The Good, the Bad and the Boardgamer

Clint Eastwood

Boardgames are useless!

Boardgames are not useful for anything. Like an arts degree, they have no real applications and only exist to provide pleasure to the people playing them. Boardgamers are not good or bad and do not influence the world around them, they simply observe life and replay aspects of it in fictional worlds of their own making.

At least, this might seem to be the case to a casual observer. In reality I think boardgames do serve some positive purposes. For example, they are an excellent way to avoid having to make conversation when you have guests. If you are foolish enough to attempt a romantic engagement with a non-boardgamer then I would particularly recommend Settlers of Catan for an accessible first date – after all, who wants to be making small talk when they could be getting wood? More seriously, boardgames provide a safe fictional space in which we can behave as badly as we like with no real consequences, releasing the anger and the desire for self-promotion that might otherwise seep out in real life situations.


Trying to understand a boardgame sometimes also helps us to understand real life better. I have personally always felt that co-op games and individual games are quite a good mirror for the public and private sectors. In a co-op game people bicker and get in each other’s way, and are generally annoying and a bit inefficient, but are ultimately trying to help one another. In an individual game people are impressively efficient and inventive – at screwing each other over and hoarding all the resources.

No pain no gain.

This brings me neatly to what all readers want in a blog – a lengthy and incoherent exposition of the author’s own ill-conceived political views. So, I would like to talk to you about good and bad. Human beings tend to have a psychological bias towards prioritising the evasion of bad things over the acquisition of good things. For example, in Agricola no-one ever wants to take a begging card, even though sometimes it is well worth taking a 3 point penalty in order to get an action ahead of your opponent in the early game. In Caverna someone always buys the writing chamber, whose function is to prevent up to seven negative points, in preference to one of the many available tiles that would have scored them eight or more positive points.

To optimise our boardgame performance, we must learn to master our emotions and overcome such psychological biases. Like Maradona, a true boardgamer knows that it is sometimes worth risking a penalty to achieve your goals. Within a board-game context, earning a positive point is just as good as eliminating a negative one. In fact often it is better to focus on earning positive points (at least in the early and mid game), as you will eventually run out of negative points to eliminate and getting rid of them too early will narrow down your options for net points increase later on. I have sometimes tried to use this argument to persuade my wife that we should play boardgames first and do the chores later, but sadly it hasn’t proven particularly effective – she generally seems unconvinced by the idea that we might complete all of the available chores.

Tilting the playing field…

Another point to consider is that in a competitive game penalties for failing to do something are equivalent to rewards for doing it. Likewise effects that do the same thing to all players are not really good or bad but should be considered a net neutral. What global effects like this are about is testing which players can adapt their strategy to gain the most benefit or suffer the least penalty. In fact I find that games where individual players can manipulate global effects often make for some of the most interesting game play – give a player a power that only they can use and it might be very strong even if they play it badly, but give them the option to change the game dynamics in a way that is the same for everyone and they will only get an advantage if they plan their overall strategy so as to benefit from the change. 

Mastery of such powers is all about biasing the market. For those who have not encountered this phrase before, it is not about bribing officials, or about bringing your date to meet your boardgaming friends so that you will look cool by comparison. Biasing the market is about manipulating the overall economy so that the resources that you have lots of become scarce and therefore valuable, while resources you have little of become abundant and cheap. This is even worth considering when a power nominally only affects you – for example in Agricola there are a number of “occupation” cards that grant players the ability to obtain extra resources. Some of these simply grant resources straight out of the general supply, but others give players extra opportunities to pick up resources from the board. All other things being equal, the ones that grant resources from the supply are slightly less powerful, because they increase the total amount of the relevant resource present in the game.

With market forces in mind, and carefully considering the importance of providing something that is scarce and difficult to come by, I have decided that now is an excellent time to be starting a blog. Next week I will post a funny picture of a cat.

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I am a physicist who lives in Nottingham and I have been boardgaming for the last 10 years. My favourite boardgame is Agricola. I also enjoy playing the Yetis in Terra Mystica, hence the profile pic. I should also credit Sophie for drawing most of the cartoons that feature in the blog. Without her, there would be no grumpy oxen.

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