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PLAY THE PLAYER, NOT THE GAME (by Tom Russell)

Mary Russell

Tags gameplay

Solo games aside, gaming is primarily a social activity, and one of the joys of this particular vocation is that my job is to create a framework and a structure in which people can enjoy one another's company.  That doesn't mean that that framework has to be frivolous or casual; not every game is a cocktail party. Many games seek to provide serious, competitive experiences that reward skill and punish bad play, and so I'd expect someone playing one of those games to approach it on those terms, attempting to play to the best of their ability. That sort of framework allows players to exhibit cleverness, and I think everyone likes to feel clever now and then. It allows for drama - for very specific definitions of drama - and an emergent narrative experienced in real time. As a result, even though it's only a game, it's not only a game, and some players take it very seriously. And we're glad they do; if they didn't, we wouldn't have a livelihood.

Mike Peters, an editorial cartoonist and creator of "Mother Goose and Grimm"

So I don't think that hyper-competitive players are necessarily a bad thing, or that they take it too seriously or too far. But there is a certain class of competitive player that privileges what's on their table over who's at their table. They talk about playing a game at 3P versus 4P, instead of talking about playing it with Alex and Jamie versus playing it with Tom, Mary, and Ryan. They see the other players as little more than their positions - their troop deployments, their stock certificates, their place within the game state - and not as living, breathing, predictable, unpredictable, inscrutable, human beings who are capable of surprising them, and of being surprised.

If gaming is primarily a social activity, than group dynamics are a key part of the experience, and it is madness to pretend otherwise. So much is dependent on who is sitting at your table and what you know about them and their playstyle or, when playing with strangers, what they tell you about themselves and their playstyle over the course of the game: are they risk-averse, are they backstabby, will they be likely to partner with you on this thing or that thing?

Now, the competitive gamer will puff up his chest a bit. "What you're really talking about," he says, "are players who are bad at the game, who make mistakes, who play sub-optimally." Ah, yes, optimal play: the idea that there is one true best move for any given turn, completely divorced from what happened before or what will happen after. It treats the game as a series of isolated game states, as puzzles, and the player's job - their sacred duty - is to tease out the one true solution. Failure to comply may meet with derision, condescension, and accusations of kingmaking. Puerto Rico is a game with a reputation for attracting these sorts of players, always so certain of what the correct move is: the joke goes that "sit to the left of the new guy" is the best strategy to win the game. There tends to be a peculiar sort of solitary groupthink that arises among these sorts of players, in that they see the only viable move to be the one that they themselves would make, and thus expect all the other players to think and play exactly like them.

But we do not play with machines, not yet anyway, but with thinking, feeling, wonderful individuals. We do not play at each other either, but with each other, and I believe that for many games, "optimal" play can only really exist in the context of this interaction. Games are not a series of isolated snapshot puzzles, but a dance, constantly in motion, with a beginning, middle, and end created by all of us, acting both in unison and in opposition. What happened before this turn matters not just because that's how we got to this point, but also because that's the experience we shared together. What I do on this turn matters not because I have to find the one move to rule them all, but because it might shape and influence the moves that follow.

The competitive gamer I've sketched is a bit of a straw-man, artfully-exaggerated so as to appear in the worst possible light, so let me set him aside for a moment and bring on a real, articulate, and thoughtful flesh-and-blood gamer who isn't nearly as bad as my caricature, but likely still sees all I've been talking about as wishy-washy blather. He and his group played several sessions of one of my train games with four players, and every game opened the same way, with the first three players each buying a share of the three-share company. This left the fourth player out in the cold with that particular gravy train, and they couldn't think of a way for him to counter it. And, yes, that does sound pretty bad, and all three players could collude against the fourth, and that wouldn't leave him with too many options.

But is that the "best", the optimal, move for the third player? Or is it better to get a share in something else, hopefully incentivizing the fourth player to throw their lot in with the third? That would leave the three-share company undercapitalized. Do I really want to be the third wheel in a group that bashes down the fourth player decisively, or do I want to form a partnership in which I ding the first two players if only temporarily? I can make that fourth player's position miserable and unwinnable, which denies me an ally against the first two seats. Or I can be a little friendlier, keeping the fourth seat in the game, which might help me against the other two. The environment, the tone of the thing, it matters, and even in a cutthroat game, it sometimes behooves one to show mercy as that leaves one more options, and encourages others to do the same. Such policy certainly worked for Julius Caesar (at least until the middle of March).

"Vercingetorix throws down his arms at the feet of Julius Caesar",  Lionel Royer, 1899

"But why would the third player do that?" my friend asked, and here I'm paraphrasing. "It doesn't make any sense. He's just inviting the fourth player to grab the third stock and then the third seat is in the bad position instead." Well, that all depends on the fourth player, doesn't it? It depends on my ability to read them and on whether or not I think my "alternate" move will persuade them to act in my favor. It depends on their willingness to screw me over, and on whether or not they too see more benefit in keeping me in the game rather than knocking me out in the first round. And maybe, if we've played this game before and seen this play out before, it depends on how eager they are to throw a spanner in the works. In the short-term, looking at this specific moment in time and approaching it as a puzzle, the third seat (or the fourth) clearly derives more benefit from grabbing the third share. But in the long-term, approaching it as an entire game, and thinking about that move in a social and interactive context, grabbing that third share might render me friendless. (Or, maybe hey, the second, third, and fourth players want to screw over the first player, and leave him holding the bag on a company that's now a dud.)

It's not a matter of anticipating what some idealized, mythological "4P" would do, but what that specific person in that seat would do. Buying that third share is only the "best" move if the third and fourth seat both hew to this orthodoxy - and there are plenty of reasons why they shouldn't, but these reasons are less about things that are quantitative and measurable, less about the mechanical structure of the game, and more about its social structure.

That is, of course, if you perceive there being a social structure to the game at all. Part of the problem with the various and heated debates surrounding The Game I Don't Talk About Anymore is that neither side was really sympathetic with what the other is saying. To me, what they're saying sounds cold, rigid, and immutable, rather like calculus. To them, what I'm saying sounds slippery, dissembling, ambiguous, and hand-wavy - rather like human beings.

This might all be well and good for economics games that sit three or more, but what about wargames, which are often built only for two? Here the social space is of necessity narrower and more confrontational: I don't have a third or fourth player to play off you or vice-versa, and with "kinetic" games in particular, there's no incentive to pull one's punches. We're at war, you and I, and so I want to wipe the floor with you, even humiliate you, as much as possible, without ever giving you a chance to breathe.

But even in that intensely confrontational space, the question of who it is that's sitting across from me still matters. The decisions I make are going to depend on how I think that person is going to react to them. The Big Push, our forthcoming WWI Western Front card game designed by Renaud Verlaque, uses a double-blind simultaneous bidding of resources to determine who has Initiative for the turn, which greatly dictates the pace of campaigning. Being able to read the other guy is going to be crucial in determining if I should give up one card or ten, and vice-versa. If I think they're unlikely to go big, maybe I can go small - of course, if he thinks I think that, he might go big. You know that I know that you know that I know and all that.

A gamer's level of risk-aversion might also factor into something like Supply Lines of the American Revolution: The Northern Theater, 1775-1777. In that game, each player needs to strike a peculiar and personal balance between being cautious and being aggressive, and canny opponents can lay delightful traps for either play-style.

The heart of Optimates et Populares and This Guilty Land is the idea that almost anything I can do, you can prevent, but at a cost. So, for me to take an action, I either need to anticipate that you will let it slide, or plan on you blocking it, which will diminish your ability to further your own agenda. It's a game of chicken, in a way, and good play often comes down to being able to correctly read the other person. Because of that, despite the fact that there's no hidden information in those two games, some gamers might find them difficult to play solitaire; they're hopelessly entangled with a very peculiar social space. Other gamers have reported similar problems with Table Battles, which distills my pet obsessions with deadlock and tempo to their essence.

Even though the games I just mentioned "solo well" on a mechanical level, they get a surprising amount of juice on the social level. So much so that I've seen a number of solo gamers who run into problems with a Table Battles scenario or a game of Optimates et Populares. Even playing both sides to the best of their ability, they don't have that lovely push-and-shove and back-and-forth that they'd get from a second human being - they can predict the other "player" perfectly, knowing when they'll be blocked and knowing when they won't be. This sours the whole experience for them and often gives them some fairly odd and lackluster results.

Not everyone has this experience of course, and many folks can play these games solo and still get quite a bit out of them. They have a special gift for self-deception and, like Whitman, contain multitudes. I do a lot of solo gaming myself, and from the reception of Agricola and Charlemagne, I can confirm that solo gaming has been very good to me and to us. If games exist to allow us to enjoy one another's company, then there's nothing wrong with games existing to allow us to enjoy one's own company.

But in some games that social aspect is much more pronounced, and I wonder if in those cases it is folly to try, or at least folly to judge a two-player game solely by its one-player simulacrum. If games provide a framework for social interaction, and you reduce them purely to their mechanisms, removing utterly the dance of human personalities that animate them, then of course you're left with a husk, lifeless and uninspired, irrevocably diminished.

2 comments

  • Yeah, that’s the trouble I have with life – too much focus on the mechanical game-state situations. It’s obviously broken.

    Jonathan Townsend

  • “If games provide a framework for social interaction, and you reduce them purely to their mechanisms, removing utterly the dance of human personalities that animate them, then of course you’re left with a husk, lifeless and uninspired, irrevocably diminished.”

    Of course… and they’ll STILL tell you the game is broken.

    Brian Train

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