Inter Action

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A long time ago, after spending countless hours pondering the question of what defines an Ameritrash games and why I chose to pin my colours to that particular mast, I was struck by the realisation that what I, personally, look for in a game isn’t particularly theme, or drama, or randomness but interaction. Most of my favourite games are highly interactive, all my favourite Euros are and indeed I’d go so far as to say that a high level of player interaction is almost exclusively the marker that separates average Euros from the best.

And yet, pleased as I have been with that fragment of self-realisation, the unfortunate fact is that “interaction” as a concept in games can actually just as potentially confusing, open-ended, and meaningless as “Ameritrash” or “theme”. If the relatively recent thread about interaction in Quarriors isn’t enough to convince you of that, then for exhibit B I’d point to the seemingly endless spat between fans of low-interaction Euros and those who label such games as multi-player solitaire, something I’ve ranted against in the past. This concept was bought home to me fairly forcefully by F:AT user Hatchling who suggested I write this piece and try to clarify some of these ideas.

We’ll start with my personal, basic definition, which has done me pretty well up until this point. In my book, when I talk about high player interaction, I’m talking about “direct” player interaction in which the actions of one player can set back the position of one or more of the other players, usually by reducing their resources in some manner. But even this isn’t hard and fast. Traditionally direct interaction has been totally open ended, in other words any player can “attack” any other player at any time as in games such as Diplomacy and Risk. This is the source of the truly open diplomatic meta-game and the criticism that all open-ended games are effectively a variant of Diplomacy, because players ganging up on one another almost always trumps mechanics strategy,  as well as a host of perceived problematic pieces of game design such as kingmaking and kill-the-leader. It’s old hat now to point out that I don’t agree with the idea that all these games are the same, or that kingmaking and kill-the-leader are genuine problems, so I won’t rehearse those arguments again, but I will admit that it results in a uniform aspect to games of this nature that it’s often nice to get away from simply for the sake of variety. So probably the most-used solution to these problems in mechanical terms is to somehow limit the number, or target, of attacking actions available to each player. This solution has become so ubiquitous that almost all modern DOAM designs feature it to some extent and the result is games that have direct interaction, but which limit its scope. Some, such as Through the Ages limit it very drastically. So immediately separating games along the lines of those that have direct interaction and those that don’t becomes less useful, though hardly pointless.

Indirect interaction on the other hand indicates a game where your choices can directly affect aspects of the game state which then, in turn, impact on the positions of other players. There’s no better example of this than Puerto Rico where the removal of each role as it is chosen has a profound impact on the choice of the next player in line, without directly changing his actual position in the game. There is also what you might refer to as observational interaction where the players actions in the game don’t impact on the choices or the state of the other players, but where each player must keep a careful eye on what his opponents are doing in order to play effectively. I’m not sure I’ve ever come across a game that is purely observational interaction, but some indirect interaction games come close, such as Stone Age. There’s also a separate category of low interaction games in which the interaction can be either direct or indirect but there’s very little of it. Again, a lot of indirect interactions games happen to sit in this category but it’s certainly distinct. I doubt many people would classify Puerto Rico as being genuienly *low* in interaction since each player turn can have a profound impact on what everyone else does, and similarly interaction in a lot of classical style dungeon games such as Dungeonquest is almost non-existent, but when it happens it’s certainly of the direct variety.

From my personal point of view, I would not label any of those previous categories as interactive games but I’ll stress again that that’s not to say they have no interaction: simply not enough to satisfy me.  However, the dictionary definition I just looked up suggests the a different interpretation: “a mutual or reciprocal action” which would certainly include my definitions of both direct and indirect interaction. But I’ll wager that most members of the public, and even the majority of less anally-retentive gamers than me, none of whom will ever have considered these definitions would, if asked, make a similar distinction instinctively if asked whether something like Agricola involved lots of interaction with your opponents. Why do I feel so strongly about this? Because without interaction I don’t get the sense that I’m actually playing against other people: I feel I’m playing against the game system. Game systems can be learned, mastered by rote, and good moves that you make can elicit no response from your fellow players other than appreciation. I like to play with people in a setting where they can react vigorously to my advances with counter moves of their own, not in one where they just have to lie supine and take what’s coming.

So far, it’s all very nice and neat. However these definitions become rather more problematic when you consider negotiation games. With the euro-esque fashion for games that focus down on a single mechanic, there are quite a few negotiation games such as Genoa doing the rounds in which negotation is the major, and sometimes the only, form of player interaction. Gut instinct tells you these are games that feature direct interaction, but it fails my basic test of directness: the action of negotiation does not always set back the position of another player - often it leads to mutually beneficial interaction. Another problem comes from those Euro games in which it’s quite possible to smash up the holdings of the other players but where the results are applied with rigorous equality, such as Dominion and the aforementioned Quarriors. Common sense tells you that these aren’t direct interaction games, but by the usual definition, they qualify.

Dwelling on these special cases for the purposes of this article has lead me to decide that we need a different, and rather more useful definition. So how about this: direct interaction is when the actions of one player can be targeted directly at either one single other player, or a small sub-set of the other players (such as an alliance, for example). Indirect interaction is when the actions of one player have an equal impact on all the other players. You have to be a little careful with this version of the definition, because precise instances of the latter case are incredibly rare: in most games, even if the direct results of the action of one player are applied equally to all his opponents their particular differences in position and game state will mean that those results will have more impact on some players than others. But that’s okay, that’s called strategy, and I reckon you get the idea of what this definition is trying to convey. It also means that some worker placement games such as Puerto Rico could be considered direct interaction, and that’s okay too. Because when you think about it, a lot of worker placement games don’t entirely deserve the “multi-player solitaire” label they get tarred with. In Puerto Rico you get to sabotage other people’s shipments by forcing them to sell before they’re ready. In Agricola you get to spice things up a little with the I-deck. There is some direct interaction in these games and I have no doubt that’s partly why they’ve endured so much in popularity while some of their more socially isolationist cousins, such as Princes of Florence have fallen by the wayside in comparison. Again, it highlights why the definition of direct and indirect interaction is quite different from the definition of low and high interaction, although the two often seem to be conflated.

Where that definition really falls down is with two player games. After all, if there’s only one other player then obviously the actions of one player are going to have an equal effect on all the other players! On first glance this isn’t a particularly big deal, because all two player games are direct interaction by the old definition, right? Well on consideration I’m not so sure. One of my very favourite two player games, Battle Line, is a funny old case in this regard because there doesn’t seem to be any direct interaction. Yes, by playing a card you’re denying it to your opponent, but that’s just down to the luck of the draw. Even it’s close cousin, Lost Cities, has some direct interaction because you have to watch carefully what you discard to either cover a valuable pick-up for your opponent or to make sure you don’t give away something they want. I have no idea if there are other 2-player Euros that don’t have direct interaction: I can’t think of any, but then again I’ve played very few.

There’s no clear-cut answers here. Much like many other board gaming concepts there’s a whiff of the elephant test about the various kinds of interaction: difficult to pin down, but you know it when you see it. But one final thing I wanted to cover are those few outliers that inhabit that bit of the graph that we’ve labelled “low amounts of direct interaction”, although some of them have no interaction to speak of. As I previously mentioned most of the best-known examples seem to be dungeon exploration or adventure games of some kind or another, and it includes quite a slew of famous games such as Dungeonquest, Talisman, Tales of the Arabian Nights and others. You might have thought this was the worst of all worlds in many respects, with these games having neither the careful balance of indirect interaction games, or the dynamic cut-and-thrust of direct interaction. So where’s the popularity? Well it’s twofold: first and most obvious these are all, without exception, games that are rich in their own internal narrative. Tales of the Arabian Nights especially is basically nothing but narrative. Secondly these games tend to have lots of highly random elements to generate thrills and excitement. Even Tales of the Arabian Nights, which has no dice, effectively inserts randomness into the game at every turn by presenting the player with choices in which they can’t predict the outcome. In other words randomness, and especially narrative, are enough game all on their own to completely replace interaction and strategy. Not for everyone, of course, and it’s better to have all four if you can get them. But you couldn’t want for a better example of why games with chaos and stories in them will ultimately trump their predictable, sterile cousins on every occasion.


There Will Be Games

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Matt has been writing about tabletop games professional since 2012, blogging since 2006 and playing them since he could talk.


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