One issue troubles virtually every board game that supports three or more players: kingmaking. Kingmaking means that a player who is not going to win, with his actions may hand the final victory to one of the other players.
As games are about interaction between players, usually the potential for kingmaking is unavoidable. In some games the possibilities a kingmaker has are bigger than in others. For instance, in a wargame (such as Risk), if one player consistently attacks a specific opponent, regardless of the current game state, that particular opponent is very unlikely to win. Neither is his attacker.
Personally, I do not like to have kingmakers in my games. I enjoy neither losing nor winning because of a kingmaker’s actions. In my view, good boardgaming etiquette should prevent players from kingmaking. But what kind of behaviour should the etiquette prescribe?
Think of the following situation (which everybody has encountered). You are playing a game, and you are in a good position to walk away with the final victory. The other players notice this, and suddenly everybody is attacking you. You get beaten down, while the until-then-second player is making the victorious move.
This feels fair to many people, but is it? Basically, the player who performed best until just before the very end, ends up in second place, while the one who did good but not best, ends up being the winner. And that because of, lets be fair, kingmaking actions. The players in third and lower positions had nothing to gain by attacking the leader; they had no chance of winning anyway. The only reason for their attacks was to postpone the game’s finale.
My own behaviour in board games is to try to finish in as high a place as possible. If I am in first place, I try to maintain that position. If I am in second place, I try to dethrone the first-place player and take over his position. If I am in third place, I am striving to gain second place and from there climb to first. Etcetera. Until recently I thought this was proper behaviour, but now I am less sure.
I recently played a game of Small World (which I alluded to in a recent post) with three players. One of my opponents showed a keen interest in attacking the other one of my opponents. He did so without regard for his own position. After the first two rounds, it was clear that I was probably going to get the final victory, while the victim was in second place, and his nemesis in third. Yet, the attacker did not lay off.
I told the attacker that he was playing a stupid game. He should attack me, because I was in first place. But then I realized that that is exactly what my personal gaming etiquette prescribes to do not. As the attacker was now in third place, and the victim in second place, the best thing for the attacker to better his own position was actually to attack the victim. And as the best option for me to maintain my position was to attack the person who threatened me the most, I should also attack the victim. The game was going to be about second and third place, no longer about first place, and the victim was going to have to deal with all his opponents’ attacks.
As the game was not turning into a direction which I liked, I decided for myself just to go for “as many points as possible”, regardless of who I had to attack to get them. Furthermore, I encouraged both other players to try to level the playing field by doing something similar, or if need be, attack me.
But what about the etiquette? Evidently, the behaviour that I prefer is not appropriate in all situations. It may be appropriate in the final gaming round (and frankly, usually that is the moment that kingmaking becomes a problem), but it probably is not during the part of the game that leads up to it.
What should good gaming etiquette achieve? In my view, it should achieve that the final ranking is according to the players’ relative strengths during that particular game. This is what I would call “fair”. Note that that does not mean that always the same player should win: many games have a chance factor, and a player’s strength might be that he was lucky. Or, the tactical situation might have been such that the player who is usually the best, was unable to deal with it well, and thus during that particular game he was not the best player.
And what rules should gaming etiquette prescribe to achieve such fairness? I have not yet formed a firm opinion about that. Not kingmaking is one of the rules, at least for the final gaming round. Trying for a personal best score is another one, but it is a shaky rule, as a personal best score is calculated relative to the other players’ performance, so focussing attacks on one particular opponent could be defended.
Anyway, such rules of good gaming etiquette do not preclude explicitly the behaviour of the attacker in my game of Small World, who focused his attacks on one particular opponent. What counts against his behaviour was mainly that he seemed to do it out of some form of personal spite, but in itself gaming etiquette is about actions, not about reasons for actions.
Still, I do not like this kind of behaviour, and I rather not play with people who show it. Although in this case I forgive it, as the attacker was a pretty young player. He still has time to learn.