Metagame and the limits of what can be said

In a twitter poll I recently launched, I asked people in my wider social media circles about their views on board games. Specifically, I wanted to know if it was acceptable to talk other players into working against the assumed leading player in a competitive game. The result on both my German and English twitter account was quite decisive. A great number of people sided with talking players into taking action to prevent somebody else from winning. It was even argued, that that’s what playing games is all about.

I was somewhat surprised by that result. After all the very same behavior gets heavily criticized in cooperative games. It’s even reason enough for some people to avoid cooperative games altogether.

Nobody likes to be bossed around, even with the well-meaning intention of winning the game for everybody. Your enjoyment of a coop game will invariably suffer with such a player at the table. One of the most important qualities of a board game lies in giving players agency. That’s why some games lose their appeal the moment you’ve discovered an optimal strategy to win. The same is true for any game in which averting defeat is only possible if you pick the one, correct response to any of your opponent’s moves. If one of the many options available to you after a player’s move stands out as the optimal choice, it doesn’t really feel like agency. You get played by the game, instead of the other way around. This is true, even if it’s not the game that removes your agency but another player.

Apparently, competitive gamers arent’t that fussed about this issue. A notable number of players consider it perfectly valid and even part of a game’s core appeal to talk other players into doing something, in an attempt to prevent somebody else’s victory. Some circles consider this style of arguing and haggling “political play”.

Regardless of what you want to call it, these games possess an additional layer to play and require a wider understanding of what is contained within the game. This carries some notable risks with it. When your success is undermined or even invalidated, because you couldn’t counter the skilful rhetoric and persuasion of another player, it can be irritating and annoying. Not least of all, because there might have been some disagreement as to what behavior was or wasn’t part of the game. A game may start off as being about strategic considerations of tactical decision spaces only to wrap up as dramatic argument between amateur salespeople.

When a game’s arc causes players to get angry or despondent, people tend to look at drawing up new rules to deal with the situation. An unbeatable strategy gets defused by changing certain rules or values in the name of game balance. If the game’s setting is the reason to avoid it, it is reworked to be more acceptable or appealing to people. When the way players exerting influence over each other leaves some with a bad taste in their mouth, the most common response seems to be to simply play a different game.

To many, Pandemic is the mother of all alpha gamer problems

This can’t be said for cooperative games, though. Here this artful persuasion is so strongly rejected that many reviewers seem to praise games, that introduce rules to make it (nigh) impossible for one player to play quarterback to everybody else. Which makes it even more interesting that in competitive games similar rules are rarely celebrated, if they included at all. Instead this behavior is tolerated as a natural aspect of competition and in some cases even considered the core of the game. Luckily this is the kind of viewpoint you can take disagree with. I would even go so far to say, that most gaming groups make very fine distinctions when and how you are allowed to influence the decisions of other players. But I think these distinctions aren’t inherent to the games themselves, but instead made by the groups. It’s not the rulebook but the players themselves who elect to accept certain behavior as part of a game or not.

In this game speaking up is the key to enjoyment

Regardless of whether you’re playing cooperatively or competitively, at heart this question is about balancing personal ambition with the shared experience of playing together. If claiming victory is the highest and only priority of playing with others, allowing an alpha player to roam free is a small price to play to win. In a competitive game you are more likely to make the table laugh than draw their ire, if you start to explain how to best block the leading player from winning the game.

But normal gaming groups take other facets of gaming into account. Beyond the wasteland of competition, games offer a number of reasons to get them to the table. Whether it’s exploring the tactical options of a game, experiencing the tense decision points it offers or even the shared misery of arduously scraping together small victories against a challenging system. A game isn’t memorable because of how well you scored, but because the decisions you made were responsible for the game’s outcome.

There is no magic trick to know when influencing the decisions of another player crosses a line. It only takes players who can and want to understand why they’re playing this game right now.

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