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The Problem That Wasn't Really A Problem

Johannes cum Grano Salis
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"It's not hard to design a game that works, the real challenge is making one that people want to play again and again."--Martin Wallace
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Recently, a common complaint came up in some reviews and session reports for a couple games I'm subscribed to (the actual games aren't important here; I just want to focus on the concept that was common across threads). While not every thread referred to the complaint explicitly this way, it was pretty clear that people weren't enjoying the game in question because of what they saw as a Runaway Leader problem, though it was sometimes phrased as having a Fallaway Loser problem.

Runaway Leader generally means that once someone gets into the lead, they just keep putting more and more distance between themselves and their competitor(s) and there's little that can be done to stop them. Fallaway Loser, conversely, just means that once someone falls behind, there's nothing they can do to claw their way back and be competitive. Very similar states.

Before I go any further, I can't help but be reminded of back when I taught, and I'd have students--smart students, mind you, this was a College of Engineering--who thought that, no matter what their performance to date in the course and no matter how much time remained in the semester, that it was still possible for them to get an "A" in the course. This was amazing to me. That someone could be smart enough to get admitted to an engineering school and still hold this idea made no sense at all. For it to be true, it required a suspension of how math actually worked, and also required an act of generosity on my part that was unexplainable and without motivation.

Now, I want to stop here. Because little is more unnerving online than reading about how you are intellectually deficient in some way, I just want to clarify that I'm not calling people who despise Runaway Leaders stupid. Runaway Leaders probably do exist, as a phenomenon. What I want to explore a bit is whether or not that automatically constitutes a problem. Because that's how it is generally articulated: "this game has a runaway leader problem." Very few people ever say "This game has a runaway leader opportunity."

We often talk about how we want games--particularly heavy games--to have decisions that matter. We want "meaty" decisions or "tough" decisions. We seek out games that cause us to weigh many things to arrive at a decision and then act, and live with the consequences of that decision. And yet I can't help but be a little surprised that the Runaway Leader as a quickly diagnosed problem exists in that same world. So people want a game of tough, strategic choices full of meaningful decisions, but the execution of those choices shouldn't result in too commanding a lead, and failed choices shouldn't punish you too much?

Runaway Leader and Fallaway Loser both strike me as feedback from the game about how your decisions weren't good. Is someone pulling ahead? Yes? Then recall what they did, work out when they timed it, and next time try to do it or prevent them from doing it. Are you falling behind? The act of being behind in a game is feedback about your choices. So don't do what you did again, or, at the very least, try and work through what you did (and what your opponents did) to have yourself be in that position.

I get that when people game they want people to have a good time, and they want people to stay engaged. But that's a philosophy that's more in line with the standard German Family Game, and not necessarily the meatier, heavy game. I'm often left wondering if there are serious problems of expectation in some games, where people want a meaty experience full of tense, tough decisions...but they don't want those decisions punished very much, and there shouldn't be much threat of falling too far behind. If you insist a game offer tough choices, and also insist that the game not punish you too much for making a bad choice early on, then you are not really seeking out games with tough choices: by removing punishment, the "toughness" of a decision has been neutered. It stops being a "tough" choice and instead becomes a temporarily inconvenient choice, a tough-seeming decision. Like my students who thought an "A" was always within reach no matter their performance to date.

Now, I'm fully aware that I might be missing something. And so I'd like to turn to you here: what am I missing? From my vantage point, something isn't right. There's nuance here, and it's being ignored in favor of a blunt, imprecise term.

When people talk about Runaway Leaders, are they really talking about a related (but contributing) issue, such as early finite actions being too powerful? I.e, on turn 1 a player gets a Mistress of Ceremonies and just rides the wave to the end and there's nothing the opposition can do? Or they claim a route between two cities and get such a head start in income that they other players can't do a thing to come back? (Though I'd probably argue that in that last example, "Turn Order matters" might be the key takeaway). Perhaps most importantly, have any of you ever diagnosed a Runaway Leader Problem, only to rescind it later with more plays? How many plays constitute enough to make that call?

Part of the issue here, too, is that people do not play games several times, so if the feedback from the game is "well, do something different next time; you overvalued Action X relative to what your opponent did," and the player isn't inspired by the game enough to want to play the game again and try to play differently and learn whatever that "something" is, then the problem will remain to them as a Runaway Leader Problem and not a Suboptimal Play Problem. The latter way of framing the issue is entirely within the players' control, while the former is frankly an easy kind of defeatism. So maybe my issue is that I dislike seeing people just dismiss something outright for a bad reason. I can't fault people for not liking a game and not wanting to play it again, but I can certainly fault them for choosing to express that in a way that (surprise!) manages to keep their own ego intact while shifting blame to someone else (i.e., the designer).

I'm starting to suspect that, fairly frequently, it's used as a way to express frustration that there's nothing immediately obvious that can be done to close a performance gap between players. A game might be a lost cause for you now, but that wasn't the case last turn, and that's when your intervention was necessary; it's too late now unless you reformulate a plan that'll take a while to work. I don't know this for a fact, but I'd be willing to bet that games with frequently-perceived runaway leader problems are also a.) games that are often described as "fragile," and/or b.) games that focus on something other than engine building or goods conversion, which tend to show the outcomes of decisions rather explicitly; in other words, the more opaque or counter-intuitive the feedback, the more likely some players throw up their hands in frustration at seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Again, that's just a hunch.

Runaway Leader issues might surface somewhere in the first-play murky area of "defining how players created or earned their opportunity." That's a key area of interest that keeps me coming back to the same games over and over again, and I'm starting to see that it's an area that other people have no interest in exploring at all. That doesn't automatically mean the game has depth, but it definitely means the game has some element of replayability; there's a ready-made area of investigation there, something to toy with and test.

Ultimately, my default setting now is to not believe someone at all when they say a game has a runaway leader problem; that diagnosis must be earned. Instead, I log that criticism differently, and I note that the game might have an interesting choke point, or a counter-intuitive way of progressing through the game, or a non-obvious way of messing with the deltas between competitors. I'm not saying that's right, but absent any real context, I just view the "Runaway Leader" label as always having an asterisk.
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