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Thinking Out Loud

Thursday, August 11, 2005

The King Is Dead, Long Live the King >> Kingmaking and Its Effect on Gaming

Riffing off the discussion and debate generated by my previous GeekList on BoardGameGeek -- The Unbearable Lightness of Being >> What Makes a 'Light' Game Light? -- I decided to take a look at another controversial gaming term: Kingmaking

Wikipedia defines Kingmaking, or as they refer to it the "Kingmaker Scenario" as follows:

A kingmaker scenario, in a game of three or more players, is an endgame situation where a losing player, him- or herself unable to win, has the capacity to determine which player among others is the winner. Said player is referred to as the kingmaker or spoiler. No longer playing for him- or herself, he or she may make game decisions to favor a player who was kinder to him or her earlier in the game.

While this serves as a good starting point, it doesn't fully address the wide range of circumstances, motivations or level of visibility that different Kingmaking scenarios have. Below, I propose a series of different situations, and as you, my fellow Geeks, to help me determine if these are truly examples of Kingmaking, and help me explore this interesting topic even further.

What do you think? Are these legitimate Kingmaking situations? Do some of these scenarios bother you more than others? How often does Kingmaking come up during your gaming sessions? What other elements factor into a Kingmaking scenario?

Arbitrary/Indifferent Preference
Visibility: Usually obvious
Impact on Outcome: Medium to Heavy
Intent: Usually not personal

This may be one of the "classic" examples of Kingmaking. The player in the role of Kingmaker may not even have control over his situation, but circumstance puts him in a position where his decisions dictate the outcome of the game. He may not like it, he may not want to do it, but for the game to continue, his moves and actions will dramatically impact the outcome, if not crown a victor outright. In a purely theoretical situation, let's say you're in the final round of Modern Art, where Player A and B are vying for the win. Player A has several Lite Metal paintings, and if Lite Metal sells well, is guaranteed the win. Player B has several Gitter paintings, and if Gitter sells well, is guaranteed the win. There are four of each painting in play, and your hand contains only Lite Metal and Gitter paintings -- so your play will trigger the endgame and crown a victor one way or the other.

Preferential Treatment
Visibility: Subtle if infrequent, obvious when constant
Impact on Outcome: Varies greatly
Intent: Usually personal for the preferred target

This subtle game manipulation may not crown a King right away, or even be easy to detect. Other times, this may be pretty obvious, and while each individual occurence doesn't steer the game, over time this manipulation positions one player to assume the throne. The intent and impact of this sort of manipulation can vary greatly. The player may not even realize his bias is influencing the game, while others may revel in the disruption they cause. I've seen this many times in trading games, especially in Bohnanza. And I'm sure many of my fellow Geeks have, as well, in one form or another. You know, the guy who trades favorably with his girlfriend, hoping she'll like the game, or a player who knows he's out of the running and will make crazy trades to try and end the game.

Overt Manipulation
Visibility: Blatant
Impact on Outcome: Heavy
Intent: Active, intentional, personal

This may be the most pronounced, overt and egregious example of Kingmaking. While the motivation may differ, I tend to view this as a very deliberate, personal disruption by abusing the game system to directly (and usually very powerfully) improve the status of a particular player at the detriment of others. Lagging far behind in Age of Steam? Feeling resigned to your fate as last place? Faced with this situation, what's to stop a player from using his actions to ship the goods of other players, earning them money just for the hell of it? This seems to go against the social contract of gaming far more than most of the other scenarios, as it's nearly impossible to counter/mitigate by the other players.

Kicking the Dog
Visibility: Blatant
Impact on Outcome: Low to Moderate
Intent: Active, intentional, personal

If you can't attack or hurt the leader, it can be very tempting to kick the dog -- the last place player -- to exert some control over the game. Even if the person in last place isn't a threat, and there are other viable targets, a weak position and the chance to snatch up some quick resources/territories may be too tempting to pass up. This is an obvious manipulation of the game experience, but is often within the confines of acceptable behavior and play with many conquest/conflict games. And since it doesn't directly benefit the leader (even though it indirectly weakens his competition) it often doesn't bother anyone, other than the player being kicked. This seems to happen frequently in games like Risk 2210. After all, why risk retaliation from a player with strong resources when you can safely kick the dog? The players that get targeted early (which is usually an arbitrary decision) tend to get targeted often once they've been hit a few times. This can often lead to Vendetta Kingmaking, below.

The Vendetta
Visibility: Blatant
Impact on Outcome: Moderate
Intent: Active, intentional, personal

This scenario is all about grudges and retribution. Perhaps Joe didn't wipe his feet when he came in, or Bill beat you soundly in last week's game. Or maybe you're the dog of the current game and keep getting kicked (see above). Whatever the case, it's now personal. Regardless of what happens, one person has adopted an attitude of "I'm going to do everything in my power to make sure X doesn't win." This may devolve into side conflicts and battles that discount the goings on elsewhere in the game, as can happen in conflict games like A Game of Thrones. If Greyjoy suffers an early setback from perceived targeting by Stark, for example, he may simply focus on Stark for the rest of the game, even if its in his best interest to spread out or select other targets. The Greyjoy player no longer cares about winning the game -- he just wants a little revenge.

Abstaining/Shirking Responsibility
Visibility: Varies Greatly
Impact on Outcome: Moderate to Heavy
Intent: Can be blithely unaware, or very intentional

This may seem like a passive method of Kingmaking -- that is, manipulating the game by not doing something rather than actively doing something. As such, sometimes this can be rather subtle, while other times it is quite obvious. Player A sees a situation where Player B can gain an enormous advantage, or outright win the game with a certain action/decision, and rather than move to block that action, steps aside and puts it squarely on the shoulders of the Players C & D to stop Player B -- or even just steps aside and lets Player B seize the game. In another theoretical situation, you're playing a 6 player game of Twilight Imperium 3rd Edition, are the third player to select a role. You are trailing horribly with only 3 VPs, while the last player in turn order has 8 VPs -- needing only two more for the win. You know if the last player selects the Imperial Strategy Card, he will win, as no one on the board is in a position to stop him militarily. The first two players select Tech and Logistics. You now have to decide if you'll stop the last player by taking the ISC card, or force the following players to stop him.

The Alley-Oop
Visibility: Usually blatant
Impact on Outcome: Moderate to Heavy
Intent: Active, intentional

This is a more direct, intentional method of manipulation than sub-optimal play, although the two are closely related. In this situation, a player takes a turn that (regardless of the benefits to himself) positions another player for an enormous turn. At the right time, this could easily crown the victor, if not dramatically alter the course of the game. In Hansa, this could easily happen if a player were to Replenish the trade goods at all the ports, then simply spend talers to move the ship to a place where the next player has an incredibly efficient route to sell off goods and benefit from the newly replenished ports.

Forced Countdown
Visibility: Usually blatant
Impact on Outcome: Moderate to Heavy
Intent: Active, intentional

While the motivation may differ greatly from situation to situation, for one reason or another, a player finds himself doing everything in his power to end the game as quickly as possible. This is a viable strategy when the player is in the lead and trying to secure a win, but when performed by a player who can't possibly benefit from the shortened time frame, it's a pretty strong manipulation of the game that invariably tends to favor certain players. When there is a game-ending mechanic directly in the hands of the players, this can be incredibly easy to do. For example, with 2 actions each turn in Tigris & Euphrates, there's nothing to keep a player from simply discarding his entire hand of tiles to draw a new set. Churning through 12 tiles per turn can dramatically shorten the game and reward the player with the best position at the time of the manipulation. Once a player decides to perform this sort of countdown, the game can end quickly, leaving the remaining players scrambling in response.

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