In addition to the thrilling debut of D&D 5E, I played a couple of boardgames over the past few days. Friday night, I played a four-player game of A Game of Thrones: the Living Card Game. This afternoon, at lunch, I played half of a game of Libertalia, before I lost the conference room to a unit meeting and had to pack it up early.
What's interesting about both of these games is they are what some have called "conflict games." Being ice-cold to each other is not a choice; it's the game's design. In A Game of Thrones, you are encouraged to pick on the weak. There are situations in play where you can clearly attack, exploit, or screw over your opponent(s), and not taking those opportunities when they present themselves could easily cost you the game. In Libertalia, your gain will almost always be at someone else's loss. There's just no way around it.
I have kind of complicated feelings around these so-called "conflict games." I can be a pretty sore loser, sometimes. For whatever reason, I tend to end up being the "leader" or "organizer" or "Dude Who Knows How to Play," and as a result I often spend more time making sure everyone's having fun and understanding the game rather than playing to win. This usually results in me doing very, very poorly in competitive games. And I'm okay with that, if it's close. But getting blown out just sucks.
Paradoxically, that's a fairly common trait amongst boardgamers. I think it's why co-op games and "multiplayer solitaire" Euro-games are so incredibly popular. And not only are some people poor losers...some are poor winners. Either they are loud-mouthed and obnoxious about it, or they are uncomfortable with the idea of being "cruel" to people just to win. I can certainly relate...even on the rare occasion that I win a game, my first concern is that everyone who didn't win still had a good time.
But, on the other hand, there are few tabletop experiences more exciting, more riveting, and more satisfying than playing a spirited, competitive game. Last year, I played a ton of games, but my favorite one? Conquest of Nerath. I only ever played it once. I may never play it again. It's a war-game. Try getting that to the table some Friday night, and watch how quickly it gets drowned out by people wanting to play more 7 Wonders or, nowadays, Splendor.
Don't get me wrong...there's nothing wrong with either of those games...but, as I just said, a competitive game has an air of excitement and intrigue about it that cannot be matched. It's too bad we tend to get caught up on our own shit sometimes, to the point that gaming experiences like Conquest of Nerath get ignored. I actually think this is one of the bigger barriers to entry in the tabletop boardgaming hobby. You can whip out Settlers of Catan or Pandemic and hook anyone for an evening, but it's an all-nighter of Civilization or Imperium Galactica that is going to create memories that keep people coming back. It's the meta-stories of power and betrayal that get told in a game of Rex, or Battlestar Galactica. It's snatching victory from the jaws of defeat in A Game of Thrones.
I wonder if there's any way we can alleviate "the human factor" in these games, and allow ourselves to just focus on the great spirit of competition. I've thought up a few ideas, and I wonder if there might be any merit to them:
1. Method Gaming: Something that took a little of the edge off the Game of Thrones cardgame was that at one point we started kinda-sorta roleplaying our respective houses as events within the game unfolded. Then it didn't become "let's gang up on Ed," it was "House Baratheon has become a threat that must be dealt with!" That little switch can make a lot of difference, potentially. The next conflict game I play, perhaps I'll try roleplaying the whole way through. Not only will that take the edge off competition; it'll probably make the entire game more fun!
2. (House) Rules of Engagement: Getting a big lead in a game of Cosmic Encounter can be an ugly thing, as every other player throws everything they've got at you to hold you back and steal victory from your hand. One of that game's brilliant and simple mechanics to prevent it from getting too ugly is the "Deck of Fate." At the beginning of your turn, you draw from the deck, and the color of card you draw is the opponent you face that turn. Voila! Nothing personal; just fate. Such "rules of engagement" like this could easily be adapted to other games to take the personal edge off. After Friday's Game of Thrones game, I thought about a multiplayer variant where you attacked to the right and defended to the left. I thought, not only would that make things less personal, it would create a whole new level of strategy/politics (if you can't directly affect a player who's in the lead, you'll have to lend aid any way you can to the player who can affect him).
3. Monologuing. A favorite technique of mine, this is a simple declaration of intent whenever you do something that could be perceived as dickish. You don't have to take an apologetic tone; you just straight up say "I backstabbed you because you're about to win," or "This is a move of respect, because I'm afraid of what you'll do to me if I don't stop you first." Stuff like that. This allows you to keep the competitive spirit but remove the personal aspect (it's just business, nothing personal). The disadvantage here, of course, is in accidentially showing your hand when it comes to long term strategies. But in those cases, even a simple "it's not personal, it'll make sense later" could go a long way. That may sound redundant ("Of COURSE it's not personal, we're playing a game!") but reminding someone of that fact...especially in a particularly intense scenario...may be worth doing.
Anyways, if any of you have suggestions on how to influence competitive behavior so that it's not as daunting to those who have issues around it, please let me know!