Monday, 26 March 2007

The Shock of the Social

I played Railroad Tycoon for the first time this weekend, a game I'd snapped up when poor old Eagle Games (the only other committed publisher of AT games besides FFG) went bust. Game went down pretty well with my friends, and although I'm lukewarm about the theme and the board is annoying on multiple levels I'd give it a cautious thumbs up.

One of the game mechanics is an auction to see who goes first each round - highest bidder pays the money and gets the honours, then it follows clockwise. So the person sitting to the left of the high bidder basically gets a free advantage. At some point during the game we played I was one of two players left in the auction, and after my opponents had made a bid increase I voiced my concern that it was really worth my while upping the bid again, just by way of table chat, you understand. The player on my left, who was out of the auction, then offered to give me $1000 if I'd increase my bid by the same amount. He'd be going last if the other player still bidding won so it was totally worth his while to effectively bid a small sum for the chance to go second. This caused uproar round the table with some players condoning the action, others condemning it. In the end, to silence the fuss I increased my bid, won the auction and took the $1000 and gave it to the player who'd remained silent during the argument!

The point of this lengthy introduction is to illustrate a source of fairly fierce argument amongst gamers of all stripes which is the legitimacy of allowing negotiation and social interaction in games which do not specifically set it down as part of the rules. There are a number of games which are built around the concept of negotiation but there are equally a number of games (Puerto Rico is a good example) which say nothing about negotiation in the rules but which would be easily and completely ruined if two players started conspiring together. The largest class of games is a third, to which Railroad Tycoon belongs, which fall into a grey area between the two in which negotiation is not discussed in the rules but it's impact upon the game is less clear.

I kind of have a silly thing about rules - I regard them as being fairly sacrosanct to the point where I'm unwilling to add house rules or variants even to improve games that are obviously begging for changes. After all the rules are the rules - without them you don't actually have a game at all. Plus I think it's kind of fun to enforce silly rules, like demanding to be called the Lord of Catan after winning a game of Settlers. So I'm totally siding with the legions of fans who ask that designers actually make a point of saying in the rules whether or not negotiation and/or resource exchange (which often accompanies it) are allowed as part of the game. At the moment the unwritten consensus seems to be that unless it's specifically listed as an aspect of the game then it's not allowed which I think is a great shame. A number of games I'm fairly fond of (Citadels for example) say nothing about it in the rules but would be spoilt for me if they excluded plotting and conniving from the game experience.

I think this state of affairs has arisen because a lot of Euro fans really don't like the chaos and unpredictability that trade and negotiation can inject into otherwise pure and balanced game designs. Indeed I've seen people complain that after a while all games which include this play element eventually turn into the same meta-game where negotiating and trading over favours and alliances effectively becomes the game, relegating other mechanics to the background and rendering all plays strikingly similar. When I first heard this point of view I thought it interesting and quite possibly accurate, although I personally don't seem to tire of the meta-game because it offers huge variety even within the strictures of being a similar experience every time - far more so than the limited play options that seem to arise from game designs that follow their fundamental maths too closely. But on inspection I'm not entirely sure that the argument holds up.

Consider. In the first instance we have the sort of negotiation offered in multiplayer conflict and empire building games which I suspect is the genre most people have in mind when they make this complaint. Games like Diplomacy and A Game of Thrones are completely built around this aspect of the play whereas others like crusty old Risk (much improved in its latest outing) don't strictly forbid it and a lot can be added to the play experience by allowing it. These games are basically about effective lying - you need to persuade other players that you're either not a threat or are offering a very serious threat in order to get them to behave in a way that suits your purposes regardless of whether you actually plan to attack them or not. Play enough of these games and they will, eventually, turn into the same meta-game already described.

But wait - there's lots of other games which encourage different types of negotiation. Games like Traders of Genoa and to a lesser extent Settlers, described above, encourage players to negotiate around trade. This is entirely different - here you're not lying to try and build alliances or protect weak fronts but instead your negotiating over value and there's no need to lie - the drive to negotiate comes from either hidden information or a simulation of market conditions. Other games, such as Titan allow some limited negotiation based on circumstance and assessment of the relative players' skills. Games with co-operative elements like Fury of Dracula encourage positive negotiation within small groups or indeed amongst all the players if they're playing against the game system itself. I'm sure I could expand this list if I tried, but frankly I'm getting bored, so let's move on.

A long, long time ago over on BoardGameGeek there was a brief trend for making geeklists based around online personality tests. I'm dubious about these sorts of tests but I'll admit that as long as you're painting with very broad strokes they can offer some sort of insight and interesting information. It seemed at the time that most of the respondents to these lists came out as being categorised in varying degrees of introversion - maybe not surprising for a self-labelled "geek" site. But not me - I kept coming out as an extrovert. There's been a lot of discussion about the demographics of the Ameritrash fan movement - age, occupation, martial status and so on - but I'd like to suggest that the introvert/extrovert division is another guide for whether people are likely to prefer Euro over AT games. A lot of AT games encourage a loud and boisterous game experience and negotiation of some kind or other is a cornerstone of that kind of gameplay.

So that brings us back to Railroad Tycoon, based on the classic out-and-out Euro design Age of Steam. It is in fact a Eurogame much beloved by the AT crowd not an AT game itself. So was the player to my left right or wrong to offer me the $1000? On the right side we might offer that here's a solution to the oft-quoted problem of RRT taking the AoS mechanic of allowing turn order to proceed in order of bid value amongst all players and turning it into a winner-takes all scenario that hands a bid advantage to the player of the left of the winner for no cost. On the wrong side we've got the suggestion that AoS was playtested with the rule that a player who passes is out of the auction, making passing a more difficult decision and that by offering a bribe, a player can circumvent this stricture and unbalance the game. Who was right? Answers on a postcard please to ... the comments button.


Albert said...

I think Railroad Tycoon is not an AT game; of course there is no definition of what exactly an AT game is but what... take an eurogame, just change a few details and there you have it? I think not, AT games goes further than a quick and thin spray of paint.
Besides, I do not consider myself to be and extravert, but I like both "AT" and eurogames.
I do find the idea has some merit and you could probably see the more extravert gamers prefer some games over others, and the more introvert shun party games, but a classic euro like Modern Art IS quite loud, and the extravert will certainly have an edge.

mads b. said...

In my opninion, if it's not specifically allowed to exchange ressources then it isn't. A good example is Twilight Imperium III which allows you to exchange trade goods freely, but nothing else. This makes it harder to gang up on an opponent by for instance handing somebody an important action card or a ship or some such thing.
Personally I like it this way. Not because I dislike meta gaming, but because meta gaming far too often ends up being about a lot of other things than the game. Who won the last time, who's funny to pick on, who's someone's best friens, and so on. Whichs is wrong because the goal of a game is always to win (the goal of playing the game can and should be different, though) and some meta gaming prevents a player from playing to win thus "destroying" the game.
The rules of a game is in some way the natural forces of the world in which a game takes place (even an abstract.) One of the most important rules is the winning condition, and if the meta gaming is about having another in game goal (for instance: bashing the player who won the last time) then you sort of violate the rules of the game's world.

So, to answer the question I actually think that the example you give is in line with the world of the game since it's an action that would give him an obvious and immediate benefit and not just something which would screw the other player. But if it's not in the rules it's not allowed. Unless you house rule it, of course.


Mr Skeletor said...

I'd say move negotiation is fine, but not actually trading money or goods unless it's in the rules. Otherwise it could be argued that the player who is losing could give all of his cash to the player coming second so that he could win, just to piss off the leader.

Michael Barnes said...

One of the most significant things to take from this post is Matt's suggestion that one of the things that separates the "AT personality" from the "Euro personality" is extroversion- I don't think this is an ironclad, covers-all-the-bases generality but it almost is. When I poke fun at nebbish, middleaged milquetoasts in khaki shorts and polo shirts playing CAYLUS that's kind of what I'm getting at.

As far as off-the-books negotiation...we had a good example with THE REALLY NASTY HORSE RACING GAME...we had a real upset in one of the finishes and one player's win bet came in second...well, it was my win bet too but he had the Steward's Inquiry card that would switch second and first place. So I funded the inquiry by giving him the required $10k. It wasn't in the rules, but we all agreed that not only was it in the spirit of the game but it also made for a really dramatic, fun finish.

It really depends on the game and if it makes sense in the context of the Mads B. and Mr. Skeletor have said, I think if there's direct foreclosure on trades or particular materials then yeah, don't do it...but if it's compatible with the letter and nature of the game, why not?

Ken Bradford said...

AT = Extrovert. No doubt about it.

That's why hardcore Euro people bash party games so much. They require you to directly (and sometimes loudly) to interact with the PEOPLE YOU'RE PLAYING BOARD GAMES WITH.

Crap, dude, why not just go get on your PC and do this over the internet. Then you can avoid people completely.

Wait...what were we talking about again?

Michael Barnes said...

Ken, Didn't it have something to do with unresolved issues from middle school?

Hell, I was a huge geek and I probably would have kicked some of these peoples' asses...

Have you guys ever seen those people that will come to game events and set up games and then sit there by themselves reading rules and pushing pieces around? It's like they're waiting for someone to sit down but they're too shy to solicit players...pathetic.

At my store we used to have this guy, a big ol' 40+ yeard old dude...he'd come in on board game night and kind of amble around the store could tell he wanted to play a game really bad. But he was so quiet, soft spoken, and yes- nebbish- that he wouldn't join anything, and he appeared to be content just being creepy. It made no sense to me to participate in a social hobby and not be social. So eventually I just said "hey, sit down over here and play a game with us". Which was kind of mistake, since he was the worst case of AP I'd ever seen and he barely said a complete sentence throughout the entire game. And it was TRADERS OF GENOA.

vbz said...

The extravertedness of AT is what I love about the genre. Don't get me wrong-- I fully accept that, at heart, I am an anal retentive fuck who actually ENJOYS the excersizes in the mundane so aptly embodied by most Euros.
Unfortunately most Euros tend to fall quite short of the mark when it comes to sublimating my dark need for hairy-backed, oozing with machismo, vendetta inspired fury.
Case in point: " Well *I* just took the last quarry (insert smug look here)... booyah..."

Shellhead said...

I enjoy playing metagame as well as game. Even when the rules may not permit bribery, I find it difficult to believe that the rules of any game would prohibit me from being selective about who I share my potato chips with. And it's impressive how valuable one real dollar is compared to a huge pile of game money.

But there are other ways to play the metagame. Our regular boardgame group includes a married couple, so I make it a habit to accuse them of collusion from time to time, just so they bend over backwards to prove they are not in cahoots by attacking each other. (They are still very happily married.)

One year at GenCon, I was playing in a Divine Right tournament, and one of my toughest opponents was this really smart kid. I mean, he was literally about 8 years old, but his dad taught him how to play a couple of years ago, so he was really good. So I taught him that hand slapping game... the one where you try to pull your hands away before the other player slaps them. After that, his strategy collapsed as he became obsessed with slapping hands.

The greatest test of my meta-gaming skills has been Mall of Horror. I have played nearly 20 games so far, and always won or came in second. I deploy my full arsenal of social gambits when playing Mall of Horror. I threaten, I plead, I try to inspire confidence, I make promises, I imply, and I even whine a little. For example, "I only have one character left alive... please give me that other card from the truck so she can stay alive another turn." (MoH players will know that "she" is the valuable 7-point pin-up character, and those 7 points are often the difference between victory and defeat.)

Michael Barnes said...

I love the over-arching metagame that comes from wheedling, begging, threatening, bartering, and betrayal...Robert Martin accuses me of being "about to win" practically every game we play. He stops just short of accusing me of harboring WMDs. This is even in games like LOTR.

Ken Bradford said...

Sometimes the metagame bites you in the ass.

I am ALWAYS "Guy Who Cannot Be Trusted". In every game. I "must be stopped".

Despite the fact that my betrayals in my long gaming career have been once in my initial game of Shadows Over Camelot (I...uh...had the Traitor card, it was sort of mandated) and during a Twilight Imperium game where I attacked another guy's homeworld (because I...uh...had a card rewarding me with points if I did this).

Oh, and a Mall of Horror game where I "Hid" from the zombies and left one of my pals to get devoured. But...that's the point of that game, isn't it?


hughthehand said...

Just stop it already. Must I read every article on this dam blog spot? guys need to write some crap every once in a while. I'm getting annoyed with all this goodness. How can I know if something is good, if I don't know what crap is?

Anyway, onto my comment(s)

As a euro-gamer, I am probably not the typical "type" of person that enjoys euros. I'm definitely jumping up and down waving arms and telling people I bet I could kick their ass at a game. Sit down and play to find out.

This is a tough one for me, and I would say that it depends not only on the group, but the game itself.

Take Vinci or Serrinissima (sp) for instance. I'm ALL about negotiating anything in those games. But Caylus? No way in hell.

I also have a problem about the auction you describe in RRT. I've never played the game (want to though), but if a person is out of an auction, I am not down with them affecting the outcome. If you want to change it, then don't pass your turn in the auction, or whatever it is you do in this game. This one would bug the shit out of me.

I would be fine with this sort of thing, if all of this kind of crap was talked about BEFORE play began. If its agreed that this can take place, then by all means, go right ahead.

I am of the type that if the rules DON'T mention it, it CAN'T be done.

Clarissimus said...

Otherwise it could be argued that the player who is losing could give all of his cash to the player coming second so that he could win, just to piss off the leader.

Hmmm, that sounds like how most of my childhood Monopoly games would end.

Mr Skeletor said...

I do agree that AT attracts extroverts, whereas Euros tend to attract introverts. There are of course exceptions on both sides.

That being said, I think it's below the belt to start calling shy people pathetic. Some people are simply not comfortable approaching other people even at social events like a convention. I don't think such people should be looked at as leapers.

Mr Skeletor said...

or lepers even.

Ken Bradford said...

Suddenly I'm seeing a painfully shy wallflower hopping from table to table...

Michael Barnes said...

And I'm chasing after him, trying to punch him below the belt.

Rani said...

I've never really understood people claiming that you 'shouldn't be able to negotiate unless it's in the rules' - it just seems like a weird thing to explicitly approve, a bit like saying that you're allowed to talk while you're playing.

What does seem to be an issue is whether you're actually allowed to make transactions between players. Basically, you shouldn't be able to pass resources to one another without the explicit sanction of the rules. To me it seems that if you stay within the bounds of what the rules allow, it's all fair game.

But I'm one of those people that consider negotiation to be part of pretty much any game that has more than two players. Obviously the degree to which it influences the game depends on the game in question - there's limits to the social engineering you can pull in a game of Carcassone.

Maybe it's just a function of the way my gaming group is, but it almost seems unnatural to play any other way.

Glen said...

Interesting idea about AT-gamers being extroverted and Euro-gamers being introverted. I've heard it said that the US as a nation is more extroverted than Europe. The reason given is that it took extroverts to want to successfully emigrate from Europe in the first place. It makes sense. You have to be willing to be outgoing to make a go of it in a foreign country. Thus, the US has a gene pool with more extroverts. It would be interesting to see the Myers-Briggs breakdown of game preference.

Tim said...

It would be interesting to see the Myers-Briggs breakdown of game preference.

Good to see you are not taking your gaming hobby too seriously over here.

Anonymous said...

This is probably wrong place to post this, but I can't find a better spot:

I'd like to see the AT enthusiasts here discuss the negotiation game Intrigue. It seems to me to be sort of unique in that it is somehow both exremely Euro (minimal rules, afterthought theme) and extremely AT (since it's on the really nasty end of the nasty confrontation spectrum). How do ATers receive this game, and why?