Competitive Imbalance: The invisible board game group killer

by Gil Hova

Board game groups are fragile things. There are lots of things that can cause a game group to fall apart: problems with the venue, people moving away, personality conflicts, romantic breakups, and so on.

But there’s one thing that destroys game groups, alienates new players, and causes people to ignore certain games for the wrong reasons. And I don’t think anyone’s really pinned it down now until now. It’s competitive imbalance.

Competitive imbalance happens when you mix casual players with intensely serious players. Casual players play for the social interaction. A casual player will joke with the other players, immerse himself in the game’s theme with some light roleplaying, and generally accept making a possibly suboptimal decision if it means not taking a long time on his turn. A serious player will calculate her options carefully, only focus on the mechanisms of the game relevant for her best possible performance, and only finish a move when she is certain it is the best one she can make.

Casual players can annoy serious players in many ways, so many ways that I think I’ll codify them.

  • C1: Talking about subjects other than the game when it’s not his turn (and sometimes when it is).
  • C2: Being so distracted with social matters when it’s not his turn that he has to be reminded that it’s his turn, and then he has to take a long time to figure out his position because he wasn’t paying attention to what the other players did.
  • C3: Over-roleplaying in the game’s theme, and expecting that everyone else do the same.
  • C4: Accidentally making a clearly suboptimal move that inadvertently but clearly throws the game to another player.
  • C5: Intentionally making a clearly suboptimal move to allow a friend or loved one to win.
  • C6: Allowing, asking, or expecting other players to make his moves for him.

And of course, serious players can annoy casual players too.

  • S1: Taking an incredibly long time on her turn to crunch through the strategic and tactical possibilities.
  • S2: Getting snappy, sore, or unpleasant at the possibility or reality of losing.
  • S3: Intentionally giving misleading advice to gain a competitive advantage.
  • S4: Taking over another player’s turn and giving unwarranted strategic player (or, in a co-op game, trying to control everybody’s moves.)
  • S5: Convincing all players to gang up on one particular player for her advantage.
  • S6: Being hostile to players new to the game (e.g. not allowing a new player to take back an easily-undone move, or not warning a new player of subtle, easily-missed implications of his actions).

(Note that there are two other kinds of players you don’t want at your table. First are cheaters, who clearly try to break the rules of the game to win. Second are spoilsports, who play sub-optimally or outside the spirit of the game, simply to grief the other players. I’m considering “serious” players as players who will follow the letter of the law and still try to win the game.)

Serious players play to get the best possible outcome of the game. Some serious players can adjust their style to play with casual players; some casual players can adjust their style to play with serious players. But I’ve seen a lot of players who can’t, or don’t, change their style. In fact, they don’t even acknowledge that there’s any other valid way to approach a game but their own!

Neither side is “wrong” in the way they approach the game. As long as everyone at the table agrees to play seriously or casually (or any of the degrees in between), then the players should have a good time. If everyone at the table is playing overly socially and not really concerned about being competitive at the game, it can be memorable and fun. On the other hand, if everyone at the table is intensely focused at winning the game (perhaps even implicitly and unanimously agreeing to table talk and metagaming being in bounds), then it too can be an amazing time.

The problem happens when you have a mix of players, and they don’t recognize that there are others at the table that don’t enjoy their style of play. The casual player in Puerto Rico who keeps picking Craftsman (C4). The serious player who takes over a game of Pandemic (S4). The boyfriend who will only ever trade with his girlfriend in Settlers of Catan (C5). The cousin who ruined childhood games of Monopoly by throwing a temper tantrum (S2). The father who kept winning at Chess, but never showing exactly what his child did wrong (S6).

And the thing that amazes me, is that people blame it on the games! Pandemic, and co-op games in general, have developed a reputation for allowing an alpha player to take over, when in reality, you don’t see the problem when playing with a healthy group! There are people who refuse to play Puerto Rico because a new player can so easily throw the game to another player. There are others who will never try a game of Race for the Galaxy or even Dominion because the abilities of a seasoned player are so much greater than a new player, that they do not want to take the lumps of going through a learning curve.

So what do we do about this?

Curate your fellow players

The best way to avoid competitive imbalance is to make sure that any game you play has players who all agree to similar styles of play. People who play roleplaying games have learned whether they enjoy storytelling or number-crunching in their game (or some specific mixture of the two), and most modern RPGs are clear about whether they’re games with a narrative or a numerical focus.

We don’t have to be so specific with board games, but if you’re having a board game night, try to invite people whose play styles are compatible. You don’t have to stick to only competitive or only social players; remember that some competitive players are comfortable shifting gears to play with social players, and vice versa. But be sure you invite people who will enjoy whatever play style you expect for that event.

My personal game days are small; I only invite four people at a time. This allows me to have a lot of control over mixing and matching the group for any given day. If I have social players who get flustered with difficult, competitive games, I can pair them with players who can lean back and laugh. If I have competitive players who don’t talk or crack jokes during their games, I can pair them with players who have a similar goal-oriented nature. Neither style is “wrong”, but they can be incompatible.

Speak out

So what if you’re at a convention or a game day that someone else is running, and you have no control over the curation of the players? If your opponents are whomever shows up at your table and you see that there’s a competitive mismatch, try to call it out, as gently and firmly as you can.

This one is hard, but you have to do it sometimes. Surprisingly, most people are receptive to your feedback. They usually have the feeling they crossed a boundary, but if no one speaks up, they’ll think it’s no big deal. It is up to the others to ask that player to mind the style that the rest of the table wants to play in.

I recently noticed one player in a game giving his girlfriend misleading advice that would help him more than it would help her (S3). I immediately pointed it out. When he joked that he didn’t want me to say that, I asked him politely that if he gave advice, to give real advice that genuinely helped. He’s a smart, friendly guy who is relatively new to gaming, so he quickly understood that trust is important at my table. Help should be genuine help. He continues to be an awesome gamer whom I love to play with.

Of course, judgment is important. If the player is a serious player who seems like she could blow a gasket if you pointed out any of his shortcomings, and there seems to be no tactful way out, you may want to grit your teeth and grind through it. Of course, when the game is over, then curate yourself the heck away from him. Games should be fun, and unless you have a personal, Pygmalion-like stake in turning this guy into a fun person to play with, you owe it to yourself to not play with him. Reclamation projects are wonderful, but they are a lot of work, and you should not be expected to do that work if you don’t want to.

I wish I’d done this more earlier in my gaming career!

Adjust your personal play style to fit the table’s

This one can be hard for some people, but if you play with strangers frequently, it is an invaluable skill: learn to play with as wide a play style as you can. If you are a casual gamer, start playing the same game repeatedly, and try to get good at it. If you find yourself usually checking texts or the internet when it’s not your turn, and you notice that people are getting annoyed with you, try turning off your phone during a game, or putting it on silent, or charging it at an outlet at the other end of the room.

If you are a serious gamer, try to let go a bit. Many people enter the hobby as serious gamers, but then learn to become “stewards” of their tables, and focus their seriousness into making sure everyone understands the rules, possible strategies, and is having as good a time as possible.

Be honest with yourself. Be reflective. When you see yourself being too casual or too serious, ask yourself why.

If you’re really focused on one side or the other, this will not be easy, and perhaps it will turn out to be more work than it’s worth. In that case, fall back on curation. Try to find a group that matches your play style. Be as honest as you can with them; let them know that you really don’t like competitive games, or that you only play to win and ask they do the same. But be mindful that as long as you can play only a single, narrow style, you will have a harder time finding opponents.

Allow takebacks to new players

Teaching games is not easy. It takes a lot of patience. Players are going to make dumb moves. Sometimes, they realize it, and want to take back that move. Most game groups allow this as long as the next player has not taken her turn.

Of course, you’ll have to make a judgment call sometimes. On one hand, if a player is abusing this privilege and taking back a move every time, at some point, you’ll have to ask him to commit. On the other hand, if the move a player missed will clearly lose him the game, you may want to show some mercy and let him make a more optimal move.

Remember that what happens at the table will color the player’s perception of the game. If you don’t allow him to take moves back, he will see the game as being overly harsh. If his move allowed another player to win, he might even be afraid of playing again. If you’re teaching the game, see yourself as a ward to the new players, and allow them to experience the game with as much freedom and flexibility as you can.

This approach also means the game might take longer than normal. Be sure to make sure you pick a game that fits in your time window. If you have four new players who want to learn Puerto Rico, but you only have 90 minutes, save it for another day and teach them something that would normally take an hour.

Don’t blame the game – match the game to the play style instead

Seriously, guys. Pandemic has no alpha player problem, but your gaming group might. If one player is consistently taking over the whole game, chances are that player has ruined other, non-co-op games for you as well. It might be time for a tough but necessary conversation.

Pandemic has no beta player problem either (you are playing with closed hands, as the rules say, to force potential beta players to speak up, right?). If that new couple is always just showing their hands and checking their phones when it’s not their turns, ask them if they really want to be a part of the group. You may have to institute a no-phone policy at your table. You wouldn’t be the first.

Auction games are hard to learn the first time, sure, but that’s not a problem with the game, merely a characteristic. If certain players are flustered that they’re not doing well the first time, maybe they’re overly competitive? Maybe they need a teacher who can guide them through better choices? Maybe they need to be more relaxed during their first play?

Deduction games can be fragile. If one player isn’t paying attention and makes the wrong notes, it can ruin the game. Should you recommend that everyone play this game if you have one player who’s a social butterfly and who won’t give the game the attention it deserves?

Okay, some games are more robust than others. Some games can better survive a wide mix of play styles. If they’re also fun games, that what makes a great game great. But at a certain point, you can’t blame a car for not being able to float. Get a boat instead.

So if you have a group of rowdy kids who like one-upping and trash-talking instead? Go for a social game with possible betrayal, like Cosmic Encounter or The Resistance. You have a quiet couple new to gaming? Show them a gentle Spiel des Jahres winner, like Zooloretto or Dominion. You have a smart, intense group of competitors who play to win? Go big, like with a heavy game with lots of meat to it, like Eclipse or Terra Mystica.

It’s okay to sit out sometimes

So, there’s two tables of games. One is an hour away from finishing. The other is just about to start, and you know that the way they’re going to play is going to bug you.

If they have enough people to play, tell them that it’s okay, to go ahead and play. Try to make it clear that you’re not passive-aggressively expecting an invite. If they insist, insist right on back. They don’t control you.

If they don’t have enough people to play, that’s a tougher situation. If you know these people well, and if there will be fallout from you declining, and if the game is quick, maybe then this is a bullet you’ll have to take.

But remember, no one should force you into a bad time. If there’s another game they can play without you, suggest it. It’s okay once in awhile to swallow your pride and play something you don’t enjoy, but if it is a habit, you may want to look at things again. Gaming should be fun. If everyone else is having more fun than you, maybe there’s another game group more closely aligned with what you enjoy in games?

Competitive imbalance is a tough thing. If you’re in an area with few local gamers, you may not have many options; in that case, honesty and forthrightness becomes crucial to a future where you can enjoy yourself.

If you’re in an area with many local gamers, you’ll have an easier time. Find gaming groups. Find likeminded people in those gaming groups. At some point, you can stop playing in public places and start playing in curated game nights where the players are more likely to have an aligned play style. At the same time, try to adjust your own play style so you can fit into as many groups as you can.

It’s not easy, and it takes time and effort. But the reward is the luxury of never having to deal with a so-called “alpha player” or someone too preoccupied with convivialities to pay attention to the game. It’s worth it.