Friday, May 04, 2007

Whack the Leader Etiquette

Last night the Appalachian Gamers played one of my favorite longer games: Martin Wallace’s Struggle of Empires. As the game progressed, the intrigue and diplomacy increased as it became clear that Dave was scoring more points than the rest of us. Right before the alliance auction that begins the third and last round, all the non-Dave players discussed the various ways we could whack the leader. Eventually, Dave tired of all the chatter and efforts of the kill-Dave committee and he let his temper get the best of him. He later apologized—after winning the game in spite of the best efforts of the Gang of Four.

The events of last night made me ponder a question of gaming etiquette. How much kill-the-leader discussion is truly polite? In a military-diplomatic game like Struggle of Empires players are certainly free to bargain, wheedle, and make any kind of deal that seems appropriate. But when does prolonged discussion of the disembowelment of another player cross the line into bad taste?

Dave understands that there was nothing personal in our plotting. We would have conspired just as relentlessly against any player who was in the lead. In that sense, Dave was over-reacting.

But I can also understand how he feels. He must have felt like Scrooge in the scene from A Christmas Carol when the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come takes Scrooge to see the joyous petty thieves who robbed bed curtains and other items from the room where Scrooge’s corpse rested. It’s hard not to feel picked on when everyone is picking on you.

We could have asked Dave to step out of the room for a moment, but I suppose that could have been as bad or worse as what actually happened. Dave would have rightly felt that we were plotting against him, and in his imagination our plotting might have seemed more competent than it really was. No, it was probably better that Dave hear all our counter-productive bickering, and some tangential discussions about how to attack the player in second place (me).

I have no hard-and-fast answers to the politeness-of-plotting question. But I suppose it is best to remember that when you play a game of war and diplomacy, don’t be surprised when people conspire and war against you.


Anonymous said...

Posh. If you can't stand the heat stay out of the lead. Or play some silly Euro where you don't know who is winning until the last round when you finally give up and roll a d6 to figure it out.

Smatt said...


I've been thinking a lot about this lately because I got ganged up on in a way too long game of 6 player Settlers.

I wrote about it on the geek and got some good feedback. The best feedback I got was one fellow talking about how the people in last place are only trying to wield some control (gang-style) over an otherwise lost game. That made a lot of sense to me, but I still don't think it's the right thing to do.

Then I wrote to a friend of mine who is a serious gamer and asked his opinion on this topic of ganging up on the leader. He put it like this: table talk is not advisable. When stated like that, I totally agree.

I don't mind getting ganged up on, just as long as each player figures out by himself that it benefits him. Once players start acting as a single entity, the game loses its fun.

My friend's solution? Agree beforehand how you're going to play: with table talk or without. Very diplomatic.

My solution: no table talk period. If you can't take a whooping, don't play the game.

Poker players get it. There's no table talk and overt ganging up in a game with money. Why should it be any different in other games?

dgilligan said...

Ok, I admit it, I lost my temper. I have also apologized to everyone involved, multiple times.

Kris is right in one respect. Hearing the talk of dissection isn't fun but certainly expected. What really caused me to blow my top was how the game went down during the bidding for allies phase.

It was rather obvious to me that Kris had created an army that was going to sweep anyone and anything in its path out of the way without breaking a sweat. It was critical that I be on the same side as Kris so he couldn't attack. I also fully expected him to bid me up and either force a showdown or make me eat a ton of Unrest. He didn't. Another player did. At the time I simply saw this as handing the game to Kris on a silver platter as I didn't think at the time that this would have allowed any other player, other than Kris, a chance at victory. I lost my cool and said some things I shouldn't have said and acted in a very poor manner.

Kris still managed to make a great run at the end. Where he went, he destroyed his opposition. At the same time some of the other players took the opportunity to jump me where they could, which I totally understood.

All said, Kris played the superior game. Not only did he have a great strategy but he also put himself in great position at the end. He made me the threat, the leader, the person to be destroyed. He didn't even lift a finger during the bidding for allies round (and not just the last round...he never once bid to change the order) and I still ate several points of Unrest. When the dust settled I had a two point margin of victory.

I'm not pleased with my own behavior and have been thinking about what it was that set me off and what I can do to avoid it in the future. So, I may have won the game but I certainly lost something as well.

Unknown said...

I think you may have just missed the more interesting question here: how do you determine who the leader is? In games where any player can beat up on any another player without many constraints, table-talk and diplomacy will always be a factor, and to simply ban it is not only totally impractical, but removes a legitimate, and for many players an entertaining, part of the game. All these conquest games are basically descended from Risk or Diplomacy, and what would those games be without table-talk?

For me, the far more problematic element is the competitive whining that sometimes occurs about who really is winning. In any game of this sort worth its salt, who is actually ahead should be a matter of some conjecture. But, it's also true that for games of this sort to work, generally players are required to keep the game balanced by taking points away from the winners rather than the losers.

This leads to a lot of discussion about who really is winning and who needs beating on. It's important for players to help make sure that other players don't make poor decisions in this regard, and potentially badly upset the game by throwing it to a leader or taking a trailer permanently out, ruining his or her experience.

On the other hand, there is a line here somewhere. When a player resorts to aggressive whining, deception, or outright lying to convince their fellow players that they aren't winning, for me this crosses over into the realm of someone who I wouldn't want to play this sort of game with.

As chance would have it, I recently played a game of Risk -- Star Wars: Original Trilogy edition. For those who might be unfamiliar, this is basically a three-way game where each player is playing to a different set of victory conditions. Because of this, it's frequently not obvious who is closest to winning. In order to keep the game balanced and fun, you need some table-talk, and sometimes two players need to plan about how to take the third down a notch. That's not just acceptable, but that's how the game is played. I don't see Struggle of Empires being any different.

The line is crossed when a player can never acknowledge that he is in fact winning, can't gracefully take the hits when they come, and whines too much. Another feature of these games is that when people decide who is winning, they don't always pick correctly; Settlers sometimes falls victim to this with inexperienced players, as people keep sending the Robber over to the same target well past the point that player has been brought back into the pack, just because they haven't re-evaluated the situation. If you play these games, you have to acknowledge that you're playing a game in which there is a risk of this sort of thing happening, and you can't be a jerk about it. If that's a problem for you, there are plenty of excellent eurogames out there.

There is a category of games where this sort of thing is just part of the dynamics, and part of what makes it fun. The more interesting questions revolve around how the game mechanics themselves handle things. Arguably, a game like Titan or Diplomacy which eliminates players is preferable to a game like Vinci or Struggle of Empires which forces losing players to keep playing. Settlers or the Star Wars Risk game (and Risk in general) keep things under control by being short. But there are plenty of games that don't seem to acknowledge the effects of these dynamics and run into serious issues.

jwandke said...

The person in first place is part of the negotiation. It's her job to convince the others that the game is still close.

Not clear what "letting the temper get the best of him" means. If he was shivving people or throwing feces, that does seem to cross a line of decorum. But if he was screaming, "Why don't you leave me alone, you jerks" and waving his arms around, then that is part of the negotiation.

Smatt said...

koTable talk is banned in many tournament settings. In personal games, it's up to the players to govern their own behavior.

There are many games during which one player makes an illogical play against another, while simultaneously giving the overall game advantage to a third party. It sucks; it's frustrating. But at least it's player vs. player vs. player. That is, at least the active player is trying to win according to the unique way he sees the board.

When the game becomes players vs. player, I start to get uncomfortable. We didn't start the game this way, did we? But of course it's completely legitimate.

People love this stuff, though. Let's pool our resources and elect one person to "steal" the win! Yes! That's the way to go! Let's talk out loud and work out all the kinks so everyone's on the same page! Fun!

I just don't see it and probably never will.

Anonymous said...

I certainly can admit when I am winning and expect to get pounded in that type of game. It's much harder to take a pounding gracefully because you were leading a few turns ago.
If I am in third or lower and someone starts talking "gang up on the leader," I don't plan on exerting any more effort to "get the leader" than the players in front of me.

The whole question of how long the diplomacy goes on and how explicit it is is tricky. I like the idea of everyone figuring out what they can do independently, but there will always be some tabletalk. I think some is appropriate, but planning out action by action what each player will do would be tedious for the colluding players, let alone the colludee.

Anonymous said...

Does anyone play Caylus and NOT allow table talk during the Bridge phase (each player pays $0-$3 to move the Provost 0-3 spaces backwards or forwards)? Seems like you would lose some strategic (or maybe tactical) depth from that fairly important part of the game - e.g. "If I pay $1 to move it back, would you also pay $1, so Fred can't collect all those cubes...".

Some parts of some games seem to be more interesting with tabletalk, though of course in the general case each group needs to decide how much is too much.

Smatt said...

I'm curious what Kris has to say on all this.

I'm imagining that all of our gaming groups are different with unique personalities and group dynamics. These factors will undoubtedly change how one feels about the various points above.

Just as an example, our gaming group has never discussed moving the provost in Caylus. We just do it. Even if a five second alliance would help equalize all the players, we tend not to group-strategize.

Table talk has to happen. When table talk turns into a group huddle, I personally have a problem with it.

Wandke's remarks are right on, though I question how much true participation one truly has in "the hot seat." When you're part of the negotiations and you're winning, you've effectively entered the group negotiations with a losing proposition: "someone's gotta win... why not me?" Still I agree with the basic idea that you have a voice and that it's your responsibility to defend yourself.

This is how I play: if I'm in second, and the third place player makes a move which more or less locks in the leader's position, I let it happen. My feeling is that the leader has beaten us as individuals. It's no less frustrating when the bad move hits the table (I have no Zen peace of mind), but that's how I play.

Kris Hall said...

flpI tend to think that diplomacy is part of a game like Struggle of Empires. And if you are in the lead, you have to suffer the lynch mob syndrome.

On the other hand, I could certainly understand if a group of gamers decided that they prefer to play without table talk and any possible ugliness that does with it.

If there were commonly accepted rules on this subject it would not be worth blogging about.

Steve said...

I wrote about this (sort of in a half-assed way) early in April, if anyone is interested:

Regarding the player who lost their temper, everyone has had a bad gaming day.

Anonymous said...

We discussed this recently in our group, and decided it really relies on basic social skills.

Some games obviously require table talk and leader hitting to make a worthwhile game of it. Chris's examples are very good here.

Some games clearly disallow it like Bridge and Poker. Many games lie in the middle ground though. We decided that for us it was a function of game and of "victim". Some players in our group wouldn't like being conspired against, others would be disappointed if we didn't... Poor etiquette would be a player we didn't conspire against joining in a conspiracy against someone else!

We had a similar issue in Struggle of Empires. I was in a winning position, and there was really one other player who had a small chance of taking me out. There was much conspiring around the bidding to try and put us in separate camps with all the other players consolidating funds. We did end up in separate camps, but he decided to try and lock in second place so we made a non-aggression pact. Some conspirators felt this was against the spirit of the game, which is perhaps true, but it doesn't have any compulsory attack rules (and I doubt you could write sensible ones anyway). So it was conspiracy upon conspiracy. In both my case, and in Kris & Dave's case, Dave and I have no leg to stand on to complain about leader hitting as the perceived leader won in both cases anyway!

Steve said...

Good points. In a game like SOE, if im leading and you aren't conspiring to take me down, ill just think you suck as a player.

Friendless said...

On New Year's Eve we played a lot of games and I found myself leading in many of them (particularly atthe beginning) so for about 7 hours the table talk was all about how to get me. I find that really wearing - I play games for a mental challenge, not to have all of my mates picking on me, and I was quite stressed out. I know that the other guys were simply playing to win, but I realised that I much prefer games where you either can't identify a leader or can't do anything to him anyway. So a culture of leader-whacking definitely affects my choice of games and opponents. Furthermore, if you guys are going to delay the game while you discuss how to get me, I'm going to get very very bored and malicious.

For the record, I won Ticket to Ride: Marklin, Pizarro & Co, Metro and Pony Express despite the best efforts of my opponents.

Dr. Matt J. Carlson said...

Hmm, people don't table talk when playing poker?

I just don't see it, I thought that has as least as much psychological posturing as any other game around...

I don't (usually) mind being conspired against when I'm the leader, but I do resent it if a second-place player cons the 3rd and 4th place player into handing them the win. Of course, I feel that then I can participate and point out the issue. Ganging up is one thing, but handing the win over to 2nd place is something I dislike...

Bad blood from earlier in the game is, of course, excepted... that's always allowed. (ie. one player holding a valid grudge from earlier in the game)

Greg J. Schloesser said...

I can certainly sympathize, at least somewhat. When playing with my former Westbank Gamers group, there were a few games wherein I was always perceived to be the major threat ... even before the game began. Advanced Civilization was one such game. From the get-go, I was targeted by just about everyone. It was a 10-hour struggle to remain competitive and in competition. It began to feel more like work than play, so I stopped playing the game with the group.

I do feel leaders should be targeted in order to reel them back to the pack, but determining who is the leader can sometimes be tricky. Often the perceived leader is not the actual leader when all factors are considered. Casting the "leader" light upon someone else can be challenging.

Like Chris, I, too, grow weary when the actual leader whines too much and continues to insist that he is NOT the actual leader, when it is apparent that he truly is in that position. I'm not sure anything can actually be done about this, other than to let the person know in no-uncertain-terms that he is, indeed, the leader and should stop all efforts to pretent otherwise.