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A theory of quarterbacking

Jeff Warrender
United States
Averill Park
New York
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I've mentioned that my design Alien Phlebotomists is an entrant in a cooperative game design contest here at BGG, hosted by Alley Cat Games. I've played or looked into most of the other 24 shortlisted games and there is some great creativity on display in the contest. And some trends as well, a lot of dice placement and dice manipulation games. Which I suppose makes sense given the host.

Of course the perennial problem with cooperative games like Pandemic and Gloomhaven and Spirit Island and even my favorite, The Lord of the Rings is quarterbacking, or the "alpha player", where one player essentially dictates the play of the group as a whole. I've found myself saying in the feedback to some of these contest entries, "this might be susceptible to quarterbacking." (There's a separate but related problem common in coops that Seth has called attention to, which he calls "solitaire by committee", i.e. that there's no real reason the game needs to be multiplayer, one player could play it just as well as several could. That's also a concern but is slightly separate from this post).

Although there isn't universal agreement that this even is a problem, we can at least infer that a lot of designers think that it is, as evidenced by the different solutions they've conceived to combat it. Impose restrictions on communication (Hanabi), or make the game real-time so that it plays too fast for one person to control everyone else, (Escape: The Curse of the Temple, Space Alert), or give players asymmetric roles (Space Cadets), or give players asymmetric roles AND play in real time (Alien Phlebotomists), or make the game incredibly complex so that no mortal could possibly coordinate everything (a WIP game by TauCeti Deichmann).

But what is the actual root cause of quarterbacking? Is it really that every group contains a bossy control freak? I think in a lot of cases, this happens because a group is told that this game is cooperative, and they equate cooperation with going along to get along. This same group might have just wrapped up a game of Chinatown five minutes earlier, where they were squeezing every drop of blood out of every deal they could make, and an hour before that they finished a game of The Princes of Florence where they made each other pay through the nose for that third jester, but now we're playing a co-op and so the switch has flipped and we're all playing nice, and that includes, if we have a player with quarterback proclivities, just going along, because doing otherwise would create tension.

But would it? What if we used playfulness concepts in cooperative designs to place the players into roles that are intrinsically characterized by bickering or vigorous debate? For example, perhaps we are Lincoln's cabinet, in the "team of rivals" construct of Doris Kearns Goodwin; or maybe we are siblings (brothers, perhaps), or maybe we are coworkers, or fellow members on an expedition, or members of a band, or members of a jury. In our previous post we talked about how playfulness in conception can guide players to behave playfully, and perhaps more importantly, give them permission to do so. Games are driven primarily by the social contract of the group in which they are played, but sometimes the game itself needs to provide an addendum to that social contract for the group to be willing to expand the boundaries of the magic circle a bit.

Of course, nothing steers behavior like incentives, and so to get true bickering, a co-op needs to introduce self-interest to some degree. But if you just tell players, explicitly or implicitly, that they're not expected to play nicely, but are in fact expected to bicker, then perhaps this will be enough for some games, for some groups, to get into their roles a bit and in so doing blunt the impact of the quarterback.

And if the game is asymmetric, the group can enhance this by specifically assigning the player with quarterback tendencies to one of the roles that isn't particularly well-suited to quarterbacking, a role that has a lot of busywork (game-mechanically) or a role that is "lesser" (e.g. the Postmaster General or the little brother); that lets you say things like "Yeah, ok postmaster general, no one cares about how you think we should fight the war, just deliver the mail!"

This is certainly congruent with what I've seen with Alien Phlebotomists' predecessor, in which players were workers with different roles in a restaurant. In the best sessions, players interacted the way coworkers would interact: "Where is my fish? You are killing me here, could you please cook the dang fish?" We've not seen that same degree of bickering in Alien Phlebotomists, which suggests that prior knowledge doesn't just help players' ability to learn how to play a game (or learn how to play well), but also can guide how players behave while playing the game.

It's interesting to note that none of the top 25-ranked cooperative games here at BGG are particularly playful. And so, if playfulness provides a means to counteract quarterbacking, and most of the best-rated cooperative games lack this, maybe then it's no surprise that people tend to associate cooperative games with quarterbacking.

To be sure, "we can avert quarterbacking by bickering more!" isn't a solution everyone will like either, since for many people, the working together constructively is the appeal of the cooperative game. But I think few of those people will have actually tried a "bickering coop", because by and large it doesn't appear to exist. If it did, would they like it more? Perhaps time will tell!


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