Self-Analysis and the Three Continua of Board Gamers

By Doug Mann 2016

The ludic impulse is not the sole province of the species homo sapiens: dolphins leap from wave to wave, cats chase balls of wool, monkeys hurl fruit (among other things) at each other. Yet the urge to analyse is uniquely human. Self-analysis is at the same time both the deepest and perhaps the most narcissistic form of analysis. Yet such analysis can branch out into something more interesting, an understanding of a cultural field.

I’ve already outlined in my article “In Defense of Board Games” why I think they’re going through a post-millennial Renaissance. I’ve also distinguished there the four types of modern games: family games, wargames, Eurogames, and Ameritrash, and stated my taste for a main course of Ameritrash thematic conflict with side of Euro worker placement and engine building.

At the risk of becoming a character in a Woody Allen film, I want to use some self-analysis of my favourite games to figure out what sort of a gamer I am, what sort of gamer I’m not, and finally what sort of gamers there are in general – a typology for everyone. First, here are my current thirty highest rated games on Board Game Geek, a list which is admittedly, like Heraclitus’s river, constantly in flux (the top row are all 10s in my estimation):

image001In terms of themes, nine are sci-fi, seven are about “lost worlds” (with either archaeological or primitive themes), six are mythological, and five are fantasy. By “lost worlds” I mean worlds that once existed but are long gone and somewhat mysterious, such as the dinosaur world of Triassic Terror, the hunter-gatherers of Stone Age, or the ancient Mayan kingdoms uncovered in Tikal. By “mythology” I mean the gods, heroes and monsters imagined by real ancient cultures such as those of Egypt and Greece, while by “fantasy” I mean imaginary worlds created in works of fiction like The Lord of the Rings which are usually based on medieval tales but don’t represent real lost worlds or real pantheons.

In terms of general mechanics, an even dozen are Ameritrash, seven are Euro-Ameritrash hybrids, three are what I call “robust Euros” (those where theme matters), five are card games, and three are social deduction games. Of my top fifteen, six are hybrids, five Ameritrash. Most of the card and social deduction games have strong themes. Finally, at least 25 of my top 30 can be said to require strong social interaction between players.

Thinking about this breakdown of themes and mechanics has led me to conclude that there are three main continua of board gaming styles that largely define most gamers. These styles of gaming also say a lot about what type of person the gamer is, thus showing how gaming style is also very much a commentary on personal style.

But first let’s dispense with some fool’s gold, two continua traditionally used to distinguish types of board games which I don’t think are decisive in distinguishing types of gamers.

Two False Continua of Gaming Styles

Gaming styles are often distinguished based on game length: some players prefer short and snappy games like Coup, while others prefer monstrous immersive Spiels like Twilight Imperium. I would argue that this distinction is largely a false one for several reasons. First, game length preferences are partly reliant on how much real-world time the player has: if they have to go home in an hour, no Fury of Dracula for them. Second, in my experience even short-game players will take on a medium-length game like Shadows over Camelot if they are immersed in game play: they may keep saying they have to leave, but are still there at 10pm to play that last cup card on the quest for the Holy Grail. So most gamers are somewhat flexible on game length. I myself prefer medium-length games, though will play some short social deduction games with relish.

A second overrated way to distinguish gaming styles is to separate those who like luck from those who like strategy. However, it’s once again fairly easy to deconstruct this binary. Most serious modern gamers have long since rejected games of pure chance as too childish or too mainstream: roll-and-move games like Monopoly may dominate the shelves of Wal-Mart, but they’re nowhere to be seen on BGG’s top 100 lists. So the battle is really between games with some luck and games that are mostly about strategy.

Further, almost all Ameritrash games, and most Euros, have some degree of chance built into them as a positive ludic mechanic. If there are cards or tiles or dice in the box, there’s luck in the game.

Other than games that depend on luck to win, which are to my mind barely games at all (e.g. flipping a coin and guessing heads or tails or playing craps), there are basically two ways of adding luck to a game’s mechanics. First, there is controlled luck, which by the end of the game in question should even out. Any game with a finite number of cards or tiles fits it here, as seen in Tikal’s piles of giant hexes or Ashes’ set character deck of thirty cards. You may not get that four-treasure hex on the first turn, but it’s in there somewhere: be patient, bide your time. Another way of controlling luck is limiting the randomization device’s structure so that it doesn’t trump good strategy: the battle dice in Cyclades go from 0 to 3, so that an army with an advantage of four warriors can’t lose.

On the other hand, there are games that use mitigated luck. In these games players can experience a run of bad luck through bad dice rolls or card pulls, but can spend resources or actions mitigating that bad luck. For instance, in Ashes players roll a fistful of dice that give them assorted numbers of three classes of magic. If there’s not enough level three magic, a player can “meditate”, discarding a card to change a die facing.

I think one of the main reasons for the rebirth of interest in board games is the centrality of strategic thinking in the best of them. In general, my top thirty reflects my fondness for strategy. However, even in the thickly strategic A Game of Thrones, there’s a jolt of luck in the Wilding and Westeros decks drawn each turn. At the other extreme of the strategy-luck continuum, in the most luck-based game in my top thirty, Jamaica, a player can still carefully manage their hand of three cards to make sure they don’t get stuck in Port Royal or run out of food or gold. So the luck-strategy continuum is a shaky one for serious gamers.

image003My photo of the monsters from Blood Rage, a game in the middle of the First Continuum.

First Continuum: Semi-Solitaire Play vs. Social Interaction

The first substantial continuum is the one that has semi-solitaire play at one end and strong social interaction at the other. Of course, board gaming is all about doing something socially that one could just as easily do at home in front of a big-screen TV with a game console. Yet some games demand much more social interaction from players than others.

Once again, we need to make some distinctions. Games that allow one player to block another aren’t really about interaction: if I place a tile in a given location in Carcassonne, thereby stopping you from playing one there, I’m not really socially interacting with you. On another level, if a game forces me to conflict with you to win, as in a traditional war game, this is only a nominal form of social interaction.

What I mean by social interaction is some mechanism which pushes me to have to chose whether to conflict or cooperate with you, whether to trust you, or to ask myself how I can outwit you. It could be an auction to win the favour of the gods as in Cyclades, negotiating a political alliance in A Game of Thrones, or working out a common strategy to kill zombies in Zombicide. The key actions for games with heavy social interaction are bidding, trading, negotiating and bluffing.

 The purest forms of social interaction are in social deduction “games of trust and suspicion” like Coup, Resistance or Secret Hitler. These games are all about whether or not you trust that person sitting across the table from you when they claim to have a Duke or to be a good Liberal. Are they lying? Or telling the truth? If you get it wrong often enough, you’ll lose. If you guess right, you’ll probably win.

On the other end are games where one can plot a strategy out and execute it largely free from interacting with other players. I came to realize after a few plays that Lords of Waterdeep was in essence a semi-solitaire game: even if you fear being slapped with a mandatory quest at an inopportune time, you can dispel that fear by accumulating lots of those little red, orange, white, black and purple cubes. Otherwise, it’s all about turning those colourful little cubes into victory points in the most efficient way possible, like a refinery that takes in crude oil at one ends and spits out gasoline at the other.

It’s important to see these three distinctions as continua, not as digital on-off switches: there are plenty of intermediate positions on each. It’s also important to see them as what Max Weber called ideal types. By “ideal types” Weber meant pure Platonic forms of socio-political concepts like rational or charismatic authority. There are no purely charismatic leaders: even cult leaders have assistants and bank accounts. Similarly, there are no games that are purely about interactivity, conflict or theme: there is always at least a trace of the opposed mechanic in each case.

I myself lean strongly toward social interaction games with strong strategic elements that immerse all players in the game. For that reason, I think that Coup and Resistance are far superior games to Werewolf since in the latter a player can be killed by either the villagers or the wolves for simply being unpopular, not for being, strategically speaking, the right victim. There is player elimination in Coup also, but a player who coups you out of pique while ignoring someone sitting next to them with two active court cards and a pile of money is guaranteed to lose themselves.

Less assertive or less engaged gamers might prefer games with semi-solitaire mechanics so they don’t have to emotionally engage with either the game or with other players. Shy people, or those in love with their cell phones, probably prefer games that they can mentally retreat from for five minutes at a time. Of course, there’s a huge gap between simple shyness and having an attention deficit disorder. But both promote solitaire play.

image005Let slip the scorpions of war! Kemet, where conflict rules – as you might guess from the cover art. Though alliances are permitted by the gods if they lead to victory.

Second Continuum: Cooperation vs. Conflict

This continuum is more traditionally recognized than the other two, and is relatively simple to spell out: do you like games that force you to conflict with other players to win, or which allow for, if not demand, substantial cooperation between them? Do you like fighting people, or abstract game engines?

In terms of gaming styles, it’s usually easy to tell who likes co-ops and who doesn’t. Some players lose interest in purely co-operative games like Pandemic long before the game is over, especially if an Alpha Gamer takes over decisions for the group. Others who shy away from the spectre of skewering their friends with metaphorical swords prefer the warmth and comfort of a team of humans playing against a disembodied game system.

One way to attenuate conflict goes all the way back to Risk and Diplomacy, and can be found in modern multi-player games like Kemet and A Game of Thrones that end their turns with battles: formal or informal alliances. Even though players may be riding huge scorpions across the desert or marching against Harrenhal’s once-mighty towers, the hidden factor in their blatant aggressions is probably a safe border or friendly neighbour won through negotiation somewhere else. Though alliances don’t remove conflict as a mechanism, they remove specific conflicts. In a few games like Cosmic Encounter, allies can even win the game together after a successful assault on the planet of a third player.

There are three hybrid game styles that throw monkey wrenches into the neatness of this dichotomy. First, there’s the traitor mechanic found in games such as Shadows over Camelot and Battlestar Galactica. These are cooperative games where one of the players secretly works against the team. Such games can be loads of fun, ramping up the social interaction as players try to ferret out the traitor. There’s nothing more frustrating for a team working toward a common goal than having an enemy within frustrating their efforts.

Second, a few games are one against all. In these the traitor is replaced by a powerful individual character, like Dracula in Fury of Dracula or the Dark Overlord in Descent. A team of players faces off against a single player who is given greater powers or hidden movement to even out the battle. These games require a strong-willed player as the One everyone is playing against, but like the former hybrid style, deliver the mixed pleasures of conflictual and cooperative play.

Third, there are games like Cyclades Titans where players can compete as teams. Team play is in my view an underused mechanic in modern board games. This is odd given than most professional sports rely on it, so it’s hardly a mysterious mechanic. Team play allows players to have their cooperative cake and eat a bit of conflict too without worrying about traitors in the ranks. Team Titans is great fun: one player can pay Athena to buy philosophers and build a metropolis while a teammate pays Kronos to build titans and march to victory. So one player can revel in battle while another enjoys Euro resource management, with both immersed in the game.

That leads me to the middle position on this continuum occupied by the classic Euro worker placement and resource management games like Settlers of Catan, Puerto Rico, Power Grid, Ticket to Ride and all those games with the names of French, German, Italian, Dutch or Belgian cities as titles. In such games players compete for victory points or some analogues of these like gold, glory or status by occupying places on a board, playing cards or tiles, or trading one resource for another. They are by no means co-ops, since except in rare cases, the player with the most points at the end is crowned the winner.

Yet the conflict in them is muted. It consists mainly of competition for locations on the game board (the routes in Ticket to Ride), for specific cards or resources (for gold in Stone Age or indigo in Puerto Rico), or for selling your goods in an imaginary marketplace. No sword fights or monster attacks or coup d’états: just blocking valued positions and snatching gold and resources before others can get them. Thus the classic Euro can be characterized as a repressed conflict game. You have to compete, but not fight.

So we find several notches on this continuum as we move from conflict to cooperation:

  • A game that contains only conflict, such as a two-player war game.
  • A game that requires conflict to win, but also allows alliances, as in Kemet.
  • The team conflict (with implied internal cooperation) of a game like Cyclades Titans.
  • The one-against-all mechanic seen in games like The Fury of Dracula.
  • The repressed conflict of classic Euros like Puerto Rico.
  • The semi-co-operative game with a hidden traitor, as seen in Shadows over Camelot.
  • The fully co-operative game such as Forbidden Island or Pandemic.

To return to my self-analysis, I tend to see myself as someone who likes conflict in games, though a look at my top thirty gives a much more mixed picture. There are only two pure co-ops there (Zombicide, Eldritch Horror), but nine games with either alliances or the possibility of team battles (Cylades, Kemet, Thrones, Titans, Ashes, Cosmic Encounter, Resistance, Secret Hitler, Star Realms), nine repressed conflict games (Thebes, Tikal, Tobago, Stone Age, Triassic Terror, Nations, Firefly, Mission Red Planet, Archaeology), two one-against-all games (Descent, Dracula), and one hidden traitor game (Camelot). Excluding games with alliances where only one player can win, that still leaves twenty out of thirty games with repressed or team conflicts or which are dominated by co-operation. In others, like Blood Rage or Evolution, conflict can be put off for several turns.

So my exercise in self-analysis leads me to the conclusion that I prefer games with strong elements of conflict set within an atmosphere of alliances, teams or engine building. This may seem wishy-washy. Yet I have met gamers who will never play games like The Resistance that feature strong elements of negotiation or conflict.

image007The main player board in Puerto Rico: with just a bit more red and yellow, it becomes a long-lost Mondrian!

Third Continuum: Abstract vs. Thematic Games

Our last continuum is a major factor that separates Eurogames from Ameritrash: how important is theme to the game’s structure? Is it pasted on, or integral?

It’s rare to see the ideal type of a themeless, purely abstract game in the real world outside of a few outliers like Go or Pente. Even in chess you can imagine the knight galloping to battle against opposing pawns. Having said this, we can postulate a continuum with games that richly integrate theme into their components and mechanics at one end (e.g. A Game of Thrones) and those that can cast off their theme like a sweater on a hot summer’s day and still be comfortable (e.g. Lords of Waterdeep).

I am myself an unabashed fan of strong themes: I think that a game should be about something. That’s because the main pleasure of board games isn’t just beating an opponent, but also telling a good story. It’s the same reason that one reads a good novel or gets caught up in rich TV narratives like Battlestar Galactica, Borgen, Deadwood or The Wire. People who enjoy the more abstract elements of strategy, or the number-crunching found in the points-salad mechanics served up by Eurogames, may be willing to sacrifice a lot of theme for a calmer, more analytic gaming experience, preferring Knizia to Cathala.

One can imagine this difference in taste as paralleling that between those who like Pre-Raphaelite painters like Waterhouse and those who prefer abstract modernists like Mondrian, looking down their noses at the “realists” and their on-the-surface emotions. The fans of abstraction either don’t mind that their favourite works don’t tell a story, or see them as having conceptual meanings missed by the unwashed masses. The realists think that art should represent the world in some way, and not like modernists run away from it.

Be that as it may, there are two sub-continua of ways that games can employ theme. First, components can vary from the wooden cubes and meeples of Terra Mystica or Puerto Rico to the individually sculpted miniatures of Descent or Blood Rage. It makes it a lot easier to imagine that you’re gunning down zombies in Zombicide when the miniatures look like crazed hordes of the walking dead. Conversely, it’s easier to remove yourself from the reality of conflict if all you’re doing is pushing a generic red meeple from tile to tile.

The components sub-continuum also varies from abstract game spaces like the buildings board in Puerto Rico, where universities look like markets, to the richer real-world representations like the maps of Fury of Dracula or Eldritch Horror. Once again, by minimizing abstraction on maps and boards designers can ramp up theme even in games where the game mechanics are not very thematic. The same can be said of card art: does it tell a lively story about the game’s theme? Or is it there just for show?

The other main sub-continuum where theme may or may not stick is game mechanics: do turn order, action selection and victory conditions in the rules simulate the theme chosen for the game, or can they be surgically removed and para-dropped into another theme without losing a step? I won’t belabour the point, but critics have pointed out how easy it is to re-theme family games like Risk or Monopoly (the latter existing in hundreds of editions with everything from Australian football to zombie themes), card games like Love Letter (though Batman Love Letter is fun), and a few Euros like San Juan. It’s hard to feel much affection for games that act like theme whores to make a profit for their producer pimps.

The most richly themed games match unique game pieces and meaningful maps and cards to rule mechanics into which the game’s theme is inextricably woven. For instance, in Cyclades and Cyclades Titans each tribe and titan has an individual sculpt, you ask for armies from Ares (who else?), ships from Poseidon, and philosophers and thus wisdom from Athena. Pegasus allows you to fly, the Kraken swallows ships – its miniature even features a tiny boat sailing into his gory maw.

As I’ve already said, I strongly prefer richly themed games that tell a story connected to history, mythology or a science-fiction future. The few Euros I like integrate their themes fairly tightly, for instance, the archaeological games Tikal and Thebes. When you reach into the “dig” bag in the latter, you’re pulling out either worthless sand or shiny treasures, not just victory point counters. Games based on fictional fantasies are fine if those fictions are richly realized prior to the game’s existence (A Game of Thrones) or if the art and mechanics of the game make the theme pop and crackle (Descent).

image009Matagot’s Cyclades Titans expansion, which has lively team play, lots of social interaction and a rich theme.

Conclusion

So after my session on the couch with a ludic Sigmund Freud, I’ve come to the conclusion that I prefer games with strong social interaction, conflict mixed with teams and alliances, and strong narrative themes.

It’s your turn on the couch. Are you into meeples or miniatures? Indigo or glory? Traits or talking? Conflict or cooperation? Id or superego? The doctor is in. Just sit back and relax…

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