Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Small victories

A couple weekends ago I had one of my geeky buddies over while my wife was at work and we indulged in one of our shared geeky hobby/pastimes. (Yes I am being coy about exactly what this is but all will be revealed as we go along here, I assure you.) As the afternoon was winding down we got to talking about our respective jobs, where we share a lot of common ground because we’re both government contractors, and he informed me that his entire office would soon be moving from the well-west-of-DC northern VA suburb where it is currently located (and which is conveniently close to the nearby suburb where my buddy lives) to smack-dab-in-DC (which, obviously, is inconveniently far away, as I am only all too well aware).

I expressed my sympathies but also, as is my wont, attempted to find a silver lining in this development. So I pointed out that maybe he and I could get together for workday lunch once in a while, since we’d only be separated by a Metro stop or three.

To which my buddy had a single nonsense-word exclamatory response: “Dreamblade!”

How is it possible that I have been blogging for over a year, exposing my nerdy underbelly for all teh interwebs to see, and I have not yet talked about Dreamblade? This is probably owing in large part to the fact that I just haven’t played the game very much in the past year or two, but here we are on a Wednesday with the subject recently re-invoked in my mind, so prepare yourself for an onslaught of dorkitude as I finally shine the spotlight on an obscure game that ends up reflecting a lot about me. (We were gaming, my buddy and I, just to be clear about the activities of that weekend in question, but it was a completley different though equally dorky game than Dreamblade.)

There are certain aspects of geek subcultures which take seemingly innocuous words and redefine them almost to the point of becoming unrecognizable, and “game” is one of those words. My gut instinct is to explain Dreamblade by comparing it to chess (really an even closer analogy would be the chess-like game that C3PO and Chewbacca play in Star Wars but let’s not get ahead of ourselves here) but that breaks down almost immediately. If I were seized by the spontaneous urge to play chess with someone, or teach them to play, or something like that, I could go to any Wal-Mart and buy a cheap plastic chess set and be good to go. But Dreamblade is a collectible game, which bottom line means that there is no way to buy the complete game. (Not retail, at any rate. Maybe with some creative eBaying.) What one is expected to do is buy the pieces for the game spread out in multiple boxes, bearing in mind that each box is sealed and has no guarantee whatsoever as to which pieces are inside. In other words, you could buy two boxes, each with four pieces in it, but end up with two identical sets of the same four pieces (unlucky, sure, but theoretically possible). Some people will go crazy buying booster after booster trying to amass every single piece for the game, while others will content themselves with a respectable subset thereof.

You don’t need every single piece in order to play the game (and in fact, to be totally fair, there is a core box which includes the necessary game board and the bare minimum number of pieces required for the game to work) but the more pieces you have the more interesting the game can become, because each piece works differently, and some pieces work better with each other than others, and so on. You might be starting to glean how this becomes like crack to hardcore geeks, but let me spell it out: geeks tend to be completists when it comes to any subject that attracts their acquisitive interest, and geeks love systems which are simultaneously highly complex yet also entirely graspable with sufficient application of effort, and geeks really do love to compete at things they are good at and emerge triumphant (perhaps because, sociologically speaking, the experience is a day-to-day rarity for them) … so a game which provides exponentially higher levels of possible strategic combinations the more of it you happen to own? Just hook it up to my veins, please.

So back to the chess analogy. Dreamblade is a two-player game in which you and your opponent vie for control of a board, although perhaps a bit more literally than chess. In chess control of the board is only worthwhile insofar as how easy it makes it for you to capture your opponent’s king. In Dreamblade you move your pieces around, your opponent does the same, and at the end of your pair of turns all areas of the board are either unoccupied, occupied by both you and your opponent, or occupied by only one player. Certain areas are worth points if occupied only by one, and whoever has the most points wins that round. First one to six rounds won wins the whole game. Each player has sixteen pieces to start with, just like chess, and the board has only twenty-five areas, as opposed to the sixty-four squares of chess, and each piece (usually, for the most part) can only move one area per turn, which actually starts to make it sound like an elegantly simplified version of chess, no?

Except of course it’s not, because of everything I led off with about collecting hundreds and hundreds of pieces and selecting a different combination of sixteen of them every time you play, but also because the pieces can fight each other to the death when they’re in the same area (this is where we come around to the Dejarik table on the Millennium Falcon). So each piece brings different advantages and drawbacks to bear when fighting another piece, and the conflict is resolved via rolling specialty dice (of course) and so it becomes a much more chaotic and arcane game than chess.

Conspicuous even from a distance ...
And it looks it, too, because these hundreds of different playing pieces are not nearly so demure as the classic chess motif of a monochromatic column with a stylized head that resembles a crown or miter. Dreamblade pieces are sculpted and painted to look like two-inch high brightly colored 3D nightmares (hence the name of the game, or at least the “dream” part, whereas the “blade” is partly intended to evoke the combat-system engine of the gameplay and is also co-opted as an emblem for wildcard-type game effects that I’m just going to gloss over right now if you don’t mind). Of course this heightens the collectability, because it’s much more fun to admire (and much easier to covet) a well-rendered albeit bite-sized armored dragon or anthropomorphic spider or straitjacketed werewolf or whathaveyou than something more subdued and abstract. And overall it gives the game a cool, unique aesthetic right in the geek’s wheelhouse, the one with Boris Vallejo murals painted on the walls.

But my point is that if two guys who work together were to, hypothetically, go to Starbucks together on their lunch break and order some food and drinks and then sit down at a table, unfold a Dreamblade board, and start setting up rows of garish miniature monsters on the edges of the tabletop, it is safe to say that other patrons would notice this and some of them might even come over to find out what exactly was going on (and possibly whether or not the sacrifices of pigeons in view of the tiny evil idols was imminent). I am of course referring to things that my geeky buddy and I have actually experienced (except the pigeon-sacrifice part) back when we used to work together. Which explains why his reflexive reaction to the thought of us once again lunching together wasn’t nonsensical at all, in context. Dreamblade lunches used to be the highlight of our workweek.

And they were significant for me because they represented the first time in my life, at the ripe old age of thirtysomething, that I was willing to indulge in a hobby I enjoyed, in public, with no regard for what complete strangers might think. As a growing geek, I figured out pretty early on that my passions were not exactly mainstream. Very often the social downfall of the geeky is that they are too smart for their own good. Geeks like things that other people either outright dislike or are essentially unaware of, and geeks are also very good at constructing ironclad arguments as to why the thing they like has inherent worth, and shouldn’t be stigmatized, and might be enjoyed by more people if they gave it a chance, and so on. And because the logic makes sense to them, they assume they can make the convincing case to anyone within earshot, but any attempt to actually do so generally makes things worse. It’s fairly ironic that one of the tenets of Star Trek, which is the High Church of the Geek (and how do we know it’s a church, class? Because an archaic word for “church” is “kirk” and oh MAN how long have I been waiting to drop THAT reference!), is that only aliens are logical, and therefore humans are not (at least not entirely) and yet geeks are constantly frustrated and disappointed to encounter human beings who are not swayed by logic (and who, incidentally, consider the geek fairly alien).

Anyway, where was I? Right, my own tendency to avoid the truculent geek position of defending my own geekiness. I valued fitting in highly and just compartmentalized my geek interests with interactions with my geeky friends, and never tried convincing a cheerleader that the long-running subplots in comic books were almost identical to the long-running subplots in soap operas in hopes that she and I could bond intensely over the Defenders comics I could introduce her to. I almost never made the first move in outing myself as a geek to someone I had just met, but if he/she indicated ever having played an RPG or been a fan of a Japanese cartoon, I would tentatively start to compare notes. I’m not really sure why all of that translated toward strangers the way it did, like I assumed if some passer-by saw me reading a Dungeons & Dragons novelization in the park I’d be verbally or physically assaulted and ostracized from mainstream society forever. But that’s the way it went, I just refused to fly my freak flag unless I was already docked in the safest of ports. Until my buddy convinced me of the Starbucks lunch/gaming combo’s viability.

Not to say I didn’t feel slightly self-conscious about it, but the fun of the game simply outweighed the discomfort. And that includes the interactions with non-strangers, as well, because in order to have the game available at lunch there would be pieces sitting on my desk and my buddy’s desk all day, which would draw curious inquiries from our bemused co-workers. I give my buddy all the credit in the world because their looks of weirded-out-ness never ever seemed to faze him (maybe it did, but he never let on) while I squirmed and deflected to the bitter end. Ceasing to care what strangers thought about my hobbies was a big enough step.

And now the prospect exists of once again not caring what strangers think when my buddy and I bust out our bizarre miniature grotesques in public for some fun at lunch, which I’m pretty excited about except for how wincingly perverse it sounds when I put it like that. Clearly I still have some work to do.

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