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Leader Bashing - A Response

Will M. Baker

May, 2002

In his article Involvement, Leader Bashing and Newbies, Jeff Ganong notes an incentive for converting new gamers: "The more people that play games, the more games that are made and the cheaper they become." To this I would add that, with more players in one's playing community, there is an easier time of meeting a game's requisite number of players. Also, an increased player pool means a greater chance of finding compatible gamers, gamers who share one's gaming interests and in whose company one delights. Because I see games as an exciting way to spend time with someone, the game loses much of its meaning if my fellow gamers are not people whom I particularly care to know; conversely, even a simple and inherently boring game can become worthwhile if played with close friends. Thus it is to my advantage to introduce newcomers to the world of gaming. Greg Aleknevicus writes that he is fortunate to have "plenty of people with which to play games" ("Missionary Position"). I aspire to find myself in just such a fortunate situation, but as yet, no such luck. Therefore I share in Jeff's interest to attract newcomers.

I agree with Jeff's assessment of involvement. In the case of Risk, one player can gain a substantial lead and thus diminish other players' ability to affect the game. When a player is eliminated from the game, that player's involvement has been negated, and the player has been guaranteed a loss. In reading other Games Journal articles I notice an overwhelming agreement that part of what makes a game great is that each player, right up until the end of the game, has a chance of winning. Risk, according to this definition, is not a great game. Still, Risk can be useful (not to mention fun) to introduce newcomers to the world of gaming.

Because of its simplicity, Risk allows a new player to grasp, almost immediately, a sense of a winning strategy. As with any game, there will be strategic intricacies that unfold only through repeated playing, but Risk, more than many games, is straight forward: having more territory, more continents, more armies, and more Risk cards is better than not, and one acquires these boons through conquering and holding territories. The implementation of this "conquer and hold" agenda will vary, but it will only take a few minutes for most newcomers (though not all) to develop her or his own tactics. Thus I would say that regardless of whatever shortcomings Risk might have, its mechanics are accessible, and its goal realizable.

A game like Settlers of Catan, on the other hand, is not as straight forward. Settlers's careful balance among expanding, upgrading to cities, investing in development cards, etc. is far less intuitive than Risk's "conquer and hold" strategy. A newcomer might know that ten victory points are necessary to achieve a win in Settlers, but how to secure those victory points will probably seem a bit cloudy at first.

What Jeff calls "leader bashing" could certainly help to acclimate a newcomer to a game, as having a common enemy will unite new and experienced players, allowing a newcomer the guidance of a pseudo-teammate. Sadly, it might also be the case that a new player will be coerced into various leader-bashing schemes (without fully understanding why), and be discouraged by a diminished sense of control over her or his actions.

In my experience, it is often helpful, as an experienced player, to play with open holdings when newcomers are involved. Unless the newcomer finds this condescending, or really likes to puzzle things out independently, open holdings can hasten the introductory process. In this case, by "open holdings" I mean sharing all information with the newcomer: the contents of my hand, my strategies, my assessments of the power dynamics within the game, etc. Even if this means divulging information that will be to my own detriment. Many a game I have lost partially due to such disclosure, but it has been worth it. When I sacrifice a winning edge in favor of "training" a new player, I am investing in my own gaming future, helping another gamer along a path toward contending in the game at a skill level comparable with the others in the gaming group. I certainly hope that, when teaching me a new game, others see me as an investment too. I try to keep in mind, too, that one's initial impression of a game might be tightly bound with one's chances of winning; not that the newcomer needs to win in order to enjoy the game, but certainly getting stomped outright can't leave a favorable impression on someone.

One final thought. Jeff proposes, as I understand it, that a leader's refusal to accept the "switch places" offer suggests that getting leader-bashed isn't all that bad after all. I would offer the following alternative view: when one agrees to play a game—understanding that the goal of the game can be achieved by, and only by, implementing a strategy that adheres to a predetermined system of rules—one accepts the premise of the game. If, during the game, another player proposes an alteration to the rules, that player is challenging the premise of the game (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since many a 'good' game can be made 'great' by tweaking its rule system). Declining this proposal might only demonstrate one's desire to adhere to the original premise, even if it means losing. It might be considered a hollow victory to win, but not according to the rules with which one began playing.

It's no fun being targeted as the leader; it draws too much attention to oneself, it unites opposing players into an anti-leader alliance, and it carries with it a stigma, so that even if the perceived lead is diminished or transferred to another player, still the 'leader' might be mistrusted for the rest of the game, and, consequentially, continue to be targeted. Regardless, I would rather have the masses turn against me, would ratherlose the game but take pride in my efforts, than swap out of my 'side' at the first sign of trouble. In short, getting leader-bashed is bad, just not bad enough to make one want to change the nature of the game, a sort of forfeiture.

- Will M. Baker

GGA - Will originally wrote this as a letter to the editor. I felt that there were enough interesting ideas that it deserved to be printed as an article in its own right.

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