Being mean to other people is actually really good and cool.
Sorry, I meant in board games. I should have been more clear about that.
Being mean – significantly and intentionally setting back other players – has developed an unfair reputation as being a universally bad thing in board games. Games where you can destroy your opponents’ forces or set back their plans are usually corralled into the “take-that,” “thematic,” or “Ameritrash” corner as the grown-ups sophisticatedly block each others’ plans in Eurogames, where everything is so indirect it doesn’t feel like the players are competing at all.
This isn’t without reason, either. Being mean often makes people mad. Everyone has a limit to what they’re going to tolerate in a game, and if a game makes players angry, it’s usually failed in its goal of being a fun experience for everyone. But “being mean” and “making people angry” aren’t necessarily linked on a one-for-one basis. This article goes in depth about how to walk this fine line.
Before we get into the meat of it, note that this is a post about emotional responses to games, so I only have my own observations to go on. Your experience about what makes players angry could be very different, and in fact I’d love to hear your input on the matter via my Twitter.
People generally don’t get upset when bad things happen to them in a game because they signed up for that game to have bad things happen to them. (For more about this topic, please read this article.) For example, you would only get upset about drawing bad tiles in Scrabble if you were already on tilt. However, once the bad things happening to them in the game start being caused by other players, it starts to generate bad feelings. Continuing with our Scrabble example, your opponent playing a high-scoring word onto a triple-word score space you had your eye on is much more infuriating than not drawing high-scoring letter tiles.
So why is having something bad happen to you in a game worse because someone is doing it to you instead of the whims of fate/the game? It might be easy to write this off with a single, breezy answer, but I believe that there’s a number of factors that add up to this difference.
One is that a setback feels worse when it’s a conscious act of cruelty on the part of the opponent. If you don’t draw the right tiles, there’s no malicious intent behind it unless you believe in a weirdly petty higher power, but if your opponent invades your territory or makes you discard cards, they have chosen, of all actions and targets, to set you back specifically.
Another is that being mean is more tolerable when it directly benefits the bully’s strategy and isn’t just detracting from their victim’s. That’s because, when we play a game, our mindset becomes hyperfocused on winning the game, so actions someone takes towards achieving this goal are more excusable. Actions that only affect other people without helping you feel much more vindictive. This is one reason why the blue shell in Mario Kart is such a perpetual annoyance: Because you can only get the shell if you’re far behind, the only thing it’s going to do is drag back whoever’s currently in first, rather than help the user in any particular way.
Yet another is a sense of a power imbalance between players – it feels much worse to have a player in the lead bully a player behind them than vice-versa. In fact, this is why it’s hard to pick a target at the beginning of a game when everyone’s at roughly equal levels. The arbitrary nature of deciding who you go after is in itself an act of passive aggression. You can only feel justified in attacking someone if they’re clearly the biggest threat, either to you or to the game as a whole.
Regression to the Mean
There are a number of ways to dilute the feel-bad of being mean in a game while still giving players the opportunity.
The first is to simply force everyone to be mean to each other; if you have to attack someone, it feels much less personal than if you had the ability to advance your plan and chose to attack someone instead. Red Dragon Inn has a lot of take-that mechanics; at its core, you have to buy drinks for other players, bringing their inebriation levels closer and closer to eliminating them. The game also has a ton of cards that deal damage and do other things that only drag someone down. The key here is that you draw back up to a maximum hand size on your turn, meaning that you’re obligated to use all of your take-that cards to squeeze as much value as you can out of your start-of-turn draw. You are compensated so well for being mean that it will offend people less when you pick on them specifically.
The second is to not create actions that are only bad for one player and not good for the person taking the action. What few take-that cards exist in Terraforming Mars always have a benefit for the person who played it, and usually that benefit is significantly more impactful than whatever bad effect it happens to have. This means that if you get your greenery wiped out by an opponent’s meteor impact, you can at least feel like they didn’t play that card specifically to pick on you (though they might have timed it that way); they mostly played it for the benefits it granted to themself.
The third is to not tie a mean action to a player’s ability to take further actions. There are a number of cards in El Grande that allow you to be mean to other players, usually by rearranging the caballeros on the board in a way that makes them lose victory points. However, there is also a card that can stop your opponents from playing caballeros that turn; this one is significantly more frustrating because it interferes with not only a player’s win condition, but how they progress to that condition. When designing a mean action, it’s better to make it more of an obstacle course that an opponent has to jump through than a ball-and-chain preventing them from moving.
The theory goes that people like watching scary and sad movies because they get to experience negative feelings in a safe atmosphere. Through a similar mechanism, we can use games to be mean towards our friends and acquaintances while being able to patch it up afterwards. However, the “magic circle” between a game and real life is much thinner than the difference between a movie and the people watching it, so games with take-that elements have to be designed to stop emotions from running a little too hot.