Gimme Your Lunch Money

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.

Mean Girls

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.

Conclusion

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.

The Tragedy of the Commons, or: The Comedy of the Boardgame

The “Tragedy of the Commons” is a component of economic theory first put forward in the 19th century and eventually named by Garrett Hardin. Investopedia did a better job of writing about it than I can, but to summarize it here, it’s a situation where everyone making the “rational” decision to maximize benefit from a source ends up unsustainably depleting the source.

While this concept is generally used in entry-level discussions about environmental science, the Tragedy of the Commons is a surprisingly useful tool for a game designer’s toolbox, combining both strategy and comedy into a tight, easy to understand package. Let’s look at how we can turn the Tragedy of the Commons into the Comedy of the Boardgame.

There for the Taking

In board games, the Tragedy of the Commons most frequently manifests itself in the following situation: There is an action that players can take that benefits them. However, the more people who take the action, the less beneficial that action becomes.

This is a fairly standard puzzle that combines both logic and player psychology, and the backbone of games with depleting resource pools like Agricola. You could say that almost every Euro-style game has some element that penalizes people who follow the same strategy as the other players. Where the Tragedy of the Commons differs from standard tabletop game design is that, instead of having multiple strategies that encourages players to diversify, there’s one “greedy” action that benefits players more than the others, but that punishes players if too many try to go for it. To put it in Prisoner’s Dilemma terms, it’s as if both prisoners tattling sent them to prison for 50 years.

You can further divide Tragedy of the Commons mechanics into PvP (Player versus Player) and PvE (Player versus Environment). You could think of PvP mechanics as a narrow shortcut in a car race; it might be logical to go for it, but if everyone makes the “logical” decision, the benefit of time saved goes down as everyone crams around it. PvE Tragedy mechanics involve some external force bearing down on the players; if the players don’t band together and take “selfless” actions to prevent it, it’ll result in everything from penalties for the irresponsible to the game abruptly ending with everyone’s loss.

The comedy potential here is fairly obvious. Watching people get punished for their greed has been consistently funny for hundreds of years, and it’s at its peak when everyone, thinking that they’re the exception, reaches into the pickle jar at the same time and get their hands collectively stuck. 

A Comic History of Pastoral Tragedies

It’s easier to understand a design concept if there’s concrete examples instead of just abstract thought, so let’s look at some ways the Tragedy of the Commons manifests itself in existing board game.

Incan Gold is where I got the idea for this article, and its application of the Tragedy is somehow both almost abstract in its simplicity and hilarious in its execution. Players gradually uncover more and more gems as they venture through the temple (why there’s no gold in a game called Incan Gold is beyond me); these are divided evenly among the players still in the temple, with the remainder continuing to sit on the card. In games with 5 or 6 players, quite a lot of remainder can sit around before people decide to leave. When a player leaves, they pick up all the remaining gems: The catch is that if multiple people leave, the gems are divided in the same way! There’s nothing more 

Making this system even more appealing are relic cards, which are worth a ton of points but can only be picked up by a player leaving the temple on their own. The “correct” decision of skedaddling ASAP to grab that statue is now tempered by the extreme fear of embarrassing yourself of leaving the temple, empty-handed and way too early, because one of the other players thought the same way you did.

As an example of a TotC mechanic that’s component-wide instead of set-wide, take the Cook card from Libertalia. The Cook gets to take two booty tiles instead of one, and is ranked a respectable 18 out of 30, with higher numbers getting first priority. Depending on the booty tile distribution for a certain day, it can be very tempting to play the Cook, get a huge haul, and rocket ahead in one turn. However, if other players play their own Cooks, you could waste yours entirely; you could also suffer if they take the more conservative option and play a high-ranking but risky pirate. There are several ways you could get punished for playing a Cook, but the reward is so enormous it can be worth it.

The most on-the-nose “PvE” Tragedy of the Commons mechanic is in CO2, where everyone loses if carbon pollution raises over 500 ppm. Like most Vital Lacerda games, the system is pretty complicated so it’s hard to summarize in one paragraph, but there’s essentially one single action that can actually lower carbon pollution (demolishing high-emissions power plants and replacing them with renewable energy plants) and many, many other ways to improve your standing in the game, including improving your “expertise” by sending scientists to conferences, proposing projects for plants, and so on. Essentially, if you spend too much time screwing around trying to get territory control bonuses instead of affecting meaningful change, you lose even if you had a substantial victory point lead.

Many PvE games give players who at least tried to fight the problem some kind of bonus. In Uwe Rosenberg’s Lowlands, you have the option to contribute to the construction of a dike; if not enough of the dike is built, a huge flood occurs. People who contribute to the dike avoid the worst effects of it if it breaks and get a monetary bonus if it doesn’t, so the question isn’t “do I take the selfless action of building this?”, but “is it worth the bonuses for building the dike to take attention away from building my collection of sheep?”

I Write Tragedies, Not Sins

There’s a couple of principles that can improve your use of a Tragedy of the Commons mechanic in your board game.

The first is that players’ intent should be largely hidden. The dynamic of not knowing whether the other players are going to go for the “greedy” choice and making your best guess is generally less frustrating than knowing that you’re going to have to play conservatively. The easiest way to handle this is with some kind of simultaneous action, like Incan Gold does, but with many other games it’s difficult to commit fully to either path before seeing exactly what your opponents are doing. Breaking up player turns into multiple actions, like in most worker placement games, is a fine option.

The other is that the exact “tipping point” for when a greedy action is a good idea or not should be ambiguous before you take the action – otherwise, the choice is too obvious. Returning to Lowlands, the exact strength the dike requires to withstand the oncoming flood is hidden until the upkeep phase, where players can’t alter their choices anymore. Thus, you have to make the decision whether to conservatively pitch in on building the dike or spend more time raising sheep and hoping the floods won’t be too bad this time.

Fuzziness in general is key here. The core appeal to both the comedy value and gameplay value of the TotC mechanic is that you don’t know if you can get away with being greedy until everything’s said and done, and it should come as a surprise to everyone what the actual results of their various risk-taking ventures were.

Conclusion

The Tragedy of the Commons is less talked-about that some other common board game mechanics; one reason, perhaps, is that the nitty-gritty of balancing all the options is much harder, and an unsuccesfully executed TotC mechanic can be a serious drain on the game. That said, a successfully executed TotC will generate memories in your players that they’ll carry around for their entire tabletop gaming career, so if you feel like there’s room in your game for something like this, I highly encourage you to at least try to go for it.

Under the Hood of Downforce

The phantom exterior like fish eggs interior like suicide wrist-red. I could exercise you, this could be your phys-ed. Cheat on your man homie AAGH I tried to drive through the narrow space that can only fit one car man! Can’t make it. Can’t make it. Car’s stuck! Outta my way son! CAR STUCK! CAR STUCK! …PLEASE!! I BEG YOU!!!

WE’RE IN 5TH AND 6TH! YOU’RE A G-G-GENUINE CAR RACER!!!!!


A few years ago, I received a deep discount at a game store as a door prize for attending a Magic prerelease. I looked all around the store for the game I wanted to buy, and settled on two options: Western Legends and the Restoration Games edition of Downforce (also known as Top Race and by many other names.)

I went with Downforce because it was cheaper, but this off-the-cuff decision introduced into my life a cornerstone of my gaming experience from then on. Every group I’ve introduced Downforce to, ranging from professional game designers to my parents, has loved it so much they’ve shown significant interest in playing it again. When I bring it to a game night, it almost always ends up hitting the table at some pont. (I’m starting to worry about running out of scoring sheets.)

So what made Downforce so appealing to such a wide range of people, and why does it have so much sticking power? Let’s look at some answers.

Offensive Driving

I’ve wondered for a long time what the line is between “interaction” and “being mean”. Being able to interfere with your opponents is great and adds to the social atmosphere of tabletop games; “being mean to” or “picking on” your opponents leads to hurt feelings and the game being wrapped up in an atmosphere where it feels like someone could get stabbed at any moment. My theory is that there are a few factors that make being mean more acceptable, and Downforce meets enough of them that it toes the line very effectively. (I may do a full writeup on this topic sometime in the future.)

Before we get into details, I’ll clarify the main mechanic that allows players to screw each other over in Downforce. Car movement is decided by playing a card from your hand; each card has a list of colors and a number of spaces that color of car must move. This may sound like you don’t have much control over car movement, but the twist is that cars can’t move past occupied spaces. Thus, you can do things like zoom into a narrow lane first and then park it so opponents have to move you, or throw away high-value cards for colors you don’t own when that car’s stuck in traffic.

The first reason this works is that these strategies are frequently the genuine best thing you can do. If I go out of my way to drag down another player, and that doesn’t do anything to advance my own position (in a game with more than 2 players), it feels a lot more petty and personal than if my dragging down another player benefitted me. In Downforce, you won’t stop another car from moving unless either that card also moved your own cars or you’re completely out of options, which lightens the sting a lot more.

The second reason is that, while mean, these actions don’t remove your opponents’ progress or access to abilities – it just places more obstacles in front of them. Games are about solving problems in the first place, so having more problems is much less of an issue than having less of the ability to solve them. If you could rip a card out of an opponent’s hand, it would be problematic, but you were never going to use a card that was good for them in the first place unless you were betting on them in the first place.

The third, and possibly most important, reason is that blocking your opponents’ cars is just funny. There’s a lot of comedy value in a high-stakes race for millions of dollars devolving into a traffic jam with the person in front crossing the arms and waiting passive-aggressively for someone else to push them out of the 1-width lane. The “Aloha Sands” bonus track in the excellent expansion Wild Ride has a bottleneck right at the start of the game in order to reach Clownforce at maximum speed.

Muddled Winners

Racing games as a genre frequently suffer from the issue of the winner and losers being too clear. If one player has a far enough lead, the rest of the game essentially becomes irrelevant as only the person in first place really matters. People might feel they have no chance of winning and/or be guaranteed to win as early as halfway through the game and mentally check out. Other games like Flamme Rouge make movement inconsistent and often penalize people for shooting ahead, but if someone gains a large enough lead these catch-up mechanisms don’t do enough.

Downforce neatly solves this problem by making the win condition not 100% reliant on who finishes first. There’s two other very important factors as well: Whoever bid the least during the auction segment at the beginning of the game, and whoever was able to bet on the winners.

The betting in particular is critically important because it actively penalizes someone who’s able to skyrocket into the lead early in the game. Betting on the right car early in the game pays much more, so being able to dramatically move forward from the back of the pack – or moving an opponent’s car forward from the back when you’re not going to win anyway – is a much more insidious strategy than simply “doing well”.

The auction segment, on the other hand, adds a lot of comedy value through the schadenfreude of watching your opponent lose despite placing 1st and 2nd because they spent 12 million dollars on their stupid cars. Come to think of it, hubris is a big component of what makes Downforce fun in general.

My point is that Downforce is a success among casual groups especially because no matter how far ahead someone is in the race itself, the winner can be surprising. It also means that if you aren’t the best at perfectly sequencing your cards to gain maximum value from them, you can still win if you didn’t overspend during the auction or have an eye for who you think is going to win in the end, rewarding different types of thinking. There’s also enough variance in the game that skill isn’t the sole determinant of who wins.

Goldilocks Powers

I do a lot of thinking about asymmetric player powers, because while they make a game less balanced and strategic, they also make it more impactful and fun, and it’s interesting to strike that balance when designing a game. One of the most important parts about designing these powers is deciding how hard you want them to break the rules. In some games, asymmetric powers are nothing more than slightly different starting positions, while in others, like Root, each player is essentially playing by their own set of rules.

Downforce‘s powers are somewhere in the middle. They aren’t strong enough that you would change your entire bidding or racing strategy depending on what you get, but they provide you with enough of an advantage that you’ll pay attention to which one you want and feel like your power is accomplishing something for you

More importantly, these powers are unique and have character. Activating a power feels good, but each one feels good in a different way. The power that lets you always move your own cars might not be useful, but reaching in to move your cars on your opponents’ turns is deeply satisfying and you occasionally get yourself out of a jam. On the other side of the spectrum, being able to move extra spaces every so often is a consistent and slight advantage that enfranchised board gamers love. You usually don’t go out of your way for a power, but if you end up with multiple cars (something inevitable in a game with less than 6 players), you’ll usually choose the one you like the most, meaning that players will often play Downforce using a power that they personally find satisfying.

Conclusion: The Checkered Flag

Downforce appeals to a lot of groups because it’s capable of being whatever those groups want it to be. It’s interactive but not too mean; strategic but not cruelly logical; unique but not confusing for newcomers. Added to the game’s generous player count and short (usually around 30 to 45 minute) playtime, this makes Downforce an adaptable game that hits the table constantly and is a near-essential part of any hobbyist’s collection.


Yo, I’m betting on this guy to win.