Friday, January 18, 2008

A Quick Look at Player Interaction

Player interaction is a point of departure for many in terms of what they want in a game. Many American style games, particularly war themed games, feature direct player interaction through mechanics such as direct resource attrition via combat. Instead of which item should I bid on or which item should I purchase, the game is more about which other player should I attack on my turn. Such games feature goals that rely on conquest, destruction, or weakening of another player as a means of achieving victory.

Eurogames, on the other hand, have often been saddled with the label of “multi-player solitaire” by the detractors of the genre. Though there is player interaction in Eurogames, it is not of the same type as what can be found more commonly in American style games. Many European style games feature indirect player interaction through mechanics such as limited markets and auctions. These mechanics create situations where many players are going for similar goals and have to compete in terms of the price they are willing to pay to achieve certain goals or the opportunity cost they must forgo to acquire certain resources before another player does. This results in mechanics where all of the players are focusing on some goal or goals that represent common aims toward which the different players are competing that do not lie in the path of direct conquest of another opponent. Instead of directly attacking another player, Eurogames tend to be more about who can achieve a mutually sought after objective better, quicker, or more cheaply than another player.

These tendencies beg the question of why more direct player interaction tends to be shunned as a trend in game design by European style game companies but embraced by American style game companies?

To the reader, if you will go back a few articles on this blog and look at my discussion about problems with triangulation in games that feature resource attrition due to direct player interaction, many of my points there relate directly to the current topic. The more direct the player interactions are in a game’s design, the more intrinsic potential exists within that design for mechanical broken-ness and runaway-leader problems. These tend to be natural consequences as games that feature direct player interaction often produce as the winner the player who was least “picked on” by the other players. Thus, American style games such as Risk, Twilight Imperium, and Nexus Ops, when more than two players are playing, tend to be more about who can talk whom into attacking other players. It’s more about the metagame of trying to persuade others to use their resources in certain ways rather than who can make the most mechanically strategic decisions on the board. Often, the winner is the player who most fully persuaded the other players to leave him or her alone so that they could gather up enough resources unmolested. These games tend to offer much of their emotional pay-off through successfully negotiating with other players in the situations that the game creates. In other words, the board merely presents a context in which players can implement negotiating and persuading skills. It’s more likely in an American style game than a European style game for a player to be a superior mechanical planner and yet still get beaten by an inferior mechanical planner who happens to be a much better persuader or negotiator.

When persuasion is the name of the game, the mechanics of the game don’t have to be held to standards of whether or not they are intrinsically balanced, whether or not there is a runaway leader problem, or whether or not it’s a concern that a player can be eliminated from the game. However, when mechanical strategy is what the game is seeking to feature, then the game’s design usually needs to be held to these standards. Eurogames tend to be more about mechanical strategy while American games tend to be more about persuasion and interpersonal strategy. One style rewards a manager, the other rewards a salesman.

It is important to note that games featuring more direct player interaction are not devoid of mechanical planning. Far from it. However they also suffer from the potential for players to arbitrarily take other players out of contention simply because they want to. If I’m playing a game of Neuroshima Hex and I just decide arbitrarily that I want to focus on hurting another player come what may then I can realistically take that player out of contention if it’s a three or four player game. I may not win but the possibility for ensuring that someone else doesn’t win is much more likely. With games that feature indirect player interaction, such arbitrary decisions don’t have the ability to be carried out to the same extent. If I choose to play poorly by overpaying for items or for taking an item that would have helped another player much more regardless of whether it helps me or not, then such decisions are much more likely to hurt me and mostly me much more than the other player. If I choose to play poorly in an American style game by attacking one player over another, it can much more easily lead to kingmaking situations. This possibility can undermine the enjoyment of the game for people who are more interested in mechanical planning because they can just arbitrarily be taken out of the game – their planning notwithstanding – simply because another player wanted to ensure that they didn’t win.

It is for many of these reasons I believe that European style games have moved away from direct player interaction. Eurogames often feature indirect player interactions because the games are seeking to feature mechanical planning as the emotional pay-off for playing. The design tendencies are meant to produce games where the problems that come with triangulation in direct player conflict scenarios are eliminated by establishing goals that are common to all players but that are not achieved through directly attacking other players.

There are many people who find the almost obligatory salesman tactics required to win certain American style games as being annoying and distracting to having a fun experience. They want to mechanically plan without having to be bothered with persuading (and in some cases pleading) with another player to do a particular thing on that player’s turn. At the same time, a person who gets a “charge” out of the persuasive challenges of an American style game or who really gets “fired up” when they can really “stick it” to another player, would find the choices presented by Eurogames as potentially being “dry” or “boring”.

Eurogames usually provide opportunities for the players to be mechanically clever without having to be bothered with the salesmen tactics that can pervade the table discussions during an American style game while American style games tend to almost require implementation of salesman tactics by the players due to the confrontational nature in many of the basic designs in those kinds of games. Although I can personally be an effective persuader, I don’t necessarily want much of that in my gaming experience. I want to tactically and mechanically plan without the potential for being arbitrarily attacked by another player simply because they “felt like it”. Thus, Eurogames tend to be much more congruent with the values I have regarding what I personally look for in a game – but that’s just me.

On the other hand, direct player interaction is not a problem at all when there are only two players or only two sides. In many games, particularly historical wargames, few to none of the issues raised in this article have any footing. Attacking and conquering the other player or other side is the whole goal of the game.

However, once a third player or side is introduced into the mix, the potential for cross-cutting and all of the accompanying baggage of triangulation in direct conflict scenarios immediately becomes a problem. What’s ironic is that many mechanics in European style games that feature indirect player interaction often require at least three players in order for the mechanics to work properly. (For a discussion about that topic, look back a few articles - I discussed how certain mechanics simply aren’t viable with only two players.)

From a game design standpoint, it is my opinion that a designer needs to be aware of these issues so that he or she can design the kind of game they are intending to design.

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