect.

So, I guess…when I think of a board game, the skill I generally expect to be put at test is STRATEGY. How well can I take the rules as stated, the pieces I’m supplied with (of an equal or similar amount/value as my opponent) and act throughout the game in such a way as to be victorious. What gets tricky is when two skills get mixed — then which one is truly being tested? My strategy or my ability to flip a ship? My logic skills or my ability to flick a die? My ability to strategize and formulate or my ability to persuade…my knack for humorous puns…my penchant for remembering things…?

If I want to test my ability to run and jump, I’ll play basketball or volleyball. If I want to test my memory, there are games I can play — but honestly, as I’m getting older, memory games aren’t as fun…I spend most of my life trying to remember dozens of things I need to accomplish at work, then at home remember where kids need to be, what needs mowed, laundered, let out, paid, renewed, etc. I’m tired of trying to remember things. That’s why I have sticky notes, calendars, alarms, and so on to help.

No, for me personally, board games — at their best — allow me to focus on the challenge of my logic and ability to strategize….to learn from past experiences and see if I can improve in future gameplays.

I will look at a few examples to discuss ways in which memory gets included in games and how it could be removed to create a fairer, but still equal gaming experience.

Some examples:

  • Rat-a-Tat Cat — I talked about Gamewright’s games last week, so this one is on my mind. On the whole, I would deem Rat-a-Tat a push-your-luck game with a focus on hidden information. The game works fine at that level. I want to quit when I have the fewest points. The wrinkle added is that I can only look at two of my four cards — and I can only look once. From then on (without a special PEEK card), I have to remember what I have. The deduction element of the game — what is on the other two cards — is fun. Part of my strategy = trying to get into a situation in which I am aware of all four of my cards’ values. — then make a smart decision about how well that may put me against the other players. But even when I have deduced all four cards, I have to continue playing the game with my memory. The player with a great memory suddenly has a better shot at winning the game — their information is more ‘reliable.’
    • So why not let a player have a “look” row and an “unseen” row? If at some point, I have seen the card, it goes in my look row — this way I can take another look at any time. Or…allow everyone a piece of paper so they can make notes. The focus of the game doesn’t change: figure out what you have and try to trade cards in a way to lower your own score. When you think you are there, push-your-luck and trigger the end game.
  • Dream Home — This is a silly one, in my opinion. As a whole, Dream Home focuses on card drafting, set collection, and pattern building, while utilizing cards with powers that can give bonus points or extra abilities. The wrinkle is in the rules’ stance on roof cards. Your end-game scoring is impacted by whether or not you were able to create a full set of same-colored roof cards — but you have to just remember what you put in your roof pile. Why? What is the point of not letting me look back through that pile and make sure I know how many purple roof cards I have?
  • Survive: Escape from Atlantis! — The focus of this game is trying to successfully maneuver my pieces to the mainland. On my turn, I will take actions to help my Meeples move closer to safety (hopefully) or I can make sure your Meeples have a tougher time (i.e. get visited by man-hating sea creatures). Winning, though, is not just about getting the most Meeples to safety –> it’s about getting the most VALUABLE Meeples to safety (so much for the Meeple Equal Rights Movement). That alone is the heart of the game and is very enjoyable. Once again, the design team decided to include memory into the game. Not only do I want to get my Meeples to safety, with an extra focus on my higher-point guys…but I have to remember who is who. Wait, did I put the 6-value Meeple at the front of the boat and leave the 2-point guy swimming? or vice versa? I put Mr. 6 Points in the boat, right?
    • From a theme perspective, I feel like I have to imagine that my socially diverse crew of island misfits were captured by natives, forced to wear identical costumes, and then sent running when news of a pending volcano sent locals into their private hidey-holes. Once again, why do this? The values of the Meeples are hidden information. I know where I put everyone during setup, but my opponents don’t. But why does it remain hidden from me? Why can’t I double-check while planning my turn? Or let me make a little scratch paper map to keep track of everyone. Let the strategy required for the game take center stage and not be uprooted at times by a memory requirement.
picture from cardboardrepublic.com

What is your take on memory? Do you agree that it is a separate skill and ideally should be separated as a required task in strategic card or board games? Any thoughts on why it gets included?

For more gaming discussion, follow me on Twitter @boardgamecrock1

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