Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Pit, and an Interview With a Competitive Friend

Age ain't nothing but a number
As I've become more and more immersed in this world of tabletop gaming, it's been easy to be consumed by the "hobby" game market and conveniently forget about - or worse, look down on - the millions and millions of people who play "mass market" games like Risk, Stratego, Uno, Clue, Whist, Euchre, etc in their regular play groups. 

For more than a century, at least four full generations of Americans have spent their evenings around the table playing a game about making markets and furiously trading cards in an attempt to collect sets and make money. It's not Monopoly - that mainstay of American tabletop gaming - but it is just as old. (Seriously, 1903 was a great year for game design!)

The game is Pit, and your great-grandparents learned it from their parents around the kitchen table after dinner, when the radio was newer and more interesting than Marvel's current cinematic universe and "Eurogames" meant the renewal of the ancient Olympics in Athens, Greece just a few years before. 

For context, watch this 30-second video of a family playing a game of Pit:

This video was uploaded on New Year's Day, 2011 - 108 years after Pit was designed and later published by Parker Brothers, and yet the experience is exactly the same as players would have had so many years ago. Pit is a time capsule akin to the crocodile, unchanging and pure as the world around it morphs and twists and bends. I wonder if people will be playing Splendor in 2122? 

The rules are simple - for each player in the game, there's a set of nine cards of a certain good (wheat, corn, coffee, sugar, etc), plus a Bull card and a Bear card (in an expansion for the game). Each player is given nine cards randomly, and players trade equal sets of cards (1, 2, 3, or 4 cards) with each other until one player has a hand full of a single good. The fastest to do this is the winner, and gets the points printed on their good (wheat is worth 100 points, sugar is worth 65, high-fructose corn syrup is worth -1 billion). Players play rounds until someone hits the agreed-upon points limit (say, 350 points). 

I adore Pit as a party game and really enjoy playing it at Nerd Nights and around the house with a large enough group (I think it needs at least 4 people to really be fun, and it shines with more than 6, up to a maximum of 8). Though I adore tournaments and playing games for stakes, I'd never considered Pit to be "that kind of game." Until just recently, I had no idea of the depth of the world of Pit players, and their love for competitive play! 

I found out that a friend of my wife's was a new, but regular, competitive Pit player, and I absolutely had to get the scoop on how to play Pit competitively and what games "normal" people were playing for fun these days (her answers in blue): 

1) Howdy Brenda, thanks for answering a few questions. So, who are you, and how'd you get into playing games? 

Hi! I’m Brenda, or as my friends call me “Bren.” I’m a super fun, go-lucky, talented wife and mom of 2 beautiful kiddos. My gig is fundraising and I’m okay at that. I play games with my family all the time, the usual: Connect 4, Chutes and Ladders, Monopoly, Uno, Trash, and my favorite Battleship. I guess I initially got into playing games when I was a kid and games always seemed to bring in the fun (and competitive) side of people.

2) I hear you play Pit competitively, which I'll admit I didn't know was possible. How long have you been playing Pit, and how did you first discover the game? 

Every game I play is competitive, it makes it more fun! I’ve only been playing Pit since March; my friend Cortney invited me over for a friendly game night, the cover was $10 and I fell in love!

3) So, how do you play Pit competitively? What's different about the game when you're playing for stakes instead of just playing a friendly game? 

I like to play games when there’s something at stake. It can be anything; money, chores, food, quiet time, or simply the good feeling of winning or being close to winning. I play Pit competitively by “buying in” to the game and setting a score that one must achieve (the first one to hit 350 points for example). I truly believe that I am sharper and more engaged when I am playing competitively; for me, it makes the game more fun.

4) Can you give me some strategy tips? We play a lot and I never win, so I could use the help! 

Have plenty of players, pass the bear, and don’t get hung up on having the most expensive commodity.

5) So, when you get your hand of cards, what's the first thing you think of before the bell rings? 

Lord, please don’t let me end up with that damn bear!

6) Is there a "World Series" for Pit - somewhere the best players come together and duke it out for "The Golden Bell" or some other awesome trophy? 

I don’t know, I’m new to the game. If there is a world series, I’d love to compete one day!

7) What other games do you play often, and/or really enjoy? 

Battleship, Uno, and Connect Four. I’d like to play more games similar to Pit – it’s by far my favorite.

Based on these responses, a few things are clear to me: 
  • I should be playing Pit more often
  • I need to get Brenda to join us for Nerd Night so I can introduce her to Splendor
  • The world of "mass market" games is still a fun place where people actually have fun
Seriously, it's refreshing to hear that folks still play the games I grew up with, that I eschewed when I first played Settlers of Catan and crossed through the Wardrobe into this magical, seemingly-hidden world of trains, space combat, zombies, and Renaissance-era city-states. 

It's a nice reminder that mass-market games are called that because they're loved by a massive group of people. It further motivates me to draw those gamers into the deep end of our hobby, but at the same time, it makes me want to wade over and try the classics again, and not just for the nostalgia. 

If you haven't played Pit, go pick up a copy at your Friendly Local Game Store, and if you can't find it there, you can grab it anywhere games are sold for $10-$15. If you're a game designer, a serious game-player, or just somebody looking for something to do with your friends other than drink IPAs and talk about Game of Thrones, give this old classic a spin! 

JR Honeycutt is a full-time husband and game-player, Community Manager at Level 99 Games, and co-host of The Nerd Nighters. You can find him on Twitter at @JayAhre or at a Friendly Local Game Store in Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas. Some of his reviews are also published in Ravage Magazine or at Tabletop Gaming News

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