Friday, November 16, 2007

Lumber for Wool*

Ever since I heard Tycho desperately explain to Gabe (23:00) why "Settlers of Catan", a game in which excitement is derived mostly from raw good exchange rates, is "awesome," I've been wondering why I like playing it so much. In a lot of ways I find it totally frustrating:

-You can lose because, even though you're on the best statistical numbers, "4" gets rolled fifteen times in a row and you never get any resources.

-You can lose because the person in last place isn't paying attention to the score and makes a big trade with the guy who's one point from victory.

-You can lose because you ate all the M&M's. That part isn't in the rule book, either. It's not a formal game mechanism. But if there's a bowl of M&Ms on the table and you eat them all, someone could get mad and place the robber on you, and you'd be screwed. Full of delicious candy coating, but screwed.

Yet I keep coming back to Catan, convinced that this time I've figured out the unstoppable strategy. So I own the computer version. I'm jealous of Xbox 360 owners and their online edition. I'm crossing my fingers that the PS3 or DS will get the game eventually. And then one day it occurred to me:

Isn't this what gambling addiction is like?

I mean most casino games are just as ridiculous. A guy spins a ball around a wheel to see where it lands. Someone rolls some dice to see if certain numbers come up. You pull a lever to see if the right combination of fruit appears. It gets dumber the more you think about it. You might as well be losing because you ate too many M&Ms.

Yet people keep coming back, convinced that this time they've figured out the unstoppable strategy, ready to put down more money just for the chance to try it again. Gambling is so much like "Settlers of Catan" that it's scary.

And then one day it occurred to me:

Isn't that what baseball is like?

I mean baseball is just as ridiculous. A guy throws a ball and another guy tries to hit it with a stick. If he doesn't, he's out. And even if he does, he's probably out. But he MIGHT hit a home run! Just like the little ball MIGHT land on 32, and just like I MIGHT roll an 8 and get 4 ore that I can trade to my 2:1 port for some clay, that guy MIGHT hit the ball a certain distance and score a point. It gets dumber the more you think about it. The "team" might as well lose because a machine came up cherry-cherry-lemon.

Yet people keep coming back to the TV, chips in hand (see what I did there?), convinced that this time their team has an unstoppable strategy.

When I hear a baseball announcer talk about how a certain player has a .300 batting average against left-handed pitchers named Larry on days of the week that start with "T," it makes me think of craps tables, and of development cards.

*This is the proper way to offer that trade. At least once in every game someone says "I have wood for sheep!" and the table breaks into laughter.

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