Robert Frost hates unstructured play

Actually, the relevant quote is “I’d sooner write free verse as play tennis with the net down.”
In the most recent episode (15) of their Magic podcast DeckConstruct, hosts Alex and Dan go to a local Magic scene and ask people what they think of casual play, as well as how they’d define it. The consensus understanding of “casual” is “not tournament play,” as embodied in the phrase “It doesn’t matter if you win or lose.”
There is, of course, nothing wrong with this. If every game were about qualifying for a Pro Tour and a $25 entry fee, I’d be a pretty grumpy camper.
But even in casual play, there must be structure. A lot of the interviewees said that they liked how they could bring “any old deck” to a casual game, no problem. But there is a problem, inasmuch as without any particular rules, it’s hard to say what you can bring. Or, to put it another way, “Sure I can make a deck that sucks, but how do I make sure mine sucks as much as yours?”
In competitive Magic, this is easy. Format? Standard. What can I play? Anything in Standard. Put in the best cards, optimize your deck, try to win. Everyone’s on the same page.
In default casual, it’s unclear. This is social contract territory, because the “rule” really is “try to win, sort of, but not too hard.” If you go into the “tournament practice” area in Magic Online, you will occasionally run into people who haven’t made the best possible deck. You will run over them, and that’s okay. If you go into the “casual play” area, it’s entirely rockier. Hit someone up with a Stone Rain and you may find them complaining publicly that you suck for playing land destruction. Or perhaps not. Who knows? There are no hard-and-fast rules, and this kind of casual play often amounts to “whatever I don’t feel put off by.”
That’s a vague, vague rule to follow.
My preference is for structured play. Rather than the fuzzy implied social contract, set an actual contract. Play Standard. Play Extended. Play Highlander, Pauper, or anything else with defined rules. I want to be on the same page with my friends, whatever that page happens to be. The fundamental problem with the implied contract is that you’re trying to play suboptimally, and there’s no good way for everyone to accurately be equally bad. Someone may well accidentally bring an overly good card to the dance, and then they just keep winning over and over again, which isn’t fun for anyone.
Back when I played Mechwarrior a great deal, we had an explicit agreement across the tournament players to play “faction pure” forces (that is, forces derived all from one faction within the game, a situation not required by the game rules). We did this because pure forces looked better, and because pure forces came with inherent strengths and weakness that mixed-faction forces smoothed out. Had we not formalized this, the one person who didn’t care as much and showed up with a mixed force might well have walked all over the others — whether they really wanted to or not!
In gaming, as in the rest of life, I like my social contracts to be explicit. When everyone’s on the same page, it’s just that much easier to have a good time.

Games: Tinker and build list

I always have some ideas for games (board, miniature) or modifications to games running around in my head. Here’s at least part of my current idea/tinker list:
Salient – Salient is the name I’ve assigned to each of my successive attempts at rules for my old 6mm Epic line minis from Games Workshop, or anything else living at roughly that scale. In many drafts over the past couple years, I’ve repeatedly carved off big, meaty chunks of complexity. I like the latest version — it’s simple, and it should let me model “people versus cold, heartless aliens” pretty well with minimal fiddliness.
Commands & Colors: Star Wars – Commands & Colors is the basic engine that powers Battle Cry, BattleLore, Commands & Colors: Ancients, and Memoir ’44. As fun and straightforward as it is, I think it would work well with some of the land battles in Star Wars. The assault on Hoth, the battle on Endor, a host of battles from the Clone Wars — it would all work well within this engine. I’d just need to put together some playing pieces and, you know, a full deck of command cards.
Tunable Axis & Allies – The current incarnation of Axis & Allies starts the game roughly in the winter of 1941, just after the American entry into the war. I’d like to have versions “tuned” to different starting times, such as 1939 or even 1936. To do this, you’d need a “war entry” mechanic in the manner of the progress track from War of the Ring that shows how close the various nations are to going on a wartime footing.
MOSPEADA – The ‘human insurgency in alien-occupied Earth’ story told in MOSPEADA would work well, I think, as a card-driven wargame. I imagine that some of the CDGs on the American revolutionary war could be adapted with the most success, although even that has more out-and-out military actions than the MOSPEADA series tended to. A full treatment would model each of the successive attempts by the humans to retake Earth. As the human player, you know the assaults are doomed, but the goal is to cause as much immediate harm as possible and to get motivated troops to the ground, where they can continue to cause problems. I imagine there being a “frustration” track for the Inbit (Invid), showing the Queen’s progressive annoyance with Earth and humans in general. The human goal would be to push this frustration track to some level before all the proactive humans are captured or killed.
Shadows over Couruscant – This adaptation of Shadows over Camelot was suggested in a comment on BGG, forwarded to me by SSO (go acronymns!). The basic idea of the original Shadows is that players play the knights of King Arthur’s round table, going on quests and such — but one of them may be a traitor, secretly trying to destroy the knights. Porting this over to Star Wars, the story would be set during the prequels. Players could play different political figures, or perhaps members of the Jedi council, with one secretly serving the side of the Sith.