More About Competitveness and Social Contracts in Boardgames

In the past, I wrote an article about Gaming Competitiveness, where I talked about the relationship between winning and fun and touched on things like throwing games and the whole point of playing games.  Recently,  Talkin’ About Board Games brought up the subject again.  In that article, they gave a scale of competitiveness in boardgames, along with some examples of good games in each.  Their point was to help game groups figure out the appropriate level of competitiveness to include in the games they played, and maybe to provide a framework to step up the competitive factor of the games over time.

In general, I liked what they said, but I also think that it was a bit incomplete, so I want to give a little more attention to this topic here as well.

First of all, I think that they ignored a whole other level of competitiveness.  In addition to the “Take it Easy”, “Moving Up” and “Bring It On” levels that they mentioned, I think that I’d also include one called something like “Take That, You Stinkin’ Pig!” or “Punch Yer Teeth In!”.  Why?  Because he seemed to stop at the level of games such as Puerto Rico and Power Grid, which can be intensely competitive, but still lack much direct conflict at all.  For games like BattleLore, Hive, War of the Ring, Small World and pretty much any other war-ish, abstract strategy, or civilization game, however, competitiveness is driven not only by trying to “do better” or compete for resources with others, but also through the fact that winning requires direct attack on and destruction of opponents’ forces or in-game resources.

But that aside, I think that the discussion, like many before it in the area of boardgames, dances around an issue that gets a lot more attention and thought in the realm of the indie/storygame RPG community.  And what I’m talking about is the Social Contract among a group of gamers. 

A simple definition of Social Contract in this context is the shared understanding of what experience everyone wants to get out of the game*.  With boardgames, this nature of this contract is assumed rather than negotiated in most every case.  And in general, because of the less dynamic nature of boardgames compared to RPG’s, things work out pretty well.  

As it has been pointed out, the competitiveness in many games is more or less inherent based on their level of conflict and strategic depth, and groups just need to figure out together which kinds of games they enjoy.  From my experience, however, most groups enjoy all (or most, anyway) kinds of games, and instead gauge their level of competitiveness to the game currently being played.  The contract changes to meet the requirements of the game, and it’s assumed and accepted by everyone in the game.  Of course, this can still break down at times, because some games can be played at different levels, such as Ticket to Ride (which I mentioned in my first article).  But in general, if a group is having trouble with this, I’d still recommend having a real discussion about it rather than arbitrarily limiting your game selection to the least “offensive” level.

To extend this a bit further, however, the Social Contract of a group doesn’t only pertain to competitiveness.  Other issues that might be involved in a boardgame Social Contract  include: how much table/trash talking is acceptable, the group’s speed of play (e.g  how much analysis paralysis is okay), when/if “taking back” moves is ever okay, how you choose games and who will play them, differences between “learning” and regular games, and other stuff that I can’t think of right now.  Again, I’m not saying that every group needs to have big, hippie-like discussion and love-in to hammer these things out ahead of time, because these things often seem to handle themselves naturally.  But what I am suggesting is that when a group is experiencing friction due to these issues, rather than ignore the problems or overreacting in some way, just sit down together, like adults do sometimes, and have a little talk about it.  Then we can all get back to smashing in each other’s faces in peace!          

*Stolen from Jay Shaffstall 


  1. Hiew Chok Sien

    TTR is a very good example of two different ways of playing. When I play against my wife, it’s an unwritten law that we do not block each other for the sake of blocking. That’s how we prefer to play. I have a friend who plays on the net and sometimes he applies the strategy of picking the shortest tickets, not caring about completing them, collecting cards to make only those long 5 – 6 length tracks, and then actively blocking his opponent. It wins him games. But I’m glad he doesn’t play this style with me.

  2. Chris Norwood

    Yeah, I agree.  For most people that I know, being that cutthroat in TtR would be a serious breach of their assumed Social Contract.  Of course, online, where people play hunreds and thousands of games, the culture may just be that much more competitive and aggressive.  Either that, or your friend is a jerk…

    Heck, just to see how that goes, I may ask permission of my wife to try out that strategy.  It would only as an experiment, of course, and wouldn’t “count” as a real game for us…  But I’m still afraid that she would get mad at me. 

Comments are closed.