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  • Essays
  • Expected Expectations - Unwritten Rules of Board Games

Expected Expectations - Unwritten Rules of Board Games

O Updated
(Photo by Jan Tinneberg on Unsplash)
There Will Be Games

When we play board games together, each of us will have certain expectations, and it's when our expectations are met, that we feel we've had a good time. In this article, I want to talk about what these expectations can be and what we can do, as a group playing together, to enable everyone to enjoy themselves. (This topic was inspired by the always wonderful Bez.)

For most of us, there is this unwritten rule that we all aim to win the game we play. We will do our best to end the game with the most points, work together to achieve the objectives we have been set as a team or do whatever it is that the game tells us we need to do to reach the victory condition. Some people will be really good at a game, others not so much, but we all agree to play the best we can.

That unwritten rule works really well when you play with people you don't know. Everyone can enter the magic circle that the game creates and follow the rules it sets, and if everyone understands the rules of the game, then everyone should know what the expectations are. In a co-operative game, everyone will work together to beat the game, while in a competitive game everyone will do what they can to be the sole winner - or whatever it is that the game considers a victory.

So, in theory, everyone should have a good time, whether they win the game or not, because everyone followed the rules and played to win, according to the best of their abilities. However, as we all know, that's not always true. Some people's expectations are that they want to win and only then will they have a good time. Of course, that can seem childish, but I guess deep down, many people who are really competitive feel like that, even if they will tell us that winning isn't the main aim.

There are, of course, also many people for whom winning really isn't important. That's great and will enable that the group as a whole will have a bigger overlap of expectations and will therefore enjoy playing the game together more. If I don't care about winning, then my expectation probably is that everyone is having fun, which implies I will basically accept the expectations that everyone else has, as long as other people accept that I might not play the best game I possibly can, because even though I will try and win, it's not my main aim.

That's where it gets a bit more complicated. If the group expects everyone to aim for victory, but I don't care about winning, then technically I'm not meeting their expectations, which means they won't have as much fun as they could have. Yet, it can be a good compromise. As long as I'm not playing in such a way as to actively give other player points and basically become a kingmaker, then maybe that's fine - and I think that's an important point to remember.

For some people, there are other expectations though that have nothing to do with winning. These expectations probably come in all sorts of shapes, but the one I have come across the most often is when playing Carcassonne. These people are aiming to create a beautiful map, without any gaps, even if it means that they give other players points. You may have come across those people in other games, or maybe you're that person yourself. Maybe you're someone who chooses birds in Wingspan based on how they look, rather than if they actually help you win the game.

I don't think there is anything wrong with playing like that. In fact, you could argue that those players whose expectations are that everyone plays to win are the problem. I think you can easily compromise and have some people play for victory, while others play for aesthetics or other goals. Often it doesn't even matter much if not everyone plays to win.

In fact, even in very competitive player groups, you have situations where someone will become the kingmaker. If you're so far behind that you have no hope of winning, you might give another player benefits that will give them the victory. I think in very competitive groups that's frowned upon, but in some games or some situations, it's unavoidable. Even if you're not actively giving another player points, the decisions you make often give another player some sort of benefit that they can exploit and I think, more often than not, there is nothing you can do about it.

Either way though, I think it's possible to have people with very different expectations play together and everyone has fun. Ultimately, it's about making our expectations known from the start. If everyone knows what everyone expects, then we can agree on those expectations, or if we can't agree, we can hopefully find compromises. After all, some of our expectations will be more important than others. Some things will be vital, while others we care about less.

Of course, if we can't compromise at all, maybe we should find a different game or maybe we shouldn't be playing together at all.

It all sounds very serious, but I think in most cases it's not a problem. If you have a regular games group, you will have already worked out what everyone expects, you will have compromised as necessary and you will have found ways of allowing everyone to have fun, at least overall. Maybe you have a system whereby everyone gets to choose a game in turn, so that everyone gets a chance to have fun, even when others in the group don't enjoy it quite so much.

It's really only when you play with people you've not played with before that it becomes tricky, and maybe in that case it's important to find a game that everyone is happy with and follow the rules that the game sets to define what the expectations are.

There Will Be Games
Oliver Kinne
Oliver Kinne (He/Him)
Associate Writer

Oliver Kinne aims to publish two new articles every week on his blog, Tabletop Games Blog, and also release both in podcast form. He reviews board games and writes about tabletop games related topics.

Oliver is also the co-host of the Tabletop Inquisition podcast, which releases a new episode every three to four weeks and tackles different issues facing board games, the people who play them and maybe their industry.

Articles by Oliver Kinne

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Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #322854 04 May 2021 15:24
Games are supposed to be fun, so I prefer to play games with people who prioritize fun over winning. But some games are a bit fragile and fall apart if at least one player isn't playing competitively. I used to love playing Shadowfist, but for a while, we had a player who wasn't interested in winning, just in prolonging the game. And aside from someone running out of cards in their deck, there was no real timer on the game. Fortunately, he eventually lost interest in the game.
the_jake_1973's Avatar
the_jake_1973 replied the topic: #322858 04 May 2021 16:40
I do play games to win, it's in my nature. I'm not a dick about it if I lose though. However, if I am well outclassed by the rest of the people playing the game, Twilight Imperium for example, it is not likely that I will spend another long session getting hammered. I like to know there is some chance to win. I don't understand the mindset behind the Carcassonne example you presented. I do not think I would play with that particular person more than once as our philosophies would be well at odds. It's neither a good or bad thing, just not right for me.

That being said, the games on BGA are nice since I can digest them in smaller bites (Puerto Rico). Even if I am losing, I do not feel like I've thrown away half a Sunday. Some of this is why I moved on from Blood Bowl. A game can effectively be over in the first half hour and then you are just going through the motions and gathering salt for another 90 minutes. LOL
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #322866 04 May 2021 22:28
The worst is when you are playing a challenging co-op game and one of the players isn't at all concerned with winning. It's like playing a secret traitor game with no mechanism for thwarting or defeating the traitor. One time I was playing Arkham Horror 2nd with my Call of Cthulhu role-playing group, which should have been an automatic good time. We got Y'Golonac (one player called him Yer Cognac), which meant that finding a tome automatically added one to the Doom Track, each time. So I warned the other players to stay away from Ye Olde Magick Shoppe, the Curiousity Shop, and the Library on the Miskatonic Campus.

Everybody took heed, except for one player who wandered aimlessly about town and hit a couple of those locations, finding three (!) tomes. I expressed frustration even before we got sent to Final Battle, which we lost because we had no time to gear up. After that, she refused to play Arkham Horror with me ever again. All she wanted to do was wander around and have encounters and not get stressed out about trying to win the game. I'm sure that was fun for her, at least up until the berating, but it was selfish and reduced the fun for the rest of the players.

Speaking of traitor games, there was one game of Battlestar Galactica that went very badly for the good guys. One player was hoping to be a cylon, but didn't draw a cylon identity card either at the beginning or at mid-game. So he just arbitrarily started playing like he was a cylon, sabotaging the crisis resolutions whenever possible. That left us with one too many cylons in the game, and totally unbalanced the game in favor of the cylons. He revealed his plan at the end, but one of the other cylon players informed him that he still lost because he wasn't really a cylon. He didn't mind, because he just wanted the cylons to win.
jason10mm's Avatar
jason10mm replied the topic: #322869 04 May 2021 23:02
This is almost too much topic for one article!

I play to win but have been on both sides of a cutthroat game. When is winning at all costs too much? Certainly with noob players it behooves the group to not exploit mistakes too much or at least offer advice if you ever want that player to touch the game again. But no one wants the other players to throw the game for them either.

I've played with couples that act like a single entity, one just supporting the other. Not cool!

Of course I've had couples basically work through a divorce session at the table as well, the rest of us just hoping not to get caught in the crossfire :PM

There are games that can be played "gentley" and still be fun, then there are games that demand brutal intensity from all players to achieve full potential. Careful game curating before a session is critical. If I'm gonna play with a bunch of folks more interested in getting stoned and chatting thrn the game needs to be one that doesn't require much focus. But if it is hard core gamers out for blood then it's time to dust off the heavy weight games!
RobertB's Avatar
RobertB replied the topic: #322871 05 May 2021 00:07
A couple more expectations: I played with a group for a while that considered every game a negotiation game. Everyone had 'advice' that would aim you somewhere not in their direction. Can you play Goa like that? Or Puerto Rico? You damn sure can. I asked for Puerto Rico, not Republic of Rome, so I eventually grouped with other players. They're still playing and last I saw everyone seemed to stay quiet and play Terraforming Mars in peace.

Advice is also something that brings expectations with it. Some folks can ignore it, some folks appreciate it, and some folks absolutely don't want unsolicited advice. I myself just tell folks that are trying to help (or 'help') me out that I want to fuck up on my own, thanks. Heck, that's the fun part of learning a new game. "Well, guess that doesn't work."
Greg Aleknevicus's Avatar
Greg Aleknevicus replied the topic: #322874 05 May 2021 01:10
When playing with strangers online (at Yucata and BoardGameArena) there's essentially no table talk. Surprisingly, I've found this to be a bonus, precisely because it means there's no "advice" given.
mc's Avatar
mc replied the topic: #322875 05 May 2021 03:03
I stopped playing with strangers on yucata and BGA very early on precisely because there was no discussion of anything. That's very much part of the game for me. I like there to be some kind of interaction above the table, real or virtual, related to the game or no, trying to impact the game or no, I don't care, just, something.

I was also going to say - it's not quite so simple as playing to win or not playing to win. I can play with the aim of winning - if I really want to win though, then I could AP it up and spend 20 minutes on my turn trying to calculate all the odds and all that. That's "playing to win" but also against some people's expectations (including my own). My "playing to win" is letting the goal of winning guide my decisions, but it's not the only thing that is guiding how I'm playing. An example of this is my risk levels. I tend to really enjoy taking a high risk strategy because when it comes off it's hugely satisfying. If I was "playing to win" to the letter, maybe my odds are better with a safer strategy... but stuff that, I'll pick the interesting option. I'm still "playing to win". But that version of playing to win might not meet some players expectations, particularly if my high risk strategy opens the door for the player following me in turn order or what have you.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #322877 05 May 2021 09:55
I just realized something awful. I haven't played board games with anybody else since February of 2020, not even online. But I have played a lot of solitaire board games. Arkham Horror, Magic Realm, Dark Venture, Death Angel, Masters of the Night, Cursed City, and especially Silver Tower, Blackstone Fortress, and Marvel Champions. And I haven't had a single bad experience in all those games. I do miss playing games with other people, but people can be quirky and some of them will bring too much baggage to the table.

Jason, I have had that exact same experience with couples. Usually they play like a solid team, which can throw a non-cooperative game out of whack. And once in a while, you will have a couple that is almost gleefully antagonistic towards each other, which is can mess up an otherwise co-op game. One thing that eventually burned me out on Battlestar Galactica was that the married couple that always showed up for our games insisted on playing the same two leadership figures every game: she was President Roslin and he was Commander Adama. Every game. Fortunately, that made it easy to spot when either of them was a traitor, because their playstyle would shift and the tight teamwork went missing.
Sagrilarus's Avatar
Sagrilarus replied the topic: #322879 05 May 2021 13:17

Shellhead wrote: Jason, I have had that exact same experience with couples. Usually they play like a solid team, which can throw a non-cooperative game out of whack.

Bring up old girlfriends.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #322881 05 May 2021 13:48
I just realized that part of the brilliance of Cosmic Encounter is that it doesn't have any unwritten rules because they are all incorporated directly into the design.
oliverkinne's Avatar
oliverkinne replied the topic: #322924 07 May 2021 03:04
Thank you for everyone's comments. It's great to hear about the huge variety of approaches and that everyone is respectful of how others approach playing games. It's fine if one approach doesn't work for yourself, but that's why it's so important to have a good understanding of what everyone expects before starting to play - to avoid the disappointment or later. Thank you again. It's great to hear what people think.