When you think about games, it’s normal to think about competition. There’s got to be a winner and a loser, and in many cases, you win by beating the crap out of your opponents until they are out of the game or just give up and quit. But in modern boardgames, that’s not always the case.
While there are still a lot of games with direct and integral conflict between the players (especially that come out of the more American tradition), one of the hallmarks of European game design is to place limits on the scope of competition. Primarily, it’s to prevent some of the side effects of direct conflict that aren’t very much fun.
To illustrate what I’m talking about, let’s look at the idea of player elimination. In many traditional games (such as Risk and Monopoly), the only way to win is to somehow beat every other opponent bad enough so as to remove them from the game entirely. This is bad for lots of reasons, but the main one is that it rarely happens to everyone at the same time. Players are literally kicked out of the game (and therefore most of the fun) with nothing to do while everyone else continues to play for potentially a very long time.
So in many modern games, there are mechanics specifically designed to either eliminate or mitigate this and other “un-fun” side effects of competition. And as a result, there has developed a spectrum of conflict and competition in games. As I’ve done with other topics before, I will now define and explore some of the levels within this spectrum:
- Integral Conflict – This is the highest level of competition, which involves mandatory conflict between players in order to drive towards completion. If a player wants to improve his position, he may do so only through weakening the position of an opponent. Examples: Risk, BattleLore, Chess, Small World, and pretty much any wargame
- Direct Conflict – Players may attack each other directly, working to weaken their opponent’s position as they possibly improve their own. The difference between this and Integral Conflict is that the conflict is not required; there are other paths for advancing your position as well. Examples: Endeavor, Shogun, Mission: Red Planet
- Indirect Conflict – Players compete for various resources, but can’t directly attack or worsen their opponent’s position. Several mechanics accomplish this type of conflict, including worker-placement, auctions, and route building/claiming. Examples: The Princes of Florence, Ticket to Ride, Agricola, Steam, China
- Parallel Competition – This is the lowest level of conlict in a purely competitive game. Players are essentially racing to accomplish some goal, but have little or no way to hinder each other. Examples: Dominion (for the most part), Top Race, Race for the Galaxy
- Semi-Cooperative – This category is a little strange, because there can still be a significant amout of conflict in the game. But the hallmark of this level is that some players are working together as a team against one or more other players. There is no way for the cooperating players to win against each other, but rather, they either win or lose together. Examples: Descent, Battlestar Galactica, Fury of Dracula, Betrayal at House on the Hill
- Cooperative – In a fully cooperative game, all of the players work together to try and defeat the mechanics of the game itself. Players all either win or lose together, even though some games put various restrictions on how they may cooperate. Examples: Pandemic, Lord of the Rings, Ghost Stories, Cranium Hoopla
And really, that’s the main point behind this whole series. You can pretty much throw out all of your old preconceptions about what a boardgame can do, and hopefully find one or more that will appeal to you, your family, and your friends. Throughout this series (and all over the site in general), you can find tons of recommendations about games that you might enjoy. But if you’re still not sure about what you would want to try, I’m always willing to work with you individually (via email) to find a game that you might enjoy.
I hope that you have found this series valuable, and I certainly welcome you to stick around and participate in future discussions about all these games that I love so much!
In Pandemic, all of the players cooperate to cure four different diseases before they destroy all of mankind!