Having been stuck alone at home over the past year, I’ve spent a lot of time catching up with friends from back home over Zoom. Many of these calls were with my best friend Victor, and after realizing that we were talking about the same things over and over again (one such topic being board games), we decided to have a little fun with it, get a bit more organized and started recording our Zoom chats. These are the results; it remains to be seen whether or not other topics will be birthed into a series of recorded discussions.
Victor and I have been playing board games for the better part of the last decade; we’ve also spent that decade moving and living in different cities, so we’ve both seen gaming groups come and go. I’ve started to notice patterns (more specifically, anti-patterns) that commonly emerge as a result of player miscommunication, game misunderstandings, and general bad game design.
We picked five such anti-patterns and I will summarize them (with links) below. I hope you find them interesting!
1. Poor game categorization leading to mismatched expectations
Have you ever played a game, loved it, wanted to find other games similar to it, and struggled? Even after doing your research and reading reviews, I’d often buy a new game, go through a couple plays, and find that something feels “off”: it didn’t really capture the elements of the old game that I was looking for. Board games are so interactive and complex that its hard to categorize them without overgeneralizing. Unfortunately, this is a problem that harms board game discovery and understanding, without a clear solution.
- We don’t have a good vocabulary for describing and categorizing board games.
- The board game community suffers from overly broad descriptors such as “Euro” and “Ameritrash”, which have completely lost their meaning.
- This makes recommending new games to friends and deciding what to play difficult.
- People relate differently to games based on their interaction style, their mechanics, their weight, their theme, etc.
2. Cooperative board games
Cooperative board games sound nice: everybody plays together, everybody succeeds together, yay! In practice, this can be much more painful as shared control and responsibility of the game cause friction. This is especially troublesome when a skill/experience disparity exists, causing what is known as the alpha gamer or the quarterbacking problem.
- The alpha gamer (aka quarterbacking) problem exists when one player dominates the cooperative game, essentially robbing their teammates of the experience.
- A difficult tradeoff emerges for the alpha gamer: purposely play sub-optimally or be labelled as the jerk?
- To prevent this, the best cooperative board games include asymmetric communication or information.
3. Analysis paralysis and blame
For more complex board games, players may often take (what seems to be) excessively long turns, causing frustration for the other players. Players often want to play optimally enough that the challenge of the game is genuine, but if a slow player starts playing very poorly due to social pressure, the game is already compromised. While it’s easy to blame the player, I’ve found that long turns are often the result of other factors, mostly involving game mechanics.
- The typical solution to AP is often either “think faster” or “learn the strategy faster”. I think this is unhelpful and gatekeeps the hobby.
- Game mechanics play a large role in AP. Some examples include: too much information on the board, volatile game states, and a high degree of importance per move.
- It is in every game group’s interest to mitigate AP; reducing the social pressure around AP is the best strategy.
4. Negative reactions to “kingmaking” and collusion
If you’ve ever played the Settlers of Catan, you’ve probably seen this happen. A player jumps out to an early lead, comes close to winning, but the rest of the table colludes, refuses to make trades with the leader player, and they ultimately lose. This is often met with anger from the player who was leading, but I don’t think this is a negative outcome.
- For many, many board games, kingmaking is an expected part of the design. When games have an innate amount of conflict built into them, social capital plays a part, which naturally lends to kingmaking.
- Even in low conflict games, I think opportunities for lead changes are important to keep the game interesting.
- Ultimately, the question comes down to the player’s values when in a losing position. What is the value of a win when faced with other, more meta objectives?
5. Failing to lean into the tabletop medium
Tabletop board games are constrained by a very obvious requirement: the game needs to fit on and successfully operate on a table. I feel that many board games focus too much on game mechanics and strategic design, and not enough on the tabletop experience itself.
- Some games involve a high degree of overhead: shuffling cards, moving components around, etc. This is generally mentally uninteresting and doesn’t add value to the experience.
- Rule enforcement is a major difference. In the physical medium it is up to the players to enforce rules themselves, yet some game mechanics make rule enforcement more difficult.
- Conveying information to and amongst players is more difficult in person. Board games don’t benefit from interactive UIs or gamelogs, and game design should optimize for information signalling.