Why, Why, Why?! is a series of highly subjective, perhaps personally charged, and often provocative statements about the board gaming hobby. At least they’re always worth debating. Maybe you agree. Maybe you don’t – but that doesn’t mean they’re not true! And because I’m fair and balanced, I also draw upon the diversity of experience that we offer you here at iSlaytheDragon to present the “other side.”
Today we address…
Direct Interaction Makes Games Better – or “Are you talkin’ to me?”
You know, I like computer games. I can play them at my speed, in the comfort of my own home, by my rules, and whenever I want. I’m not really an introvert, but I do appreciate times of solitude with a good video game – generally old-school titles are my preference. But whether building an epic empire or wreaking havoc through a scrolling world, it’s a chance to unwind and forget about real life. Now, I play board games for totally different reasons. I don’t want to shut out the world – I want to socialize. I don’t want to do it my way – I want to share an experience. And I certainly don’t want a game in which we can mostly ignore each other in our separate endeavors to build a bigger city, or earn more money, or collect more victory points – I want a tug-of-war, opportunities to directly affect your plans, and influence your play. Because games are better with direct interaction and here’s Why, Why, Why?!
1. Direct interaction enhances competition. Among other attributes and benefits, all board games are fundamentally about competing. Look up “competition” in the dictionary and you will find it associated with words like action, rivalry, and struggle. This language expresses an intimate, in your face, personal challenge over a shared goal…a fight…a duel. When discussing competition in economic and ecological terms, it even comes down to survival! Now, direct interaction doesn’t always have to be of the “lay waste to your village and run off with your women” kind. And it need not be the complete and sole focus of a design. However, the competitive nature of a game is much better when including some element of attacking, stealing, derailing, stopping, or otherwise penalizing your opponent(s). Direct interference is not about some passive-aggressive “I beat you to that spot” maneuver. Taking something your opponent wanted just to make her take something else, instead, is not competition. That’s just seeing who can figure out their efficiency puzzle more efficiently.
2. Direct interaction fosters sociability. Board gaming is also a hobby about socializing. Some people might think that aggressive interaction runs counter to productive socialization. However, they are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, the former accentuates the latter, creating a better experience. If other players can mess with your progress, and vice versa, you will all stay actively engaged with other. That forces you to converse and connect with other players. Sure some of it will be taunting, teasing, and derisive laughter. All the more fun! Games with low levels of interference and few chances to directly interact with opponents leave you merely concerned about yourself. You’re thinking about your own plans and concentrating on your own move. If other players can’t influence or hinder your strategy, you’re free to focus on mapping out the best way to implement it…quietly…alone. I suppose you could talk about the weather, or your day at the office, or the last episode of the Big Bang Theory while you manage your spreadsheet – technically, yes, that is socialization. Extra-curricular conversation is fine, but could easily be done over tea and scones or any other activity. Board gaming is unique, and if a chunk of interaction isn’t play-related, I’d rather just do something else.
3. Direct interaction lessens downtime. Waiting for your next turn can already be difficult enough. Critics often bemoan designs with lengthy downtime. So in games with little direct interaction, having to watch everyone play out their turn knowing that it will have almost no effect on your own is nigh insufferable. When you know that another player can interfere with you, you’re keen to watch her every move. Likewise, if you can mess with others, you want to track their progress, waiting for the right moment to strike! Apart from that, you are often interacting even when it’s not your turn. You are frequently called upon to respond to or resolve actions based on another player specifically engaging you. Even if the amount of downtime may be the same, constant participation dampens the boredom. One might argue that you can always use the downtime to plan your next move, in hopes of moving things along. That’s all well and good, but see point #2 above.
I’m not here to just casually toss around the over-used “multi-player solitaire” moniker, drop the mic, and go home. However, I do argue that games with a higher solo-focused content lack a certain verve, swagger, and panache. Games shouldn’t be about each of us solving our own puzzle at the same table and see who was more efficient. You can do that on your own with a deck of cards or video game. Board gaming is about sharing and competing with others, not staying in your own bubble. I want our worlds to collide. Socially-speaking, of course. If you want to get physical, let’s go outside and play a pick-up game of your choice.
The opportunity to actively interfere with and influentially engage each other at the table makes designs more exciting and dynamic. Interaction brings out the best in competition, boosts sociability, and keeps players engaged throughout play. Plainly put, games are simply better with direct interaction.
And now for another view…
Blessed Are the Peacemakers, or, Why Direct Interaction Ruins Games
We’ve all played direct interaction games when we were growing up. Risk, Monopoly, and others were won only by directly confronting other players across zero-sum equations. The game ends when all that you have is mine, or all the I have is yours. If you were on the winning side of that equation, perhaps you look on those games with fondness. But as someone who grew up with three older sisters who naturally outpaced him in all of those games, I think it’s justified to look upon direct interaction and the gaming environment it fosters with skepticism. I think indirect interaction is better than direct interaction, and here’s Why, Why, Why?!
1. Direct interaction has a tendency toward imbalance. Direct interaction, where players target other players for attacks, has a tendency to become imbalanced because players are essentially choosing the victor. In a perfect world, each player will choose another, different player to hinder, and that will keep the game more or less in check. In practice, however, what is more often the case is all players ganging up on the leader, ensuring that player won’t win. Or there is the case of one player intentionally ruining another player’s game out of spite for eating the last nacho, or for never bringing snacks to game night, or for that ill-timed joke several years ago. Similarly, usually games with direct interaction have a higher element of luck such that cards drawn or other player powers can influence the game for the winner and lack of them can ruin the game for the loser. The point is, direct interaction has a tendency to throw the game into wild swings of fortune that remove the importance of agency in the decision-making process.
2. Direct interaction has a tendency to hurt feelings. See above. No one likes being the one under the wheel. It’s not fun to be the one everyone is directly attacking. It’s not fun to build something only to have it destroyed by your trigger-happy fellow players. The world is full enough of pettiness; I don’t need that to carry over to my games.
3. Indirect interaction better fosters the battle of minds in a board game. Not everyone plays games for the raucous social reasons that Jason suggests. Some of us like to tend our own gardens. This doesn’t mean we don’t talk, and don’t talk about the game. What it means is that we don’t have to worry about a sucker punch and can focus on civil conversation rather than taunts and brags. Indirect interaction involves the subtle machinations of plot, and games that use it have a tendency toward opportunities for strategy instead of just tactics. This isn’t to say that other players can’t get involved. I’ve heard Dominion, for example, criticized as multiplayer solitaire, but it’s anything but that, at least if you want to be any good. The game involves not only executing your own strategy but thwarting your opponents’. If your opponent is buying duchies and the Duke is on the table, you’d better buy duchies too, regardless if that’s your strategy. If your opponent is buying Fool’s Gold, you might want to get in on that too to avoid a massive build-up of fake coinage in your opponents’ favor. Similarly, a game like Puerto Rico has no direct player interaction, but we’ve all heard about new players ruining the game by choosing roles of marginal benefits to themselves and setting up other players for the win. (This doesn’t prove that indirect interaction itself is imbalanced; rather, that it requires a lot of paying attention to what’s happening around the table, contra Jason’s caricature.) In fact, there are very few “multiplayer solitaire” games that I would classify as that. Sure, they don’t involve direct aggression, but they do require players to pay attention. This struggle against other players most accurately displays what I want in a board game. I don’t want to tear down my opponents’ stuff so I can feel better about my own; I want to build something better than they’ve built (or be beaten on an even playing field).
Granted, both of our descriptions are straw men, and I don’t hate all direct interaction. (Some games handle this very well.) But if I had my druthers, most of the time I’d rather be in the realm of indirect interaction.