Sunday, June 11, 2006


This is the second submission to Gone Gaming since we solicited reader submissions. If you have something boardgame related to say send it to Guidelines are here. Got an idea for a series? We will post it. Can you fake an interview with Charles Darrow? We'll post it. Charles Roberts? Same thing. Charles II? ........... Well, keep it game related.

Kris Hall is a boardgaming dad from West Virginia. He is a member of Ted Cheatham's Appalachian Gamers group, and he tells me that he routinely hands Ted his butt on a platter. Ohhhhh. I don't think I was supposed to let that cat out of the bag.


So we’re in the last turn of a game of Puerto Rico. James is to my right, and he has constructed a big purple building which will give him lots of points if he can get a colonist on it. I also have buildings that need colonists. But when James’ turn comes, he doesn’t choose the Mayor which would give him more colonists. He assumes that if he doesn’t choose the Mayor, I will have to choose that role in order to maximize my score.

On my turn, I choose the prospector. No new colonists for me, no new colonists for James.

James wins the game, but he is outraged with me. “Why didn’t you choose the Mayor? It would have increased your score!”

I reply: “It would have increased yours more.”

This answer doesn’t seem to make sense to him. “But your job is to maximize your score. The only way to do that was to choose the Mayor. If you don’t choose the Mayor, you’re not playing the game right.”

We ended up in a semi-lengthy debate about what I would have to call “gaming ethics.” James’ opinion was that because the object of the game is to maximize your score, you must try to do that at all times. My position is that I am allowed to act out of spite if I sense obvious attempts to manipulate me, humiliate me, or otherwise earn my wrath.

Another story. We’re in the last auction of the first group of auctions in Pizarro & Co. I have only two ships on the board. Ted knows that my chances for winning will be slim if I don’t get another ship on the board by winning this auction. When it’s his turn to bid, he shouts out some outrageous number, knowing that I will have to top him.

“It’s yours,” I say.

Ted is stunned. He has practically bankrupted himself in his attempt to bluff me.

I feel a certain cold satisfaction. I believe that I have sacrificed my chances for winning, but that I have taken Ted down with me. I know that it is practically his duty to drive the price up and keep me from an easy victory, but his bid was so over-the-top that I felt I had to call his bluff. If only to teach him to be more cautious around me in the future.

As it turns out, I was right about Ted’s fate and wrong about mine. Ted’s lack of cash haunts him the whole game and he loses. I have plenty of cash to shepherd my two ships through the game, and I gain an unexpected victory.

I must emphasize that I did not act out of strategic vision. I acted out of spite.

I suppose this tactic could be called the Suicide Bomber technique after the psychos who destroy themselves in order to hurt others. If you prefer a less incendiary name, call it the Sampson Maneuver, after the Biblical hero who killed himself as he destroyed the enemies who blinded him by knocking down the pillars of their temple.

Now, I am not normally any more vengeful than the average guy, and I don’t use this tactic very often. In fact, the use of this tactic in the Puerto Rico game wasn’t actually suicide because I knew I wasn’t going to win. It didn’t actually change the outcome of the game at all. It merely annoyed James.

So are their legitimate and illegitimate uses of the Suicide Bomber technique in gaming? For me there are. Here are my guidelines:

1) It is legitimate to act on spite generated by other players in the game. If the other player double-crosses you, blocks your route, out-bids you just to be mean, or is just so snide about his superior skill that you want to accidentally knock your glass into his lap, then go for it.

2) It is not legitimate to act on spite generated by other players outside the realm of the game. If Bob is a couple of bucks short when it comes time to contribute to the beer fund, you are not allowed to whisper to other players: “Let’s not try to win. Let’s just all try to destroy Bob, and watch him go crazy.” That kind of behavior is juvenile. Possibly fun, but juvenile.

3) Leave your spite at the table when the game is over. It’s only a game. But be aware that others may not feel that way.

Last story about this last point. My wife and I are playing the computer game Master of Orion 2 hotseat. Kim pulls ahead of me in technology and could easily blitze my star systems. She refrains in a spirit of generosity. It isn’t long before I pull ahead in technology. And I build the MOO2 equivalent of the Death Star and blow her prize planet into cosmic dust.

Kim is outraged. Red with fury. Spitting mad. My repeated comment that “It’s only a game!” falls on deaf ears.

I slept on the couch that night. And for the next week, Kim regaled all her friends and co-workers with tales of my perfidy. I was soon known to all in our circle as the most treacherous fiend since Hitler had betrayed Chamberlain after Munich.

We can laugh about it now.

But I try to remember that it is all too easy to generate spite. And that it can boomerang back at you.

And remember: it’s only a game.

Kris Hall


Shannon Appelcline said...

The Suicide Bomber technique, as you call it, is also very useful in the metagame.

By refusing to take the mayor in PR and refusing to overbid in P&c, you're making your opponents think harder about trying manipulate you in the future, which in turn will give you advantages in that game.

To look at it another way:

The spite itself part of the game. You might even consider it a resource that needs to be managed. If another player angered you in order to get an advantageous position, they turn in one resource (your good will) for another (their position), and they shouldn't be surprised if the lack of that resource (your good will) hurts them in the future, just like the lack of ore might in Settlers of Catan.

Michael Langford said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Michael Langford said...

1> We are playing a single game with no past or future. What should only motivate plays is the desire to win yourself. Even if it is mathematically impossible for you to win, you should maximize your chances. Spiteful play is poor sportsmanship

2> We are playing a series of games, one should not bear grudges across games. Grudges within games are a hazard of poor play and crippling blows. It evigorates the game with humanity

3> Things outside the game (such as the beer money) can easily cause spite in the game, this spite is justified.

4> Spite is never justified.

#4 is rediculously stuffy. #3 is childish. #1 and #2 are reasonable positions to take. Your puerto rico friend took the position of #1. This is a purist, "math geek" approach to gaming. This appeals heavily to socially ackwards who don't understand other people enough to know you're going to piss them off.

The reality of the situation is, unless we're at a competition, we're *NOT* just playing 1 game. We are playing a series of games. While collusion when both of you have a chance to win is distaseful, it's a hell lot of fun when one of you is out of the action. Playing according to standard #1, many games are only fun for the top 1 or 2 people (Diplomacy definitly falls in this arena). Playing according to standard #2, you have to work to win, and win in a way that doesn't really screw over someone else who can still hurt you. This 1> Adds a human level to the game and 2> Makes it so the person who is most analytical isn't guarenteed to win.

This also can make it to your advantage to not utterly destroy other people. It will make it so you avoid the crippling blow (and your opponents will too) out of fear of vengance.

I believe approach #2 leads to more competitive games that are fun and enguaging for *everyone*, not just the winning person.

Anonymous said...

I take the stance that spite is never acceptable. Whether or not people are pissed off is besides the point. Within a game spite is distasteful and marks a player who has unilaterally decided to play a different game than the other players, without giving those other players the advance option of leaving the game they never agreed to play in the first place. Between games it marks a player to be be avoided and if possible removed from the game group. Without exception I expect players to play to win, and when winning, to win by as large a margin as possible (however they wish to calculate that delta). The acceptable variance that can occur within that occurs for the player who thinks he has no chance of winning. Do they play for maximal score, or maximal largest delta position, or highest ranking? All three approaches are acceptable.

At one of the groups I play at we've discussed having each player document their end-game resolution/kingmaking strategy (largest score, delta, position, etc). The idea got quite a bit of support but fell short on how to resolve the metagaming issues.

Anonymous said...

Spite or no (spiteful players are annoying in general, but I'll admit to making spiteful plays) it's a perfectly valid choice to decline the play that would gain you points but lower your relative position.


Anonymous said...

Those examples are probably good play. In my group, you wouldn't be chided for refusing to take the Mayor or sticking someone with an outrageous bid.

It is interesting that your group expects you to help them, and would expect you to self-destruct by overpaying for something.

Wargamer66 on BGG

huzonfirst said...

No player in my games group would expect you to take the Mayor in your Puerto Rico example, nor would they play with that expectation or become upset if you didn't take it. We play to win, not for position. If you have no chance of winning, taking the Mayor is a clear kingmaking move, hurting another player who presumably doesn't need the colonists to win. Your opponent took a gamble (a foolish one, in my opinion) and it didn't work out. He shouldn't be upset with anyone but himself.

The Pizarro example is equally clear cut. For whatever reason, you decided the cost to win the auction was too high. True, you may have felt you "had" to win that auction, but when you passed, at least you were still solvent and now had one fewer opponent to worry about. Again, your opponent took a chance and got burned.

I realize in both cases you felt that spite was the determining factor, but both could have been made for cold-blooded reasons. I can't see that either opponent has a right to complain.

Now, it's true that different groups have different playing styles, which can lead to different expectations about how people will play. But these two cases are so cut and dried that I can't imagine them causing a problem among players who can see the big picture and not just their own chances of winning.

Anonymous said...

The point I would make is that the point of the game is not to maximize your score so much as it is to maximize your chance of winning. In general terms maximizing your score does typically maximize your chance of winning. However, any move that scores another player more points than yourself, particularly in an endgame situation, may very well not be your optimal move.

I have played in several games of PR that the winner specifically did not make the move that gave them the most points, because someone else would have gotten more and ended up winning instead.

Not making moves that are sub-optimal to your chances of winning, even if they increase your score the most, is never spiteful.

Anonymous said... it the Sampson Maneuver, after the Biblical hero....

Can I call it the Samson Maneuver instead?