Sam “King of the Hilltop”

Have you ever played a board game with one group of people and then, play it with another, entirely different group, and get a very different experience?

Whether you are playing a social deduction style game, area control, or a Euro, the game within the game is a real thing and is something that people need to be aware of when designing or playing games. I would even argue that in many instances games are termed as bad games due to the “take that” or “kingmaker” like aspects of a game that stem from this game within a game idea. Who you are playing with and how those people play can be just as important as how the game plays mechanically. This comment might need an example.

Ankh (8.0 on BGG)

Ankh is a well received area control game by Eric Lang. I personally think it is a good game with some interesting mechanics at higher player counts that really turn it into “a game within a game.” This is specifically referring to 3-5 players. You cannot win by yourself. Even if you are not one of the merged gods and you win the game solo, you still didn’t do it entirely yourself. Other players had to help you at some point in the journey. Whether it was an early advantage in the game, they refused to attack you, or one of the players took something the other player needed. Your win is based on a series of choices that you make as well as what your opponent makes. This leads to the heart of what makes certain games highly competitive in nature. Your choices directly affect the choices and/or results of others. You can still have competitive games without any form of interaction, like may the best one win, but it is those elements of directly affecting other players that takes a game from competitive to hyper competitive in my eyes. Now, it’s personal.

In Ankh, this whole series of choices and actions leads to kingmaking. We had a game last week with 5 people. A friend and I were not going to win. We made it to blue through some cooperation but we were too far away from being able to make a go and become the winner. However, the merged god players and the front runner were neck and neck. It literally came down to 1 fight in the last battle round of who was going to win. However, despite all of their efforts, there was not an assured victory for the first battle because my friend and I sitting in the back of the pack could swing the victory either way. Whatever we did or didn’t do would result in us choosing a winner.

This is where all of the past decisions you make in a game suddenly come flooding back to your memory as you look deep into the eyes of your opponents and wonder what they are going to choose. This is the culmination of a game within a game. Kingmaking is the result.

Is Kingmaking bad?

Now whether or not you think that interaction is stupid or illogical, it happens in many games. However, it happens with some more than others based on the nature of how interactive the players are allowed to be in the game. In fact, whole games are based on it.

Now, is kingmaking inherently bad? No, I don’t think so. I think it has its place. It is just the natural result of highly competitive games filled with a lot of interaction and playing the “game within a game.” We are social creatures and even in games where it wouldn’t necessarily exist in the core mechanics, it still pops up. Now personally, I don’t mind kingmaker as much when the game lets you know, “Hey! This game is going to have kingmaking. Prepare yourself.” I know it going in.

How do I deal with it as a designer?

The first question you should ask yourself, “Do I need to fix it?” Depending on the kind of game you have designed, you may not need to; in fact, you may make some changes in order to give that sort of power to alliances and other players so that they stay engaged even though they may be far behind in points.

I think the biggest concern for me in the design process is whether or not it fits the theme and if it is communicated to the player that this could happen. Some people may have concerns on whether or not this will drive away certain players. Yes it will and that is a good thing. As has been repeated by many designers and publishers I have interacted with, there is no one game for everyone. There needs to be differences and that is okay. Having a game with intense social dynamics can be a great game, it just needs to find the right audience. Now, whether or not that game is financially viable…that is a different question all together.

If you do need to tone down the player interaction and kingmaking abilties you either need to change the number of interactions or the “strength” of those interactions. I feel that a lot of people tend to react badly to a game with only a few interactions but have very strong consequences versus a game that has many, many interactions but the consequences are small. This is why the game Diplomacy ruins families and marriages. There are not that many touch points but each one is filled with importance and power. This also makes the game very intense and can be very fun…for some people. I personally need to give it another try but last time…let’s just say B.A. Games could have been called “Sam’s Games – the other brothers are buried out back.” Just saying…

Until next time…

The Meta Is Real

Ed “Duke of BAzlandia”

Last week we mused over some different concepts in legacy games, what makes a legacy game a legacy game, and some recent news involving Risk Legacy. A topic that is adjacent to this is the concept or execution of a game within a game.

Having played games with my family and brothers for years, I can affirmatively say that every game we play there is a definitive game within a game. This also holds true to groups who have the same people play over a long period of time. There is almost a social game of sorts. A competition to each and every game night. Who can win the game? Who’s can have the biggest come from behind win? This is never truer for me then when playing any type of war game or game that requires alliances with my brothers. After years and years the refrain of, “Never trust Ed,” or “Ed is the devil,” never fails.

Recently I had an opportunity to play Cartographers. I thoroughly enjoyed the game. You may be thinking to yourself that there isn’t a game within that game, and you would be right but it could be there is a game that is embedded within the game. I doubt I am the only who has had the thought of taking multiple play throughs of Cartographers and turning it into a giant map to use in an RPG group. The ability of a group to create a giant map and creating interesting areas even if it meant losing a game. The possibilities are intriguing.

This brings about the obvious connection with a game called Roll Player. A game that takes character creation for RPGs (one of my favorite parts of RPG play) and turns it into a game. It does rely on tropes for scoring mechanics but it makes for a way to judge characters and what “winning” looks like.

That’s pretty much my thoughts on games within games. What are yours?

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