Everyone likes to win and so when we play games we attempt to use every means at our disposal to stack the odds in our favour. The most natural means we have by which to influence the outcome of any game are our tongues. Most every gamer has tried at one point or another to manoeuvre himself into a win. We negotiate, manipulate, subtly hint, misdirect, you name it — and each and every one of these tactics can be pulled off by our clever use of words: table talk.
I see the acceptability of table talk as a purely preferential matter, like whether or not to enjoy a wedge of lemon in an iced tea. I won’t argue for or against it on the whole. In particular I want to discuss how we use it to coach, persuade, and manipulate others into taking moves that in some way benefit us. I’ll start with a real case:
A couple days ago I played Tikal (auction version) with several good friends — Paul, Steve, and Rick. Steve is known for being extremely vocal. He’s sharp—so not entirely reliant upon manipulation—and likes to use every means at his disposal. This means that if Paul is about to miss a great opportunity to put the smack down on my position, he’ll make sure it’s not overlooked. He’ll probably even offer a convincing argument as to why it’s just the thing to do.
So each of us has a decision to make. We can either remain silent or follow suit and speak up. As such, we have come to expect that our games of Tikal will be highly vocal. In fact, part of the magic that we all enjoy in the game comes from the tension and excitement that we experience because we are all so vocal.
In our game Steve was doing well and seated against my buddy Rick for the likely win. Rick had amassed 23 points of treasure. I had capped a 10 and a 7 temple by my first base camp in the well-liked lower corner. Steve and Paul were located next to several good temples, some of which were being contested. The scores going into the final turn were: Steve (72), me (67), Rick (67), and Paul (62). The turn order would be the reverse of that.
Every excavation that could be made was and every player had capped his two temples. The camp sites were situated so that there were few opportunities to steal temples. In fact, so limited were the options that forecasting the entire last turn may not have been too difficult.
Paul went first. The only easy points could gain would come if he spent 3 action points to move a pawn to an unclaimed 3 temple situated between his camp and mine, but in gaining that temple he wouldn’t have enough actions left over to gain any other. Worse, he’d have to forfeit a 6 temple his leader already had in order to gain any of the larger temples.
Basically, all he could do was net 3 points. Once we realized this, I underscored that he could capture Steve’s 9 temple by forfeiting his 6, also netting 3, but having a greater detrimental effect on Steve, the current leader. I argued why not for the same net at least cause Steve some points. Eventually, Paul did just that. Because Steve was in the unfortunate position to be going last during the final scoring round he would have to witness several of his temples stolen before he could go. When his turn came, he could only muster enough men to recapture his lost 9 temple. The final tally: Rick (109), me (107), Paul (100), and Steve (98), from first to last in a blink.
Afterwards, we discussed the game at length and surmised that Steve might have won had Paul not stolen the 9 temple. That Paul finished third ahead of Steve (instead of last) evidenced that his choice to sack Steve’s 9 was, indeed, the right move. With any other move he would have finished last.
Steve questioned how vastly different games produced a final ranking that only spanned 11 points from first to last. I suggested that table talk played part. I argued that our style of pointing out others weaknesses is for all intents and purposes a mechanic that helps balance the scores. I argued that our style made it unlikely that we would miss any opportunity to hinder one another. It was the old two-heads-are-better-than-one argument.
I saw it as ironic that Steve who had always coached one player the detriment another, became subject to the same. To his credit, he took it like a man — not a single complaint. Still, I know he had to dread Paul being coached. Who knows what Paul, left to his own quiet contemplation, would have chosen. My argument about table talk is that it’s much harder to swallow a devastating blow that comes with outside encouragement, than one that comes unadvised. In some ways it can be more enjoyable to play every man for himself, than feeling like you’re sometimes playing against a committee. The number of times that a player can “get away” with something is greatly diminished when everyone is helping everyone beat up each other.
Remember a time when you secretly hoped that the current player might pass over a golden opportunity you hoped to seize? Remember when you spotted how the current player might deliver a crushing blow against you? You held your breath, and – “Please-please-please,” you prayed, “take your move, any other move, but not that one.” The difference between a player discovering such an opportunity for himself and being led to it is like the difference between a punch to the arm and a kick to the groin.
Getting away with something is a thrill that is much less likely come by when everyone is busy helping everyone help himself. That’s why we talk so much. We all want to win and we believe that our words will improve our chances. Unfortunately, unbridled table talk can dampen some aspects of playing games.
While the acceptability of certain kinds of table talk are debatable, some kinds are clearly out of place. We became so competitive in our game of Tikal that some of us began introducing negotiations about tile plays. We’d ask something like, “If I place this tile like this will you throw your camp down here begin applying pressure here.” Naturally, this sort of thing was booed! Some of us momentarily got caught up in trying to win using such tactics. In general, a game has its own spirit by which it should be played. We agreed that negotiating the playing of tiles in certain ways in exchange for favors violated the game’s spirit. Fortunately, we forgave the faux pas and stepped right back into the spirit of the game.
It’s not that all negotiations are taboo. I see it as perfectly valid to negotiate sharing a contested temple to avoid tying up too many men in one. This negotiation resides within the game whereas negotiating the use of game mechanics does not. I think most people know in their guts what’s right. We know from experience, because we’ve never seen that trying to negotiate “I’ll take the Captain if you take the Mayor” would be unthinkable in Puerto Rico. It’s not in spirit.
To this end — and this is more of a suggestion than a point — try prohibiting coaching, persuading, and manipulating in a game that is normally rife with table talk. Pick a game that you’d like to play a few times. Call it an experiment. Then after a few tries, discuss whether it is better, worse, or just different. I suspect you’ll notice some new dynamics.
Ask thought-provoking questions such as, but not limited to:
- How did typically vocal players fare in this environment?
- Did they do better, worse, or the same?
- Were you able to get away with more?
- Were there more surprises?
- Was it more exciting?
- Did certain players tend to win more often?
- Did you catch yourself wanting to give advice?
- How did this change the atmosphere?
- How did this affect your enjoyment?
All I am saying is, “give peace a chance.” You may just like it.
This article was first posted on my long-defunct boardgame blog: Boardgamers’ Pastime. It was originally entitled “Give Peace A Chance”. I posted it here, extracting the session to a separate thread, to preserve it. (I had to weed out some spam that got injected into the original WordPress blog.)