The American continent is home to some of the worst inequality on the planet. North America has it all – five reinforcements per turn with only three entry points, while South America is just a poor man’s Australasia. Despite this, while playing Risk a friend of mine once agreed to let me hold North America as long as I let him hold South America. The (completely justified) frustration on the faces of my opponents as they saw me being allowed to control North America with only one troop in Mexico was quite something to behold, and several of them refused to play Risk with either of us ever again.
So, was my friend insane, or did I bribe him? His general behaviour would give credence to the former suggestion – I once turned up to a boardgames night hosted by him to find that the participants had decided not to play boardgames that evening after all, and were instead going to take their tops off, wrap each other in cling film and roll around on the kitchen floor. On another occasion I saw him throw someone bodily out of his house, swearing profusely, because he had caught them hoovering.
On this specific occasion however, I do not believe that his behaviour was entirely down to insanity. Nor had I bribed him. He had a long standing interest in South America, was of partly Colombian descent and had many relatives in that part of the world. By insisting on owning South America he was merely expressing his personality and following his emotions.
We have absolute confidence in our foreign secretary…
Of course, I’m sure we can all think of people who put developing their persona and following their emotions above being vaguely competent, and who possibly mess up diplomatic relations and the balance of world power as a result. The question we have to ask is this: to what degree is this acceptable or desirable in a boardgame?
In real life, all that is at stake is the lives of millions of people. In a boardgame, if one player messes around in order to express their personality it can affect the balance of power between their opponents and make the game unfair. Ideally, in a game with more than two players, every player should be trying to win. If they aren’t then they risk making the game unplayable for everyone else.
Of course, sometimes the game mechanics force stupidity. In Eclipse players can send an ambassador to reside with another player so that both players gain bonuses. However, there can come a time when you want to get rid of an opponent’s ambassador, and unfortunately you can’t just throw them out for no reason (I think it says a lot about human psychology that the game allows you to neutron bomb entire planets full of your opponents citizens, but nevertheless considers throwing out an ambassador without good reason to be beyond the pale). Only one player attacking the other will permit it. In order to accomplish this I once saw someone strip all the weapons off their interceptor (in order to fit enough engines) and fly their now unarmed ship half way across the galaxy for the sole purpose of mounting an “attack.” Of course, exactly how they mounted the attack with no weapons is a little unclear – I imagined their interceptor flying up close to an enemy space station and giving them the finger, or perhaps trailing a giant banner reading “An important communication from our foreign secretary: **** you!”
A boardgamer’s guide to mating in just four easy steps!
So, having established a clear case for what can be bad about expressing your personality in your play if you take it too far, is there anything good about it?
In fact, I would go as far as to say that without any expression of personality or emotional links, the activity would not constitute a game. What differentiates a game from simply attempting to solve a maths or logic problem is the emotional involvement – if we aren’t getting this when we play a game then we might as well exercise our minds tackling a problem that is actually useful. Allowing people some room for emotional involvement and expression of their personalities is the key to actually enjoying the game.
From a design perspective, a well thought out game should allow for this. Too many games offer only one really viable strategy, and thus force players to choose between having any chance of winning or expressing themselves through their play. The best games are generally the ones with enough different viable strategies to allow you to do both. Of course, in order to keep the outcome of the game strongly dependent on your in-game decisions there need to be plenty of non-viable strategies too. No-one likes a game where it is impossible to fail miserably.
You can also learn a lot about someone by observing their play. You can see who is more aggressive and who more risk-averse (following the American incident several of my friends became strongly Risk-averse). You can find out who likes to make small adaptations to conventional strategies and who likes to do something totally wacky.
Ultimately, it is these wacky players who often come up with the most interesting strategies. The careful optimisers can easily get stuck at a local maximum, while the players who are wildly following their own inclinations can occasionally get lucky and land somewhere near the global maximum. Things that are now considered old hat and rote-learned by the more careful players were probably originally discovered by someone who really really wanted South America. Perhaps one day, in the infancy of the game of Chess, someone said to themselves “Well, why don’t we forget all this careful taking of pieces stuff that people normally do – I want to see if I can mate my opponent in four moves!”