Shut Up Already About the Freaking “Dominant Player Problem”!


Every freaking time that almost anybody mentions a cooperative game, it seems like they’re practically compelled to mention the dominant/alpha-player problem.  With many of the newer, real-time games like Space Cadets and Escape: The Temple of the Curse, they’re praised as being some sort of bastion of holy light shining out against the evil terrors of standard cooperative games that are plagued unto the point of ruination with this persistent and ubiquitous “issue” of someone who has the unmitigated gall to tell you what the heck to do.

But let me get something straight here.  Having someone in your game that is a domineering jerk that bosses everyone around and ruins your fun is not a game problem, it’s a freaking player problem

Here’s another revelation: cooperative games are about cooperation!  Working together to solve the problem presented by the game.  So if one person is taking over and telling everyone what to do, he’s playing it wrong because he’s not cooperating with others; he’s being a jerk-wad who’s playing the game by himself and using other people to move the pieces! 

But is that a problem with the freaking game?  If someone in Puerto Rico bullies you to do what they say is clearly in your best interest (and not surprisingly in theirs as well), is that some flaw with Puerto Rico?  Of course not, that’s just someone being a jerk!  So why is someone being a jerk in a cooperative game suddenly the fault of the game itself?

However, let me also say that, sometimes, cooperation is also about shutting the heck up and doing what other people suggest because that’s what’s best for all of you.  If you’ve got some sort of maverick attitude that “no one can tell me what to do” and you run off doing crap that’s against the plan that all the rest of the players have agreed on, you’re not playing it right either and you’re the jerk in that game!  Maybe you need to swallow some of that gamer pride you have going on and be open to the fact that you may be able to actually learn something if you just listen and cooperate in that cooperative game you’re playing.    

I will absolutely agree that playing a cooperative game can be a bit of a balancing act.  But you know, working with other people usually is.  As the most experienced player, you probably do have the single best idea of what should be done.  But the key is to give good options rather than domineering directions.  And as a new player, you need to be open to suggestions from those more experienced players, but to do so intelligently, asking quetions as to why it would be a good idea so that you can better understand the game and maybe even making the suggestion better through something that you notice. 

Because the real beauty of cooperative games is that, regardless of how big the disparity is between experience levels of the players, when a group of engaged and intelligent players put their heads together and work on a plan, it’s almost always better than the idea of what any one, single player could have come up with on their own!  And if you don’t believe me, then you’re probably the domineering jerk that nobody wants to play with anyway…

19 Comments

  1. Geoff Engelstein

    Have to politely disagree with this, to a certain extent. Games are different than other forms of entertainment (like books or movies) in that the people (players) are much more involved in creating what happens than in those more passive types.

    In fact, to a large extent, a game is a platform or framework for the players to create an experience for themselves. Look at an ‘RPG’ like Fiasco, for example. Very dependent on the players for the experience.

    But obviously the game rules set the tone for the experience, and constrain it in some directions, or push it in other directions.

    So certain coops will make it more likely that certain types of player interaction, like a dominant player, come to the fore. Some groups will never see that because of their personality composition, and some may not see it as an issue. But there are definitely certain games that tend to lead towards certain types of interactions.

    And some folks may find that type of interaction distasteful, and some may want more of it.

    For Space Cadets we did NOT set out with the design goal of avoiding a dominant player. The goal was to develop a platform where players could exhibit different skills that they’re good at. It really came from me wanting to play Roborally, which my wife HATES, by designing a game where I can play Roborally and she can do something she likes, and we are working towards a common goal.

    The anti-dominant-player thing really came in as a by-product of the main design goals, that being realtime, simultaneous action. I mean, we have a Captain, who is by definition the ‘uber-player’, as much as he/she can control what’s happening.

    I hate Talisman. Is that a game problem or a player problem? Probably a player problem in this case. Many, many folks have a great time with Talisman, because the experience that that game tends to engender is what they’re looking for.

    In a same way, certain coops lead to Dominant Player Behavior (call it behavior instead of ‘a problem’), which some are OK with, some hate, and others never see because of their group.

  2. Chris Norwood

    Oh, you don’t have to be polite.  This is a freaking rant, so having a tinge of irrationality and angry judgement is welcome here…

    I’ll give you that some games open the door for various types of interaction.  And most conventional coop games leave room for the dominant player thing to happen.  But that still doesn’t mean that it’s a problem with the game itself when it happens. 

    When someone at the gaming table acts in a way that makes it not fun for you, it’s a problem.  If you blame the game and just decide to never play it again, you haven’t fixed the problem, you’ve just ignored it.

    You can only ever fix a player problem like this by dealing with the player.  And it really comes back to the social contract you have around the table, which many times is unspoken.  So maybe the dominant player dude think that the social contract says we all do whatever we possibly can to win, which he sees as using his greater experience to direct everyone else.  But you see the real point and fun of the game as being able to work together and contribute to the game regardless of whether you win or lose.  If you don’t talk about it and work it out, then you’ll always come at that type of game from different directions.

    It’s no different than that player who makes everything into a negotiation game (you know, who’s always trying to form alliances and use his social skills to manipulate others, even in games like Monopoly or Medici or Goa).  If all of you are cool with that, and enjoy the dymanic it brings, then you’re cool.  But when it turns into an unfun experience for some of you, then you need to address the behavior and the social contract governing it, not just decide that the games are flawed and not play them any more.

  3. Geoff Engelstein

    I knew it was a rant from the angry lemon 🙂

    If someone came up to me and said Pandemic is a bad game because one player can dominate and just run it, then I’d slap ’em. Pandemic may be unpleasant with a particular player, but the game is fine. So then you need to decide if you want to try to reform him, or just do something else.

    So we’re in agreement on that.

    However I think your opening statement of:

    “With many of the newer, real-time games like Space Cadets and Escape: The Temple of the Curse, they’re praised as being some sort of bastion of holy light shining out against the evil terrors of standard cooperative games that are plagued unto the point of ruination with this persistent and ubiquitous “issue” of someone who has the unmitigated gall to tell you what the heck to do.”

    seems to me like a huge straw man. Who’s saying that? I’ve got a guy in my group who’s tremendously AP prone, so there are some games I just won’t play with him (I’m looking at you, Navegador). So there’s an AP problem much the same way that there’s a Dominant Player problem, and certain games lead to that. But I really don’t see anyone burying Pandemic or LOTR because of that potential.

  4. Chris Norwood

    Actually, what prompted me to write this is that over the last week or so, I’ve heard at least 4 or 5 podcasts on which someone that was talking either about Space Cadets, Escape, or Hanabi, and in every single case, one of the main points they made was how these games weren’t susceptible to the “dominant player” problem that most coop games have.  On the most recent episode of The Dice Tower, I’m pretty sure that two different contributors both said it, in fact! 

    So I really don’t think it’s a straw man. 

    Now, how many people actually experience the dominant player issue in playing coop games? I doubt it’s all that many.  But with Pandemic being my favorite game, I’m pretty sensitive to complaints about it, and I really do hear about this all the time.  Oh, and by the way, I therefore wholeheartedly endorse any slapping of Pandemic-haters that you may deem necessary.


  5. Love the post/rant and subsequent conversation with Geoff.

    Picking the right game for the right set of people makes a great gaming experience. And it’s just as big an issue with family members as buddies.

    When I’ve had buddies over for game night I typically pull out a bunch of games that could be played. But then depending on who shows up will gravitate towards different types.

    As such, it’s not because of any problem with the games (or a problem with the people) but because the game experience won’t be as enjoyable for everyone on the whole.


  6. I only half agree with Chris. On some level, yes. I agree that the “dominant player problem” (or DPP) comes from a bad player not a bad game.

    That said, where there is open information it’s easy for one player to “suggest” a better move. Even if that player isn’t overbearing, more passive players can just adopt it and end up feeling like they aren’t contributing much.

    Consider that DPP is reduced when information is limited – such as in Sentinels of the Multiverse – or in real time games – like Space Alert.

    So I think the DPP is a real consideration that co-op games have to confront. But I also agree that it is made far, far worse by players than by anything bad about the game itself.

    By the by, I need to get in contact with you. I enjoy your posts/rants and would love to discuss something with you on the Robot in a possible point counter point format.

  7. Chris Norwood

    Okay, so I may be open to accepting that some coop games are more “DPP-prone” than others, much like you have some games that are AP-prone.  But while I like a lot of the less DPP-prone coops, I also feel like they’re a little less cooperative than things like Pandemic in some ways.  Because while you’re still working together to beat the game, there’s less chance to really pool your ideas and develop a plan together.

    It’s like there’s a continuum in coop games.  At one end, you have a fully cooperative game with lots of chance to share ideas and develop plans together, but also open the door to the DPP.  While at the other end, you have limited information-sharing due to some constraints (time pressure, hidden & unique hands of cards, specific limits on what you can say/do) that constrain how you can cooperate, but that are also less DPP-prone. 

    So again, it’s not a “flaw” in the game (which is usually the feeling I get from people that talk about it) as much as it’s an inherent side-effect of choosing a fully cooperative game design. 

    And I’d love to guest-star on the GFBR sometime!  My email is gamerchris@bellsouth.net, which is probably the best way to get up with me (or geekmail me at BGG, where I’m kilroy_locke).


  8. I think it must be considered a flaw in the game design, because it is absolutely not an inherent side effect of cooperative games. The fact that cooperative games which do not exhibit this flaw exist tells you that much.

    I’ll illustrate with a couple of examples of similar flaws. The first is the flaw of preferential treatment in party games that involve subjective judging. A2A is the prime example. The rules actually encourage players to lobby for their cards to be chosen by the judge. When that is a possibility, it leads to some cards being chosen (or not), not by their appropriateness, but by meta-game factors such as favoritism or the desire to prevent another player from winning. Newer games which use similar ‘all players respond to one’ mechanisms tend to be structured in such a way as to prevent irrational subjectiveness on the part of the judge. Cooperative games can be structured in ways that do not permit inactive players to interfere with an active player’s turn. Hidden information and simultaneous action are to methods to accomplish this, but there are others.

    But, you say, the goal is to win and the dominating player is simply trying to ensure a passive or inexperienced player plays his best, (but really, it’s the domineering player doing his playing for him), and to help the group win. Take a look at A Few Acres of Snow, a recent game that many consider flawed. AFAoS has a dominant strategy, one that if a player executes well, will lead to victory most of the time. Some players agree to avoid this dominant strategy when playing AFAoS, and when doing so, the game plays beautifully and is unflawed for those players. However, the flaw exists, and is easily exploited by experienced players. A cooperative game like Pandemic doesn’t really have multiple strategies, being primarily a tactical puzzle, but in order to win, the group (really a single player with several heads), needs to execute their strategy of “always play optimal moves” in order to have the best chance of winning. When one head knows another head is likely to make a suboptimal play, it is in the player/group’s best interest to correct that head’s play. That is the only strategy of Pandemic and therefore the dominant strategy. Players may choose to play Pandemic and ignore this dominant strategy, and for them the game plays beautifully and is unflawed, but that doesn’t mean the flaw doesn’t exist.

  9. Chris Norwood

    Okay, I obviously disagree, but let me make a few points why…

    #1) Re-read my comments above about the whole continuum thing.  Since coop games with lots of restrictions feel less cooperative to me than wide-open coop games, then I don’t think that it’s a universal “fix” to repair a “flaw” in the other games, because you’re losing part of the coop experience.  So it’s more of a choice about the nature of the cooperation you want and the potential for dominant players.

    #2) A2A isn’t as broken as people believe, because you don’t actually have to lobby for your own card.  Once you (and your group) figure that out, metagaming who you give the point to is less of an issue (or at least become a mind game that’s a bit more interesting).  But even then, I think that the A2A scoring mechanic is still “flawed” when compared to more recent ones because I don’t see the newer ones having to make compromises in how the game otherwise plays in order to avoid the metagame scoring.  But as I just said, restrictive coop games do have to compromise (or at least drastically change) the cooperative experiecne to “fix” this, so it’s more of a choice about play than applying a fix to a problem. 

    #3) The Halifax Hammer in AFAoS and “optimal moves” in Pandemic are really a very poor comparison.  One is a pretty cut-and-dried sequence of moves that almost guarantees victory for one side.  The other is a very subjective thing that still doesn’t guarantee victory. 

    I mean, there are certainly some times when there is a very clear “best move” that could be taken, but a lot more often, it’s way more fuzzy than some “expert” players would admit to.  I’ve played Pandemic over 120 times (only 33 other people on BGG have played it more), and in most games I play, I’m still not completely certain which path is the best.  So when I act as “team capain” for a group of newer players, what I try to do is lay out the different paths that I see as viable, explain why I think they are reasonable, and point out the reasoning (prioriting threats vs. efficient play) that makes me think that.  If they flat-out ask which one I’d take, I’ll usually tell them, but if I’m being honest, I usually admit that there’s no way to tell for sure ahead of time which is best.  And then, it’s up to them to make the decision they want to make, or even better, since I explained my thinking, they (or someone else) may even be able to make a suggestion or point out something else that changes the plan and helps us go in an superior direction. 

    That’s my reality of how I’ve experienced Pandemic and other coop games, anyway.


  10. I’ve heard the same thing and it has annoyed me every time as well.

    That’s not a knock on Escape (which I love) or Space Cadets (which I would love to play), but it is a knock on that attitude. It usually goes hand in hand with a statement that a person doesn’t like co-ops because…”

    Well, that’s just dumb. If you don’t like co-op’s because of other player behaviors, then get a spine. That’s probably a bit strong (or ranty), but you get my drift.

    I never have a problem telling people when to step off, so maybe I’m the jerk in the situation. However, co-ops generally are liked in my various game groups precisely because there is a sense of camaraderie in attacking the problem that the game presents.

    I hate that this attitude persists among some more “experienced” gamers, because they may be pooh-poohing games that, mechanically, are great ways to introduce new gamers into the hobby. Hands down, the games that more or my new gamers have gone out and purchased after playing them out one of our game sessions are the cooperative games. I think that has something to do with the fact that many gamers early aversion to board games comes from over competitive experiences with games in their youth. Time and again, these gamers tell me that they didn’t even know that games that required you to work together even existed. It gets them over a mental barrier to playing games and opens them up to further play experiences.

    I’m glad Chris ranted about the topic because I would hate for that pool of great games to be poisoned by a silly idea that isn’t really relevant in my book.

    Plus, I hate when people pan Pandemic. It’s a fantastic game. We’re all in agreement there. Perhaps we should make T-shirts!

  11. Chris Norwood

    One of the coolest things that I first came to love about coop games is how easy they are to teach, because you can always just sort of jump right in and get the game started and teach as you go, since you’re working together anyway.  But all the complaining about the dominant player mess has made me gun-shy to do this, because I’m afraid that people will be all offended that I would dare to tell them how to play the game (even if I’m teaching it to them, which is just stupid). 

    But from now on, I’m taking back my teaching strategy for coop games!  Teaching, guiding, and offering suggestions is not the same as bullying or dominating!  I’m a thoughtful adult person, and I do know the freaking difference! 


  12. The dominant player is definitely a player problem, and it’s a problem for more games than just cooperative games. There are many games, such as El Grande, Dominant Species, etc, that are highly prone to board manipulation by one or two overly vocal players.

    This play-style is my number one pet peeve in games because it results in one player essentially taking multiple turns.

    Where I could understand someone’s saying that it is a game design flaw in a these games. I would respond that dominant players tend to gravitate toward games that allow them to control/persuade/manipulate the other players moves.

    I agree with GamerChris in that the responsibility falls to us to not be naive to the dominant play style nor be so malleable that we become susceptible to persuasion.

  13. Dwayne

    Many games that are called Cooperative, would better be called “Shared Goal” games as there is really very little cooperation in them.

    Something like Space Alert for example, has players who are working separately to accomplish the same goal however they don’t really have time etc to communicate and work together on things.

    What you call the flaw in Pandemic is actually a strength, or at the very least a design goal. It is about communication, coming up with a plan and executing it. If somebody doesn’t like that kind of game that’s just personal preference and doesn’t make it a flaw any more than somebody not liking Memoir ’44 because it is about WW2 means that game is flawed.

  14. Chris Norwood

    That’s a great way to frame the distinction I was trying to make.  At one end of the spectrum, you have fully cooperative games like Pandemic, while at the other, you have these “Shared Goal” games where you’re all working towards the same thing, but some game mechanic prevents you from really “cooperating”.

    Thanks, Dwayne! 


  15. I think you’re falling into the trap of defining your terms to support your argument. You’ve decided that cooperation is only this one thing where all information is shared and all decisions are made by group consensus and anything other than that is some sort of lesser, non-cooperation.

  16. Dwayne

    Not at all – I was just trying to explain that I see that there are different kinds of cooperative games with different styles of interaction.

    Different doesn’t have to mean better or worse, they’re just different. I happen to enjoy them both.

  17. Dwayne

    Not at all – I was just trying to explain that I see that there are different kinds of cooperative games with different styles of interaction.

    Different doesn’t have to mean better or worse, they’re just different. I happen to enjoy them both.

  18. Chris Norwood

    Brett, I agree that to some extent, this differentiation becomes a matter of semantics, and choosing how you define things will manipulate the argument one way or another.

    But at the same time, I don’t think that it’s unresonable to accept the notion that a game which limits how much information you can share or puts a huge obstacle between the players (like a time pressure) is “less” cooperative than a game where you can have a free-flow of ideas and open communication between the players.  It’s not saying that this restrictive-cooperation type of game is not a cooperative game at all, but rather, the “Shared Goal” label is more just an acknowlegement that there is a substantive difference between those two types of cooperative games.

    And getting back to my point earlier is that, since there is a real difference in the nature of the cooperation between these types of games, the possibility of the “dominant player” in fully coop games doesn’t make those games “flawed” and limited coop games “fixed”, it’s just a matter of choosing one or the other style of game.

  19. Dwayne

    One more quick comment. Even in games like Pandemic where everybody is trying to work out a plan it doesn’t necessarily mean all decisions are made by group consensus. In our group for example, the person whose turn it is always has the final decision. Other players can and do suggest strategies, however sometimes a player decides on a different course of action. This doesn’t ruin the game for us, it just makes it more fun when something goes wrong and allows us to rib them good naturedly.

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