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The Odd Annals of Key Quest: Losing Well

by teaspill


I play a lot of Key Quest. Usually, it’s fairly uneventful. You and the other players move around the board, you play a few mini-games, someone wins. Occasionally, however, some very odd things can happen. Let me tell you about one round in particular...

The game began wonderfully for me; I had rolled a three and landed on my alignment square. Not only that, but I was granted my favorite power-up: the Super Catapult. Immediately my mind swam with how I would use that power-up to catapult myself across the board, collect all of my keys, and finally win the game.

Then my opponent had her turn... and she stole my catapult.

Oh, I was incensed. I shook my metaphorical fist in her metaphorical direction and selected a few choice words from the Warnings menu. And I smiled.

Of course, that was only the beginning. We each landed on the treasure chest at least once. We foiled each other’s plans for winning multiple times. The game tide turned, and turned, and each time we responded with our power-ups in an attempt to discover which of us was the cleverest, which of us would win. It was the most intellectually stimulating and challenging game I had played in quite some time. I had to revamp my plans half a dozen times. I loved it.

When I landed on a mini-game square, I saw the root of her exceptional skill with power-ups. “Oops,” she put into the chat box, and I felt like a cad. I had presumed that my landing on a mini-game square was conceding a key or power-up to her, as is usually the case when I land on such spaces. I simply thought that the nearness of the square to the ending door was worth the risk of her gaining that marginal benefit. Alas, she could not play at all, and I felt compelled to apologize when the game had ended.

There were no hard feelings. After all, she already had the transporter helmet, and was able to transport herself right next to the quest door... and place me in that dreaded no-man’s-land between the Faerieland house and the bottom of the board. In the end, I had been the fool, and I laughed aloud when I saw what she’d done. She was poised to win the game in one turn, and all because I had been careless enough to move forward.

She rolled the two that she needed to land on the quest door, and I began to congratulate her. Then she did something unexpected: She went for the treasure chest instead of the game-ending door. Suddenly, I had a fighting chance to win. I quickly assessed my power-ups: two tornado rings and a misdirected compass. The tornado rings were about as useful as Sophie the Swamp Witch’s meowclops, but the misdirected compass... would have been useful if I was in my opponent’s position. Drat!

And then, with that very thought, an odd idea struck me. She could use the power-up, and it was of no use to me. I could wait for the dice to decide the winner, but that almost seemed unsportsmanlike. Nothing about our game had relied much upon chance; it was skilled play and skilled parry over and over again. Why should I let the dice end this with a simple race? I couldn’t. Not after a game that enjoyable.

Now, I normally play to win. And because I am handicapped by my lack of mini-game prowess, I play hard. I can tell you the best and worst ways any player on the board can use their power-ups at any given time. I can tell you the shortest and most efficient ways to move from any part of the board to any other part of the board. I know the board play of Key Quest. I know it because I cannot win any other way, and I really like to win. My opponent was the same as myself, at least as far as her gaming handicap was concerned, and yet she was giving me that fighting chance at gold.

That was it. I couldn’t fight the urge any longer. I took my Misdirected Compass card, and I used it. On her. I collected my last few neopoints on the board just before I watched her token turn around and proceed into the end-game door.

I was thoroughly satisfied, and closed my Key Quest connection with a smile. She earned that win: through great tactics, yes, but also through kindness.

Many have suggested that Key Quest would have done well as a single-player game. There are good reasons for this. A lot of nastiness can come out of multi-player games. Players would not have to deal with the effects of other players cheating, quitting, or suffering a game-ending glitch on the other side of the internet. (They would, of course, still have to deal with glitches on their own end, but how else would we little minions amuse Sloth in single-player games?) Neither would they have to suffer from the abusive neomails which, I’ve heard, occasionally fly about after games of Key Quest. There would be no taunting, no gloating, and no more spite left in the game.

But this, the bad half of multi-player gaming, only really consists in some people’s resistance to being decent human beings. In the end, that has little to do with the game itself. Daydreaming about a single-player version of Key Quest ignores the other half of the matter: the fact that games like the one I reported above are possible. No amount of coding could capture the nuances of power-up play that you can encounter in a skilled, human opponent. More than that, no amount of coding would choose to aid you for playing a game well.

I suspect that a lot of the unpleasantness that can arise from Key Quest stems from a sort of amnesia: When you are trying frantically to collect gold keys, when you are considering the neopoints you’ll earn when you finally win that paint brush, it’s very easy to forget that you’re engaging in a game with another human being. It becomes easy, then, to thoughtlessly and needlessly use power-ups just because you can. It becomes easy to quit when you realize you’re losing. It becomes easy to skip your turn to make your goal, that gold key, easier to reach.

But sometimes, be it through clever tactics, lively chat, or in-game acts of kindness, you are reminded that your opponent is human. And there can be real joy in that discovery.

May you all find such a good game, and such joy in your fellow players.

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