Positive Player Interaction #1
Mac Gerdts has the rondel. Uwe Rosenberg has worker placement & flippy tokens. Reiner Knizia has quick, mathy, mechanical puzzles. Stefan Feld has the soul-less euro for gamers. I’m coming to realize that T. C. Petty III, against my heart’s wishes for the avant garde, has positive player interaction. I really want to be that designer that no one can pin down: the free-spirited trollop that flits from douche-baggery to brain-burning strategy on a whim. But, it isn’t so.
For example, I’ve played Chaos in the Old World. I actually think it’s a richly thematic experience with some excellent and elegant mechanisms which push the area control/war game genre forward. I also HATE the game. This is probably the same reason I avoid area control games or silly “perceived leader” bash-fests like Ankh-Morpork, Dominant Species, and Cyclades. I find that they encourage player interaction, which is great, but they consistently miss the point early in the game and only become interesting in the last few turns (were the chaos then ensues).
My least favorite boardgame decision is when I am forced to screw over another player (with a card or action) within the first few turns. There is no strategic significance to my decision and generally, this is where gamers break out a quarter from their pocket and flip it to decide. Because, usually in these games “spite” is a legitimate factor and two players could potentially take each other out of the game by bickering amongst themselves. And while some games are too simple to implement a fix, most games have no excuse for not removing these early “take that” moments. And again, this applies to Euro games as well that needlessly block certain actions, causing a scarcity of options on the first turn.
(Club Zen - early prototype - 4 out of 5 players all decide to go Water-skiing together. As an incentive, they each receive a Karma token for visiting the same space.)
PART 1: Working Together for the Benefit of ME
This is why I gravitate to “positive player interaction,” and even “forced player interaction.” I should probably explain what I mean, since, honestly, this is a concept that pops up all the time in gaming (usually breaking those games), but is never perceived as such. It’s the idea of table talk and mutually beneficial game states in multiplayer games. It’s when two players (or more) realize that its in their best interest to ally against the other players. Or on an even smaller scale, when players collaborate to build something or destroy something else.
When I speak of “forced positive player interaction,” I define it as a situation where the game will not allow players to complete an integral task or effectively compete unless they collaborate with another player. A simple example would be a worker placement game where I can’t use an action unless my piece AND another player’s piece are both placed in the same spot. I benefit, they benefit, and now we can progress further.
I think with Euro-games and the American-style hybrid games being released recently and the rise in popularity of cooperative games, we are beginning to see more of this type of interaction being directly integrated into game systems. I was happily surprised to see that the boardgame, Spartacus, has cards that cannot be played unless 2 or more players collaborate to play them. It makes my withered, jaded, gamer heart beat with renewed vigor! I CAN’T play this card unless someone else agrees to let me play it. That’s the kind of player interaction I enjoy and continue to explore.
(And to be clear, I’m not talking about cooperative games or cooperative games with one winner. To me, if everyone can lose, no one person should win, because this causes some strange counter-productive moves and could lock the game in a downward spiral (traitors excepted of course). And of course, cooperative games have positive interaction, because they are essentially solo games being played by multiple players.)
(Montgolfiere’s “squadron” mechanic allows players to work together for their mutual benefit. Otherwise, the game can have completely ridiculous and random turns as shown above.)
Returning to my earlier comment about attacking a specific player; early in a game, it makes little sense to attack another player, and it is the most harsh to be on the receiving end of such treatment, even though it is not perceived as such. Late in a game, it makes the most sense and does the least damage, but it is perceived as devastating. Positive interaction can avoid both of these gaming pitfalls. Early in the game, working together helps the most and makes the most logical sense. Sure, why not? Late in the game, it makes the least sense to work together, but because positive interaction makes success dependent on other player’s choices, big swings of fortune are uncommon and consistent strategy throughout the game is important. The subtle screw-over techniques are perceived as “good moves” and the social aspect of the game becomes more pronounced. “Come to my space. Look at all the points we could get!”
I realize that some gamers don’t like the “social” aspects of board games. They enjoy waiting for their turn and watching the interplay of game elements and making their decisions based on the current game state and the expectations of what other player’s might do according to their assessment of a move’s value. Being able to interrupt or comment on another player’s turn is considered “poor taste” and disruptive to the game flow. Luckily, these gamers tend to be the grizzled veterans and are in the minority. I happen to enjoy the time as both “hang-out” time to chill with friends and an exercise in competitive, tactical, puzzle-solving.
(VivaJava: The Coffee Game requires players to work on new teams every turn. Your success is based on your ability to cooperate well.)
This next sentence is going to sound sexist, so keep in mind while reading that this is certainly a generality and some females are blood-thirsty war-mongers. Women tend to enjoy my game. VivaJava is a good introduction to gamer’s games for a gamer that wants his wife/girlfriend to play games. With a focus on positive interaction, there are less “stupid” decisions a player can make, and the tension is low early in the game. I can invite my wife/girlfriend to my area of the board. “Oh, look, we both benefit, so now what do YOU think we should do now, apple-pie?” And then later, when she subtly lies to my face with a grin, the vindictive strategy has become apparent and a good time is had by all. And she now wants to play again. And she wasn’t alienated by fantasy bimbos wielding dual laser-swords and everyone attacking each other by rolling pounds of customized dice. It’s all about first impressions.
The concept seems counterproductive, but game rules are inherently counter-productive to players. They define the parameters and create the “fun,” and they are less destructive to human survival than simply stabbing someone else in the chest with a spear and screaming, “I win!” A fight to the death is the ultimate competitive test, and it is the only game not limited by rules, but surely there are more effective ways to exercise the mind and body.
Forced positive player interaction is a limit to a player’s effectiveness (a negative feedback loop) in as much as “feeding the family” in Agricola prevents players from simply doing whatever they want. Games need limits or they are all MMA fights in a back alley.
Positive interaction has it’s own design problems and pitfalls that can be avoided, but the value of the concept is immense and I hope to see it utilized by game designers more often. In fact, that self-serving principle of sharing this information and the results of my experiments, is exactly what positive interaction is all about. I will enjoy games more, because the reader will create more games that I enjoy. Ah, it’s like giving away the cutest puppy in the world, only to receive ten even cuter puppies later, while all those other self-centered, aggressive, game designers get no puppies at all.
So, stay tuned as I will continue to write about my experiments in positive player interaction within a competitive environment. And hopefully, these long-winded and artsy engineering concepts can be enjoyed by more and more designers. They get more technical from this point on.
The Next Exciting Installment: PART 2: Cross-Pollenation