Friday - The Introverse, chapter 6
Embracing the cold, calculating machinery of inhuman interaction. For fun!
As fans of the Machination Log will know, I spend an unwise amount of energy scrutinizing my own actions to ensure I’m doing the right things in the right proportion at the right time. Sleeping, exercising, eating, working, playing...the whole shebang. When elements in that cycle get disrupted, things can spiral out of control, leaving a nightmarish heap of wadded up, twisted intentions in their wake. As with most other humans, that abort sequence is less a trigger than a slow burn over many days as my guard drops in one area or another but, on occasion, it is caused by a spike. Last Thursday was messed up by a spike called Friday--not the weekday, but the board game by Friedemann Friese, the man behind Power Grid.
Board games are a means to corral friends or amicable acquaintances around a physical table for the purpose of crunching context-sensitive logic puzzles. Friday does this except without the friends part. This is a single player board game. I found out about Friday a few weeks ago when I bet Nick LoCastro over morning tea (a scenario exactly as contrived as it sounds) that a single player-only board game of some repute must exist. The bet seemed perfectly safe given the sheer volume of games made in the past decade or so and I was vindicated but I was also surprised that someone with the pedigree of Friedemann Friese produced it. His standout work, Power Grid, is a gold standard eurogame (the name given to a wave of board games made in the past decade that are more about the elegance of their mechanics than the interaction between players). Friday seemed like an odd departure for him, but a shovelful of digging shows him to be far more diverse as a designer than I assumed. In the case of Friday, Friese had been in the midst of his “Friday project”, where he designed games exclusively on Fridays and blogged about them (nur auf Deutsch unfortunately so reading them in depth might be a challenge, though I’m tempted to try at a later date). Four games shipped out of that project: Black Friday, Friday, Copycat, and Futterneid (which sort of translates to “food envy”). The game I stumbled into is the highest rated of the four on BoardGameGeek with a 7.3.
For the uninitiated, BoardGameGeek is the go-to encyclopedia and forum for board games. A 7.3 nets Friday an overall rank of 266th on the site. The highest rated game right now is Pandemic Legacy Season 1 at 8.4 and the lowest is Tic Tac Toe at 3.3 (the worst of the 12,647 games listed). This puts Friday in the 97th percentile. Though anyone who has been on the web ought to know better, I feel a responsibility to the stress the biases of the board game community that votes on these titles if you intend use BGG as a purchasing guide. These are people who will eagerly lean over a table to consider a board state dictated by dozen page rulebooks for hours at a stretch. They do this while in the presence of other humans they largely ignore other than to consider how these people might interfere with their goals. It’s borderline antisocial behavior and, though I can’t reasonably argue I’m not one of these people to at least some degree, Friday is really an improvement on that attitude in a way: it saves my friends the trouble of having to come over to stand in as my enemies.
In the heat of my fact-checking victory (against Nick, no less), I put Friday into my Amazon cart and nearly checked out, but a re-examination gave me pause. For all the shit I talked about their adherents in the previous paragraph, board games can be a good, frugal communal activity so long as things don’t get too bogged down in refereeing or analysis paralysis (uncommonly abbreviated as “anal paral”). Stories shared with other people also tend to be more interesting, though I’m obviously trying to cultivate counterexamples to that at this very moment. There are also many, many hours of video games built for one sitting in network-attached storage near Seattle that Gabe Newell has personally authorized for my use at no additional charge. I didn’t need a single player board game; in a way I was about to pay for a video game that required clean up. And so I removed it from the cart.
Two weeks later, Friday showed back up in my recommendations on Amazon with the label “FREE Same-Day” under it. I’d seen it before, but I had not yet experienced the raw indulgence of same day shipping. Now seemed like the right time. I loaded Friday back into my cart and discovered a catch: Same-Day is only free with qualifying purchases over $35. Unlike most board games built by logic-craving lunatics, Friday was a mere $15. Undeterred by this second indirect admonition against spending money proffered by a Seattle tech billionaire, I also picked up a proper Tichu deck (my old ad hoc one getting long-in-tooth) and a copy of the aforementioned #1 jam Pandemic Legacy, pushing the total comfortably past $35.
There are obvious jokes to crack about how innovative it would be if Amazon were a real place you could go to at any time and just walk out with your stuff but, when a grey mini-van pulled up to my house eight hours later shuttling a box full of boxes with my name on it, the world went quiet for a moment. There was no rebellion or heartache or gunfire or politics. Everything was alright. As I scooped up the box, I knew salvation was real, and that we would have it someday. I waved and said “thanks” to the delivery man who couldn’t give less of a shit about my display of gratitude as he jumped in his car to make other dreams come true down the street. Malaria, nuclear proliferation, college loans...these forces will fall. We’re going to make it. It would be fair in this moment to ask me what it’s like to have a hot pizza at my door half an hour after thinking to get one. The short answer is sinful, but there’s a longer answer and a lot of it seems to boil down to the beauty of abstraction. Amazon isn’t real to me. I know they have warehouses full of board games and vibrator accessories, but I’ve never been to such a place. The delivery truck shows up and they leave evidence of questionable packaging procedures; everything prior to that is an ether of supply chain management. When the Jet’s Pizza guy shows up, I can visualize the entire exchange from call to assembly to baking to delivery (and I usually do). I’ve been in the facility; hell, I’ve made a pizza before. That’s still enough process for me to get warm fuzzies from, but web stores are on another level. Imagination steps into the picture and, in no small way, the machine of it plays into the appeal (much as it does in the games that just arrived).
An artificial intelligence professor by the name of Pedro Domingos said the following, and it has stuck with me since I first heard it:
“People worry that computers will get too smart and take over the world, but the real problem is that they’re too stupid and they’ve already taken over the world.”
Though the tide on this attitude is shifting ever so gradually over time, our society’s relationship to computers has always been adversarial. This opposition ranges from garden variety name-calling when they don’t do what we want all the way to an evangelism of their role as the end of humankind. A few dozen Hollywood blockbusters in which anthropomorphized machines wreak havoc on our world come to mind when pointing fingers about this: one of the many ways Hollywood has managed to poison public perception on an important topic. One might argue causal directionality here concerning whether the audience or the directors are responsible for the hysteria but, given that I and 96% of the populace were blissfully unaware of what an Avenger even was prior to 2012, I’m willing to come to sweeping generalizations about LA’s influence on our national dialogue if only as petty retribution. In any case, we’re afraid of computers taking over our lives. The problem is that this is shifting the blame away from the real source. Computers did not design the apps and pictures and articles that are cluttering your otherwise “real” life: people did. Even in Amazon’s case where machine learning does a lot of the legwork for recommending products, Amazon is outsourcing a lower-level job (finding products you want) to the machines so it can fulfill a higher-level goal (compel you to buy things). This analogy extends in all directions. Techwise, a computer is just a fancy combination of dumber tools. The robotic arm that punches holes in the side of a car body is a handful of pneumatic levers, a drill, and a set of instructions about when and where to move. We wouldn’t call any of those technologies advanced by themselves. Conceptually, the way machines facilitate wasting your time on Facebook parallels the way they expedite the process of packing and sorting boxes for shipment. They are helpers. It’s up to you to make sure they are helping you towards your own aims. They’re just tools, after all, and I happen to adore the expert use of tools. When a box gets to my front door that quickly by the power of a system with so little correction and fine-tuning from human hands, it makes me happy. This implies that the employees at the pizza place kill this buzz for me but as a tangent this one’s been gargantuan so for now I just have to promise I’ll elaborate in a future installment. But the answer is yes.
It’s now 6 pm. I unwrap Friday and open it (that’s a board game, remember? We’re talking about a board game named Friday). It’s a compact thing: a 2-inch high, 6-inch square box (I know because I guessed). Inside are
1. A rulebook.
2. A smaller supplementary booklet with the components list, the setup guide, and a scorecard for recording your attempts.
3. Three cardboard cardholders
4. 22 green wooden figures that look like a man with no arms wearing one of those puffy jackets.
5. 72 cards of varying content.
I follow the instructions with meandering success to get a game going. There are pictograms on all the cardholders hinting at various rules. As with most games that do this, the drawings are useless unless you already know how to play the game, at which point you stop paying attention to them. I appreciate the attempt at region-agnostic pathing these represent, but very few of them I’ve encountered honestly help.
I squint at a vegetation token depicted in the rules that doesn’t appear to be in my box. Upon rotation, my armless puffy jacket men devolve into the pictured plants. This form confusion is a common issue with the blocky wooden tokens used in many board games now. Friedemann Friese’s game Factory Manager is one of the gravest offenders on this point with its seasonal workers who were apparently all victims of some horrific arm-mangling incident; on this basis, I’m not about take shit for misinterpreting his tokens. That said, something would certainly be lost without these cookie cutter wood shapes in the box. I know I personally like to assume, given the uniformity in quality and design principles, that there is a wizened dwarf in a cottage up on an unpaved Alpine ridge responsible for the production of all wooden board game tokens everywhere.
In addition to fitting the theme of the blog that spawned it, Friday is named after the captive aide to the protagonist of the novel “The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver’d by Pyrates.” You are presumably Crusoe in this adventure, fighting your way through the unknowns of an island jungle and by fighting I mean hurling your companion Friday at them. Each turn, you draw two hazard cards, use your discretion as a distinguished English gentleman to choose between them, then draw cards with Friday’s face on them in an attempt to overcome the difficulty rating of the chosen hazard. If you succeed, you get to keep the hazard card and use it in future altercations. If you fail, you lose life points (the vegetable tokens) but can opt to remove Friday cards you find unhelpful. In both instances, your job is to hone Friday by addition and subtraction into a tool of your own salvation by the time the pirate ships weigh anchor. The game provides an exceptionally on-point lesson in offshore politics: never get your own hands dirty.
(Having just remembered that the Friday cards depict a white guy, I went back and read the flavor text in the rules. Apparently YOU are Friday guiding Crusoe around. That sounds like some revisionist nonsense to me, but I also haven’t read the book so who knows?)
The scoring pamphlet asks “How many games did you need for your first victory in Level 1?” (a reference to the easiest of 4 possible ways to set up the game) and “Can you achieve a glorious victory with 80 or more points?”. The pamphlet provides space to record 12 games total, suggesting a pretty slight learning curve overall. I fancy myself a sharp of board and video pastimes so, with the air of a dog who knows what’s what, I deal out my first game with optimism. There are three hazard phases in the game plus a final boss pirate confrontation. I die halfway through the first phase with a score of -73 which, for those keeping track, puts me just 153 points shy of my goal on the easiest difficulty setting. I, of course, was just getting my bearings so that doesn’t smart much. Next game I make it to the second phase and score -33 points. That’s a healthy bump and it makes things seem hopeful on paper, but I’m really skeptical of how much better I could have done with any apparent strategy. Games of logic are notorious for having oblique tactical layers, however, and over the next few games I explore as many of them as occur to me. I try to beat every hazard card that comes my way; I let bygones be bygones; I try to forestall running through my deck, which reduces the number of aging cards I have to deal with; I try to run through my deck as quickly as possible to bring the hazard cards I’ve won with better attributes into play faster.
After game 4 I realize I must be missing something in the rules or the cards. At the risk of sounding as arrogant as I am, I consider myself exceptionally skilled in the kind of problem-solving required to win board games and the game is simply not mechanically dense enough for me to be misreading the strategy this much. This can’t just be me. I run back through the rules, but find nothing. I keep going, tentatively convinced that winning Friday is more about luck than I would have expected coming from the maker of Power Grid. I stop recording my scores after game 7 (none of which best my second game high of -33) and by game 10 I am in an earnest flow state from flicking cards around at a rate only governed by the speed at which I can do the arithmetic to abide by the strategy I’ve chosen. Fueled by a steady stream of random music and a well-documented obsession with both process and gambling, I blissfully agonize my way through loss after loss for about 4 hours. I have mastered sucking at this game and it feels really, really good.
I force myself to take a break at 11 o’clock: 3 hours later than I originally intended. As I frequently do when attempting to adjust my frame of mind I strike a match and watch it burn. The act transfigures wooden life and solid chemical order into charred death and smoky chaos by means of fire which, when combined with the sulfur aroma, is very therapeutic. It’s essentially indulging the first leg of a smoking habit, up to the point just before it gets expensive and unhealthy, but it retains a sensory and philosophical poignancy. The historical resonance and commitment to nihilism are missing, but I consider these losses acceptable for reasons any parent has surely informed you.
I browse my way over to the BoardGameGeek website. Surely I’m not alone. The reviews for this game have to mention, at least in passing, how hard it is to win. No glaring references pop up. One guy was apparently having a hard time on BGG but even he eventually made it and I saw nothing of the kind on Amazon. This will not do. I dive further into the forums for rule clarification, to see if there are any that are frequently overlooked. A thread from 3 days ago is titled “First Weekend with Friday (rules mistake and first win)”. This fellow cataloguer’s story mirrored mine although he apparently looked up strategies online for winning before he even started. Why you would do that for a single player game is beyond me, but I also know that I have natural aversion to heeding other people’s advice so I’ll buy that this is common practice. Regardless, it turns out we’d both done a poor job reading a rule that crossed over from one page in the book to the next and had been hemorrhaging life points for it since 7 o’clock (I’m not actually certain when my comrade began this loss, but 7 seems as safe a time as any).
Now I’m angry in a vague manner. I’m mad at Friedemann Friese for writing his rules in such a way that I misinterpreted them which doesn’t sound like it’s his fault but shut up. I’m mad at myself for not investigating this earlier even though I actually did that just not hard enough. But more than anything, I’m mad that it’s 11:30 and I’ve haven’t won yet. It is time to end this.
Game one under the new, correct rule system is a victory. I don’t even bother counting the points—we’re rolling and this is not over. I ratchet the difficulty up to level 4 immediately to get this shit over with. This adds a more potent early game aging card, puts an aging card in the Friday deck at the start, and reduces the starting life total from 20 to 18. Using a bit of strategic calibration from the previous experience of fighting through phase 3 and the pirates, I win this game with a score of 85 points, besting the benchmark for “glorious victory” on the score card by 5 points. I’ve done it. I suffered, overcame my poor reading skills and used my experience to achieve glorious victory at the highest level. I utterly beat Friday after it had been beating me for hours.
So why is this so unsatisfying? Other than a pocket of afterglow and a smirk that lasts all of eight seconds, there’s nothing in the wake of this success. I put the game back in it’s box without a fist pump or a vocalization of any kind. The mechanics, once interpreted correctly, are neat but I’m not sure what more I’ll get out of lugging this tiny box back out of the closet. Was I really doing this to achieve eight seconds of glorious revenge, or did the previous headbanging sour the whole affair that much?
Neither. The obvious truism to reach for here is that it’s the journey not the destination, but I don’t think that’s a complete explanation. The fact of the matter is I misinterpreted the destination. There are two experiential plateaus in board gaming that the players around the table are looking to hit and sustain. An ultimate victory over opposition is, of course, one of them. Winning validates your efforts and sates a competitive spirit. The other more subtle one neglected from the outside and frequently lost in the shuffle is, as Colonel John “Hannibal” Smith would say, loving when a plan comes together. When I was losing the game under poorly read rules, I kept going because I wanted to win but I enjoyed myself during that time because I was executing on a mission with variable tactical considerations from game to game and, even if the grand strategic objective wasn’t being met, these were little victories in themselves. They matter, as they do in all other pursuits, in this case more than the pie-in-the-sky big one I thought I was aiming for. I believe this to be a lesson worth holding close.