A few weeks ago, I sketched out some ideas related to the concept of degenerate play. In brief, degenerate play can be thought of as strategies which abide by the rules of the game, but go against the spirit, or simply as strategies that make the game less fun for everyone.
Although lots of things could fall under that definition, there is one related phenomenon that sort of straddles the boundary. In at least one sense, it can be seen as something that goes against the spirit of the game, and yet in most cases it is also a key part of how certain games are played, and something that everyone needs to take into consideration.
The particular phenomenon I have in mind is something called “kingmaking”. Kingmaking is something that is especially common in three player games (and is one of the reasons it is so hard to make a truly great three player game), but it can arise in any game with more than two players. In brief, the idea is that somewhere towards the end of the game, there will be some player who is clearly not in a position to win, but they still have enough strength to influence the relative ranking of other players. In other words, (if we consider the three player case), the player who is guaranteed to lose will nevertheless get to determine who gets to win.1
The way this emerges is easy to see. Unless a game is literally a form of multiplayer solitaire, players likely have ways to help or hurt other players. Especially in a situation where a player already knows they are going to lose, they might be fine with sacrificing a lot of what they have in order to successfully change the outcome. More simply, it could just be the two weakest players ganging up on the strongest players, such that one of the two weaker players can win.
Why might the losing player choose to be a kingmaker for one opponent over the other? There could be many reasons, including punishing a player who hurt them early in the game (which was perhaps what set them on a losing path in the first place). Most commonly, however, I suspect that a kingmaker is simply more likely to punish whoever is currently leading, at the time that they decide that their own game is effectively over, and they might as well act as a kingmaker instead.
Naturally, it is the metagame aspects that make this complex. One of the reasons that a player might be more likely to punish the leader is that the same player might win the majority of all games played among that group. Part of the narrative then becomes to make sure that player doesn’t win again. It also means that helping players out in certain ways might pay off in the long term, if those players will later be in a position to help you (even in a different session).
At the same time, once players internalize that kingmaking is going to be an important part of the nature of a particular game, that will affect the game’s dynamics, and a natural evolution of strategies in such games is to begin obscuring one’s strength. In the ideal case, a player could position themselves such that they are actually in the best position to win, and yet appear to be not the strongest.
The interesting thing is how different players respond to this dynamic. The reason we might consider kingmaking to be a kind of degenerate play is that one might assume that the “correct” thing to do (in the spirit of the game), is always to try to maximize one’s own score. If playing by those rules, then the issue of kingmaking evaporates, because it would never make sense to hurt yourself in order to benefit another player. For the most part, however, it seems like this is not actually how most people play games. They end up buying some stake in the larger narrative, which involves a struggle and overcoming, defeating the currently powerful leader on the board, who perhaps seemingly ended up there via dumb luck or underhanded actions. In other cases, people might take some pride in being part of a “team” that won the game, even when the rules don’t create a provision for such a scenario, and only a single winner is “officially” identified.2
Returning to the topic of three-player games, it is easy to see why kingmaking will be an especially common problem in such games. With four or more players, a player who is in last place might still choose to focus on coming in second-last, thus creating an incentive to pursue one’s self interest. But with three players, once it’s clear that you’re going to come in last, it doesn’t matter if you end up as a respectable third, or get completely annihilated (and yet you might still have a fair bit of power to influence the outcome). In such a scenario, the potential to determine the winner (which is in some sense, the position of greatest power), is likely to be far too tempting to resist.
In my own experience, I find the games that work best with three players tend to be games that are designed specifically for exactly three players, and which are asymmetric, such that each player is playing a somewhat different role (such as taking on the roles of the Western Allies, the Axis, and the Soviet Union, in Triumph and Tragedy). The reason, I think, is that by giving each player a different story, they feel somewhat more compelled to stay “in character”, and pursue objectives that align with the broader story, rather than simply throwing their weight behind whoever is in second place near the end of the games.