The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

Involvement, Leader Bashing & Newbies

Jeff Ganong

April, 2002

All gamers have a vested interest in attracting more players to games. The more people that play games, the more games that are made and the cheaper they become. Two important factors for converting potential players are balanced involvement and leader bashing. Both of these are found in German-style games.

Involvement

First, a definition: I'm using involvement here to mean the degree to which a player is actively participating in the game (e.g., buying, moving, attacking, collecting, negotiating, conspiring, etc.). Involvement is playing. If I'm playing, I'm involved.

Involvement is different than interaction. Take It Easy has sustained, balanced involvement in that each round every player places one tile. But it has virtually no player interaction. You can't have any impact on others' boards.

Involvement is also different from winning. In many games it is possible for a passive, disengaged player to win. In 8-ball, your opponent may pocket the 8-ball and give you a victory without you ever taking a turn. Although you've won, you weren't involved in the game. You never even played. I've observed games of Acquire in which the winner never made any mergers and didn't have any money for the majority of the game. Although they won, their involvement was less than those players who were able to make mergers and had to choose which stocks to purchase.

Turn based games have cyclical involvement. A player has a lot of involvement during his turn and then is less involved during others' turns. Although at any instant the involvement of the players is unequal, it may be balanced when the cycles are averaged out.

Many games have imbalanced player involvement. For example, in Risk players all start with the same involvement. They all begin with roughly the same number of territories. However, Risk is designed such that player involvement rapidly diverges. One player may gain many territories so as to increase her involvement, (i.e., increase her armies, her options for attacking, her time playing the game). Another player will gradually lose his territories resulting in reduced involvement with noticeably shorter turns and limited choices. Ultimately all players save one will lose all of their territories and be eliminated from the game. Once their final territory is captured, the losers have no further involvement. Elimination games like Risk are the extreme in involvement.

Of German-style games, Carcassonne is a good example of balanced involvement. Each player must play one tile and is able to place one pawn per turn. There is no elimination in Carcassonne. The rules encourage discussion as to where to place each tile so it is possible to have involvement even when it's not your turn. (On rare occasions, one player will have all of his pawns stranded which results in low involvement. Coaching of new players should eliminate this.)

Involvement is particularly important when introducing new players to games. Games with more balanced involvement should be more appealing to new players. For why this is so, we need only look at the extreme in involvement, elimination games: New players are less skilled than experienced players. When playing a game of elimination with a mixture of skill levels, the new players are going to be eliminated first. This may be great fun for the experienced player but is not likely to win many converts to gaming. If the new player wanted to stand around and watch, they would have chosen not to play in the first place. The fun in playing is in the playing. Involvement = fun.

Games with imbalanced or low involvement are not necessarily bad games for experienced players. Some simulations wouldn't feel right with balanced involvement. Elimination games, for example, can often be thrilling as momentum builds and ebbs. Experienced players can put an early defeat into perspective. They are more patient and willing to tolerate downtime for deeper strategy or realism. But these aren't best for new gamers any more than raw octopus would be a good introduction to seafood or John Cage to music.

Leader Bashing

One way to ensure a balanced game between players of unequal skill is leader bashing. Leader bashing has a bad reputation. The name itself is rather derogatory. The two chief leader-bashing complaints are: 1) Leader bashing makes early success irrelevant and 2) leader bashing results in interminable games. The general issues have previously been addressed by Richard Vickery
(http://www.med.unsw.edu.au/Physiology/School/staff/vickery/bashing.htm) and Greg Aleknevicus ("Player Interaction in Games" in Counter 16). The defense below is with regard to new players:

The next time you are losing early to the first variety of leader-basher, offer to switch places with them. Of course they'll refuse. Early success does matter in leader bashing games, it simply matters less. These players complain because they feel that because of leader bashing, the outcome does not necessarily reflect their skill. If I am better than the other players individually, why should I lose to them collectively? This apparent contradiction is actually an advantage of leader bashing games, handicapping. In the game of Go, handicapping is frequently used to make the game challenging for both players. The less experienced player is given extra handicap stones at the beginning of the game. The number of stones is really just a guess. It may take a few games to optimize this number. Leader bashing is a form of handicapping that evolves during the game. Repeated games are not necessary for the handicapping to be optimized. Such games automatically adjust to the skill level of its players. If the leader bashing of one player is too severe, there will be a new leader and the players will correct the handicapping. This is a nice advantage of such
games.

The other complaint, of interminable games, is less of an issue for games with new players. In my experience, interminable games tend to occur when the players are nearly equal in skill. If there is a large disparity in skill levels, one player will eventually break away to win. New players' inexperience will extend to their lack of skill in leader bashing. They won't be able to consistently prevent others from winning. I'm sure there are some games that are truly broken in terms of ending but these seem rare. However, to an early leader accustomed to winning who suffers through a lot of leader bashing, the game may seem interminable.

Leader bashing helps to balance involvement. These games frequently end with close finishes. In sports, a close finish that ended in double overtime is thrilling. This is great for new players. It is certainly an improvement to being eliminated the third round of the game. But it can seem humiliating to the more experienced player who loses to a beginner, hence the leader-bashing bashing. These players need to keep in mind that they did not lose to an individual but to the combination of players. A defeated Go player does not bemoan his handicap, but relishes the resulting challenging gameplay. So should the bashed leader. And should the bashed leader actually win, the victory will taste even sweeter.

Settlers of Catan has both balanced player involvement and leader bashing. Involvement is always high in that even during others' turns, players are able to collect resources and make trades. Player involvement will shift as the game progresses as some players will gain more production than others but leader bashing will ensure that the game is fairly even. There is no elimination in Settlers of Catan.

Most German-style games have both sustained balanced, involvement and leader bashing. This is likely because the classic German board games were designed for families. In fact, German-style games are sometimes called family strategy games. Games with these two qualities are more likely to get a request to play again.

- Jeffrey Ganong

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