A Gnome's Ponderings

I'm a gamer. I love me some games and I like to ramble about games and gaming. So, more than anything else, this blog is a place for me to keep track of my ramblings. If anyone finds this helpful or even (good heavens) insightful, so much the better.
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The Unpleasant Reality of Gamesmanship

Lowell Kempf
United States
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I keep on learning new terms this week. In a blog about metagaming, someone showed me the term Gamesmanship.

Like emergent gameplay or emergent narrative, it’s an idea that I already was familiar with. I just didn’t know what it was called.

Gamesmanship is the art of messing with another player’s head in order to win but not going so far as to actually, out-and-out cheat. For instance, intentionally walking into a snooker player’s line of sight as they’re making a shot it is gamesmanship. Bumping their elbow is cheating.

To be honest, I think there is a very fine line between gamesmanship and blatantly cheating. There are definitely times when I think it honestly crosses the line. I also think there is a very definite line between clever gameplay and gamesmanship.

For instance, I think that running up the price of an item in an auction game is not gamesmanship. I have played many games of Power Grid where people intentionally forced other players into the choice of either getting the power plant they wanted or being able to buy the resources to fuel it.

A more pure example is how this is the basic gameplay of High Society. Not only does running up the price of a card mean that you are leaving your opponent with less money. You are also increasing the chances of them getting eliminated in the end game.

In the same way, pushing the bid in a poker game, even when you might not have the cards to back it up, in the hopes of bluffing your opponents into folding could be viewed as gamesmanship. However, that’s how you play the game. Bluffing is an intrinsic part of poker. Some people will argue that it is the basis of poker and the cards just provide the excuse.

Are you messing with people’s heads when you do things like that? Well, yeah. However, it’s all still within the basic framework of how the game works. These are the kind of things that aren’t just acceptable, they’re even expected.

On the other hand, taking an interminably long time to play on your turn in order to aggravate other players, arguing rules when you are clearly wrong, singing off-tune drinking songs, intentionally misdealing cards in order to force a reshuffle, faking a heart attack, that’s when you cross the line out of cunning play and into gamesmanship for me.

That kind of behavior can sometimes be amusing but it can quickly become offensive and aggravating. I don’t play for money. I play games for fun and relaxation. If someone is intentionally playing in a way that is designed to make me not have fun, then they are wasting my time and upsetting me for no other reason than their own satisfaction. I don’t want to play games with people like that. I don’t even want to be in the same room as them.

In an earlier post, Patrick Carroll wrote about how a player in a play-by-mail game faked a terminal illness in order to have the other players basically let the guy win. That kind of behavior is so offensive that it blows my mind. It honestly makes me ask “What is so wrong with someone that they could consider this acceptable behavior?”

Yes, there is a matter of degree involved. I wouldn’t put trash talk, for instance, in the realm of gamesmanship. For one thing, it often has a certain degree of heavy-handed, friendly kidding involved. For another thing, everyone knows what you’re doing when you trash talk.

It's also important to realize when someone isn't practicing gamesmanship. Taking forever to take a turn can be a form of psychological warfare. It can also mean someone has analysis paralysis.

In the end, I try to avoid people who practice gamesmanship. That kind of play is contrary to every reason that I play board games. However, I can still run into it at conventions and meet-up groups. Sometimes, all you can do is be aware that it’s out there and do your best to ride out the bad experience.
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