Arm Wrestling

Interaction with other players is the reason I play boardgames.  However, interaction comes in many varieties – some much better than others!

Have you ever played a game where tensions rise, people fall out and the whole experience leaves you feeling like you lost – even if you won?  This pretty much sums up my experience of playing Monopoly as a child.  And it’s not fun.

We played Exit last weekend: a co-operative, puzzle-solving game where you’re racing to solve puzzles before the time runs out.  The sense of teamwork and accomplishment when we managed to escape was immense.  That was my kind of fun.

So I’ve decided to compile a list of the different kinds of interaction you find in games.  The list is by no means exhaustive, but reflects a wide variety of games nevertheless.  I’ve ordered the list from worst to best (in my opinion!).  So we’ll start with types of interaction that I actively dislike and finish with the really good stuff.

  • Take that!

Notable games: Munchkin, Cash ‘n Guns

This is where one player does something (like play a card) to hurt another player.  If there is a cost involved, it’s usually not worth doing.  If you’re playing a four-player game and you pay a cost to hurt one player, the other two players are going to benefit.  For this reason, take-that elements in games usually come with no cost.  You can just play a card and smack somebody down.

I hate it.  When it happens to you, it can feel vindictive if you’ve been singled out.  If the player has no desire to hurt anyone and they’re just picking someone at random because it’s part of the game, it feels capricious.  If I’m doing it to someone else, I just feel bad.  I don’t like hurting people, even if it’s just a game.

Having said that, the one time where I think it can work well is in a light-hearted, party game where the whole point of the game is to fight with your opponents.  Cash ‘n’ Guns is a great example.  It’s fun because it’s short enough (and silly enough) that you don’t really care how well you do.  You just want to point a gun at someone and go ‘Bang!’

  • Diplomacy

Notable games: Diplomacy, Twilight Imperium III

Big, war games with large player counts frequently involve the making (and breaking!) of deals and alliances.  The problem here is that these games often last a long time and if you’ve spent the past two hours building up your empire only to be betrayed by your neighbour, the sense of loss can be significant!

You need to trust someone to make a deal with them, but when you know people will break their promise as soon as it’s convenient for them, it’s hard to trust anyone.  And yet, forming an alliance in these games can be very beneficial for both sides.  You really have to do it, but you’re constantly anticipating betrayal!  Not a pleasant feeling.

  • Auction

Notable games: Ra, Power Grid

In an auction, players are bidding to obtain something of value.  This can be done very well.  Ra and Power Grid are both examples of games where I enjoy the auction.  In both games, you’re very limited by what you can buy/bid on, so players bid very carefully.

However, there are plenty of auction games out there where it’s hard to assign a true value to the items that are being bid on.  One item might be a lot more valuable to one player than another.  If someone realises that you really want something, they may just bid to drive the price up.  They don’t really want it, but they know you have to keep bidding because you really need it!  It’s good tactical play, but it just feels like take that.  Not fun.

  • Area Control

Notable games: Twilight Struggle, Blood Rage

In area-control games, you’re usually placing down influence of some kind to obtain majorities in different areas of the board.  A lot of people like area control and it can certainly be done very well (I love Twilight Struggle!), but the difficulty here is that influence can often be placed anywhere at all in some games.

This makes it very hard to predict where people are likely to go.  It can feel like you’re arbitrarily picking areas to place influence and if someone else goes for the same areas as you, it can make it very difficult to do well.  A player who gets a few unopposed areas (through no great strategic play of their own) can often win.

The interaction also feels rather robotic to me.  Usually, there isn’t any negotiation or discussion about who’s going where so you may as well be playing against a computer sometimes.  I’m not a huge fan, but I’ll play area-control games.

  • Combat

Notable games: Risk, Kemet

Lots of games are straight-up war games.  They can often be a form of area control, but I much prefer combat to pure area control because you can see where people are likely to attack.  If you really want to take a particular area, you know who might be able to stop you and you can see the size of their forces so you can plan appropriately.

The only downside here is that you can end up in a grudge match occasionally.  If you expend a lot of resources taking an area, the person who just lost it might feel (justifiably!) aggrieved and try to take it back off you.

You can end up spending a lot of effort trying to retake or hold the area which ping-pongs backwards and forwards between the two of you.  In that kind of situation, everyone else benefits, but it might not be worth your while going for any other area.

War games are very hard to balance I think, but when they’re good, they can be a lot of fun.

  • Set collection

Notable games: 7 Wonders, Archaeology: The New Expedition

Set collection is a limited form of interaction, but the more experienced the players become, the more the interaction increases.  With set collection, you’re getting points for collecting cards of a certain type usually.  The more you collect of one type, the better you’re going to do.

The trick is to pay attention to what other people are collecting (which is why you get better with experience – this can be hard at first!).  If you can collect something that no one else is collecting, you will do very well.  I always like set collection.  It’s simple, but engaging.

  • Trading

Notable games: Catan, Mare Nostrum

Trading is another fairly limited form of interaction, but it always feels good.  You exchange something you’re not bothered about to get something you want – what’s not to like?!  Of course, you don’t want other people to trade without you as you’ll miss out so a lot of the fun in trading games like Catan is competing to offer a desirable trade without giving away too much.  I really like trading when it’s done well.

  • Blocking

Notable games: Agricola, Tzolk’in

The most prominent example of blocking comes in worker placement games.  Everyone has a few workers and each worker can be sent to an action space to do something good.  However, you can’t go to an action space that someone else has taken.

This makes it very important to pay attention to what other people are doing.  If you can work out which spaces they want to go to, it can be a big advantage.  You’re never going to get to go to all the spaces you want to, but if you plan well, you can usually beat people to the key spots you need.

This is one the best kinds of interaction for me.  You’re not directly fighting with people, but you care a great deal about what they’re doing.  The players aren’t playing independent games; they’re heavily invested in everyone else’s game as well.  I love it!

  • Social deduction

Notable games: One Night Ultimate Werewolf, The Resistance

These are often party games.  I’m not as much of a fan of party games as many other people in my gaming group for other reasons, but I love the actual social deduction element wherever it appears in games.

Social deduction games usually have a hidden traitor or hidden teams of some kind.  The deduction element is trying to work out who’s on your side and who isn’t!

In these games, you’re typically playing the other people rather than playing the game.  The people become the game.  It’s such a great mechanic and works so well.  How is Steve likely to react if he’s actually a traitor?  Would Mark say that kind of thing if he were really on my side?  You get to see a whole other side to people playing these games.  Lots and lots of fun.

  • Teamwork/Discussion

Notable games: Pandemic, Unlock!

Co-op games are the best candidates for this mechanic.  I find working together to solve a common problem incredibly satisfying.  You have to be careful to avoid the alpha-gamer scenario though, where one player dominates any discussion and just tells everyone else what to do.

Well-designed games can avoid this, but if you just play with considerate people, there are a whole host of games that will give you a great teamwork feeling.  I love the discussion, contributing ideas and being delighted when other people come up with things that you would never have thought of yourself.

‘The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.’  This is absolutely my favourite kind of interaction in games.

What kind of interaction do you like best in games?

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Jonathan Hicks

Jonathan is the director of Maven Games. He blogs and records podcast episodes several times a week. Whenever he isn't doing anything else, he designs games.

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