October 10, 2013

Conflict Soup for the Gamer’s Soul

This post was a key link in the Game Genome Project effort to characterize a particular dimension of games, in this case the level of competition in a game.  It has been a great reference post that clarifies my thinking on the topic quite nicely.  I hope you find it helpful as well.  (July 7, 2014)

Lewis Pulsipher's recent post, “Competition, direct conflict, wargames, and screwage games,” discussed the degree of conflict in a game. The post stirred up a number of prior conversations I’ve had on the topic, and in particular the thinking a number of us invested in the Game Genome Project – specifically in the “competitiveness” category.

I posted a reply to Lewis’ post summarizing my stance on the subject, but thought it could warrant additional conversation, clarifications, examples, and general blabbering. So here we go...

I tend to view the competiveness aspect of a gameplay on a rough continuum that progresses from games where you “HAVE to destroy other people’s assets to WIN” all the way down to “games” that are multiplayer-solitaire contents or puzzles. It’s important to note that there are games that follow euro, ameritrash, wargame, or abstract design philosophies that exist all across this continuum – so keep that in mind moving forward.

Assets huh?
I’ll take a moment to clarify what I mean by ASSETS, because this is important for understanding the framework. “Assets” refer to anything under the direct control of one player (or allied team) that pertains to their capacities for performing actions, scoring points, or otherwise “doing things” in the game. So, my assets in Stone Age are my cave-meeples, my collected resources, my purchased cards/buildings. You can’t willy-nilly use my assets for your own purposes as if they were your own. Said another way, a player’s assets pertain to their “means of production” in the game, production being anything with an output in terms of taking actions, scoring, etc. However, the “score itself” in most games is generally not considered an asset, except in cases where it is (i.e. Money in Monopoly is both assets and victory points)!

On to the categories!

Necessary Destruction Games
i.e. Direct/overt conflict, combative, aggressive, cutthroat games
... and it all comes down to this.
At the most confrontational level, these are games where players are “required” to destroy or reduce their opponent’s assets in order to win the game. You HAVE to attack if you want to win, and that attacking is explicitly part of the victory condition. Examples:

- Chess (abstract – kill the king piece)
- HeroQuest (Ameritrash; kill the boss monsters and/or Hero Party)
- Wargames where VP’s are primarily (or only) gained from destroying opposing units.
- Magic the Gathering (and most duel/battle CGG’s)
- Miniature Games (Warhammer, BattleTech)

Eurogames: I can’t think of any in the euro design philosophy that require destruction – probably because not requiring it is one of the underlying traits of the euro design philosophy, or at least that of German family games.

In many cases, these games are focused around attrition. Often, the player’s will have the most assets at their disposal at the START of the game; and over the course they slowly loose forces/assets until a win condition is reached. Think of it as games focused on “tearing down” the opposition.

Opportunistic Aggression Games
i.e. Civ games, 4X games, area control/enclosure, economic, take that games

These are games where players have the tools, options, and means at their disposal to attack other players’ assets and means of production directly, but they are not required to do so in order to win. Victory in such games is often based on accumulating VP’s or completing objectives that earn you points in ways outside of (or in addition to) taking actions that can destroy your opponent’s assets. In such games, it is possible to play and win (and conclude the game) with no players ever having to destroy another player’s assets. These games include ways for “building up” as well as “tearing down.”

It's kinda like geopolitics; it's all the meta game man!

In terms of multiplayer games (3 or more players); these games also tend to implement attacking in ways that allow for “targeted” attacking. I.E., being able to single out a player or target for the attack. This characteristic can make the games intrinsically focused around politicking and meta-gaming, occasionally to the extent that such considerations trump board play. In addition, characteristics like king-making and leader bashing tend to manifest heavily in this category.


Go (abstract). Maybe I’m going on a limb here, but technically one could play a game of Go without either player ending up capturing any of the other player’s stones. The game ends when both players pass, and there is no requirement to capture stones for determining the winner. Of course, you CAN capture stones, and probably will, but that isn’t directly tied to victory.

Tons of euro, AT, and various hybrid games fit into this category, and I’m sure a number of sub-categories could be devised within this grouping. Suffice to say, here’s some examples across the spectrum:

Go (abstract; territory/area control)
Settlers of Catan (robber)
Carcassonne (stealing regions)
Tigris & Euphrates (internal/external conflicts)
Acquire (economic/stock holding)
Cyclades (euro-fied duded on a map)
Antike (euro-fied duded on a map)
Citadels (stealing/destruction of cards, money + actions possible)
Munchkin (and just about every take-that type game)
4X/Civ games (Civilization, Eclipse, TI3, Hegemonic, etc.)
Risk (area control)
El Grande (area majority)
Taluva (abstracy euro – features destroying other huts)

Acquire is worth noting because it illustrates the economic expression of opportunistic aggression type games. Many games that feature stock holding (such as Acquire) give players the means and tools to impact the value of stocks which is a type of voluntary destruction. By taking actions to disproportionally devalue your stocks, I’m reducing your total assets and however that plays into scoring and/or taking actions follows from there.

Area majority type games may seem like an odd fit, but consider El Grande or Samurai. While you aren’t explicitly destroying your opponent’s pieces, you are destroying their invested assets value for purposes of scoring, which is part of the means of production concept. In Samurai, if you put down a strong piece to attempt to capture scoring tokens, and I swoop down and claim it out from under you with a stronger piece – I’ve effectively devalued your asset and “stolen” the reward that you were poised to achieve. Looking at it in a different way, consider a location where you have a majority to be one of your “assets” (in the sense that you control it and get the most value/score/VP out of it). If someone else acts to take the majority from you, they’ve effectively stolen that asset and means for scoring future points.

Denial Games
i.e. Blocking, indirect conflict, barriers, road blocking, hampering/hindering, etc.
Races like this. Or this...

... Rubbin's Racing...

This category includes large swaths of the core eurogames, where players DO NOT have means of directly damaging other players’ collected assets. Instead, players are given various means and methods for “denying,” blocking, disrupting, hindering, etc. access to future assets via neutral or shared board elements. You might think of these games as principally about “building up” with players interacting in ways that slow or impede their opponents’ pace of progress. Often, such games hinge on timing actions, being the one to “get there first” in order to deny subsequent access to someone else.

Worker Placement games (Agricola, Stone Age, etc) fall into this camp. I can block access to you getting certain future resources or actions that you may really want to take, but I can’t send my peons over to your farm to rustle your cattle. Ticket to Ride similarly allows players to block others players by building routes to deny those routes to other players, but I can’t steal your train cards or sabotage your already built connections.

More Examples:

7 Wonders (“hate drafting” as a means for denying access)
Glen More (tile drafting)
Ginkgopolis (drafting focused)
San Juan (i.e. drafting a role out from under someone else)
Ra (Bidding Games, Ra?)
Formula De, Bolide (Race Games with shared tracks)

Interestingly, denial games despite their intent to minimize destructive type interactions (if that is the intent) can still cause significant angst and frustration for some people. Games featuring direct destruction often do so in big obvious ways, and those actions are an expected part of the experience. Games that focus on denial elements may appear more passive and less hostile, yet blocking can be equally targeted and hostile in intent; which in turn can cause anguish for players otherwise looking for less confrontation.

There is a flavor of race games that fits into this category as well, which are those where players are racing along a shared/common lane. Think of a Formula 1, Indy Car, NASCAR, or a horse race. In these cases all players are moving through a shared track and there is an abundance of interaction occurring as players jockey for position, block each other from passing, and so on. There are games that do exactly this.

I don’t have a lot of experience with bidding focused games, but perhaps those (like Ra) also fit in this category?

Tracked “Race” Games
i.e. get there first, the most points at the end

I think I can, I think I can, I think I can ...

These are games that are “almost” multiplayer solitaire. Players are able to “influence” each other through shared or neutral or indirect means, but have no actual methods for blocking or preventing another player from doing what they want. Think of these games as “leeching” type games.

Analogy time: Imagine a track race (500m dash or something); where each runner is confined to their own track and runners can’t cross the lane lines and/or physically interfere with other runners. However the pacing strategy and approach a runner takes can constitute a psychological interaction. Do you start off strong and try and keep the lead to sow the seeds of discouragement, or do you hang back and then try to dash ahead at the end? All the runners are going through these psychological decisions in response to the runners around them, even though they can’t physically do anything to their competitors.

Race for the Galaxy is pinnacle example. Players are free to choose any action they want for the round, unlike San Juan where a role you want to pick can be drafted before your turn denying you access. However, other players can/will leech off your selection, so it behooves you to balance and time your actions to minimize that leeching effect while you in turn leech off your opponents. Even though the interaction in RftG is quite indirect, it nevertheless plays a significant role in the strategy of the game and is a strong (but subtle) form of interaction at high levels of play.

Depending on the selected kingdom cards, Dominion is another example, where you can’t prevent me from using the cards in my hand in any sort of targeted denial type way. I’m at liberty to take whatever actions I want and can afford to take during my turn.

In the classic card game world, Cribbage is a good example as well. In this case, players are progressing down a fixed track and the player to cross the finish line first wins. The primary interaction is through pegging and what cards you put in your crib – but this interaction doesn’t inhibit or prevent me from doing whatever I want in terms of legal plays.

Roll Through the Ages is an interesting case. By and large players are racing independently to build improvements and monuments (the primary point generators). Although there are certain die roll combinations that will affect your opponent’s score (i.e. Pestilence rolls). While this may appear to be an overt conflict, remember that VP’s aren’t technically assets (unless they are; like money in monopoly). In the case of RttA, hitting all opponent’s equally with a -3 to their VP’s is the same as you, alternatively, gaining 3 VP’s and pulling further down the VP track.

Contest Games
i.e. score comparison, “true” multiplayer solitaire.

Step right up! Give the thing a whack with the Hammer! Prove how strong you are and win a free hotdog!!

Yahtzee is the most clear-cut example of multiplayer solitaire (MPS) type games. All players are given an equal number of turns to score the highest score they can and there is no way that the rolls of one player can affect the chances, opportunities, or score of another player. Boggle is another game, where players are tasked with finding word sequences in a grid of letters under equal time constraints. At the end, we compare words (less and shared duplicates) and the player with the most wins.

Despite the brandishing of many games with the MPS label, very few games tend to genuinely fall into this category – most are instead Race Games.

Non-Competitive Games
i.e. puzzles

This category includes mostly cooperative-style games. I’m calling these games by acknowledging that the board, as a sort of analog AI, provides reactive and appropriate responses to player action that creates the feeling of competition. If one takes the opposite stance, that analog AI’s do not constitute thinking opposition, this category might be better labeled as Non-Competitive “Activities” or Cooperative Puzzles. Granted, dynamic variations over the course of the game, if in response to player action, can mean that rather than there being a fixed solution for any given board setup, that there may be many possible solutions each with a probabilistic chance of success.

As a point of illumination, compare traditional solitaire to Forbidden Island. In solitaire, for any given initial setup, there may or may not be 1 or more solutions. If there are zero solutions at the start (which is entirely possible), no amount of player action will allow you to win. Furthermore, there is no injection of randomness during the game to change this starting premise.

In Forbidden Island however, the probabilities and potential solutions are constantly shifting as players take actions and in turn the item and location decks are reshuffled. This reshuffling process and the removal/addition of cards into the decks changes the solution space and the probabilities, making the system feel more “game like” and less puzzle-like. But it’s an illusion to some extent …. caused by the pants of course.


So what are we left with?

Necessary Destruction
Opportunistic Aggression
Denial & Blocking
Tracked Race

I’m not married to any of these terms as a label; they work at a descriptive level but are a little clunky. Really no one is going to use these. But the more important point, moving beyond what the buckets are called, is the ideas they represent in terms of the underlying nature of conflict found in hobby games.

So, what are your reactions to the concepts? Is missing something missing? Do share!


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