Alone Among Nobles
Nobles is a snack. Like John Clowdus’s Pocket Galapagos, it’s a bite-sized solo game preoccupied with the movement of cards from one place to another. Unlike that game, Nobles also taps into the joy of putting things into their proper arrangement, even when — perhaps especially when — it doesn’t feel much like a game at all.
Before we pick at the scab-like definition of “game,” let’s talk about what Nobles is and why it’s such a pleasure to operate.
On the table two types of cards have been dealt into thee piles apiece. The first type, events, are challenges you’ve been called to surmount. The second, nobles, are the cards you’ll use to surmount them. In pretty much every case, this process revolves around discarding nobles. Winning a battle, for example, requires you to discard two identical nobles or any three mismatched nobles. Since the game ends the instant any of your piles runs out, you’ll most likely want to go for that first option.
Except maybe you’d rather wait for the proper arrangement. Battles lose their sting when you spend veterans; those crusty boogers are so accustomed to war that they hop straight into a different pile rather than dying. The same goes for other exemplars of the nobility. Expansion events grow more costly as you cross off more of them, but the baroness counts as three cards toward their fee. Feasts are expensive, but debutantes refuse to budge when paid as part of their cost. Maybe you’re facing two coronations at the same time. Not to fret: an archivist, discarded for an event, completes all of that type currently on display.
This isn’t only about timing, although timing matters. It’s also about knowing when to move your cards around. The aforementioned archivist can also swap a pending event with one that’s already been completed. The construct and shade can bring deceased nobles back into play — although be wary of the latter, since discarding a shade for an event will kill off an extra noble. At any given time, you’re matching nobles to events, controlling the pace of each pile’s depletion, and trying to set up powerful plays without clogging up your kingdom.
It feels great. Every spent card is a sacrifice. Every gain changes those six piles in interesting ways. Better yet, in stark contrast with most of Clowdus’s oeuvre, it never feels overly procedural. There are four phases to a turn, but two of them are there to ask, “Did you lose? If not, take another turn.” I guess Clowdus couldn’t help but upgrade “take your turn” into a phase. We all have our addictions.
When I say Nobles doesn’t always feel like a game, I’m not speaking in some exclusionary sense, the way some folks deposit titles like The Mind into an imagined second-class category. “It’s not a game,” they’ll say, with an undercurrent of distaste, “because it’s an activity.”
Nothing so belittling. Rather, Nobles doesn’t always feel like a game because sometimes it feels more like a soothing exercise. It’s meditative, even. Something that occupies my hands and a portion of my brain, just enough that everything else putters down and leaves me undertaking these definite processes — shuffling, checking for the right cards, counting how many remain in one pile or another — without shoveling coal into the boiler that rattles my higher brain function into full awareness. The effect is not unlike the games I’ll play on my computer when a few minutes need to be whiled away. A hand of solitaire, a few rounds of Minesweeper, some hex puzzle thing I’ve been obsessed with. Minimalism not as an aesthetic, but as a headspace.
I think the effect is intentional, at least on some level. When I first played Nobles, I was frustrated that there wasn’t a “win condition.” Sure, you’re trying to solve these events, and solving more is better than solving fewer. Even so, there’s no recommended score. My personal best is 20 events cleared. I imagine it’s possible to clear all 24 with the right timing and preparations and luck. My game-playing brain protested. What’s the number that divides a failure from good enough from genius-level play? Is 14 merely acceptable, while 15 means I should be teaching at Harvard? Has only one person ever reached level 23? Only after a few plays did I realize that the score wasn’t the objective anyway. It was the process. The meditative act of play.
Yeah, yeah, I can hear the clamor already, not so different from my initial mental disagreeableness. “See? So it’s an activity,” as though there’s some threshold, as with Nobles’ points, where a deck of cards transitions from activityhood to gamehood.
Call it what you like. Personally, I expect Nobles is more of a game than some of the overproduced boxes of plastic I’ve wrestled through. This is “game” as a distillate. Clowdus has taken a game and squeezed its essence through a fine cloth until what remains is a sort of game reduction. Does a game need multiple players? Of course not. Complicated actions? Perish the thought. Victory conditions? “Nah,” Clowdus seems to opine.
Game or not, I’m glad to have spent time with Nobles, both for the pleasure of managing its piles and for its more relaxing qualities. You can too, for free, either as a print-and-play or a Tabletop Simulator mod, over here.
A complimentary copy was provided.