Le Petit Nicolas

It is usually described as a series of children’s books, but actually also makes a good, if not better read for adults: “Le petit Nicolas”, witten by René Goscinny and illustrated by Jean-Jacques Sempé (“Der kleine Nick” in German; “Little Nicholas” in English), stories about a small boy and his friends, all of whom exhibit really short attention spans even for children their age, breaking into fights all the time (and reconciling on the spur of the moment) and driving their parents, teachers and all other adults in their vicinity into madness while usually being oblivious to the fact that they are doing anything wrong.

In one story, Nicholas visits a friend, and that friend’s father suggests they play chess. He explains the rules to them and then leaves the children alone. They begin playing, but Nicholas is almost immediately bored with the game and starts to make up his own rules, displaying a somehow evocative creativity related to the basic idea of the game being a battle between two armies employing different types of troops. It doesn’t take long for the boys to use marbles as cannonballs to knock their opponent’s pieces down, dropping them from above pretending to be airplanes and trying to hit pieces which are hidden all over the room behind furniture and other objects.

Of course, this causes a lot of noise (and possibly smashes some stuff), so finally the father rushes back to his son’s room, horrified that the children have managed to turn the quiet game he taught them into such a rumpus. Nicholas has to leave, but the boys agree that chess is actually a lot of fun and they should play it again soon.

Now what made me talk about this story on my Magic blog? Glad you asked! The answer is: It’s Tuesday today, and that means that on Daily MTG another article by Adam Styborski went up. In his colum, he talks about alternate variants to play this game. He heavily favors multiplayer formats, especially non-team variants introducing a large diplomatic element with everchanging temporary alliances, and he is always looking for additional randomizing of game events, embracing for example the rules for Planar Magic.

In short, he is assuming the mantle of little Nicholas when it comes to Magic. Do you like the basic game idea of being a planeswalker able to cast spells and summon monsters to fight for you, but exploring Magic’s strategic depths is over your head or at least beyond your attention span? Styborski comes to the rescue! Erase any advantage skilled players may have over you by stuffing as much aditional randomness as possible into the game’s dynamics, then, just to be sure, overwrite whatever Magic-inherent strategy is left with the politics of a multiplayer game!

Nicholas, too impatient (and possibly not bright enough) to appraise the intricacy of chess decided to make the game about a skill he possessed: Throwing marbles at things. The sheer fun of physical activity also made the determination of a winner less relevant. Of course, that’s the kind of behaviour you can expect from a nine-year old (give or take a year), hyperactive boy.

But this is also exactly what many casual players do! They do not possess the skills needed to be succesful in a competitive frame, duelling under the restrictions of predefined formats. Of course, they express this differently, calling regular Magic “boring” and looking for ways to introduce more “fun” into the game, just as Nicholas did with chess. And just as he ended up with shooting marbles all over the room, they end up with a completely different activity requiring different skills as well, even if they still use Magic cards, just like Nicholas still made his game about the chess pieces, and just like him they care less about determining a winner and more about experiencing the action.

Now, there’s certainly nothing wrong with having fun throwing things at stuff, as long as nobody gets hurt and nothing gets broken which isn’t supposed to! And, of course, there is also nothing wrong with playing free-for-all planar magic using commander rules and having fun with it. Be aware, though, that you’re not playing Magic anymore, just as Nicholas is not playing chess anymore, even though he’s still making use of chess pieces in some way; and also understand that the game you feel is more “fun” is certainly not superior to regular Magic at all, just better suited to your degree of competitiveness, your willingness and ability to acquire strategic insight, and the length of your attention span.

(Note: I rarely play chess, because I find that game too mentally taxing for my taste – my attention span is too short for it. However, I recognize this doesn’t mean it is a bad or boring game at all, and even if I might someday invent a variant using dice to determine what happens when two pieces fight, I wouldn’t dream of calling that variant “chess” anymore, and even less claim it were in any way an improvement over regular chess!)

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One Comment on “Le Petit Nicolas”

  1. jashinc Says:

    In the past I used to play a lot more chess than now.
    One reason therefor is to play an enjoyable match of chess you need an opponent on your power-level. If your opponent is weaker, you’ll smash him, if he is stronger he will defeat you regularly. In my opinion this span of an equal opponent is much more narrow than in other games.
    The other reason has to do with chaos. Chess is a very structured game with no element of randomness. In the last five years or so, I began to prefer more chaotic games with hidden information.
    Nowadays I rather play Stratego than Chess and I prefer Doppelkopf to Skat. And I absolutely HATE Dominion! I don’t really understand why anybody who knows Magic should play this vastly inferior game!

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