My White Whale - Searching for the Perfect Game

In the timeless book, Moby Dick, Captain Ahab is seen chasing his white whale to seek revenge on the leviathan for injuring him in a previous voyage.  Melville’s protagonist is so desperate to catch his whale that he is willing to die in an attempt to succeed. Here, the white whale symbolizes something a person chases for a considerable amount of time that, in the end, may very well be unobtainable or nearly so.  Recently in board gaming, I’ve been pondering this idea of the chase—wondering if I’ve unknowingly been on the hunt for the perfect game to end my seemingly insatiable need for frequent cardboard acquisitions. Wondering if I may have found that game. Wondering if I’ve finally caught my white whale.

When I first discovered board games, I remember watching Wil Wheaton’s TableTop on YouTube.  The show introduced me to games like The Resistance, Dixit, Betrayal at House on the Hill, Carcassonne, and Pandemic.  They all possessed a new and innovative mechanic to explore.  Whether it was the social deduction and lying in The Resistance, the cooperative struggle in Pandemic, or the unique tile laying nature of Carcassonne, I knew that I needed to experience these games in person—to explore their analog worlds around a table with friends.  In the following months I acquired most of these games and commenced Friday board game nights. My cardboard addiction had just begun.

In the following year I explored more complex titles as my board gaming tastes evolved.  I journeyed across the sprawling countryside in Mage Knight—slaying monsters and leveling up, I triumphed over giant scorpions in an effort to maintain control of key temples in Kemet, I dueled mages and summoned vicious beasts in the bloody arena of Mage Wars, and I terraformed land to grow my civilization in Terra Mystica.  Regardless of the game I was playing, there was always some new mechanic, theme, or idea to explore.  Board gaming felt so fresh and alive.

I’ve often wondered about the primary driving force for my desire to purchase board game after board game, and I know I’m not alone in what The Secret Cabal Gaming Podcast humorously dubs the cardboard acquisition disorder or CAD.  I think at first my diagnosis of CAD was surely a direct result of discovering a new hobby that possessed so many enticing and differing avenues to explore; whether my new acquisition introduced me to worker placement, hidden movement, drafting, multi-use cards, modular boards, an elaborate combat system, pick-up and deliver, variable player powers, engine building, or auctions—the list goes on—there was always something new to uncover for the very first time.  Sitting on the board gaming subreddit or BoardGameGeek it’s clear to me that The Secret Cabal and I are not alone in our mutual self diagnosis of CAD. It only takes a moment to view any number of posts showing off someone’s collection of fifty board games after just one singular year in the hobby (a much more extreme case) to see others suffering from CAD too. That’s nearly one board game acquisition per week! If CAD is really this common in the hobby, surely there’s more to it than the desire to experience something new.

Looking at my shelf, I count at least twelve games that are unplayed, each of these games representing a moment in time where I researched and concluded that they would surely be my next gaming love and something I would need to get to table immediately.  However, my initial urge to play these new acquisitions oftentimes quickly died down after opening them, leafing through their rulebooks, and admiring their components and boards. If I wasn’t willing to invest the time to immediately learn a game after buying it, was it actually worth the purchase?  Why would I insist on buying a new board game when I already have multiple unplayed on my shelf? Sure, you could legitimately argue that there is a dopamine response to the physical purchase of a new game; that maybe the game you need in a given moment may, in the next moment, go out of print; or that perhaps this new game is a key part of your perfectly curated collection full of games across numerous genres sure to please any guest that may grace your table.  While these points are—for better or worse—valid ways to fall ill to CAD, I would like to raise the counterpoint that my specific case of the made-up disorder was also driven by my subconscious hunt for my white whale—the elusive board game that would topple Alchemists as my favorite board game of all time and cure my need for acquisitions by significantly reducing my internal hunger to purchase new board games.  A game so deeply enjoyable and replayable that I would be content playing it over the next hottest release. Ironically, my CAD, which is—in part—fueled by the search for my white whale, may have actually been cured by finding that elusive board game.

For a game to cure my acquisition disorder it would need to excel in four categories: replayability, easiness to get to table, depth of gameplay, and the ability to maintain my persistent enjoyment and interest.  Before I unveil my Moby Dick, let me first dissect a few of my favorite games to see where they fell short of this achievement. First, let’s look at Gaia Project.  This game managed to improve the nearly perfect Terra Mystica, which has been a long time favorite of mine.  Gaia Project definitely delivers on depth of gameplay and I’m always thoroughly entertained when playing it, but my interest for it fades in and out like most board games.  I’m definitely not trying to get it to table week after week, which means I’ll be more prone to searching for that next acquisition to purchase. Hannibal & Hamilcar, however, has consistently been on my mind for the past few months and is engrossing in its deep card driven system.  It even boasts two complete games in one box! However, between its long play time, niche gameplay, and relentless ruleset, Hannibal & Hamilcar has proven to be an immense struggle to get to table.  In fact, every game in my recent top 35 games list falls short in at least one or two of these four crucial categories.  Even Alchemists, the game sitting proudly at the top of my favorite games list, can be difficult to get to table and isn’t always something I’m reaching to pull off my shelf.  So as you can infer, for a game to excel in all of my required categories, it clearly needs to be something special.

My white whale was accidentally caught when Dylan offered to gift me his copy of go, an ancient abstract that predates the Zhou dynasty during 1046 B.C. to 256 B.C.  The irony that my white whale is not a modern board game is not lost on me. When I first sat down to learn it with my wife I knew it would be something I would want to explore further, but I didn’t realize to what degree.  On the surface, go is dead simple. It’s a two player head to head abstract similar in nature to the western game of chess. On your turn, you must place a stone down on an intersection of the board. Your objective is to surround your opponent’s stones to capture them and secure territory.  Whoever holds the most territory at the end of the game wins. Yet, once you dig a little deeper, you’ll find that go is so much more than a simple battle of territory. To see what I mean, I recommend watching one of two fascinating documentaries on the subject that can be found on Netflix. The first is AlphaGo, which covers Google’s DeepMind subsidiary that designed the first ever artificial intelligence to compete with one of go’s most revered professionals, Lee Sedol.  In the second film, The Surrounding Game, the American Go Association is in search of its first two professional players.  Both films are fascinating and well worth the watch even if you have zero interest in playing go.

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Looking back at my four categories, I’m confident that go excels in each one of them.  First, go is obviously replayable; it would have to be to remain relevant thousands of years after its conception.  With roughly two hundred possible moves every turn on a 19x19 go board, no two games will ever play out the same. According to the AlphaGo documentary, go is considered to possess more configurations to the board than atoms in the universe.  Let that sink in for a moment! Secondly, go is a breeze to get to table because the initial ruleset is easy enough to teach nearly anyone.  You can also play on smaller boards (such as 9x9 or 13x13) to reduce playtime and it’s incredibly simple to play online against people around your skill level or on an app against AI.  Thirdly, go is deeper than nearly all modern board games. People have been studying this game for generations. In fact, some parents in East Asia send their children to specialized go schools where they play go and study go problems for ten to twelve hours every day in lieu of a traditional education in hopes to one day become a professional player, which is a little sad considering.  Go is so deep that even the very best players in the world will never master the game. There is always some new tactic or concept to uncover and explore. Finally, go also excels in my fourth and most essential category. Since discovering go last month, I’ve thought about it numerous times each day and have interacted with the game in multiple ways. I’ve purchased the CrazyStone DeepLearning Pro iOS app to practice against varying difficulties of AI, I’ve downloaded the Tsumego Pro iOS app to practice daily go problems, I’ve joined the /r/baduk subreddit (baduk is the Korean word for go), and I’ve even purchased the book Go for Beginners to solidify my foundational understanding of the game and to expand upon entry level tactics and strategy.  YouTube has also proven to be an invaluable resource when learning smarter play. Clearly go unequivocally holds my interest, but it is also consistently entertaining in its tense gameplay.  Even when I repeatedly lose against AI, I can feel myself improving, making that eventual win even more satisfying.

For the first time since I’ve entered the modern board gaming scene, I’m content.  I haven’t felt the urge to rush out and acquire the next game on my wishlist, or to play the new hotness everyone is raving about.  The fear of missing out is no longer a worry, and I fully intend to sail upon this wave for as long as it lasts. Go has become a passion of mine that has perhaps transcended my love for board games.  It proudly floats on its own in my mind—elegantly, beautifully, perfectly—undeniably a game for the ages. Nevertheless, the jury is still out as to whether go is genuinely my white whale or if it too will lose its potency and eventually fade away.  Regardless, it has clearly been the most effective remedy to my CAD to date and I can’t wait to see where its wave will take me.

If you too, dear reader, have set sail to hunt for your white whale I hope you catch it.  If you do, cherish it, explore its depths, and share it with your friends. However, I speculate that it is possible for your white whale to take on one of many forms.  Perhaps it will reveal itself to be a perfectly curated collection of games that meets all of your gaming needs or something else entirely. Regardless of what it reveals itself to be, I wish you the best of luck on your journey.  

Safe sailing!

Nick Northcutt1 Comment