Board games are a social construct

by Neil

In his piece on degenerate play, Possible Modernist touches on something quite interesting that I’d like to unpack a little more. As he points out, certain strategies might be technically legal, but against the spirit of the game, either because they’re not how the game was really intended to be played, or because they make it not-very-fun for your opponents. He suggests that this has to do with the meta-game” of having a good time with your friends:

With games however, there is the meta goal of having a good time, which is (in the best cases) still totally possible if you lose, and which is therefore arguably more important than winning. Players who would sacrifice fun in order to secure their own victory have indeed hacked the rules of the game, but arguably to no one’s benefit.

But there’s an even larger problem. It’s not just that winning at all costs might be a dick move. Sometimes people don’t agree what winning is.

Here’s a very common case. Suppose I’m playing a game with two friends: Alice has 50 points, Bob has 25 points, and I have 26 points. If I believe that winning” is only getting first place, I might opt for a strategy that sabotages Alice, even if I have only the slimmest chance of actually overtaking her. But if I think getting second place is more winning” than getting last, I’ll probably do something that helps me, or even something that sabotages Bob…although Bob might be mad about that!

An extreme example of this arises in the 2012 game Archipelago. It’s a game where people take on the role of, well, basically colonizers, exploring and developing a new land. (Imagine a much-more-complicated Settlers of Catan.) The catch is that your workers and/or the indigenous population will rise up against you, causing everyone to lose, unless all of the players collectively commit resources to quell the uprising.

The catch to the catch is that there’s no personal benefit for committing resources. It’s a prisoner’s dilemma. The best case is for everyone else to take care of it.

So, uh…who takes care of the uprising? If you’re in last place, it might make sense to demand that everyone else takes care of it. After all, you’re losing either way. But then who picks up your slack? The first-place player? What if committing the additional resources to make up for you would push them down to last place? Or what if the second-to-last player really needs all their resources to have a chance at first? Hmm…

This culminates in a big ol’ 12-page flamewar on BoardGameGeek.com where a whole bunch of folks have a not-entirely-civil discussion over whether this game is even playable. OP says:

There’s a very important question that relates to player’s approach to game theory and their goal in a game. Will players consider finishing last in a game that does not explode to be a better personal finish than the table all losing collectively? Or even one other player winning and the rest losing collectively? No one I play with would ever consider coming in last place (with all others finishing higher) better than everyone losing. Finishing position matters.

But not everyone agrees, of course; in fact, this passage is in response to another review, by Dan D.”:

At the end of the day, you just have to do as I do and play by the no douche bags allowed” rule. Aside from one player in my group, I can’t see that ever happening with the regulars in my group. Whenever I play with newcomers to the group I will make this an openly discussed issue at the outset and make sure everyone is on board with playing the game properly. Anyone who ruined a game in the aforementioned manner would find themselves quickly on the outside looking in within my gaming group.

Well, you imagine see how this gets heated.

While we’d like to believe games are a separate space, they’re never fully sealed off from the world. They are socially-constructed, in the sense that we must agree to abide by a shared understanding; and there will always be unspoken things in that understanding, things that can come back to haunt us.