No, Do This, It's Better.

I started playing non-traditional board games about the same time that I stated graduate school. That was a long time ago, but it was definitely a good time to start. The non-traditional games that I’m talking about are games like Carcassonne, Settlers of Catan and Robo Rally. They’re not the type of game that you would have played as a child if you are in the same generation as me. Sometimes they have complex rules (one game took about a half hour to just explain the rules to me recently), and the goals aren’t really obvious, and the strategies are complex. Many times there are multiple ways to win, and those ways are in competition with other players. I find these types of “advanced board games” incredibly fun to play and engaging. The strategy is really interesting to figure out and there seems to be almost an endless supply of new games to play.

I used to play these games occassionally with a bunch of guys from the lab, a group which migrated / expanded when the startup spun off and many of us started working there. The go-to game was Settlers of Catan, because it is easy enough to teach people but not so complex that you wouldn’t be able to win on your first try. For various reasons the same host isn’t hosting the events anymore (one of these days soon I will have to host one or a few).

I’ve found a bunch of people who are into the same types of games and have about the same unlimited capacity for them on the twincitiessocial subreddit. We all meet at a great event center which always has basically a bunch of open tables waiting for people to come together to play some games. Usually I end up staying about 5 hours and playing 2-3 games (yes, most of them are this long to play). I’m also finding that meeting new people this way is pretty nice, because I have some type of social construct to interact with them other than the normal random chit-chat and that’s lead to a couple of casual friendships.

It’s really pretty great, but I’ve been noticing a trend with my play style lately which is starting to be prevalent. I’ve turned into a “Do this, it’s better.” player of the games. Someone will be playing their turn, or setting up a strategy, and I’ll jump in and try to play their turn for them. Diana first pointed this out to me a month or so back, but I didn’t really think it was a problem in my playstyle (Diana usually notices these things way before I do). Now I am rethinking that conclusion, and considering that maybe I’m a guy ruining the fun for someone else. Two or three times ago, I kibitzed on a game and tried to “help” some people out. Last week I was thinking through almost everyone’s turns, and in every game I played, I am sure that I made a comment about how to play a turn.

I’m a fairly competitive person when playing (even if I don’t win too often), and these aren’t cooperative games usually, so why am I “helping” my opponent play a better game against me. I’ve come up with two theories why I’m doing this.

The first is a strong sense of playing a “fair game”. I really think that games are really fun within the constructs of the rules. Most if not all of these games have some type of random component to them - otherwise they usually aren’t as fun to replay. Part of me wants to have everyone play the best game that they can, and we just enjoy the experience of playing the game competitively to see who wins. To that end, when I see someone playing suboptimally, I want them to play it absolutely to their advantage.

The second is the idea that somehow by playing it without taking advantage of all the rules, they’re “playing it wrong”. This comes from a history when I was teaching games to other people. The rules for these games are necessarily complex and there are some twisty turny passages that some people just won’t understand the first time they’re playing. It’s certainly possible that they are making a move and they just don’t know that they can do something that is better. If I point it out to them they might be a better player of that particular game in general. This is somewhat tied in with the first season, but has more of a “did you know?” angle. I’m really a minimaxer when it comes to the rules of many of these games, so depending on how twisty-turny the rules are, it could be unnecessarily complex. I have a natural teaching instinct, to you might see this as a dark extension of that in some way.

I don’t believe that either of these reasons are justifications for my behavior at the table. I absolutely should be letting the other players play their own turns - the enjoyment that they will get out of the game is going to come from taking those actions and figuring out the plans and strategies of their turns themselves, without my help. Their enjoyment of the game is just as important as mine, and as long as they are playing within the rules, they aren’t “playing it wrong” by doing something suboptimal.

I have noticed that it happens more in games where almost all of the information is available to all players. With more hidden information, I obviously can’t chime in because I don’t know all of the facts of their situation. Seven Wonders is particularly nice for this, as almost all information is hidden while playing. On the other side of things, in Alien Frontiers I have a lot of chances to “help” other players.

I’m hoping that now that I’ve noticed the behavior, I’ll be able to curb it the next time I am at a games night. To this end I’ll probably do some sort of introspection throughout the night as well as a review when I’m all finished. One of my desires is to be a better player of these games so that I can make more connections and not be an annoying person to play with. Everyone having fun is more important.