There is a guiding principle in the world of strategy games by which all players should abide. When players do not abide by it, it defeats the fact that a game, by intent, is (at least in part) a contest, what Vizzini might call “a battle of wits.” So necessary is this principle that, when we play with those who are not governed by it, our experience suffers:
Play to win.
It’s about being true to the game. In a beer-and-pretzels game being nonsensical may be perfectly suited. It’s meant to be lighter fare. Be nonsensical or silly, for the sake of “fun”, in a strategy game and you will ruffle feathers. It wasn’t made for that.
I remember playing volleyball with the church youth group. We started off with a normal game until someone did some deliberately silly thing to elicit laughter. Things digressed. There was more silliness. We eventually stopped keeping score. At that point, the whole activity felt like a big waste of time. While being silly was supposed to be “just for fun”, for me, it had the reverse effect. I realize it was only a casual game. I wasn’t expecting an all-out effort, only that everyone at least try to win. When people agree to “play volleyball,” their agreeing is in part based on an expectation of what it means to “play volleyball.” The same holds true when we agree to “play a strategy game.” We should be true to its intent. Doing otherwise violates the expectations that others came bearing. It’s disrespectful.
Now, a twist.
While we may start off playing to win, things may unfold in such a way that we feel our chance of winning is impossible or, at best, improbable. I’m positing that, in weighing the risk, deciding to chase a likely second over an improbable first is a legitimate choice. To that end, I might revise the rule to:
Play to your own best end.
Clearly, there’s a difference. It hinges on what one considers his own best end. I know that for the majority of my gaming buddies second and last are practically synonyms. The idea is to win, nothing less. I too start with that at the outset of a game. But what about when midgame comes and our relative positions say a lot about our chances or lack thereof? Is settling for a lesser outcome any less legit? No. There’s nothing wrong with settling for a lesser rank when you feel the odds are stacked against you. We have to acknowledge that people share different perspectives and have different definitions of success.
With two players there is only first and last. With three or more is when things get fuzzy. Imagine you’re in a 5-player game and that you’re faced with this dilemma: Go left and you’ll finish either first (highly improbable) or last (probable). Go right and (with relative certainty) you’ll finish second. I’m not asking which way you’d go. If you view success as all or nothing affair, clearly you go left. The question I am asking is this: Can you see any merit to beating 3 other players at the cost of losing to 1? I don’t think shooting for second breaks a game or violates the spirit by which competitive games are played. It’s philosophical, not moralistic.
Why bother arguing the point? Well, because I’ve been engaged in debates where the subject of my attack argued that I should be attacking the leader. He argued against the legitimacy of my choice on the grounds that I should be trying to win. There are plenty of reasons why someone might attack a weaker target. (He shouldn’t feel compelled to reveal them if only because in doing so it may undermine his strategy.) Those reasons might be any of:
- * It may, in fact, be a stepping stone toward the win. Who’s to say that there aren’t means other than attacking the leader by which we might win. What if another player has the resource I desperately need right now?
- It may be not about the target’s current position, but about his unrealized potential.
- The target may have earned a reputation for winning. This sometimes means he’ll be dealt an extra ounce of beatdown for good measure. Aren’t sports legends sometimes “double teamed?”
- It may be, as I’ve already discussed, that the attacker has instead opted to improve his finishing position. To climb the ladder he pushes another down.
Just because a player’s means aren’t obvious (maybe he’s experimenting with a new strategy) doesn’t mean he’s not trying to win. There are certainly bad moves, good moves and better moves. What makes a move fair or unfair isn’t as much the means but the motive. That’s why fussing that a move is “suboptimal” is moot. In the interest of playing fairly, the player need only advance his position as best he know how. What’s “optimal”, is up in the air. A player who is abiding by the spirit of the game is entitled to whatever upright means he likes. The game itself will decide what means were most effective. It’s discovering for yourself what works and what doesn’t that’s part what makes playing games fun.
Don’t get me wrong. The target of an attack has every right to pose an argument, to have the attacker consider some other factors he feels may have been missed. This is part of the metagame. Have at it:
- whine about how poorly things are going for you,
- call attention to how well things are going for another, even heralding his “dominance”,
- argue why you shouldn’t be targeted,
- argue why someone else should instead be targeted, or even
- threaten retaliation.
Will I suspect your words are slanted? Definitely. The metagame offers dozens of devises many of which involve some degree of deceit: exaggeration, misdirection, bluffing… The metagame is a huge aspect of what makes gaming fun. It’s as much a part of ones means as the moves he makes. So crank up your metagame! I’m anticipating it. I’m just asking that you not violate the the spirit of gaming by exchanging the play-to-win motive for something else:
- I’ll just have fun (whimsy)
- I’ll crush that jerk (grudge)
- I’ll do whatever (bide my time) since I can’t win (arbitrariness)
- I’ll help my girlfriend (favouritism)
- I’ll decide who wins (king-making, a flavour of favouritism)
When it comes to games the idea of playing to win is baked in. It’s not the end all, be all. The people around the table are. Treat others as you would have them treat you. Be respectful and considerate. Don’t make your own fun the priority at the cost of others. Do, however, play to win. It’s expected. It’s not the primary or only motive for playing games, but it is, I think, necessary to keep things both fair and fun.