Board game design

7 forms of player interaction in board games

A thousand ways for players to interact

So many people, so many interactions!
Board games are inherently social activities (the few solo games I’m happily going to ignore here). This is because it’s fun to do stuff with other people, but also because interaction makes board games better.

In a previous post I argued why interaction can be so beneficial to board games. In this game I want to build upon that by going into a number of ways in which interaction can actually happen in board games.

Attacking

The most obvious way of interacting with other players is by “attacking” them. An attack is any action that directly negatively influences a single opponent. The key words here are:

  • Direct: It’s clear that an attack is aimed, it’s not the consequence of doing something else, it’s going for the heart. An attack is different from for example taking resources from the board which could’ve been taken by anybody, which isn’t directed at anybody in particular.
  • Negative: Your opponent isn’t going to be happy with this and might well work to prevent an attack or retaliate after it happened.
  • Single opponent
  • : Attacks are generally made against a single opponent. It’s possible to make multiple attacks (against different opponents) but they are generally viewed as separate events.

Reasons to attack can either be sabotage – to reduce the resources of an opponent and thus stop her from winning, or stealing – to gain the resources of an opponent and help yourself in winning, whilst reducing the opponent’s chances. Note that resources can be a very broad category – see this post for more on resources in board-games.

As mentioned, opponents generally are not happy to be attacked and thus will try to prevent attacks. This can be through different forms of defense: In Risk you pile up armies to defend your lands, in Citadels you choose an unexpected character to reduce the chances of getting murdered.

Attacking (and defending) in general requires resources: Armies, a turn, etc. Thus, there are costs related to attacking, which need to be taken into account when choosing to attack or not. This can then be used to incentivize (or de-incentivize) players from attacking. See this post for more on incentives in board games.

Advantages and disadvantages of having attacks in your game

Attacking is one of the most direct and “simple” form of player interaction. It can create a lot of tension (“Will I be safe this turn?” “Will I survive?”) and lead to very interesting decisions (“Attack and leave myself open?” “Attack John or Melissa?”). Both can lead to a highly energetic atmosphere.

On the downside, attacks can lead to a player falling down so far they can’t get up again. It also allows “ganging up”, meaning anybody winning gets taken down and a game can drag on forever (Risk, I’m looking at you!). Finally, a lot of people are not comfortable with direct confrontation in their friendly game group.

Trading

Hey, wanna trade some bananas?
A second obvious way in which players can interact is through trading. In this case two (and sometimes more) players give resources away and get other resources back.

Players will trade if they feel that the value of what they are getting is higher than the value of what they are giving away. See this post for more on the value of resources in board games. This means that different resources have to have different values to different players.

Trading generally works best if there are at least 3 players; with only 2 if my opponent thinks that a trade is worthwhile, it must be a bad deal for me.

Advantages and disadvantages of using trading

Trading allows for very “friendly” player interaction as both parties gain something. It also makes balancing the value of resources easier: Simply let the players decide what something is worth by seeing what they’ll trade for it.

On the opposite side, trading can be somewhat time consuming, especially if there are multiple potential trade partners. This is further exacerbated if the to-be-traded goods are hidden, as then part of the trade has to be discovery of who has what. Because of the time consumption, trading needs to be a fairly large part of the game and can’t simply be “tacked on”.

Giving

An alternative to trading is giving, where one player gives something to another player, without a compensation from that player.

This can happen in a cooperative game, where all players have the same objective and another player can make better use of a given resource. It can also happen when there is a reward given by the game for giving resources away (this was one of the prime ideas for the game I’m currently designing myself). Finally a resource can be given away if it has negative value for the player; for example in Bohnanza cards in hand have to stay in the same order, meaning that some can “get in the way”. In this case it can be beneficial to give away a card so that it doesn’t need to be played.

Advantages and disadvantages to allowing giving

The advantage of giving is that it’s one of the most “friendly” ways of interacting with other players.

Giving can suffer from the same disadvantages as trading if the “value” of a resource can be negative to players and nobody is willing to take what you want to get rid of. This is usually less of a problem because there is no need to “discover” what is being given away.

Giving is not an easy mechanic to incorporate in an interesting way. Thus, the game would need to be built around it quite strongly for it to work.

Auctioning

Auctions are where the game or a player puts forth one or more resources and the other players can “bid” and the highest bidder gains the resources. If a player offered the resources then that player gains the highest bid.

Auctioning is similar to trading in that it requires players to have different valuations of resources. If these differences are too large however then no interesting auction will result, as the players with love valuations will have very little incentive to bid.

Advantages and disadvantages of allowing auctions

Auctions allow players to “value” resources based on their own situation, making balancing easier. It can also give a very interesting and hectic atmosphere based on the tension of getting what you need for the right price.

Auctions tend to be time-consuming and thus need to be a big part of your game. Also, auctions can get very rowdy, meaning they’re not that good for a quiet and contemplative game.

Taking resources

I’ll take that…
The passive-aggressive little brother of the direct attack, many modern games allow players to take resources that might have been taken by other players as well. Again, this is for a very general sense of resources; resources might be a bunch of wood tokens or a coveted space on the board.

Taking resources is indirect, in that you’re not (negatively) influencing any single player, but instead are taking up resources that might have been beneficial for all players present. The result of this is a less “adversarial” feeling to a game; it hardly ever results in retaliation.

The result is a puzzle, where you’re trying to determine what would be the best resources for yourself, whilst at the same time reducing the value of what is left for the other players.

Resource taking it the bread-and-butter of all modern Euro games.

Advantages and disadvantages of allowing resource taking

Resource taking allows for (adversarial) player interaction without directly targeting. As such it leads to a generally friendly atmosphere. Resource taking turns into an interesting puzzle where there are difficult choices to be made on what is most important right now. It can also lead to tension, as you’re hoping that other players will leave for you what you require.

As a disadvantage I see that the player interaction is fairly minimal and very indirect. This means that some of the stronger advantages of player interaction are not always used (this post gives the advantages of player interaction).

I also feel that resource taking has been somewhat overdone in modern games. But, I don’t see us getting rid of it any time soon either!

Changing the board / rules

It is possible for a player action to change the board, to which other players can then respond. In Carcasonne for example players are laying out tiles and creating the “board” together. Thus, every round there is a different board to take into account.

And for many games part of the rules is embedded in the playing pieces present. Fluxx is the quintessential example of this, where all the rules are printed on the cards that are played.

These two elements allow for some deep and fundamental changes to the way the game is played. This then allows for many ways to influence other players.

Most of these changes are similar to the “taking resources”, in that every player is affected. However, it is possible to have asymmetric effects, where you’re the only beneficiary (similar to an attack) or where some opponents suffer while others gain.

Advantages and disadvantages of allowing board changes

Player interactions through board or rule changes can be very interesting because they’re not done that often or that strongly. They also allow for (very) complex interactions. At the same time such a change most likely wouldn’t feel like a direct “attack”, conserving a “friendly” vibe.

The biggest downside is that setting up interesting board or rule changes is far from trivial and thus requires quite some work from the developer. And there certainly will be individual changes that have a detrimental effect on the game being played: With great power comes great responsibility!

Social deduction

You can only hide for so long…
There is a whole genre of games where each player gets a role and has to keep that hidden from the other players, whilst trying to deduce what roles those other players have.

Here the interaction is in observing the actions other players take, whilst keeping your own actions as obscure as possible. This interaction is mostly not directly through in-game actions, but more on the higher “mental” level. This mental level is much larger and richer than any game can ever be and thus the interactions can be very rich as well.

Advantages and disadvantages of allowing social deduction

Social deduction can allow for a very rich mental “game”. It can add incredible amounts of depth to a game, because there is always more to learn (about how your opponent thinks).

Social deduction tends to dominate other game aspects, in that it is hard to combine with more traditional elements (though for example Citadels does a marvelous job!)

Closing thoughts

In the previous paragraphs I’ve sketched seven different types of player interaction, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. This is obviously a far from complete list. And neither is each of the different types of interaction fully explored. I do hope that you will be able to recognize which elements you have present in your game. Or perhaps you’ve seen something that you feel would be a benefit to the game you’re currently creating?

Next steps

As mentioned, the list presented here is not complete, so perhaps some time in the future I’ll write the expanded version?

It would also be interesting to dig deeper into one of the types of player interaction. Especially the “changing the board / rules” seems to hold a lot of promise for interesting and deep game play.

Feedback please!

I love reader interaction; let me know in the comments or on Twitter if you agree or where you think I completely missed the point?!


Bastiaan_smallHi, I’m Bastiaan. The goal of this blog is to learn about game design. That’s hopefully for you as the reader, but just as much for me as the writer.

Help me to learn? Leave a comment or connect with me on Twitter? You can also subscribe to this blog or like it on Facebook, to get updates when I write them.

And perhaps you know of others interested in learning? Share this post using the buttons below:

Facebooktwitterreddit

9 Comments

  1. Excellent list, very nice.

    I’m wondering, though: how would you classify the player interaction in our game, Habeamus. It’s symmetrical (each player is exactly the same and has the same resources and role), but there are hidden auctions for board spaces *and* between players. I’ve tried to sort it into any of the categories above, but it seems to fit equally badly into most of them.

    Reply
    1. BastiaanReinink Author

      Hi Johannes,

      Thanks for the compliment. From you description it’s hard to understand exactly what the mechanic is you’re describing… How does a hidden auction work? Players bid blindly without knowing what the others bid? It’d say that is one of the many forms that auctions can take?

      Sound interesting btw!

      Reply
  2. You’ve categorized player interaction methods well, particularly as they can be implemented in game rules. It occurs to me that there is a meta-level of player interaction that rules may or may not explicitly address. Negotiation is a form of player interaction that rules may or may not govern but which likely comes into play in any or all of the categories you’ve listed. Theoretically, a non-negotiating computer game can implement the interactions described in your post according to a rule set, but humans can further interact through deal-making to inform their decisions about what to trade or whom to attack, for example.

    Thanks for a thoughtful post.

    Reply
    1. BastiaanReinink Author

      Hi Paul,

      I’m sure that a lot more could be added to the list. I’ve tried to keep this version to things that are specifically enabled by the rules / mechanics, especially since there is so much that can be done outside of those: Negotiation, threats, retaliation, feinting… I could probably go on for a while.

      And while the mechanics are what set the game up, it’s everything that goes on around it that can really make a game come to life.

      Thanks for your addition!

      Reply
  3. Robyrt

    Gifting is also the primary method of player interaction in cooperative “players versus the table” games, like dungeon crawlers. In this case, the debates are about who needs the scarce resources more, and what would be best for the team. It can be a large or small element of the game, generally depending on how flexible your system is. If the wizard is the only one who can use a new magic spell, buying it is a simple cost/benefit calculation, but if the rogue could also carry it as a backup, you could be in for an extended debate.

    Reply
    1. BastiaanReinink Author

      Hi Robyrt,

      Good point! This is one of the reasons I really enjoy coops. Trying to optimize your own game is interesting / hard, trying to do it together is even more so!

      Reply
  4. I love gifting as a mechanism. This works particularly well when in a competitive game a player can receive more at the expense of other players also receiving a certain amount of resources. (I get 2) (I get 3 you get 1) (I get 4 you get 2)

    Reply
    1. BastiaanReinink Author

      Hi Wyatt,

      I’d say that your example would be more “taking resources” than “giving”, with some of the resources taken going to other players. Of course there no clear demarcations between the different categories I wrote about, there are mixtures possible between all of them. And luckily so, as it means we can continue creating interesting mechanics (and games)!

      Reply
  5. A good summary. In the end I think interaction needs to be categorized on a spectrum from direct (as in most forms of attack) to indirect (as in, perhaps, auctions?).

    One type you may not have considered: actually helping another player to do something, e.g. the support mechanism in the game Diplomacy. Much more common in co-op games than in non-co-op.

    Reply

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *