Friday, 11 May 2007

Hail to the King baby

“Never get involved in a land war in Asia, and never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line!” – A modified version of Vizzini’s final line in The Princes Bride.

Being of Sicilian heritage, the above quote would probably be my most used during gaming. It means in short that if you go after me my revenge will be long and bloody, so don’t do it or you’ll be sorry.

A few nights ago I got to play “Fire and Axe”, Asmodee’s new transvestite game. I say transvestite because that is essentially what it, a Euro game dressed up to look like AmeriTrash. Overall it was an OK game, I’d play it again but it did seem somewhat disposable, like much of what I have played of late. I guess I am going through bit of a board game lull, but that is a topic for another day.

At the beginning of the game I sent my ship out on it’s own to raid 2 towns so I could claim a card. Now at this stage of the game everyone was doing there own thing, up until it was time for me to raid the second town (which I had already softened up by trading with) when some dirty fucker playing yellow decided to sail his ship round to my area, raid the last town and nick the card I was working so hard to complete.

I was fuming, so I gave the prick the Malocchio (evil eye) and dropped my “don’t fuck with a Sicilian” line.

“Pfft, you can’t attack other players in this game so there is nothing you can do!” was the smarmy bastards reply.

“Oh really?” I smirked as I played a sea monster card on him. Unfortunately the stupid beast didn’t inflict a single casualty on him, marking my revenge as a failure. But I still had an ace up my sleave – a card that allowed me to attack another player’s settlement.

It wasn’t until near the end of the game when I got the chance to play this card on him (revenge is a dish best served cold after all.) By this stage most of the settlements were occupied and red looked like he was in the lead. So I sailed towards some red and yellow ports and *BANG*, hit the yellow one with a mad cackle.

You can guess what happened next, can’t you?

“Why are you attacking yellow for?” protested another player, “Red is in the lead, you have to attack him otherwise you are going to hand him the game!”

“But yellow fucked me over earlier on. Now is my chance for revenge!”

“No! You’re KINGMAKING!”

In other words I wasn’t playing a game involving a bunch of Vikings hell bent on revenge, but rather a bunch of victory point counting accountants who decided to go sailing. What a crock.

Kingmaking, which is making one or more moves that will hand another player the win, is regarded as one of the greatest of evils and blackest of sins when playing a game. But is that really fair? After all, don’t many people complain when games have artificial catch-up mechanisms to keep losers in the game? What is mandatory leader bashing (which is basically what you have to do to not be accused of kingmaking) if not a catch-up mechanism?

Certainly in most cases attacking the leader makes sense. After all it keeps the player who is your greatest threat from running so far ahead that you no longer have a chance to win. But should I be forced to do so by gaming etiquette? If a player is earning his victory by cutting a bloody swath through my territories, while another is earning his victories by leaving me alone, I don’t see why I should not target the guy who is putting my poor peasants to the sword just because he is a few VP behind the leader. In essence what I am doing is rewarding the player who managed to get into a winning position without damaging my standing. This means that to win a player either needs to tread carefully so as to piss off the least amount of other players on the table, or smash the players he is targeting so hard that they cannot mount an effective revenge later on. I see nothing wrong with that.

The other side to Kingmaking which is so important is the art of diplomacy. If you want to be kingmade, odds are you have to convince at least one other player to do it. Convincing another player to let you win the game at their expense is not an easy thing to do and requires an asp’s tongue, so I fail to see why a player who is skilled at manipulating others should not be allowed to win by doing so.

Finally from a thematic standpoint Kingmaking makes sense. After all aren’t all the houses in the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series merely engaging in Kingmaking? Towards the dying days of World War 2, were the French supposed to start shooting at the Americans because they now had more victory points then the Germans? Should minor political parties not lend their support to the big ones even though they cannot win the primary vote? Kingmaking a part of human nature.

If a player is meant to have no further influence in a game once he or she reaches the point where they no longer have a chance of winning themselves, then the design of the game should have that player be eliminated. As most games do not, then I argue that those players have every right to kingmake, shaping their future as deciding who will lord over them and get bragging rights. After all no king ever forged his own crown.


Ryan Walberg said...

One gamer in our group hates the term "kingmaking" and renamed it to "superhappyfunmaking". There's nothing wrong with that.

Nice post.

Dennis Ugolini said...

Now if the yellow player had simply *eliminated* you, none of this would have been a problem....

(Joke; I don't even know if F&A has player elimination.)

robartin said...

Towards the dying days of World War 2, were the French supposed to start shooting at the Americans because they now had more victory points then the Germans?

Damn, Skeletor. That's elegant.

Rliyen said...

Towards the dying days of World War 2, were the French supposed to start shooting at the Americans because they now had more victory points then the Germans?

Damn, Skeletor. That's elegant.

My thoughts, exactly.

Shellhead said...

Damn good article. With the impending return of Titan, Eurogamers have been griping about elimination. But they don't like kingmaking either. Here, Mr. Skeletor cuts to the heart of the issue: without elimination, all that the weaker players have left is kingmaking.

Recently, I have been debating with some of the Borg Collective breed of Eurogamers at the Geek, regarding vindictive play. They claim that some sort of Social Contract binds players of boardgames and requires them to all play to win, even if their position in the current game has become hopeless.

I say bullshit to that. The real point of playing a game is to have fun, not to win. Otherwise, sitting down to play almost any multi-player game would be a poor investment of time, given that the odds are poor that you will win instead of one of the other players.

No, we play games to have fun, and if Mr. Skeletor's idea of fun includes vicious paybacks for backstabbing EuroWeasels, I say more power to him.

And if my idea of fun is to sometimes play a longshot strategy that suits the theme but is nowhere near the optimal winning strategy, I will respond to crabby Eurocritiques, "You play your way, and I will play my way."

And if Euroboy's way of having fun involves minimal conversation and lots of mental calculations, well, that's just kind of sad, in my opinion. But I'm not (usually) going to say random numbers out loud during his turn to mess with him. Unless maybe he has it coming.

The hell with the social contract. I fully support Mr. Skeletor's cultural tradition of vendetta. A player should be allowed to cultivate a reputation for vindictiveness. In the ongoing metagame of his regular players, they will learn not to go after the vindictive guy unless necessary. To deny the vindictive guy his badass revenge seems like a more basic violation that that of any abstract "social contract." If you aren't going to let players choose how they play, why bother playing with them at all?

Muzza said...

The best aspect of playing board games is playing them with other people. All people are different, that's what makes it exciting. If everybody followed 'The Model' you may as well just play against a computer programme. Boring.

I've played a lot of 'Diplomacy'. Many of the Dip crowd point at 'Kingmakers' or 'Carebears' (a player who is too nice to another player, doesn't attack them for whatever reason) and say "You must not play that way. It is against the spirit of the game". "Bollocks!" say I, "It's my turn I'll do as I choose".

Muzza said...

The only strategy i find particularly offensive in a fellow player is giving up.

I don't mean the kind of going out in a hail of bullets, throwing all your resources into a final all-out assault, I'm going down but I'll hurt him on the way kind of suicide. Those can be cool, or even better, funny.

I mean the kind of 'I'll move here and here and not defend there or there in order to die faster' kind of thing. Pathetic stuff.

Mind you this problem can sometimes be avoided by playing Eurogames. I'm sure you can still play this move in Euros but it is much less obvious.

ubarose said...

Any one who believes that there is some kind of "social contract" that requires you to play to win is obviously an only-child. I have brothers. Growing up, the winner got to punch the loser in the arm. Who lost was always more important than who won. Some may call it "king making," but to me it's still "making the move that decides who gets punched and who does the punching."

Rliyen said...

Any one who believes that there is some kind of "social contract" that requires you to play to win is obviously an only-child.

Every time I read anything by Clearclaw or Cosine regarding the "social contract" BS, that's exactly the imrpession I get.

'Social contract' is another pithy way to say, "You must play it the way we envison. Otherwise, you're ruining for us!"

What in the Hell happened to "playing for fun?" I read that entire thread on vindictive play and whenever cosine or clearclaw made a comment on the 'contract', I tuned out from their over analytic diatribe.

I deal with contracts and insurance policies on a daily basis, and 'social contracts' have no business in a discussion of games. Games are entertainment, not politics, and certainly not a job, which those eurocentric players view it as.

Winning is not important to me, as long as I have fun. That's the true goal of any game, in my opinion. As for the other players, I don't care if you make with the king or not. As long as you're a good sport about playing the game, win or lose, then you will always have a spot at my gaming table.

However, if you're sole enjoyment hinges on winning, then keep walking. I played that type in Warhammer 40k. He was playing Tau. Me, the Imperial Guard. On the first turn, I took out both of his Hammerheads and it all went downhill from there. He constantly sighed, didn't put up as big as a fight as he normally did. I actually felt bad about winning.

A few weeks later, we played again. This time, I got my ass kicked. His attitude? 180 degrees. Hooting and hollering, cracking jokes. It was then that I realized what had changed. It was not me, or the way I played, but it was him and view on winning. Both times, I played to have fun, I didn't care if I won or lost. He played because winning was the only thing.

I never played him again, and I wasn't the only one who shared that viewpoint.

Tom Hazlett (Southernman) said...

Any one who believes that there is some kind of "social contract" that requires you to play to win is obviously an only-child.

Every time I read anything by Clearclaw or Cosine regarding the "social contract" BS, that's exactly the imrpession I get.

I now suspect that Cosine is actually a program that one of the smarter hive drones runs to draw out AT sympathisers for assimilation by the hive collective.

Horacio Silva said...

I don´t know about any "social contract" when playing a game. But the concept of "kingmaking" sounds just plain dumb to me: if 5 friends are playing "whatever" and one of the last ones goes after the leader, he's "kingmaking" the player in second place or not?

I'm missing something or I didn't understand the "kingmaking" thing?

Anonymous said...

Did you ever notice that it's usually the guy who is leading who starts whining about kingmaking? You never see the beneficiary whining.
I think it's one of those cases where someone is trying to use psychology to screw with you. I have a friend who will, when attacked, begin referring to you as a good dog for the rest of the game. His basic approach is that if you attack him and not his biggest competition (no matter who is in first) then you are just being a slave to the other guy.
It's a stupid trick since many times attacking the second place player makes more sense for the third or fourth place player (due to geography or whatever) but you'd be amazed how many times someone will get so upset over the whole "good dog, maybe your master will give you a biscuit" schtick that they stop attacking him.
Like "kingmaking" it's just another metagaming technique aimed at telling you what to do with your turn.

Anonymous said...

The only time "kingmaking" is degenerate is when it's done for reasons outside the present game. "You beat me last time we played Sorry, so I'm gonna kill all your dudes." Short of that situation it's just simple Tit-for-Tat, which is a perfectly valid way to encourage other players to leave you alone or even help you out.

adrianbolt said...

Excellent article. I also read the BGG playing to win/kingmaking/social contract stuff and am amazed at the strength of emotions over this. Seems like if you don't play to win at the exclusion of all else, you'll be first against the wall when the revolution comes.

Newsflash: kingmaking is part of the game because the rules do not forbid it.

This all seems to be stating the obvious, but...
If a player screwed you earlier in the game you are allowed to retaliate. If you do it early, fine; if you do it late then it's kingmaking.
If a player helped you earlier in the game you are allowed to help them in return. Again- if early, fine; if late it's kingmaking. How arbitrary.

A game is influenced by more than merely the rules. Previous gaming history, knowledge of the style of the other players, the social dynamic of the group, etc.

The play to win argument is predicated on everyone making the best move for their position every time. This doesn't happen in the real world.

Bottom line: play the way you want to, have fun, and entertain the other players even when you're beating the crap out of them.

PS- I've played with people who realise they can't win and then start behaving erratically. I just try to allow for a loose cannon in my strategy.
Also with somone who admits that he doesn't enjoy a game unless he wins. Sad, but not my problem.

Mr Skeletor said...

I actually never saw the BGG article everyone is referencing. Can someone provide a link?

Julian said...

Mr Skeletor said...

"I actually never saw the BGG article everyone is referencing. Can someone provide a link?"

I believe the thread they mean is this one:

I found the thread hard to get into, for some reason. I think it's not surprising that someone with the username "cosine" doesn't get that a game isn't just a mathematical exercise, but also invloves human psycology.

I've got no problem with king making, but it can be abused. I used to play in a group that involved both a friend's girlfriend, and my girlfriend. Virtually everytime my friends girlfriend would get to a certain point and kingmake my girlfriend. This got tedious after awhile, even for my girlfriend, who would have liked to win on her own from time to time.

I think that games generally play best if everyone is trying to win, because usually the game is designed with that as an assumption. If you're functionally eliminated, how you get your jollies is up to you. But either way vengeance is a part of the game. Declaring holy war on the offender might not help you win this game, but it can help you win the next ten. The social contract people don't get that you play the player not the game (well in Poker and AT anyway, maybe not most euros).

ubarose said...

julian said ...
The social contract people don't get that you play the player not the game.

Well put.

Once we were playing with our friends D and F. F was in the lead. My husband made a move that hurt D even though he could have made a move that hurt F.

D said, "Why do you always go after me? F is in the lead."

My husband answered, "Because you are the better player. I don't expect F will be able to hold the lead. You should feel flattered."

Mr Skeletor said...

I believe the thread they mean is this one:

And here I was thinking i was original. Bloody Hell.

mtlawson said...

I simply couldn't read that thread after a while. At least someone whom I've disagreed with on some things (Walsfeo) at least stood up and made essentially the same points that Shellhead and others here have made.

The whole concept of a social contract surrounding boardgames is non-existent; all you're agreeing to is to play by the written rules, not any unwritten rules. To constantly maximize your play and expect others to do the same is to expect others to act like an automation.

I've known friends for close to 20 years who play games not to win, but to socialize and reconnect with people. Their whole nature is at odds with these guys who are consumed with the purity of the game as the be-all/end-all of things.

clarissimus said...

I think some people just like to win such much they'll use any excuse to get angry when it doesn't happen.

Hayden said...

That's funny, I also played “Fire and Axe” recently.

At the beginning of the game some prick sent his ship out to raid 2 towns so that he could claim a card. However, the fucker wasn’t watching the board. If he had been, he would have realised that he was setting me up to raid the second town and take the card. More than that, the stupid fucker had already softened up the second town by trading with it.

He got cut and vowed and said he was going to “role play” the rest of the game as a wronged Sicilian and exact revenge against me. To his credit, he was a man of his word. He started playing a RPG – the wronged Sicilian – while the rest of us kept playing Fire and Axe. Fine. I guess a wronged Sicilian’s gotta do, what he’s gotta do. Of course in doing this, he started playing a meta game. He came after me, unsuccessfully using 2 of his cards against me before succeeding with his third.

On reflection the guy’s strategy was a good one to use on players that you may play again. If you get cut, start playing the board game as an RPG and seek revenge. That way you may have a good chance in preventing competition against you in future games. So there’s a lot to be said on occasion for turning a board game into an RPG and a meta game.

Of course one thing might serve to stop a guy approaching the game in that way: elimination! Even a Sicilian might think twice about playing sub optimally if his wasted resources lead to elimination. So I agree with Skeletor’s comments: there’s nothing wrong about elimination.

The funny thing about my game is that the Sicilian came second and would probably have won if he hadn’t of bitched like a girl as he went about playing his RPG.

Mr Skeletor said...

This Sicilian sounds like a top bloke.

Hayden said...

The best, although he's a fucker when he gets angry.

simon said...

I'd rather read a 50 page Avalon Hill manual than scan through or even participate in a thread called "Opportunistic, Vindictive, Irrational".

At least your "contribution" to this "debate", Mr. Skeletor, is funny.

Malloc said...

The thing I find funny is that kingmaking and playing to win often have nothing to do with each other.

By the time kingmaking is an option you, as the maker of kings, is usually out of the game. It is not a matter of trying to win any longer.

I think the part that a lot of eurogamers have trouble with is the political interactions between players. They expect that ruthless play should have no concequence if it is the "Best" move. I do not agree with this, management of the other players is part of a lot of good games.

I do believe that you should play a game with winning being the goal. But winning and making the best move ont he board without consideration to what that does to the other players are not one and the same.

I think of trying win as the never give up mindset. Sure I am out of the game but I should continue to try and expand my position as to not make it easy on player X.


PaulW said...

Depends on the game and the situation. In games like Diplomacy, kingmaking threats happen all the time and I consider part of the game.

On the other hand, I've played in a CC game, for example, where one person who is out of the game tried to throw the game to one of the remaining two players who were fighting it out for the lead.

In this case I think kingmaking is bad form. Play to maximize your VPs. Leave the leaders alone. I've told kingmakers in the past who have tried to play to my advantage to not kingmake me...

I already know that I can win most games when someone helps me. Little to no fun there for me. I'd rather kick someone's ass all on my own, thank you very much.

Note: If kingmaking, DOES maximize your VPs, then I don't consider it kingmaking.

Nonamnon said...

A stupendous article.
I especially enjoy the point you make about the beneficiary of "superhappyfunmaking" deserving his reward for skillfully manipulating another human being.
If manipulating people is wrong, than I don't want to be right.

Fellonmyhead said...

I can't find anything on this "social contract", but I have been involved in many a conversation about "kingmaking". The greatest problem with all the rubbish I hear about it is that those who support the "kingmaking problem" argument tend to be looking not on the game as a whole but on the final throes of one losing player's turn.

Myopia said...

I believe in the "social contract". For mine the problem is when the concept gets used to try and manipulate other player's strategy or basic choice in a game. Thats when the whole thing goes to crap.

The basic idea of a contract is that people agree with it. Try replacing "social contract" with "general gaming etiquette" and you get a better idea how far the concept should go.

My idea of what a group generally agrees to when they sit down to play a game:
- everyone pays reasonable attention to playing the game (its hard to play if one guy is playing 4 games at once or wandering off in the middle of the turn);
- don't stop playing before the game is finished (if your out of it I don't care what you do provided you at least stay in the game and do something) unless the game handles you stopping early;
- don't cheat;
- don't play to simply screw or break the game (I don't care if your zany strategy gives you a 0.1% chance of victory just don't make it your sole purpose in life to ruin everyone elses fun);
- don't be a fuckwit (your mileage might vary depending on your group).

Saying that kingmaking (or any paticular choice in game) is bad because it breaks the social contract only works if your particular group agrees with that idea.

Basically thats all the guys your paying out are saying. Maybe thats what their group does believe. More likely though given most group dynamics their probably just a vocal majority who gets their way.

As for kingmaking specifically I have no problem with it whatsoever. 95% of complaints about it are attempts from the player who its affecting negatively to try and get a different result. For mine, the winner of any game needs to be handle the possible actions of each and every player in the game if they deserve victory. Negative focus gets placed on the kingmaking act and its affect on the end result when the end result is the product of each and every act during the game. Beating the crap out of a guy on the first turn generally has a much greater impact than any action at the end. Also in the fairly rare case where the kingmaking act actually changes the result the "loser" needs to take responsibility for allowing them to be in that position in the first place.