Board gaming etiquette

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.

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7 Responses to Board gaming etiquette

  1. Hoi pieter,
    Het gaat duidelijk over ons(de jonge spelers). Zet je volgende keer onze naam erbij? Vinden we leuk, groeten, David en Bram

  2. pspronck says:

    Dat hebben jullie bij deze gedaan 🙂

  3. Hey, an interesting post. I agree that playing fair should mean “trying for a personal best score” but I don’t think it means necessarily focusing on beating the player who’s ahead of you. Ideally, the score is hidden (as in Small World) so you don’t focus on anyone in particular and just try to get as many points as possible.

  4. Jeff L says:

    Interesting contrast between the middle rounds of the game and the last round. In a lot of games where kingmaking occurs it is also the fault of bad game design. Political games are fine, but multiplayer board games shouldn’t default towards convincing people to let you win over someone else.

  5. sirlala says:

    You should always target first place player regardless of which position you are in. As 3rd/4th place it’s foolish to attack the 2nd place player, because your goal should be to win the game, not to get 2nd place in the game. Your best chance of winning the game is to pull the 1st place player down enough that the 2nd place player is the 1st place player, and then work on pulling him down.

    Often in resource based games, the person in 1st place is collecting the most resources, however this teaming up against them is what keeps the game in check and in balance. Part of winning the game is being in a position of strength is convincing the other players that you aren’t as far ahead.

    Long story short, people should play to win, not to get 2nd.

    • pspronck says:

      I wish it was that easy. I have been thinking about this off and on for the last few months, and it depends on quite a lot of things.

      From a game-theoretical point of view, it depends on the pay-offs. If there is only a pay-off for first place, then yes, you are right, the only sensible move would be to try to gain first place, however remote the chance is that you succeed. But if there is also a pay-off for second place, and you are in third place and have a good chance to become second but a slim chance to become first, then your best option is to attack the currently second-place player.

      Of course, most people play games for fun and not to get some sort of maximum pay-off. But that means that they want to play according to what is acceptable to their play group. Some groups really abhor players ganging up on the player in first place, while other groups encourage it.

      For me it feels best if trying to go for first place and increasing your own score go hand in hand. In such a setup, this sort of issue does not arise. But most interesting games have a mechanism that allows you to mess with other players’ plans. That is exactly what makes them fun. And if a game allows that, it allows ganging up on one player.

      Personally, I play games for fun, and I don’t mind ganging up that much — it actually feels like a challenge to me to play in such a way that even the others ganging up on me does not help them kicking me from first place. But a game like Small World, where each and every play leads to a discussion along the lines of “No he is in first place so you should attack him not me!” just feels lacking to me.

  6. jochar says:

    I agree with this blog. I love playing euro games. I hate playing with kingmakers or folks who only blocks other actions and/or attacks. They take the fun and strategy out of the game for everyone.

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