When Being Terrible at a Game Is the Most Compelling Way to Play


I have a perfect record at The Manhattan Project, a worker-placement board game where you compete with other players to develop the most successful nuclear arms program. I have never won it and, if I am being honest, I’ve never come close to winning. I could pretend that it’s some kind of high-minded subversion of the game’s theme (“The only winning move is not to play!”) but the truth is I’m just well and truly garbage at it.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/pav9jn/when-being-terrible-at-a-game-is-the-most-compelling-way-to-play


Now that I’m an adult and game time is at a premium, I don’t often give myself the luxury of flailing at a game. Either I use my accumulated gaming knowledge to grok a game immediately, learn a game through disciplined cultivation of skills (or looking online for advice), or I drop it after struggling. But I do recall being absolutely crap at Worms Armageddon when I was younger. Not fully understanding physics or cause-and-effect, I just ended up destroying the whole map and watched what happened. Luckily, the game rewards chaos with chain-reactions and cheeky one-liners that had 10-year old me in stitches. I then took Geometry and got way better at the game, but it was never as fun as when I chucked grenades and bazookas at random.


On twitter I dropped Tharsis the space yahtzee game about tackling random calamities in order to survive a mission to reach Mars. The decisions you have to make between holding dice for fixing a module, research, using in a module, or using your crews
ability makes each decision nerve wracking, and was the most fun i had streaming a game.


So the thing about the above is it doesn’t appear to describe being bad at the games discussed.

Not as good as the people who’ve really grok’d something and so can play towards maximised efficiency / performance isn’t bad (you will always be stomped by that pro SC2 player, doesn’t make you bad). Playing a game all about tweaking your progress through a huge tech tree of resource transformation is all about choke points. Like, that’s how the design works and it sounds like the path of improvement there means you’re (at least a few games in) actually quite competent. When I play a rogue-like, the point of the game is that I will die - reading that as being bad at the game seems to create a rather weird notion of being ‘bad’.

I’m definitely one for saying that games are played “right” by enjoying them (and in multiplayer, not infuriating everyone you play with). Like, there is very little “bad” play. There is sub-optimal play, there are tiers of skill (especially in a game designed for symmetric multiplayer), but rarely do people persevere with games that they are actually bad at (where bad means you don’t understand what you’re doing and are not actually improving, because then you’d already not be bad any more).

I’ll never be the best at basically any game. I think that’s pretty standard, there are a lot of players and skill ceilings are generally designed to be quite high (in any game worth playing - tic-tac-toe is such a trivially futile game that there really isn’t much point playing it). But if I don’t understand how a game works or how my inputs feed the system (which I’d say is what it means to be bad) then I’d say it feels just as futile as the actually futile game and so I will either rapidly improve to not be bad or find something with which I can engage with in a directed way (towards whatever is the goal condition I have chosen - you can play a game just because you enjoy the movement or visual results from play without ever engaging with the designed goals but I’d say there you still need to understand your inputs and how they are linked to your goals; basically the “there is no wrong way of playing a game” discussion doesn’t actually map to “bad”).

Edit: for a concrete example of what isn’t ‘bad’ - Exquisite Corps ($) can be infuriating watching Dan play, but he’s not actually bad (even if his outcomes do seem to lean quite heavily on RNGesus). Actual bad play would very rapidly lead to game over because that’s how XCOM works (you simply can’t run several missions doing all the worst moves without the game becoming impossible to continue).

I think, especially in the streaming landscape (where you can’t “tutor” your friend as you watch them play on the same sofa), that we sometimes conflate seeing mistakes we wouldn’t make with being ‘bad’ at a game. When it’s far more about being ‘less good’, even if we assume that everyone is aiming for the same goals.


Pyre is definitely more interesting if you take at least a few losses.

@Navster I tend to have the same issue. Because I know I’m generally only going to see a game through once I want that playthrough to be as complete as possible, which is a shame because I tend to end up talking myself out of some games or ruining them for myself just by looking into optimal play requirements.


I’m absolutely horrid at Slay the Spire. I love the game, but seem to get completely screwed over by RNG for building that perfect deck. But I love it, and getting my face bashed in every time I play.


Kerbal. Space. Program.

Is there any greater joy than the act of pure creation, only to immediately confront your own fallibility in a fiery explosion of solid rocket booster?

I have built many competent rockets. I have landed on the surface of different planets and moons, and I have even returned successfully and intact from… some of them. These are all incredibly satisfying moments, there is no doubt about that, but they pale in comparison to my wild speculation with building. With only a rudimentary understanding of how physics and aerodynamics work, I slap together rocket parts like highly explosive lego, then strap my poor hapless victims in for the ride.

Have you ever built a rocket designed to reach the outer planets only to forget the support struts? Once ignition starts and all of your boosters start flailing wildly like fronds in the wind, you know deep down in your heart that this rocket is a one way trip across the river Styx, but you still try and fly that baby all the same. Maybe it holds together for longer than it should, and you get that glimmer of hope. Soon you’ll be out of the atmosphere and it won’t be as punishing, there won’t be as much stress and you might just pull this off. Right until you overcorrect and suddenly you’re flipping over and rocketing straight at the ground and then the structure mercifully gives and the entire thing ignites.

My favorite times in that game are all the results of failure. My favorite DIY solution that, somehow, worked was a return trip from the moon. I had been too generous/sloppy with my fuel getting off the surface, so I could only manage to get my kerbal into a steady, and achingly close earth orbit. A few hundred more km and I’d be scraping the outer atmosphere, which would very very slowly decrease my speed and return me home. I had no more oomph, and no faith in my ability to recreate the orbit, so he was doomed… or was he? The one thing at my disposal were the thrusters on the EVA suit. I timed my orbit, space walked out of my craft, and used my EVA jets to push against the side of my craft. Sure enough, I managed to just barely get in touch with the atmosphere, and after close to 100 orbits around the planet, I was finally slowed down enough to re-enter and make a safe landing.

That’s a really terrible way of bringing an astronaut home, and I clearly should have planned my flight and fuel better, but it was certainly the most memorable excursion into the stars.


I am not very good at Hitman (2016), maybe not terrible, but absolutely not good, and that turns the game into a wacky slapstick farce where Agent 47 just Mr. Magoos his way through every single mission. It also makes the rare moments when a plan flawlessly comes together that much more special! The game seems to be at least in part designed to accommodate this level of play though, which I thoroughly appreciate.


this is why I find roguelikes so gosh darned engaging.

I’m TERRIBLE at them, but every run provides a new lesson, every mistake gives me a new nugget of wisdom. So little of the knowledge that a roguelike asks you to know is rote ‘do x when you get to y’, its tactical knowledge that the player gains by trial and error or research. I may never git gud at roguelikes, but I think I like it better that way.


Oh my god, I love KSP. You’re absolutely right how KSP makes you feel both awful at the game and incredible when you figure out how to jury-rig your way to victory. Honestly, my favorite time in KSP is when I’m near the beginning of the tech tree and I’m trying to figure out how to get to the moon and back with 30 parts or less. :smiley:

Especially when I first started playing, missions could be real nail biters when I realize, “I have just enough delta-V to get off the surface and into a stable orbit, but nothing else” or “I don’t think I can even take off from the Mun with this little fuel left” (Edit here because I just remembered: My wife got a good laugh at the hour and a half I spent trying to learn orbital intercept mechanics to save Jeb who I’d put into a solar orbit early on in my game!). Add to that the fact that I didn’t know about quicksave or quickload (F5 and F9, respectively), and I faced the very real possibility that I was about to lose 45 minutes of my life if I had improperly gauged my ability to get home. :smiley: Such an incredible game.

The only issue I have with KSP at this point, though, is that my knowledge of delta-V and orbital mechanics ruined so much sci-fi. :cry: “They couldn’t possibly make that orbital correction in that vehicle… oh no, I’ve become that type of grognard!”


One of my all time favorite mistakes ended in the death of my best pilot. I was plowing through the career mode trying to get as much science as quickly as possible, and you get a lot of random little quests you can tick off by gaming the system and making the most basic of all rockets.

So I had a quest to reach a certain velocity, and I knew it was simple. Take the biggest solid rocket booster I had, fire it blindly into the sky, and move on. I strap an AI into the command module, add some fins to keep it somewhat straight, and fire the damn thing. I don’t even pay attention to it after it hits the goals, I just move on, save, and build my next rocket after cashing in my science.

As I put the finishing touches on it, and before I launch it I notice my pilot is some zero star scrub. What happened to my three star pilot? He’s not in the roster anywhere. I try to remember if I have any ships in orbit that I didn’t land, and then it hits me. Rockets automatically come loaded with a pilot. You have to manually remove them when you want to fly just an AI.

Sure enough, I check on my suicide rocket, and there he is, happy as a lark, plummeting to earth with the uncaring pull of gravity. I didn’t build a charge to separate the capsule from the booster. I didn’t build any parachutes. There is no escape from the death trap I absentmindedly trapped him in. He made a trip thousands of kilometers straight up, and he would return in much the same path. I watched his entire descent until the feed cut out. I owed him that much.


Oh no! Hahahahaha! I’ve totally done things like that before! “All right, now! Time for the final descent, just need to pop the parachutes and… wait. Did I seriously not add parachutes to this thing? WHY DID i ALREADY DISCONNECT THE ROCKET STAGE?!” *insert kerbalnauts plummeting to the ground at ~150m/s* :cry:


Rather than saying we’re terrible or bad at a game (in expressing this concept), it might be worth creating some new terminology for it.

Maybe you’re an expert in “finding novel flow states not originally intended by the designers” (can find an extremely engaging way of playing the game “wrong” when measured against the most common way in which people play it)? I think that helps to illuminate what the initial examples (and most examples in this thread) are not about.

I’d say things like Slay the Spire or FTL (common with many roguelike-likes) inherit the designed failure as the actual dominant play style before you become extremely familiar with every single mechanic and detail of the game. I’ve always been lucky (FTL and StS both threw me first-hours wins based on lucking into getting the right drops and stumbling down a path to a dominant strategy) early on and then I’ve gone into the games to poke at the edges and find other strategies (which eventually becomes the mastery of being able to deal with the RNG of many different runs and steer them all towards their own success points). But that early phase isn’t being bad, it’s the process of playing the game and how it introduces the details of all the different mechanics and trade-offs via many runs. That that process is fun and extremely engaging is core to a game working: without the rather freeform tutorial then very few would keep playing or would just look to a FAQ to guide them down a fixed “easy” path (giving up on runs early if the RNG didn’t offer the options to follow the guide).

KSP is similar in the way it provides this massive possibility space and some guidance (unlocking parts, mission offers, etc when in career mode) with the intent of it being extremely fun to find out the pain points in the process and refine your understanding of how things work. But I’d not call it being bad at the game to walk through these extremely long processes of slowly grokking more and more of the extremely complex set of systems.

The lack of skill / terrible / bad at them language initially completely threw me on this topic. Because it feels like what we’re talking about isn’t unintended play styles that ignore the intended flow and goals of the games being talked about (or just “failing to win”). This isn’t subversive or even non-standard play. It’s the learning process in a set of genres of games. Not being bad but feeling out the edges of the systems and how they interact (by which you reduce the unexpected - the difference between being able to build a poison deck in StS as long as the RNG is good to you vs being able to start working up the Ascension difficulty modifiers as the RNG no longer prevents your progress and you tack to new deck designs as you play).

That is almost like describing yourself as bad at reading because you don’t know the complete, detailed plot of a book until you’ve finished reading it.

Strategy games are often roguelike-likes?

If a game doesn’t kick my ass at least a little bit in the opening hours, I tend to get bored pretty quickly. The most fixated I ever become with games are competitive ones that I feel somewhat competent at, but can’t completely crack to where I win all the time. Street Fighter 4, League of Legends, Rocket League, For Honor, Puzzle Fighter… Games where I get beat a lot, but I can dissect what happened after a match and see a path forward in how to get better. For every loss I take, the next match is a chance at redemption. These are the kinds of games that I lose sleep to after saying “one more match” for hours after my partner’s gone to bed, and can’t stop thinking about long after the TV and console have been turned off.

Unfortunately my current lifestyle as a father of two young kids doesn’t have much room for games that I can afford to get fixated on when I’m not playing, or even reliably devote 15-20 minutes to uninterrupted. I’m playing Splatoon 2 a decent amount (yay three minute matches), but only on a surface level. Mario Tennis Aces just came out, though, and that game looks to have some real competitive legs to it that I’m pretty interested in…


I got into an almost dangerous place with this exact idea with Rocket League around when it was a playstation Gold game.

Most games that I fall into for hundreds of hours always tends to be games that have a smallish barrier to entry, but an incredibly high skill ceiling - ESPECIALLY when that skill ceiling necessitates a need for incredibly high fine-muscle control. For this reason, Rocket League became my obsession.

It wasn’t until about 4 months and maybe 500 hours of play that I had to force myself to quit. Towards the end my partner had to impose a rule that I was never to play the game with any kind of drink in my system. Because at that point she could see my skill lowering and my rage at my own inability to play as well as I could completely sober turn me into a(Inward-facing) demon.

Shit got BAD.


I felt that way and then I just…beat the game twice in a row with the soldier and rogue (forget the in-game names) classes. I think Slay the Spire does the roguelike thing the best of feeling like you’re progressing not because you’re just grinding away at the game, but because you’re learning something. I just figured out some metagame stuff (going for relics as much as possible, deck construction and to stop picking up cards at a certain point) and the game just clicked for me. I still think this game fits in with the article, kind of, because I think that the learning process was incredibly fun, but also because I think the triumph of “beating” the game wouldn’t have been nearly as satisfying if I hadn’t both struggled with the game earlier as well as felt like I learned so much from my previous runs.


Prey: Mooncrash has been kicking my ass hard, and it’s been fantastic.

Immersive sims have been my gaming flavour of choice for what, 15 years? With such familiarity to these games I’ve never really struggled while playing DX, Dishonoured or even the main Prey campaign. I just know these games too well! I’ve always wanted something in this genre to really rough me up and make me sweat.

So it’s been wonderful for Mooncrash to land, slap me in the face and then have the audacity to remind me that every time I die, it’s all my fault!

I keep forgetting things, getting trapped, screwing up objectives, running out of time, breaking my body, irradiated, Moon Sharked, starved of ammo, surrounded and all manner of scenarios that don’t really crop up in the main game. It makes the masochist in me extremely happy.

… It’s the dark souls of the immersive sim?


My time with League of Legends largely came to an end after looking inward and thinking real hard on why I’d want to play a game where I knew going into a potentially hour-long match that there was a good chance I’d feel physically and emotionally worse afterward. I still appreciate and play competitive games here and there, but I forced myself to absorb some tough lessons about my ego and the place of those games in my life.