The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

Player Interaction

Greg Aleknevicus

March, 2003

When people discover that I enjoy playing games they most often assume it's computer games I'm interested in. Just as often they're surprised when I tell them that I very rarely play such games but spend a great deal of my time playing boardgames. While I can't deny that computer games have some very interesting qualities, they fail in one very important category: player interaction. The following are some thoughts I have concerning various aspects of this.

Multi-player Solitaire

I've noticed recently that certain games have been described as being "multi-player solitaire". These are games in which each player is, more or less, playing by themselves with limited interaction with others. Princes of Florence is perhaps the best example of such a game. There really isn't that much in the way of interaction in the gameóthe auctioning of items and the limited supply of freedoms, professions and buildings are about it. In my experience the limited number of items is rarely an issue (with the notable exception of the profession cards) and usually the only contentious item in the auction is the jester. It's this lack of interaction that's at the root of my problem with the game. Not because I don't enjoy the solitary feeling of the game but because I often feel that I can set my course very early and then simply follow it through. I know that I'll need a park in the first three turns and so I'll pick one up when I feel it's cheap. If someone else bids up the price, I'll buy the fountain that I also need. Perhaps I've simply been lucky, I've always done very well in the game but I've never felt as though I was in a real struggle. Even when it becomes clear that another player will beat me there seems to be very little I can do to alter this. My plan is to maximize my points; this remains true no matter the standings of the other players. By the time I realize that I'll fall short of someone else it's too late for me to switch what I'm doing.

I wouldn't say that this makes Princes of Florence a bad game, but it does greatly lower its appeal to me. I want there to be more interaction, I want my moves to affect everyone else just as I want my opponents moves to affect me. Certainly the game is popular and I think this opinion is in the minority. Ironically, I think that this lack of interaction is the reason people like it so much. There's something very pleasing about being able to play in your own sandbox without having some bully come along and step on your castle. You may not have won the game but you were able to build a little village and attract artisans and so forth and this can be rather satisfying. This lack of interaction can be a good thing.

True Multi-player Solitaire

In contrast to the above section, there are games that really are multi-player solitaire. These are games in which there is no interaction whatsoever. I'd say that the most common variety of these are "recognition" games. These are games in which you're required to identify a pattern or solution to a problem. In Set you must identify three cards (out of twelve) that form a "set". Bongo in action In Bongo you must identify the animal represented by the roll of seven (or nine) dice. In Ricochet Robot you need to show the shortest possible route for a selected robot. An interesting quality to all of these games is that despite the lack of interaction they aren't entirely successful when played alone. I've done this with all three games and while it's good practice it lacks the interest of playing with others. This is due to the need to have time pressure as a competitive element. Without this pressure there's less of a feeling of accomplishment when one identifies a solution. To be honest I find this to be a shame as these games are often ruined when played by people with great differences in ability. I can play Chess with Kasparov and while it's hardly a fair match I at least get to move pieces around. Playing Set with an expert is likely to result in me staring at the cards as she collects set after set. I don't actually do anything, which is hardly an enjoyable experience.

Not all multi-player solitaire games are of the recognition variety, the most obvious counter-example is Take it Easy. Often called "strategic Bingo" it has the quality that the game is satisfying to play alone (due to the scoring aspect) and thus can be enjoyed by players of differing ability. It's a better reflection of ones skill to play with others (often the really high scores are a result of fortuitous tile draws), but I've enjoyed playing the game many times on my own. In fact, I've played it far more often by myself than with others. Importantly, I would not consider this "practice" for a real game as I would with playing Ricochet Robot by myself.

Attacking The Leader

Those multi-player games that do have interaction often give rise to the phenomenon of "attacking the leader". That is, the other players in the game will focus their efforts on reducing the standing of the player perceived to be winning. This would seem to be a natural occurrence as each player is trying to prevent the others from winning and the "leader" is, by definition, the player closest to doing so. This whole issue can be a rather sticky one and there are two main points of view in this regard:

  1. If a game does not allow players to "attack the leader" then it results in the so-called runaway leader problem. That is, a player that does well in the first part of the game continues to increase his/her lead, inevitably resulting in victory.
  2. If a game does allow players to attack the leader then doing well in the first part of the game becomes irrelevant. If you do well at the start then everyone else will gang up on you negating any gains you may have made.

I think that both of these viewpoints are valid in a general sense, there are games that are poor because they exhibit one or the other of these problems. However, in the practical sense I think there are valid reasons why a designer might purposely want a game to have these qualities to some degree. I believe that it's fine-tuning this level of degree that determines the quality of a game.

In any case I'll address each of these points in turn:

  1. The easy answer to this is why shouldn't good play at the start of a game be rewarded? If a game doesn't then it would seem to render that part of the game useless. If a three-hour game only rewards meaningful decisions in the last half hour, why not just start the game at that point? The practical part of this problem is that if things are not kept in balance then you end up with the exact opposite situation: if a three-hour game has no meaningful decisions after the first half hour, why not end it then?
  2. I think it may be overstating it to say that the opening of a game is irrelevant if players are free to attack the leader. Rather, the "goal" of the first part of such a game is one of positioning rather than outright victory. If you can manipulate events so that others waste their resources stopping a frontrunner only to win yourself, well, that would seem to be worthy of victory wouldn't it? In fact, this would seem to be desired for games with a high "political" content such as Illuminati where this is the sort of environment that the game is trying to simulate. I also appreciate the fact that this imparts a very different feel to different phases of the game. Rather than being concerned right from the get go about acquisition of victory points there's a gradual shift in focus as the game progresses.

So, I do not believe that either of these situations are problems in and of themselves. Simply stating that a game does/doesn't allow players to attack the leader shouldn't be seen as a criticism of the game. It's how a game handles either of these issues that can be either a positive or negative quality.

Attacking The Loser

This is a sort of corollary to the above arguments in favour of attacking the leader, something I call "attacking the loser". Assuming that the game has a fair amount of interaction it's often the case that advancing your position is at the expense of another player. (See Zero-Sum Games below.) When a player is restricted from freely attacking any other player there often develops a situation where he's forced to attack someone that is doing poorly. I must say that I find this to be a very unsatisfying quality in a game. Everyone has had games that simply did not go well, sometimes it's just plain bad luck but it's rather annoying when the mechanics of a game seem to force this upon you.

Zero-sum Games

How do games ensure interaction between players? The most obvious answer is in how it distributes victory points. With many games this is simply an all or nothing issue, in Mississippi Queen you either win the race or you don't. Most other games do it in a more piecemeal fashion, you gain points or money throughout the game and the player with the most at the end wins the game. It's these types of games that I'm concerned with in this section and I'll use the term victory points (VPs) even if it refers to money, magic amulets or something else.

Available VPs in these games can be of the "open" or "closed" variety. In a closed game there is a constant number of VPs available to all players and this is often called a "zero-sum" game*. This means that any increase in your VPs must come at the expense of another player. An open game is one where VPs are variable throughout the game and a player need not gain by taking them away from someone else. This is considered a "non zero-sum" game.

(*Note that two-player games can more easily be considered zero-sum games as the restriction of a fixed number of VPs is no longer required. In many two-player games reducing your opponent by 5 VPs is identical to gaining 5 VPs yourself.)

Diplomacy is a fine example of a closed, zero-sum game. There are 36 supply centers and this remains constant throughout the game. In order to gain one, you must take it away from another player. (At least, after the initial neutral ones are gobbled up.) This creates a tremendous amount of interaction as you can't simply "play your own game" oblivious to the others. By its very nature advancing your cause involves hurting someone else's. Similarly, Evo is an open, non zero-sum game. There are enough spaces on the board for each player to have the maximum allotment of ten dinosaurs and so it is not required that you take spaces away from others.

Most games aren't quite so well defined in regard to their open or closed nature. Consider the points for the tallest building in Manhattan. These VPs are awarded each round (I'm ignoring ties for the sake of argument) and if you hope to acquire them it requires denying them to an opponent. So, it might seem that these VPs are closed as I have defined that term but I'm not so sure. After all, the potential to gain VPs is not the same as actually having them. If you take the tallest building from John then he hasn't actually lost anything, he simply hasn't gained anything. I would tend to consider this type of reward as open rather than closed but to be honest I'm not entirely convinced this is right.

Further confusing the issue is the fact that some games exhibit both open and closed qualities. Using Manhattan as an example againóeach player is awarded with one point for each building he or she controls. As you often have the choice of playing a building atop another or on an empty space this is not a "zero-sum" situation. So this aspect of the game is, in my mind, much more clearly described as open than the tallest building VPs.

The ultimate result of this is that zero-sum games are much more likely to force interaction between players than more open games. It may very well be that the best course of action in an open game is still directly attacking an opponent but the game does not require you to do so.

Winning Vs. Highest Placing

Perhaps the most contentious issue in multi-player games arises from a difference in opinion as to the overall goal. More succinctly, what the goal of the game is when outright winning becomes less and less likely. Or, as is it is more commonly stated: "Why are you attacking me when he's winning?" This seems to be a regular occurrence even in games that allow players to more or less freely choose whom they attack. Quite often the justification given is that the attacker has decided that since he cannot win he'll instead ensure that he achieves the highest placing in the game. This is sometimes known as "playing for position" (as opposed to "playing for the win").

This strikes me as yet another irresolvable dilemma as there are cases to be made for both points of view. Further, its difficult to divide gamers in mutually exclusive groups based on their personal leanings in this matter. (Actually, I suspect that often a player's viewpoint on this issue depends largely on the situation at hand.) It's pretty easy for gamers to decide if they prefer open or closed holdings in a game. (Perhaps the granddaddy of unending debates.) Also it's not too difficult to discover how serious or light-hearted a particular group likes to play games. However, it's very difficult to know what a particular gamer is likely to do when he or she believes victory is no longer possible. This is exacerbated by the fact that this usually only comes up at a critical point in the game when victory is on the line.

The situation is usually along these lines: Second place Bob is deciding where to send his Castillo bound Caballeros in the final round of El Grande. He can either send them into Aragon hoping to steal that region from the current leader or he can send them to Granada and wrest control from Carl who's close behind in third place. Bob looks at the board and decides that even if he takes Aragon it's still very slim that he'll win. Worse, it will probably mean that Carl will take over one of his regions. So, Bob chooses Granada and ensures his runner up placing. Now Carl feels that Bob has broken an unwritten rule of the game by not trying to win no matter how slim the odds. Carl may have had a chance for victory if Bob had gone to Aragon instead. His reasoning is that since the only chance for Bob to win was for him to choose Aragon then he should have done just that.

Helping Vs. Hindering

Up to now I have concerned myself what I would call aggressive interaction. That is, interacting to either help yourself or to hurt one or more of your opponents. Due to the competitive nature of games this seems natural but since we're concerned primarily with multi-player games the option of helping an opponent is raised as a legitimate tactic. (By legitimate I mean that you could conceivably help an opponent as part of an attempt to win the game yourself. More specifically, I'm excluding the idea of helping another player simply because you feel sorry for them or want them to enjoy the game.)

Why is this so in multi-player games? Well, there are two reasons that immediately spring to mind but both relate to the fact that you are not simply trying to do better than one other player but better than all other players. These are somewhat different goals and can lead to differing behaviour.

Increasing Your Relative Standing

Bohnanza coinThe first is simply the idea of helping an opponent that is further behind your other opponents. Consider the situation in Bohnanza where your opponents Al, Betty and Carl have 10, 9 and 6 coins respectively. You propose a deal with Carl wherein you gain a single coin and he gains two. A lot of players might see this as a bad deal on your part; after all you're "giving away" two coins and only getting one in return. Wouldn't a "one for one" deal with Al be a better move? I'd suggest that, in general, it isn't. True, taken within the context of the deal alone the second one is better but this is missing the point. With the first deal you have gained a coin on Al and Betty and lost a coin on Carl. The important point is that this is exactly what you want to be doing. (Well, you'd prefer not to be losing the coin on Carl but often this can't be helped.) Completing the second deal does not move you closer to winning the game as your leading opponent gains as much as you do.

(Note that I've specifically refrained from mentioning how many coins you have because this is largely irrelevant. Whether you are increasing your lead on Al or reducing his lead on you is beside the point. Your standing does come into play if you have fewer coins than Carl but even in this case I think that of the two deals, the first deal is the preferable one.)

I've done very well in Bohnanza and I attribute it to recognizing the above fact. Many in my group groan when the game is brought out because "Greg always wins". Considering that the game is won largely on how well you trade and that each player is more or less free to refuse to trade with someone this strikes me as odd. Surely it would be easy to stop me from winning by refusing to trade, wouldn't it? Yes, except for the above point. Of course I strive to make the best deal possible whenever I can but I'm much more willing to accept the shorter end of a stick in a trade than other players. The fact that I am offering a deal that is better for them than it is for me is usually enough for that player to overcome his desire to place an embargo on me. If I involve myself in as many trades as possible, with as many players as possible, I can overcome the inequities of the individual trades and emerge victorious.

Increasing Your Total Score

The second reason for helping an opponent concerns maximizing your total gain. The concept of cooperation is the important thing here. Consider the game Carcassonne. The game is a little unusual in that it rewards ties, if two players have the same number of knights in a city then they each gain points equal to what they would have received if either had been there alone. This has a very interesting effect on how you interact with the other players, particularly with those that are "sharing" a field, road or city. The basic idea is this; given the choice of two moves, one that gives you 3 VPs alone and one that gives 2 VPs to both you and Bob, which should you choose? The most immediate answer might be the first move but I don't think that's always best. You might argue that as you gain 3 points on everyone (including Bob) whereas with the second move you gain no points on Bob and only 2 points on everyone else the first certainly seems better. I'd argue that you're missing the fact that Bob may also be given the same choice (with you as the other recipient of 2 VPs). If you both select the second move you'll each gain 3 points on the field. On the other hand if you had both select the first move you'll each gain 4 points on the field, a superior result.

The practical example of this as it apples to Carcassonne is that it is often a good idea to share a field, road or city with another player. If you're both adding tiles then it's likely that you'll both make greater gains than you would have alone. Of course in actual play there are other issues you must concern yourself with not the least of which is the point raised in the previous section. (That is, there are times, usually near the end of a game, where the standings indicate that sharing with certain players is not a good idea. After all, if Bob has more points than you it's likely a bad idea to enter into a situation where you're each getting equal points.)

I must admit that, unlike the previous concept illustrated with the Bohnanza example, I have a difficult time employing this during a game. Quite often I have pondered a losing game of Carcassonne trying to figure out just exactly where I went wrong. As often as not it's been due to my having initiated a conflict with a potential "partner".

Alliances

Perhaps the ultimate games in terms of player interaction are "alliance games". These are games that virtually require the players to form teams and factions in order to do well. Without doubt the greatest of these would have to be Diplomacy. The rules to the game are rather simple but much complexity is added due to the human element. In fact, one could argue that the rules themselves are somewhat beside the point other than to enforce a framework in which the players struggle amongst themselves. Interaction is the game. The clever move is not that Italy managed to capture Marseilles but that Bob was able to conspire with Al so effectively without Carla being aware of it.

Diplomacy does tend to be a real divisor for gamers - generally speaking, you either love it or hate it. For those that hate it, it's usually the backstabbing element that turns them off. It's true that the game does encourage this more than in almost any other game but I'm not sure if that's the whole reason. The very high level of interaction makes the game seem much more personal and "real". In Civilization it's easy to see a move as "Babylon attacking Egypt" but in Diplomacy it's "you attacking me".

Cooperative Games

Truly cooperative games are a rather rare breed amongst board games. They've been around in other forms for some time, role-playing games being the most prominent variety. Lord of the Rings is perhaps the only commonly played "German style game" that falls into this category. There are boardgames that have cooperative, Republic of Rome requires the players to act in unison to prevent Rome from falling victim to her enemies. There are also many games in which players are split into teams which compete against each other. Sometimes the individual team members are free to act independently (as in Axis & Allies for example) while in others they must be very well coordinated (as in Scotland Yard). It's this latter type of games that I feel live and die by how the interaction is handled.

Lord of the RingsI've enjoyed Lord of the Rings every time I've played it but it's what I'd call a "delicate" game. That is, one needs to be careful when playing else you're liable to break it. Itís a game that I think is fairly easy to analyze and come up with a statistically best play in most situations. Discovering this may not be trivial but I think the general response to the game bears out my point. Most groups were greatly enamoured of the system when it first appeared and as they played and played and played the game it gradually lost much of its appeal. Now, this is true of many games that are "over-played" but I think itís the familiarity with the "best move", and the resulting effects on interaction, that's the main cause. Once at least one player knows how to best proceed, much of the interaction is lost. Fred tells Aaron that he should play a hiding card so that they can get a certain card. While that may be the best move, it eliminates the pleasure one had when first exploring the game, interacting and trying to figure out what the heck you should be doing.

I think that Scotland Yard often fails for a similar reason. If the detectives are of differing abilities it devolves into a situation where one player is deciding the best move for everybody else. In these cases meaningful interaction between the detectives is rather diminished and the game becomes boring for most of the players.

Summary

Alan Moon has stated, "Gaming isn't about rolling dice and moving your piece around a track. Gaming is about interaction, decisions, and social skills." I believe that interaction is the heart of these games we play.

- Greg Aleknevicus

(This article originally appeared in issue #16 of Counter magazine.)

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