The Political GAmer

A student of politics and games, trying to think about play and play with some thoughts. See the fancy version on:
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Table Talk

(See the full version of this blog post here)

One of the biggest aspect of tabletop gaming is the fact that we sit with each other and interact in person. It may sound trivial but in the age of digital gaming, that's what many tabletop gamers point to when they explain what they love most about their hobby. Having that direct interaction, that physical proximity - both with the game and with each other - is a huge part of the fun.

So why is it that so many of us don't talk while we play games? I once played a whole game of Spyrium (not a long game, but still takes over an hour) where not a word was uttered. The game was terrific, fun and tense - yet I felt odd after we finished it. What kind of interaction is this if we spend the entire evening not communicating at all? (at least, not in that most direct way of using words) Are we even interacting?

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The answer is, of course, yes - we are interacting. Even if we're not talking while we're playing, we're communicating in a variety of non-verbal ways. the obvious ones are giggling, guffawing, making faces, sighs and the like. But these are just 'cheats' - they are ways we 'talk' when we can't talk. We also, always, communicate via what we do in the game. If we are intensely engaged in a game, we will enjoy talking about it afterwards - just like we enjoy talking about a movie we watched together (and I never really could enjoy going to a movie alone, the conversation afterwards is for me the heart of the matter). And that in-game interaction is priceless, even if we don't say a word during a game (or talk about anything but the game in front of us - which is also pretty odd).

Yet I still feel like something is missing when there is no table talk. I tried to think about why that is and what I came up with has to do with the kind of games we most like to play, and that basic division between Eurogames and the so-called Amerithrash style (note: thrash, not trash).

Now I know that the distinction between Euro and Amerithrash is obsolete, and that most games today blend the styles in whichever is their most preferred way. My personal favorites are what I call Hybrid games that do exactly that (an example of one discussed below). But I think the distinction is helpful as an analytical tool. So bear with me as I make these very stylized and cartoonish definitions of these terms. These are controversial things, and I'm sure some people will disagree; but really these are not definition but more like lists of attributes (cluster concepts, as philosophers call them) - no game would have all these attributes and none of them is required in order to define a game as a 'euro'. Yet every Euro would have most relevant attributes and likewise with Amerithrash.

Eurogames are games where each player is mostly focused on building his or her own village/farm/empire the goal is to do so in the most efficient way. Typically, players can only build or change their own things and not directly interfere with (or destroy) other players' stuff. Players compete for scarce resources and resources management is therefore crucial for success. There is no player elimination, gameplay tends to be short and the games are usually very abstract, with economic, industrial, historical or pastoral themes that are not central to the game. These games tend to be language independent and have relatively little story or flavor text. They are low on luck in the sense that they avoid randomization mechanics and specifically dice. They tend to play in a given set of rounds and determine the winner by victory points (which typically come from various sources - also known as 'point salads'). Eurogamers love wooden components and dislike table talk.

Amerithrash games are long, immersive and thematic. They tend to have lots of background story, flavor text and draw in players to immerse themselves. Their traditional settings are fantasy, sci-fi and space - though historically themed war gaming is closer to this camp. They often include area control or conflict, where players can spend resources to directly destroy what other players have spend their time and effort building. They tend to include a lot of dice rolling and therefore are open to 'lucky' swings and unpredictable developments. The conflict is often accompanied by structured negotiations where players can formally form alliances (as in Dune) or the game allots specific time for negotiation (as in Diplomacy). There is often hidden information that players hide from each other (simultaneous turns is one particularly effective mechanic). Amerigamers love plastic pieces and particularly miniatures (in general, miniature and role-playing games have a lot in common with Amerithrash) and they consider table talk a huge part of the game.

We can already see that these two style of games pull us in different directions regarding table talk. And of course, these are not just style of games but they are most importantly style of gamers. Eurogamers see their games as 'decision-making contests' - a competition whose goal is to reward the best decision-maker. Because of that, table talk is frowned upon - if we are competing to see who is the best decider, pooling together information or sharing perspective gets in the way. If you point out something to another player, you are literally ruining the game - it is like giving a boost to one runner in a race. Now, of course, you might be lying or misleading but figuring out if you're lying is not one of the skills that the game aims to reward. People often lament certain cooperative games because they have a problem of 'quarterbacking' (aka as the 'Alpha gamer problem' and by the lesser known name 'Beta game problem') - where one players tells all the others what to do. The truth is, quarterbacking can happen in non cooperative games. Some people just can't keep their wisdom to themselves and really love to guide other people around a game - whether or not it also serves their own interests them in the game (though they often emphasize, perhaps unconsciously, the smart move that also serves them).

In contrast, Ameri-gamers see the heart of a game in the story players create. And that story may include strategic decisions that they made, but it's more about what they do together and to each other. Many of them see social deduction skills as part of the game - where the point is to figure out what exactly other players are hiding on the basis of your ability to 'read' them (and not on the basis of what you perceive their strategy to be as can be surmised from their in-game actions). Bluffing games are all about that, from Coup to Sheriff of Nottingham, as well as party games like Werewolf, The Resistance and Spyfall. It is also at the heart of games with a traitor mechanic or hidden goals, such as Dead of Winter, Battlestar Galactica and Shadows Over Camelot. And they play a huge role in traditional area control games from Risk to Diplomacy, from Dune to Game of Thrones. In any of those games (and many like them), misleading and manipulating the other players is the pretty much the point of the game, so it feels very natural to allow any kind of table talk. If you point out something to someone, you are probably doing this to direct his attention away from harming you. These games often depend on the players for balance - if they don't 'bash the leader', as the saying goes, these games would be no fun.

One interesting caveat is the idea of trading. Settlers of Catan, the almost paradigmatic Eurogame, thrived exactly because it diverged from the hard Euro line be adding the trading component. Trading makes games less about the competition of strategic decision-making and more about social deduction - you have to persuade people and understand what they value. It opens up space for negotiation and 'irrational' players might ruin the calculation of a strategic player. Though it's not as confrontational as lying or betraying and players can only make positive offers to each other - they can't really threaten each other because there's no way you can harm someone. Sure, you can threaten never to trade with someone but that's typically not a credible threat and even if it is - it's more like 'I'm not playing with you ever again' than 'if you attack me here, I'll have to retaliate over there.'

That means that the extent and kind of acceptable table talk depends on the game you're playing as well as the style of gaming you and your group likes. But what about the new wave of hybrid games that mesh up these game style? They are faced with a conundrum. Some of them have rules that encourage opposite tendencies and you can sometimes see the designer struggling with the game's identity. A striking example is in the wonderful, and decidedly hybrid, Wars of the Roses: Lancaster vs. York, which I love to bits though it might just be one of those games that try to please everybody and ends up making everyone unhappy. It's an area majority game based on card drafting, reminiscent of the classic Euro El-Grande, but you can aggressively kick people out of castles. Yet the battles have no randomization - they are strictly 'deterministic', where commitment of troops is done through simultaneous action selection. And alliances are kind of forced on you, since every two players have joint interests in parliament votes. But, the winner is not the one who destroys most troops or controls the board at the end of the game. Instead, the winner is the player with most victory points at the end of five rounds, and those points are awarded in a 'point salad' system.

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In my experience with the game, it truly lends itself to lots of negotiation and table talk. First, simultaneous action selection is always an invitation for promises, threats and backstabbing. The entire game of Diplomacy, famous for its backstabbing cruelty and its ability to ruin friendships, has only one mechanic: simultaneous action selection. You can make promises but the other player can't wait to see what you do before he does his part, and that creates a great temptation to break (and therefore make) promises. Second, the alliance aspect makes it almost impossible not to have discussions with your partner. The possibility of redundant attacks or needless in-fighting really encourages coordination. But allies also have their own distinct interests, so such coordination is never full-proof: in fact, the game provides you with almost as much of an incentive to promise and then betray your ally as it does for your enemy. Lastly, it's an area control war game. You can really harm someone, if you feel like it, and they know it. So they are bound to try and offer you stuff so that you won't. Trying to abolish table talk in such a game seems almost silly. Yet the designer chose to add the following curious note to the game:

[q=rulebook, p. 6"] Note: Specific strategic and tactical discussions between players are not allowed. For example, “Blue is winning, so you attack him in London and I will get him out of York”. This is particularly important in the 4 player game where players are allied. [/q]

I read this and I thought - really? Needless to say, in my group we have ignored this rule because that's not how we want to play the game. Yet I think this just shows how the designer struggled with designing a game that's all about strategic decisions made under conditions of uncertainty (where you have to guess your opponent's move by inferring it from their strategy) and a game that's all about backstabbing, alliances and social deduction. My friend thought it was silly to even write a note like this in the rulebook but I disagree: as the designer, you can definitely include rules about what kind of information players can share. The new hotness, a Polish game called Mysterium, is an entire game centered around one player who cannot speak to other players. It's similar to time restrictions on negotiation phases or the requirement that certain information (like your hand of cards) be kept secret. Yet a game has inner tension if the designer wants you to keep something to yourself while the other mechanics of the game strongly encourage you not to. That's the case with cooperative games that try to just tell you to keep your hand of cards secret without giving you an in-game reason to do that. Many people ignore that rule, and rightly so, because it doesn't feel like it makes sense. The no-discussion rule in Wars of the Roses feels that way to me.1

Yet I see the problem - so much relies on what kind of strategy you're going for that discussing tactics might just reveal what players should work hard to discover themselves. I guess there isn't really a good way to restrict one kind of discussion while permitting the other, so for me this game comes a package with lots of table talk, distractions, misdirection and of course - backstabbing.

To sum, if want to have fun with your friends while you're playing games, it's a good to have everybody on the same page regarding what they enjoy when they play the game. If you really want the game to be a competition of strategic decision-making, it's really best to talk about something else during the game. Many gamers feel responsibility for the games they introduce and teach people. They want these people to enjoy the games, and one way to enjoy a game is to win. So gamers often help their friends with strategy on their first games or just quarterback in general. I suggest that you remind yourself that making poor decisions is also fun - if they are your decisions and if you learn from them. After all, we wouldn't enjoy the game if there was a clearly superior choice to make at any point. If you, like me, have the tendency to do that - remind yourself that it is their game to play and their mistakes to make. Trust the game to ensure that they enjoy it. You liked it, hopefully they will too. If we do this well, we would have fewer comments in rulebooks about discussions and more fun at the table with our friends.

This week's recommendation: Keith Burgen started a new youtube channel where he discusses his game design ideas in 3 minute segments. He's a controversial guy when it comes to games, but his stuff is pretty brilliant and definitely worth a read. I really recommend his episode about depth and elegance in game design.

1 One caveat for my discussion of Wars of the Roses is that it might be the case with the game - and I haven't played it enough times to figure it out - that table talk does actually ruin the game. This would be true if the game presented many cases where negotiations would be without tension because it would be clear what players should do if they could only talk about it. A type of such cases is what game theorists call 'coordination problem' - an example would be where there are two towns we need to conquer, neither of us cares which one we occupy but it's crucial for both of us that we don't both go for the same one. This situation is quite possible in this game, as allies share interest in their joint domination of a region. Yet they each have an interest in their own domination over their ally, and different towns have different values, so the problem is rarely one of pure coordination. If this happens a lot in the game (I haven't played enough to find out) than table talk can indeed ruin a lot of the fun. If this is the case, I would argue that the game has some serious design issues that should have been dealt with in the playtesting phase. May be it is a beta game. The game would then be ruined not by table talk but by the inner tensions of its design. I truly hope that this is not the case because so far, I'm really loving this game.
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