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  • Essays
  • Attack! - Thoughts on Player Interaction

Attack! - Thoughts on Player Interaction

O Updated
(Photo by Frank Busch on Unsplash)
There Will Be Games

Player interaction isn't for everyone. Some enjoy the confrontation in competitive games, the moments when they move their troops into another player's territory and battle commences, the epic card combos that deplete the other player's health or similar actions that directly attack another player. Yet, there are more forms of player interaction, and in this article, I want to look at what these are and how they work.

So let's start with the obvious form of player interaction: direct player interaction. It's basically what I describe in the introductory paragraph. One player's action directly affects another player. It goes from randomly drawing a card from another player's hand to having more devastating effects. In a two-player game, it can be unavoidable and not feel quite so harsh, but at three or more players it can end up feeling much more personal and players might even gang up on one specific person.

It's very confrontational and even though I do usually quite enjoy it in games, in the magic circle that we have created, it really requires all players to know from the start when a game involves this sort of player interaction and for everyone to be comfortable with it. If direct player interaction doesn't end up in one group of players attacking a single other player, but instead everyone attacks everyone, it usually doesn't feel quite so bad.

Many war games, or war-like games, have direct player interaction and it's their core mechanism. Just think about Scythe, where battles may be rare, but is always a possibility, or March on the Drina, where area control is everything. Even in Fort you probably end up stealing another player's friend card, directly affecting their deck and therefore the options they have on a future turn. Even Tapestry has some element of direct player interaction, in the form of the conquer action where you can invade another player's territory and therefore potentially reduce the points they will gain during the game.

Many cooperative games also have a form of direct player interaction, but here it's actually with a positive effect. In Pandemic, for example, your character may have the ability to move another player on the board or you may want to meet up with another player to give them one of your cards. So, don't forget that direct player interaction can be a good thing, but usually only in cooperative games.

Saying that, there is another form of player interaction in competitive games that's sort of similar to the direct player interaction in cooperative games. I don't know if it has a name yet, but I'm going to call it "alliances" for the purpose of this article, by which I don't mean the teaming up of players against another, like I mentioned earlier, but it's almost like indirect player interaction, which I will discuss in a minute.

In Brass: Birmingham, you do want other players to directly interact with you or rather with your industries. When you build a coal mine, for example, you want it to be cleared so that you get victory points. Sure, you do sometimes want to use that coal yourself, but there are also plenty of times where you'd like other players to take it, so you can flip over that tile and get some points. It's an indirect alliance between you and the other players, but only up to a point. After all, you want to win the game by yourself and not just help others.

You have something similar in Luzon Rails. Nobody owns any of the railways as such, but everyone can buy shares in them, thereby indirectly controlling them. When multiple players own shares of the same railway company, they are incentivised to lay track and connect up ports, develop areas and otherwise increase the share value of that company. However, some players may leave it up to one player to do so, or they might only buy into a company later in the game to profit from it at the moment that it looks like it's going to do well. It's a sort of alliance, where everyone ultimately tries to do well only for themselves.

Similarly, players might buy shares to intentionally tank a railway company and build tracks into nowhere, therefore reducing the likelihood of the player with the most shares in that company doing well. However, that's more of a type of direct player interaction, as described at the beginning of this article.

In Rising Sun, you have actual alliances, of course. During the tea ceremony, two players can team up, giving them potential benefits for certain actions and allowing them to help each other. However, these alliances are never certain and can be broken, often to devastating effect. It's what I really love about this game. You can work together, but other players can bribe you and you can break the alliance at an opportune moment to gain the biggest benefit for yourself.

Lastly, there is indirect player interaction, which is something I have really only discovered properly recently. The King is Dead is probably a great example of a game that uses indirect player interaction. There are armies on the board, but these armies don't belong to the players. It's a bit like Luzon Rails in that respect, but instead of players buying shares, they take a cube off the board that is from a specific army. As you get more cubes, you basically have a bigger investment in that army.

Players influence armies' positions on the map and sometimes influence which region on the map is the next battleground, but at no point do players attack each other directly. Nobody takes away another player's cards, cubes or anything else. All you can do is see how many cubes others have of each army and decide whether you want to follow their lead or back a different army and influence the map accordingly, in the hope that you come out victorious.

A War of Whispers is another great example of indirect player interaction. Again, there are armies on the board and players decide which army gets reinforced, who attacks whom and so on, but nobody actually owns any of the armies. Instead, every player has the different armies randomly assigned to a victory point multiplier, making certain factions more important than others. So you're likely to reinforce the army that gives you the most points, but you don't want to be too obvious about it, or other players will know what you're up to, and you can also change allegiance a number of times during the game, allowing you to switch sides if things don't quite go your way.

Indirect player interaction is probably the kindest form of player interaction and probably the one that requires the most planning and some clever tactics to make sure you benefit the most from the actions taken by players. It's certainly something I have started to really enjoy recently and can't wait to find more games that use this type of player interaction.

I wonder what form of player interaction you like. What games use this form of player interaction best? Is there a kind of player interaction that I have missed? Please share your thoughts in the comments below. I would love to hear what you come up with.

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: #326988 05 Oct 2021 09:42
I prefer games with a lot of interaction between the players. I like co-op games and multi-player conflict games the most. I tend to dislike games with only indirect interaction, because it feels like passive-aggression. Or worse yet, the ones like The King is Dead where I feel a disconnect from the action because there is nothing in the game that feels like an avatar of myself. I have no use for games that completely lack player interaction except for solitaire games, and most co-op games can be played solitaire.
Whoshim's Avatar
Whoshim replied the topic: #326989 05 Oct 2021 09:53
I don't know where the following fit in with your ideas, but they seem to have forms of interaction slightly different from what you shared, though they are pretty close.

Tiny Epic Kingdoms
Twilight Imperium
Innovation

In these games, you choose an action which others can participate in. While it doesn't always affect your choice of action, being aware of how others can benefit from your choice is important. There are other choices in them that are more directly interactive, but these decisions are separate.

Imperial

This game is an excellent mix of a stock game and a war game. The kinds of interactions that occur between players are different from other games I have played. The majority owner of a country gets to make the decisions for that country. The players interact by purchasing stocks and then by running the armies of the countries into each other. However, because people are often be invested in multiple countries, the decisions about what countries do have complex effects on each player's position. Players can be "allied" in some parts of the board but not others. The only real "direct" interaction that can occur is if you put yourself in the position to receive it (by heavily investing in one country and not others).

I generally prefer two player/team games with direct player interaction. I enjoy a variety of games that do not fit that description. I feel a closer connection with my opponents when we are directly trying to destroy each other. During a game of Azul, I can get to know a little about how someone thinks, but not much. During a game of The Settlers of Catan, I can learn a bit more about a person through how they handle their planning and their trading. During a game of Stratego, LotR: Confrontation, Heroscape, or Afrika Korps, I feel like I can get a better understanding of my opponent. There are elements of trying to get inside my opponent's head (both in terms of understanding the way they think and throwing them off what I am thinking) and elements of handling loss and misfortune. See how someone handles those things gives some insight into who they are.
jason10mm's Avatar
jason10mm replied the topic: #326991 05 Oct 2021 10:38
I generally like increased player interaction the less complex the game mechanics are (ugh, that was an assault on grammar!). So those hyper intricate engine building euro games are pretty good with just limited or indirect player interaction, I don't need to invade my opponents factory or anything, just starve them of a resource they are highly dependent on.

But in games with relatively simple mechanics the player interaction is giving the game its challenge, so I want to butt heads, hinder opponents, and perhaps attack directly.

Then of course there is the perfect storm of complex mechanics and direct interaction like Dominant Species, which usually leads to an aneurysm :P

It helps when the player interaction isn't an "all or nothing" encounter, i.e. you win the battle and your opponent is out of the game for good or you lose the fight and have no chance of ever recovering. Unless it's an end game situation like TI, then I prefer smaller less catastrophic fights like you see in Small World. Constant conflict but none of them are "THE FIGHT".

Certain games with...let's just say "high levels of direct player interaction", definitely need a curated play group to avoid folks getting bullied, angry, or rage-quitting. Emotions can run high, players might resort to meta-game tactics to influence in-game actions, and sore losers/gloating winners can ruin a game for everyone.
mc's Avatar
mc replied the topic: #327004 05 Oct 2021 16:44
I think the phrase you might be looking for with regards to Brass, Luzon Rails etc is shared incentive. I really do like that kind of interaction; you are trying to tempt other players to help you out because there is a benefit to them, but the aim is to come out better. Trading/negotiation games are fairly blatant with it, it's very obvious, but some games are a lot more subtle with that sort of thing. Ideally, the game is impossible to win without working with the other players.

I understand the thinking that something without an avatar is "indirect", but to me the King is Dead is far from "indirect". You might not have a piece on the board, but you are represented very well by the actions you have taken (especially the cubes you have taken). That's your presence, right there, and when I look at you and what you have done, I am thinking, what do I have to do to make sure that you can't get another red cube? How can I totally mess you up? If I swap these cubes it might seem fairly benign, but it will actually prevent you from forcing that region to go yellow, which, given yellow only has 1 other region, wipes it out of the running - that is pretty direct to me, I have destroyed your position based entirely on what your presence in the game was. I think games like this - commodity speculation, really - can be super vicious. Who am I? An investor, a machiavellian politician, a schemer.

Indirect interaction to me is more like when your primary motivation almost all of the time is just to get what you need. If you see an opportunity to get what you need, and it *might* impact the next player because it might also be what they need, and you take it, and they are like "I needed that" and you shrug your shoulders, and then they take something else anyway and maybe drop a point, that is that indirect interaction to me. Like bumping into someone in the street because you were looking at the uneven footpath.

Personally I prefer interaction where what the other players will do - and what the impact of your own moves will be on them - are the primary consideration, because that is what you have to navigate to actually win.
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #327008 05 Oct 2021 17:05

mc wrote: I think the phrase you might be looking for with regards to Brass, Luzon Rails etc is shared incentive. I really do like that kind of interaction; you are trying to tempt other players to help you out because there is a benefit to them, but the aim is to come out better.


Great post.

I love these sorts of interactions with games. The ambiguity between helping and hurting other players is delicious. John Company does this hard, and the designer of Archipelago has some quotes about this which I love on BGG.
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #327010 05 Oct 2021 17:23

Gary Sax wrote: I love these sorts of interactions with games. The ambiguity between helping and hurting other players is delicious. John Company does this hard, and the designer of Archipelago has some quotes about this which I love on BGG.


Yep. I've kept a copy of New Angeles around for years that almost never gets played, but has precisely that kind of approach to actions. People have to agree to promote one player's agenda in the hopes that it will later benefit their own. It's a gamble and involves a fair amount of social engineering, which doesn't mesh very well with most of the people I currently play with. But I loved FFG's Netrunner universe and I wanted to keep at least one game of this type in my collection, even though I have several others that basically do the same thing in a more casual manner (Dune, CE, etc.) It's the formalized approach (as in, it's integral to the function of the game) that I like. John Company may end up shifting New Angeles to the trade pile as a consequence.
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #327012 05 Oct 2021 17:28
It is very hard to get people to play these games, to be clear, so I may be the weirdo on this one!
mc's Avatar
mc replied the topic: #327017 05 Oct 2021 20:09
We're out there.

Also, i should mention, I SUCK at them.
Dschanni's Avatar
Dschanni replied the topic: #327026 06 Oct 2021 10:33
The first question is easy to answer: You are missing most highly interactive and non-confrontational games on the market.

There is trading, auctioning, bluffing, stock market, negotiation, groupthink, flicking, stacking, speed reaction, shared incentives, social deduction and a variety of party games. (Party game = Time's Up. Tea time sedation = Codenames).

The second question is also simple: "What interaction do you like?", but it is tremendously complex.

I wonder what we mean when we say "interaction"? Are we talking about human-to-human interaction, about relationship or about human-to-game interactions? Please let me elaborate.

It seems to me, relationship is most important in all our life, our daily life, not only with boardgames. People normally would like to think their self, their ego, is most extraordinary. And in all our relationship, the self-centered activity, the ego, is constantly in operation.

If this is always true, how do you get to know yourself? (If you say "I know myself" then further examination stops at this point for obvious reasons.)

Firstly, you can closely observe your reactions, your prejudices, your conclusions, your ideals, how you think, how you feel, how do you react.
Secondly, you can analyse yourself, until analysis is complete and does not interfere with your next analysis.
Within this analysing process, you think you are divided from that which you are analysing. But is that really so? Is your analysis not put together by your thoughts and are your thoughts different from yourself?

The analytical approach has to do with how the so-called (modern) Eurogames are received and appreciated. In the present "hobby scene" the predominant way of thinking about games is as assembly of mechanics. People are obsessed by the idea that game mechanics have some inherent value, that they can be dissected and evaluated and ranked. (e.g. What's the 10 best games of all time? What should I back next on Kicksucker? Is worker placement better than deckbuilding ... - do you follow? Within these thoughts there's separation and division. Also: Dopamine.)

So one should ask: Is the experience of playing a game actually divided from myself?

When talking about conflict in games, let's clarify the frame of reference and refresh one's memory about the structure of so-called (modern) hobby Eurogames: non-confrontational, non-political, optimization, achievement focussed, no social dynamics, no psychology, yes internalising the rules, yes exploiting the system, yes winning.
Competition, ambition, the will to achieve - I wonder if all of this is not part of conflict? By conflict I mean the struggle between opposing ideas.
Do all of these characteristics not emphasize this sense of separation between "my stuff" and "your stuff", between "me" and "you"?
When you are attached to something, there is always fear of losing. Lastly, by avoiding social situations with confronation you are strengthening your rigid believes.

This might be hard to follow, but one should ask:
If I can not properly observe myself in a gaming situation, if my mind can not be attentive of the images put together by my thoughts through cultural conditioning, if I can not see how I am acting and reacting, if I can not see the gaming situation as what it actually is, what implications does this have for my "real" daily life? Can there be relationship at all if I am occupied with myself?

As far as game mechanisms like "pulling a card" or "pushing a meeple" or "attacking" go, who gives a shit. The strength of boardgames is the ability to have collective experiences, where people collectively, and through confrontation with their thoughts and conceptions, established a certain "metagame".

Instead of interference of plans with plans, I'd love to see more interaction between human beings. It seems to me, if there is no proper relationship, then all life is merely a series of conflicts.

Just chill out and enjoy the ride. Play Cosmic Encounter like the barbarians in the hills. It's not an abstract idea. It's what you used to do as kids.
Erik Twice's Avatar
Erik Twice replied the topic: #327034 06 Oct 2021 17:06

Gary Sax wrote: It is very hard to get people to play these games, to be clear, so I may be the weirdo on this one!

People join my club, I excitedly ask them what games they like only to be told they all like eurogames and wouldn't touch Cosmic, Galactica or any of the other games I like with a ten foot pole.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #327035 06 Oct 2021 17:53

Erik Twice wrote:

Gary Sax wrote: It is very hard to get people to play these games, to be clear, so I may be the weirdo on this one!

People join my club, I excitedly ask them what games they like only to be told they all like eurogames and wouldn't touch Cosmic, Galactica or any of the other games I like with a ten foot pole.


They have been assimilated by the BGG Collective.
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #327036 06 Oct 2021 18:29
I don't think it's as obvious as a euro/non-euro split, though. There are a lot of eurogames which have this balance between temporary collective and individual goals. I mean, shit, the 18xx games are basically built around these stockholding tensions.
Erik Twice's Avatar
Erik Twice replied the topic: #327043 07 Oct 2021 03:46

Shellhead wrote: They have been assimilated by the BGG Collective.

They unironically have.

In my experience, it's not that these guys only like euros, per se. It's that they have only been exposed to them and never moved in circles where other games were played. That is, the "BGG collective".

More importantly, since their exposure is so narrow, they often feel at odds with other kinds of designs. You might feel at home playing a heavy euro like Lorenzo il Magnifico but if you have never played a negotiation game, you are going to feel exposed. For example, an important chunk of my club doesn't like cooperative games. And I firmly believe they don't like them, not because they are cooperative, but because they feel exposed while playing them and have had poor experiences.
mc's Avatar
mc replied the topic: #327044 07 Oct 2021 04:24

Gary Sax wrote: I don't think it's as obvious as a euro/non-euro split, though. There are a lot of eurogames which have this balance between temporary collective and individual goals. I mean, shit, the 18xx games are basically built around these stockholding tensions.


Absolutely.

The trouble is that because the trend in Euros has gone its merry way towards heavy mechanically complex min-maxers and engine builders with not too much interaction beyond "I wanted that action", the idea of what a Euro is has become fairly useless. It is more common to see those more interactive cut throat games involving negotiations and shared incentives and stuff in older Euros, but for someone familiar with the more modern type, it's kind of incomprehensible to think that those are "Euros". I can easily imagine that, as Erik describes, for those players, a T&E or a whatever is going to be just as alien to them - and uncomfortable - as Cosmic.
mc's Avatar
mc replied the topic: #327045 07 Oct 2021 04:26

Dschanni wrote: Great post


Hi Dschanni... seems strange, but I feel like I know you. Have we met? :D
Erik Twice's Avatar
Erik Twice replied the topic: #327046 07 Oct 2021 05:24

mc wrote: I can easily imagine that, as Erik describes, for those players, a T&E or a whatever is going to be just as alien to them - and uncomfortable - as Cosmic.

I've never seen them play those games, either, so I can imagine they are too fond of them, either!
RobertB's Avatar
RobertB replied the topic: #327052 07 Oct 2021 12:10
Some people just don't like a lot of interaction in games. They're not particularly interested in having more interaction in their gaming diet, and there isn't a game out there that will unlock their inner Diplomacy player.

I'll use myself as an example; I've come to the conclusion that I'm not a huge fan of hidden traitor games. I've played several and own a few, but given my druthers I'd rather play something else. I don't think it's just because I haven't played x yet, and I'm not particularly interested into digging into my psyche to figure out why.
Dschanni's Avatar
Dschanni replied the topic: #327060 08 Oct 2021 07:56

Hi Dschanni... seems strange, but I feel like I know you. Have we met?


Maybe in a different life. :laugh:

I have not met any of the persons on this site - Thank you for all the informative and helpful contributions. :)

Some people just don't like a lot of interaction in games. They're not particularly interested in having more interaction in their gaming diet, and there isn't a game out there that will unlock their inner Diplomacy player.


Investigating what we understand of interaction seems to be important for us, if I may point out.
When someone doesn't want to find out then further conversation ends here, of course.

The initial question was: "What interaction is best in games?"

The point is: "There is no best interaction. In all interaction, you can observe the nature of yourself".

I am not talking about specific game mechanics and how someone likes them. I am talking about a state of the mind.

Someone might refuse this, but I hope we are communicating somehow in spite the intellectual blah.

Interaction is very complicated, we all know that.
"You have hurt me. You have insulted me. Your toy soldier has attacked my toy soldier.
You lied to me. You betrayed me. You took my card. You ruined my plans."
It's conflict, right?

How do you observe all of this? Your anger, your fear, your anxieties, desires, your attachements, your identifications?
Do you see it as something outside of you or is it part of you?
If it is from outside then you can avoid it, run away from it, analyse it, explain it, suppress it etc.
Then you have divided this thing. It is not you. It is something else happening to you.

Now this is the very nature of conflict - separation, division, identification, opposition.
We say we must not be in conflict, but we are. It seems so natural that we don't question this.

There is also interaction between the inner and the outer - humans conditioned by certain ideas create a society that helps them maintaining these ideas.
Now enter the modern "MPS style" Eurogames to the whole picture.
The structure of these type games wants to create an extremely self-centered experience, based on achievement and separation, the me first and the you second.
It seems to me like symbols of our daily lives, where our own ambitions, the search for success, is considered a good thing with a purpose.
It has to do with the way of how games are received, appreciated and discussed (widely analytical, of course).

So is it all necessary? I am not going into this ideologically.

I am saying that the state of the mind is more important than the conflict itself.
It has nothing to do with being superhuman. Be simple. Perceive with a heart that is cleansed of the past.
Don't bring your emotional baggage to the gaming table.
Bring passion, intensity, a sensitive mind - not a mind crammed with knowledge about oneself and about how things are.

If we do this, perhaps we can go to the end of conflict.