For many gaming groups, it’s a rare, although not quite impossible situation to end up in. You’re heavily invested playing a competitive game. Fighting over every little advantage you can get. You’re plotting, scheming and strategizing. Some of you might even employ table talk as a cunning ruse. And then, out of nowhere, somebody makes an unexpected, yet devastating move against another player. Tensions rise. The room explodes in a cacophony of angry voices and accusations. One player has lost their temper, and the ensuing argument will invariably hang over the rest of the evening.
Even though this is just a crude outline of that kind of situation, a lot of people might already know who is to blame here. It doesn’t really matter what game the group was playing, or who was part of it. At the very latest, the whole thing is cleared up when the offending player provides the one impeccable gaming defense: I was just playing by the rules.
I happen to think that this argument is actually quite peccable, or rather questionable. What I’m trying to say, I think it stinks and people should stop using it. Because following the rules does not in and of itself justify somebody’s actions. The question of whether an act is right or wrong isn’t about legality. In fact, the problem is of a different kind altogether. Our social experience of playing a game together has either been maliciously sabotaged, or carelessly neglected. Neither of which can be ruled out by sticking to the rulebook.
Yet this argument keeps getting brought up whenever these kinds of fights erupt at the gaming table. Arguably because there is an unspoken assumption, that a game’s rules can somehow establish the reason why people play together. But that is simply not true.
Rules define the formal structure of the game. They are the scaffolding with which we engage each other in play. They might tell us how many cards to draw, or how many spaces to move, or how to turn a mixture of resources into victory points. Rules determine when the game ends, and how then to distinguish between success and failure. At best, a ruleset will hint at what the purpose of playing together could be.
We don’t derive the reason we’re playing a game from the rules. Most gamers are creatures of habit. We end up playing games for the same reasons we’ve always played them. Sometimes because we crave the affirmation of having overcome whatever challenge the game throws at us. Sometimes we just want to be better at something than somebody else. In some cases, we just to share our time with friends. There are a great many reasons to play, and most people settle on one of them eventually.
As we become more knowledgeable in the hobby, we realize that some games are better suited for certain play agendas than others. Most party games don’t give you quite the same validation when winning, as some other games do. You might find games that require your strategic and analytical thinking to succeed a more rewarding experience. Similarly, a low interaction game in which you turn resources into other resources and then into victory points, will have a harder time hitting the right notes for groups who want a shared experience. A cooperative game, that emphasizes communication, may be the better choice here. A game can not force a play agenda onto a group, but it can support certain group goals better than others.
That’s why some experienced groups may value winning over working together in a cooperative game. Or how gamers looking for more social experience to bond over, may end up in a tug of war with the design of a strongly confrontational game, or find themselves underwhelmed by a eurogame in which you only care about yourself and your individual achievements.
On one side you have players looking for a specific play experience, on the other you have games set up like tool boxes to help you achieve another. Every time we sit down to play a new game, we need to fuse these opposites into one coherent whole.
Which is where the incident at the gaming table from before comes in. These arguments aren’t due to immaturity or an inability to lose. They can’t be brushed aside by insisting that no rules were broken. They are instead a clash of purpose. They erupt in loud arguments because one player believed to be playing towards the group’s shared goal in good faith and then had the rug pulled out from under them..
The group’s shared goal, its purpose, is self-chosen, even if it almost never happens openly. We start from our own gaming habits, take into account what circumstantial evidence the game provides us with and – if we’re willing or able – use our social intelligence to suss out what the rest of the group is after. Once we put all those things together, we adjust our behavior accordingly and go forward.
With board games it means we need to ask ourselves, if we’re playing to compete with each other, to take pride in our own achievements, to interact with each other in an entertaining way or for one of any number of reasons. It requires us to understand and acknowledge why we play, and if those reasons are compatible with those of our fellow players. Because if they’re not, it’s only a matter of time until it all blows up. When that happens, reminding everyone how you never once broke a rule, doesn’t really absolve you of your actions. Because you put your personal ambition above the interests of the group you’re supposed to be a part of.
That is simply not acceptable, and you shouldn’t need a rule to tell you that.