Lest My Opinions Go Unheard

A collection of texts about game experiences, analysis, random thoughts about board games and board game design... and whatever else I think vaguely qualifies as being blog-worthy.

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[Boardgame etiquette] Rule 8: Are We Playing a Game or What?!

Georgios P.
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One of the greatest pleasures in playing boardgames is getting to employ all your tactical wit and strategic acumen to get to the finishing line. It's great fun to figure out which course of action is most beneficial to you at any given moment and to make choices that pay off later in the game. And as is the case with most things that give us pleasure, we eventually get a little greedy. We become ambitious in wanting to be even more tactical, to have our strategic play be even more bold. Not necessarily because we want to impress others, but because doing so promises to be even more fun. But at times, this desire to improve on previous fun experiences, leads us down the wrong path. It makes us draw upon tactics that while promising to deliver a victory, are actually harmful to the game and the group.

I am talking about the type of strategies that many gamers like to label as “subterfuge” or “misdirection”. By oh so cleverly adopting the role of the downtrodden, picked-on and generally miserable sod and banking on other players' social skills to back off and give them space to enjoy the game, their otherwise easily thwarted plans get to blossom and reap the VP they've envisioned, and thus hopefully win them the game. The grand master plan being that by obscuring their actual goals and lying about their enjoyment of the game, they believe they can pursue their strategies unhindered and unobstructed. This is an issue. A big one, actually.

What's happening here is that the social elements that are assumed to be outside of the game, are consciously manipulated to give a player an in-game advantage. This behaviour effectively disrupts and upsets the Magic Circle. This in turn brings up two questions: how is this disruption a bad thing? And what is the Magic Circle exactly?

The Magic Circle is the boundary between the game and everything that is outside of the game. Within the Magic Circle, wooden cubes, paper money and cardboard chits are meaningful. A cube may represent a barrel of oil, or political influence or a unit of wood. Which is kind of ironic, but there you go. Chits may represent military units, or the presence of a god or even a factory. Yet if we move those elements outside of the Magic Circle, we will suddenly find ourselves unable to use them for anything at all. Paper money might be legal tender within the small microcosm of the Magic Circle, but you'd be hard-pressed to find somebody giving you much of anything for 40 Megabucks. In other words, we need the Magic Circle in order for the game to exist, and for our actions to have any meaning or even relevance. It is only by recognising and accepting the Magic Circle that a game can be played.

So when a player arbitrarily expands the Magic Circle, leaving the others in the dark about the choice to leverage social dynamics in the game, that player effectively lies to the group. It is really no different than omitting a crucial rule about scoring, in order to get an advantage. It's intentionally leaving players ignorant about an important aspect of the game, which in turn makes their strategies and tactics ineffective.

Of course, there is an entire genre of games, that are explicitly about including those elements into the Magic Circle. All games that feature social deduction – like The Resistance or Werewolf – are games in which your social interaction is part of the elements that you manipulate in order to gain an advantage. This is – or at least should be – common knowledge when you sit down to play that game. Many games that heavily feature negotiation often need the group to figure out what is or is not part of the game. Diplomacy is possibly the most infamous example of this phenomenon. Diplomacy's culture of play has established that the boundaries of the game can be redrawn by players during play without prior warning. When the game's negotiation elements are introduced with the words “everything is possible”, this is what they refer to: that the boundary between game and real life is flexible and can be redrawn by any player, if they so choose, in order to get an advantage.

While these are the immediate effects of faking outrage or misery to manipulate other players, there is a long-term effect as well, that is considerably more harmful. Doing any of these things effectively sets a precedent for every other game that includes that player or this group. Once you start using social cues to influence players in games that do not explicitly allow for such behaviour, your credibility is gone. Your future responses to events in the game will always be suspect; you will always be assumed to have ulterior motives when you seem upset or mad at something. The group experience of playing a game together will be damaged. You will always be Lucy waiting to pull the football away from Charlie Brown's foot at the last minute.

Just to be clear, this is not a vilification of meta-gaming. There is much to be gained from adding a layer of meta-gaming to play, and much fun to be had from influencing players this way. Meta-gaming is not the antithesis of gaming, but its older, more experienced sibling. This etiquette rule is about signalling the game you're playing. It's about making sure that everybody is on the same page as to what's game-play and what is personal enjoyment.

So far this article has mostly targeted the loud, expressive social manipulator. The player who whines, laments and accuses others in order to be left alone. But the same reasoning applies to players, who recede into silence, play as inconspicuously and unassumingly as possible, so as to give other players no obvious reason to interfere. It's fine to not feel engaged by the game and continue to play as a courtesy to the rest of the group. Ideally other players will recognise your lack of enjoyment and not force you to get involved more deeply than you care for at that moment. But when you're removing yourself from the social element of play, by avoiding to visibly engage with the game or the players, you're breaking the same rule of etiquette. You leverage social cues into a game that has put them outside of the Magic Circle.


Rule 8:
Be open about pursuing a strategy.
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Fri Mar 11, 2016 1:19 pm
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[Boardgame etiquette] Rule 7: Your fun isn't why we're here

Georgios P.
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I've often been fascinated by the way that games end. During play games go through various stages, game states evolve and grow increasingly more complex over time until they eventually resolve in a manner that is hopefully satisfying. If not to all involved, at least to most of the players who are still invested in the game's end. With a great number of games this resolution also results in splitting the players into losers and winners. Out of this distinction the common refrain of “play to win” has arisen and spread around gaming tables for what feels like forever.

But let's ignore the somewhat overbearing connotation that this makes competition the centerpiece of play and the overarching purpose of a game. (Partly because I fundamentally disagree with this idea, but also because this isn't what this rule is about.) Instead let's focus on the idea that player behaviour is assumed to strive towards winning. That is to say, it is assumed that people who sit down to play a boardgame play to win. This assumption should come fairly easily, considering the fact that practically every single boardgame out there is implicitly or explicitly designed to facilitate competition between players trying to win. In fact it seems quite common to decry a game as sloppy or otherwise wastefully designed, if there are any rules that aren't poised to pit player against player.

Now personally, I am something of a contrarian. When everybody goes right, I turn left. And once I noticed that all games assume competition my mind immediately turned to “what if I don't care for winning?” - the answer to this is actually pretty underwhelming. The only thing that happens, when players opt out of pursuing victory, is that the game falls apart. Sure, it might not come to a complete standstill. It might shamble along for a few paces, awkwardly shuffling over the finishing line... but what it definitely doesn't do, is function as intended. Play becomes this wonky distortion of the game you bought.

Imagine, if you will, getting on a bike and instead of pedaling you start kicking in random directions. You might hit the pedals some of the time, but you'll generally just end up falling flat on your face and not really moving the bike forward in the way it's supposed to go. That's pretty much what happens when you don't play to win. Which is perfectly fine if you're on your own. Sandbox video games have attracted a great number of players for the simple reason, that they can do all kinds of things not related to the core gameplay experience. You find your own fun. And that is great. But most boardgames aren't solitary affairs.

So, instead imagine you're not driving that bike on your own, but share it with another rider. Or maybe you're sitting on one of these fancy tandems for more than two people. Now imagine one of the people chooses to stop pedaling and instead starts kicking around wildly, singing their favourite power ballads or retelling their favourite naughty jokes in Arabic. This might be entertaining. It might even be uproariously funny. But what it is not, is helping you ride that bike.

The point is this, if you're not actively pursuing victory during play, things will get wonky. Strategies won't pay off. Tactical decision-making will cease to matter. This in turn will lead to frustration and maybe even resentment from the other players. Because not only are you throwing a monkey wrench into the carefully calibrated machinery that is the game's engine. You're also actively hindering the game from resolving as intended. In other words, focussing on your own personal entertainment at the expense of participating the group activity, is not only damaging to the overall gaming experience. It is also not very nice.

And when something people do at the gaming table isn't very nice, it means there is an etiquette rule in play. As it happens, it is my...


Rule #7:
Play towards the game's end, not towards your own amusement.
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Fri Jan 1, 2016 9:55 pm
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[Boardgame etiquette] Rule 6: Try being right to somebody else's benefit

Georgios P.
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Let's be honest, nobody likes a rules lawyer. Nobody likes to have an easy-going game get bogged down by discussion about whether “a player” is the same as “any player”, or whether “your worker” is the same as “the worker”.

Supposedly there are situations in which this distinction matters. Situations in a game where the ruling that is made at that very moment, will determine who wins or loses the game. Or at the very least who has their tactical move ruined or validated. But even then, nobody likes a rules lawyer. Nobody likes to listen someone argue and pontificate about design concepts, balance or even designer's intentions. Because, honestly, nobody really cares. The point of the game is to play, not to do it right.

Ultimately, though, the biggest problem lies not in players wanting to argue how to interpret rules. But in what that desire and behaviour implies about said player. Namely, about their motives within the argument and their agenda within the gaming group.

One of the more unique and in some cases awkward aspects of gaming, is that it provides a place for people to indulge in their selfishness, their competitive streak and their desire to compete and beat somebody else. In other words, to feel better than the rest of the table. While some may not care for this side of gaming, it'd be disingenuous or at least very naïve to deny its existence. Most game designs take this motivation for granted and presuppose it in many of the game's rules (and the writing thereof).

Games assume that you will use every advantage at your disposal to secure victory and in some cases even engage in some unregulated meta-gaming to make sure you leave the rest of the table in the dust. As gamers we're aware of this and generally adjust our behaviour accordingly, once we sit down to play. This implicit acceptance of competitiveness being the driving factor of gameplay also leads to rules lawyers being not particularly well-liked among many gamers. Because even though we are gamers, we're also – for the most part – functional adults. We recognise that competition is a pastime, something we do for our own amusement and to make the time we spend with people more enjoyable. As long as our competitive and selfish behaviour is contained within that sphere of the game, we're fine with it. It is literally part of the game. But when the rules lawyering starts, a player lets their desire to win take over and challenge the frame within which the game is played. A rules lawyer casts doubt on the validity and the legitimacy of the rules that the group has observed up to this point. This is problematic.

Challenging rules that people have unthinkingly accepted as “the way it is” always leads to tension. Partly because those rules might have benefited them and they worry about their standing once that changes. Partly because they don't like to admit they did, in fact, not think about what they were doing, branding them as sheeple. And partly because it makes them feel strongly self-conscious if not leading them to outright self-doubt. None of which is something that people in general, and gamers in particular, look forward to.

What escalates things into downright aggravation, though, is when that player's motivation isn't squeaky clean to begin with. That is to say, when they're just doing it to make themselves look good, or worse yet leverage some advantage out of the debate. That's when people get upset.

Not only did you make people awkward or uncomfortable in real life; you did it only to score a few lousy VP in some made-up context, consisting entirely of cardboard, plastic chits, cards and some dice. In other words, getting ahead at the expense of other people having a good time.

Basically, people don't like rules lawyers. Even in games. Because even in games, selfishness is only tolerable within limits.

Rule 6:

Don't challenge a ruling just because it puts you at a disadvantage.
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Fri Oct 16, 2015 12:45 pm
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[Boardgame etiquette] Rule 4: The right to choose

Georgios P.
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This rule is not about the alpha gamer problem. (The alpha gamer if you're unfamiliar with the term, is the player who tells everybody at the table what to do in a cooperative game. Thus making sure that he gets to enjoy the challenge the game has to offer while the rest of the table is demoted to being his lackeys). While this rule does naturally cover the problems that an alpha player causes in a game, this is not what the rule is about.

No, this rule is about control. Namely the desire to control elements that are supposed to be - by definition - uncontrollable. While it's common and often expected for a game to provide means with which to influence or at the very least mitigate a game's random elements, we run into a bit of a problem when it comes to mitigating the influence of other players. Who doesn't know the rising frustration when another player steals that one resource you needed to score points. Or when somebody blocks your move, because they just happened to have the right card in hand. The worst is, that we often can't even account for this in our planning. We are – more often than not – at the whim of other players' unpredictable and wholly autonomous choices. This inevitably makes us long for more and more control. Be it in the name of balance, fairness or rewarding skill (whatever that is supposed to mean).

This has led to a great number of gamers arguing at length how players ought to behave when they are out of the running for first place. The common refrain being that players should continue to pursue the best possible ranking and not hinder or sabotage whoever is in the lead. Just because you can't win, you shouldn't keep somebody else from winning instead.

It is a sentiment that I consider embarrassingly selfish and egotistical. Trailing players are being told to give up their agency in order to placate the leading players' desire to have their ego validated. They're being asked not to make whichever choice they want, because somebody else really wants to feel good about winning the game. In other words, other players' enjoyment playing the game is deemed less important than one player's enjoyment winning. My disapproval of this type of behaviour is hopefully obvious.

Admittedly, though, this is not the most common way in which players tend to overstep the boundaries of polite play. The most common occurrence involves behaviour that is often mislabelled as negotiation or diplomacy when it is in fact simply brow-beating. It happens when one player attempts to persuade another to take a certain action and simply refuses to let go. It's the moment when ambitious tenacity turns into verbose bullying. Such players will refuse to let an argument go until they get their way. They will also sulk or otherwise complain when players have the audacity to make their own decisions... that shock, horror... do not benefit the player making the loud, obnoxious argument what should be done. To be fair, the line between explaining the current situation on the board to a player making a pivotal decision and trying to argue away that player's agency can get a little fuzzy in the heat of the moment. I, too, have felt the embarrassment of not immediately realising when another player's mind was made up while I still argued who should be the target of their devastating attack. These things do happen. But the key is to realising when you are still negotiating and when you're overstepping boundaries trying to deny another player their agency within the game.

Because this is what it all boils down to. You are arguing to take away somebody's choice. It doesn't matter if you claim the moral high ground based on how competition should be the driving force in everything a player does, or if you just plain want to win by keeping another player from doing something that puts you at a disadvantage. You are literally trying to remove a player from the game by taking away their freedom to choose.

It really doesn't get much worse than that.

Rule 4:
Respect a player's right to make their own decisions and ignore your advice.
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Mon Sep 28, 2015 12:47 pm
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[Boardgame etiquette] Rule 5: Boardgaming's non-compete clause

Georgios P.
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We compete in order to answer the question: who is better at something? This something is usually the game that we sit down to play together. When we engage in playing a game, when we engage in the competitive roles that the rules assign us, we implicitly agree to both invest and answer this question. Who is better at playing the game?

This is generally something that the game's design demands of us, in order for play to have any meaning. The game's design presupposes that we – as players – both care about this and are eager to provide the answer. Naturally, this isn't always the case. Not every gaming group, or every player, cares deeply about being better than somebody else. In many cases, we simply accept this conceit in order to engage each other in play. In much the same way, that we engage certain conceits in fiction, regardless of how little we believe in them. I don't need to be superstitious and believe in ghosts to watch a supernatural thriller. Just as I don't need to believe in highly evolved extra-terrestrial life or faster than light travel to enjoy a fun science-fiction romp. People can buy into the conceit of competition without necessarily being emotionally invested from the start.

Some game designs struggle with this, as the rules (and rulebook writer) assume a group with a highly charged competitive atmosphere. Rules and rulebooks that clearly lay out whether cards should be discarded face-down or face-up, what kind of informal agreements are allowed or disallowed and so on, suggest this assumption on part of the designer/writer. Naturally, the deeper the group cares about determining the winner of game, the more important these distinctions become. On the other end of the spectrum, you will find groups and players scratching their head at this specificity and intense attention to detail, as they treat competition not as the point of the game, but merely the necessary entrance fee to begin play.

When players with such differing attitudes sit down to play a game together, this can occasionally lead to some tension towards the end of the game. Or rather, these attitudes lead to people disagreeing on when the game is actually over.

Many gamers would argue that the game ends, when the ending or winning condition of the game has been reached. Sometimes that's after a set number of rounds, when certain events have been triggered or when a specific situation has occurred. Up until that point the game is open, and could – in theory – allow for any or all kinds of things to happen that would jeopardise the leading players' victory. Seeing the game to its designed conclusion is the only way to determine the actual winner.

In return, I would put forth, that the game essentially ends, when the “competitive conceit” stops being something that the group buys into. In other words, when competing with each other in return for playing the game isn't an agreeable trade-off any longer. To return to the earlier example, the moment I find the existence of an evil supernatural other, or aliens and warp drives, too silly to accept, I'd turn off the movie.

Games are not that different in this regard. The moment that players stop wanting to compete, the game's momentum effectively disappears. The game stops, even if the rules would still have it go on for another few turns. Without the buy-in, without players competing, games aren't played, they're just performed.

Rule 5

Accept that the game is over, when the group wants to stop playing, not when there is a winner.
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Sun Aug 30, 2015 1:51 pm
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[Boardgame etiquette] Rule 3: Mercy is not optional

Georgios P.
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Gaming nerds, especially roleplaying gaming nerds, love quoting their favourite genre movies. One of those movies is the „unique“ Schwarzenegger take on Howards' Conan The Barbarian, which is often quoted from with the following exchange:

Quote:

„What is best in life?“
„To crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women.“


It is a celebration of all that is lizard-brainy about conflict. You crush your enemies and savour their whining and gnashing of teeth as they curse you for stealing another point from them. Obviously the ridiculous contrast in tone between Conan the Decapitator, or Conan the Camel-Puncher and pushing cubes across some sheet of colourful cardboard is of course part of the humour, part of the joke.

But there is something about the sentiment that gamers, particularly competitive gamers, glom onto with impressive fervour: the reduction of social interaction to a simplistic, binary opposition. Spy vs. Spy. Batman vs. Superman. Left hemisphere vs right hemisphere. Games provide a welcome respite from the complexity, ambiguity and malleability of real-life interaction. Games have a clearly defined way of interacting and an equally clearly defined metric by which to seperate positive actions from negative ones. If it helps you win, it is good. If it doesn't help you win, it is bad.

Luckily, when games are set within real-life, social interaction something very liberating happens. We move beyond simplistic and primitive terms of interaction. We start observing one another and engaging each other through the lens of the game's allowed and delineated interaction. Each player sets out to pursue his goals – usually mutually exclusive – and the game gives our interaction some sort of purpose, it gives us an agenda that we don't have to feel self-conscious about; or embarrassed when others recognise it. Games serve as an aid and a means to engage each other socially.

Once we accept that games have an additional purpose, one that extends beyond the game itself and its preoccupation with labelling people as either winners or losers at the end, we must choose between playing along with this purpose or playing to undermine it.

The most common way to undermine the social function of a game is by marginalising individual players, reducing their options, the way in which they can meaningfully affect the game and just generally limiting their contribution to the overall outcome of the game. While it's still possible to interact socially outside of the game, it's increasingly difficult to do so within the game if one player's involvement is continually reduced. While it can be a great boost to one's ego to “crush your enemies” it isn't really conducive to our desire for engaging social contact through games. Instead we would have to both respect and uphold other players' influence over the game, and make sure that their effectiveness is never reduced to a point where their involvement becomes irrelevant.

One should keep in mind that reduced influence over a game's outcome isn't some kind of punishment for bad play; just as an increased involvement isn't a reward for good play. These categories don't matter in the social context of the game. Our influence isn't determined by our strategic acumen and tactical wit, but by a conscious decision of other players to either ignore or uphold the social function of the game.

A group needs to find a compromise between marginalisation and protection of individual players. It generally makes sense to give others as much influence as you would want yourself in order to justify your continued investment in the game and its outcome. Simply put: you should keep players as relevant as you would want to be in order to keep playing.

Games – even competitive ones – aren't like war or combat. You can't force somebody to participate or to commit fully, just because it would be more satisfying for you. Social interaction is by necessity a compromise, i.e. a negotiation to find common ground, rooted in consent.

If you're not willing to do that, that is to find common ground with the other players as to just how much involvement is needed to buy into the game and competition within, nobody will end up enjoying themselves.

The game, its rules, setting or even reputation does not free you from this responsibility. It's on you to provide players with room to play.

Rule 3
Give everybody as much room to contribute to the game as you would demand for yourself.
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Fri Aug 21, 2015 11:54 am
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[Boardgame etiquette] Rule 2: Actually, you ARE here to make friends.

Georgios P.
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There are gaming groups in which a successful game night is measured in how much blood, sweat and tears were put into fighting for every single victory point the game had to offer. If playing the game didn't result in you really putting your analytical, tactical and strategic faculties through the wringer, a game merely rates as “amusing” as opposed to “fantastic”. Then there are gaming groups where nobody ever remembers who won what and with how many points. It's not unheard of for the scoring mechanisms at the end of the game to be a surprise to everybody at the table, because they just weren't paying attention to them during the game.

Both approaches are perfectly valid. In fact, one of the great things about the somewhat insular way in which gaming groups exist is that there is no objectively “right” way to play any game. No gaming style is more valid or “true to the spirit of the game” than any other. Whether a gaming group puts a little or a lot of effort in playing the game with rules-as-written is completely inconsequential. If the group is comfortable, they've found their right way, and that's the only thing that matters.

But when you're not playing with your gaming buddies of years or even decades past, and sometimes even when you are, you might not necessarily end up on the same page with every game. Some games might click with a player so much, that delving deep into the options and strategies not only comes naturally, but it almost feels like the raison-d'etre for the whole game. If you're not plotting multiple moves ahead, working the meta-game and even looking for new and unexpected ways to squeeze another tiny advantage from some clever use of the mechanics, playing that one game might feel like casting pearls before swine.

Alternatively, a game might have so little appeal beyond the necessarily involvement to stay competitive, that actually sitting down and wrestling with complex interactions between mechanics, player choices and overarching strategy seems like wasted effort. Whatever the reason, some games simply don't excite us enough to put in more than absolute minimum of effort necessary to play the game. And it's in this mismatch of attitudes and approaches that a lot of bad blood can arise.

It's arguably the situation most gamers have in mind when arguing about whether to “play to win” or not. A single player can throw the game and thus devalue the struggle and effort others have poured into trying to win. To be honest, while I've seen this happen once or twice, I've encountered another result of such a mismatch with far more regularity: the ambitious and highly competitive player who can bring the entire game to a standstill while he agonizes over the best move. It's usually the same player who will ask for obscure edge-cases in rulings or insist on pinning down exactly how a certain rule would be applied in a (hypothetical) situation, before committing to doing one thing or another.

The result is the same: players get annoyed and angry at the time wasted on indulging a single player. In both cases, the player whose investment in the game doesn't fit with the rest of the table will be perceived as screwing up the game.

I've often seen players on either side try to argue by way of a game's theme or genre that players should change their stance. Game of Thrones: The Board Game has often led to demands of everybody playing it “seriously”, “competitively” and “cut-throat”; because the game's setting suggests that tone. Whereas the other camp will often trot out the old “it's just a game”-claptrap in an attempt to swat down any competitive desire that might threaten to spoil the mood. I consider both arguments nonsense.

Degree of effort (and in some ways competitiveness) is first and foremost a group decision, and it's usually made without any complicated conversations and debates about it. People generally try to adjust their behaviour to that of the people around them. It's a basic social skill that people assume others know how to use and employ. That is also the reason why it comes across as incredibly selfish and disrespectful to the group when a single player refuses to compromise with the group and just puts as much effort into the game as they are in the mood for at the time.

Games are a social and usually a group activity. Disregarding the habits or preferences of the group is rude and causes unnecessary tension.

Rule 2
Put just as much effort into playing well as the rest of the table does.
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Tue Aug 18, 2015 10:09 am
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[Boardgame etiquette] Rule 1: Always let them see you bleed

Georgios P.
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All games share the promise of a challenge. A game will ask you to make a number of non-trivial decisions before resolving. If you make good choices, you'll end up with a preferred outcome (usually a number of victory points); if your choices are less fortunate, you fall behind. Games that do not provide a challenge of any sort, barely register as games. Without a challenge, we follow the rules for no reason other than to pass the time. We might still play these games for reasons only superficially related to the experience of playing the game themselves. Like parents playing Candyland with their children. or when teaching them to others. The game itself isn't worth talking about. It's what happens in the process of playing the game, that matters to us.

The challenge a game provides eventually decreases as we become more familiar with the many possible situations that may arise during play and how best to handle them. This also the reason why games with a huge number of possible permutation (e.g. Chess, Go, Cosmic Encounter) have a strong appeal even to experienced players.

Luckily a game can provide a challenge through one more mean: the skill of other players. Once we introduce competition to a game, its challenges takes on a dynamic and less predictable dimension. Now cleverly manoeuvring around the many traps and pitfalls of the rules becomes a secondary factor and we need to take into account the (generally chaotic) actions of our opponents. Moving ahead of the opposition, ideally beating them, becomes the driving motivation of engaging deeply with the game. („I don't play to win“ is probably the biggest self-delusion amongst gamers, but that's fodder for another post.)

Competing is fun. Engaging in the back and forth of action and reaction is exhilarating. Plotting and adjusting to changing circumstances is great. It's fun to be challenged. Even more so than it is to win. While winning provides its own sense of fun and pride, it's usually not the only reason we enjoy playing games. At the very least it shouldn't be. Just being challenged is fun. What is decidedly unfun is to sit down to play a game and feel like you're completely out of your league, with your opponents running circles around you and you not even providing a credible challenge to the other players.

People generally don't like to play games they are very bad at. In many cases they tend to avoid certain game types and genres because they feel inadequately equipped to play them well. I've met many mathematically skilled players who have voiced a dislike towards any games that heavily feature metagaming elements or social intuition. In a similar way, players who feel comfortable (and skilled) with these elements, generally distance themselves from heavily mathematical games that might reward you for accurately calculating the cost-benefit ratio of each action. I am simplifying this distinction of course. Being good at one does not exclude the other. But what you're bad at often coincides with games you don't care for.

So if you're in any way invested in keeping the game enjoyable and fun to everybody involved, make sure that all players are invested and feel adequately challenged. In some cases this isn't much of an issue. When everybody at the table has the same level of skill and experience, it is highly unlikely that one player will repeatedly dominate the game.

In most cases, though, your experience levels won't be exactly the same. Your skills at recognising which of the options available to you best fits your strategy, as opposed to your mood, may differ significantly. This is a good thing. Diversity is fun. Playing with people who think and play differently from you is enjoyable. It leads to the game developing in unexpected directions, giving it the much needed (chaotic) push away from a solvable challenge to an ever-surprising, always involving play activity.

It should be apparent that you should avoid giving another player the impression that you are far better at the game than they are. Not only is it highly demotivating to compete against a player who is evidently better at the game, it also negatively colours how they perceive your behaviour. If the radical mismatch in skill and experience is so apparent, they start to wonder why you are playing the game at all. Why would a skilled player claim to compete with an amateur? If their play provides no challenge to you, what is your source of fun? They can't help but wonder if you aren't just boosting your ego by beating a weaker opponent.

All this should help underline the necessity of understating your skill and progress in a game. Not because you want to lull your opponents into some false sense of security, but because you want them as invested in the challenge of the game as you are yourself. You want them to enjoy being challenged, and not endure the frustration of being dragged along by players far better than themselves.

As a leading player you should do your best to bridge the gap between yourself and the other players. Not within the game, of course. I'm not advocating for players to play badly on purpose. That's condescending and a sure-fire way to completely alienate people. I'm talking about making no victory, no point gain and no success look easy to the rest of the table. If you realise that players are struggling to get ahead, try to avoid making your choices feel easy. A little bit of theatre goes a long way towards keeping a game engaging, even if one player has been on the road to victory since turn two.

This is about signalling a kinship with another player; it's about showing that you are not above them but in the same boat as them. Much like you wouldn't flaunt your wealth in front of somebody who has to cut corners, or gush over your new job when somebody else is still looking for one.... you don't want your behaviour to come across as a celebration of your superior choices and extraordinary strategy, while others are struggling to score any points at all. It makes you look self-involved and rude, and it makes them feel stupid.

Rule 1:
Avoid making your opponent feel like you're better at the game than they are.
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Sat Aug 15, 2015 3:45 pm
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[Boardgame etiquette] Rule 0: be nice if you want to be mean

Georgios P.
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It will surely come as no surprise to you that etiquette isn't just about which fork to use when eating sea food or whom to greet first in a mixed group. It covers more than just stodgy ways to act around others. Etiquette is a tool that helps daily interactions go over smoothly and makes it easier to get along with others.

Because etiquette is at its core about your behaviour putting people around you at ease. We observe rules of etiquette to make people feel comfortable in our company and appreciate our interactions. Regardless of how hazy or unclear those rules might exist in our mind. We try to be considerate, when we ask for something. We try to be thoughtful, when we do something and keep an eye out on how our actions affect others.

This applies to life in general, but I believe it also applies to boardgaming. You should behave in a way that makes you fun to be around and that puts people at ease. Even if you end up having conflicting interests, like say, wanting to win at a game. Playing in a polite and friendly manner ultimately leads to players becoming increasingly less frustrated at a game.

That is because when we sit down to play a game, our social interaction and the way we relate to one another gains an additional layer. We enter a magic circle, so to speak, that is created within our regular, real life interaction. Our game-related interactions (positive as well as negative) are embedded in our greater, social interaction at the table. How we talk to one another, how we respond to one another, how we converse with one another matters in how we experience the game.

We have in-game interaction on one level and an over-arching social interaction encompassing it all. Think of your social interaction as an amplifier of your in-game interaction. If the former is fraught with tension and ambiguity, making you feel insecure or even defensive, your enjoyment of the game will suffer. Negative interaction towards you will take on a whole new light, it will feed back into the already fragile comfort you feel playing with the other players. In short, it will make you more likely to get angry or frustrated at the game or even at players making a move against you. And that's no fun.

On the other hand, if you feel comfortable, respected and appreciated in your group, even a strongly aggressive move in the game will be understood as it is meant: a friendly competition amongst equals. You know: fun! And like all types of fun, it goes both ways. Everybody should be welcoming and encouraging, doubly so if you're about to play a very competitive and contentious type of game.

That is the reason why rule 0 of my etiquette rules has fairly little to do with how to behave within in the game, but with how to behave outside of it. If you don't put any effort into making others feel comfortable sitting down to play a game with you; if you don't bother to signal that you appreciate their company and are genuinely interested in them having a good time, players might get heavily frustrated at what is a perfectly legitimate move within the game. Because even if your friendly attitude toward another player might seem self-evident to you, it isn't to everybody else, unless you express it. Small gestures, welcoming body language and a jovial conversation happening alongside the game all help reinforce the fundamental truth of gaming: we play to have fun, regardless of who wins or loses.

So if you only remember one part of my ramblings about gaming etiquette, it should be this one:

Make people feel comfortable, welcome and appreciated when you play with them. It will take the bite out of even the most contentious and competitive game.

Rule 0
Your conduct at the table should help others enjoy themselves, regardless of what happens in the game.
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Tue Aug 11, 2015 10:49 am
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10 rules of boardgaming etiquette [List]

Georgios P.
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After a lot of my recent play experiences ended up a roller-coaster of emotions, that sadly had little to do with the back and forth of the game itself and more with how people acted at the gaming table, or rather how the social interaction between the people hampered the interaction in the game and vice versa, I sad down and thought about what made the games so upsetting and frustrating to me.

I eventually arrived at a rough outline of what I consider respectable and polite play behaviour. Ways in which we can and should act to ensure that people have a good time playing games with us. I've come up with a list of ten rules, which I hope to post about in depth in the next days and/or weeks, explaining my reasoning behind the rule and how and why it applies to gaming.

So here is the list (with links forthcoming as soon as the respective blog posts are done):

Rule 0
Your conduct at the table should help others enjoy themselves, regardless of what happens in the game.

Rule 1
Avoid making your opponent feel like you're better at the game than they are.

Rule 2
Put just as much effort into playing well as the rest of the table does.

Rule 3
Give everybody as much room to contribute to the game as you would demand for yourself.

Rule 4
Respect a player's right to make their own decisions and ignore your advice.

Rule 5
Accept that the game is over, when the group wants to stop playing, not when there is a winner.

Rule 6
Don't challenge a ruling just because it puts you at a disadvantage.

Rule 7
Play towards the game's end, not towards your own amusement.

Rule 8
Be open about pursuing a strategy. the strategy you pursue

Rule 9
Assume that other players are honest and will play fair.

Rule 10
Be gracious when other players make mistakes, and accept your own.
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Mon Aug 10, 2015 9:25 am
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