Don't fall in love with me yet, we only recently met
There's an attitude I come across a lot on BGG that the only right way to play a game is for every player to be doing their utmost to win, which I take to mean always making moves that maximise their probability of winning (or at least their estimate of it). The high priest of this school is David Sirlin, whose 'playing to win' manifesto denounces those who don't exploit every opportunity the game gives them to win as 'scrubs'.
But while all games give their players a goal, I've never seen one that makes 'playing to win' a rule. And when I started brainstorming things we do in games that can actually reduce our chances of winning, I came up with a bunch.
- levelling the playing field. Handicaps are commonly adopted by players with mismatched skill levels, whether parent against child or Go master against novice.
- giving hints. For example, I often point out to a new player at the start of a game of Kingdom Builder that it's not a great idea to touch several different terrains with your first move.
- 'playing nice'. When I play Ticket to Ride with my wife, we have an informal agreement that we don't block for the sake of blocking, only if it's a route you need yourself. Carcassonne is another game that allows 'nice' and 'nasty' modes of play. I don't see nasty play as inherently superior.
- humour. Playing Love Letter, I'll often do something because it's funny, even if it isn't strictly my 'best' move.
- exploration. It can be fun to try out new strategies in a game, even if you think they might not work. I got bored of always doing the same thing in Puerto Rico and forbade myself from buying the Factory, even though I knew I was more likely to win with it.
- to keep playing. I've had games of Pax Porfiriana that ended disappointingly suddenly on the first topple. Sometimes we'll agree a 'rewind' so that we can keep playing without having to set the whole thing up again.
- to avoid 'brokenness'. Plenty of people are still having enjoyable games of A Few Acres of Snow by not learning or not implementing the 'unbeatable' British strategy.
I'm sure you can think of many more examples.
So if winning is not the only motivation, what's going on here? My thinking about this has been heavily influenced by a wonderful book I read recently: The Well-played Game: a Player's Philosophy by Bernard de Koven.
For de Koven, the real goal of playing together is finding the 'well-played game' which he describes as "a game that becomes excellent because of the way it's being played". He goes on "No matter who wins the game, if we have played well together, we have accomplished what we set out to do. That victory is not determined by who wins, nor by what game we play, but rather by the quality of playing we have been able to create together." Many of the examples above are cases of the players collectively deciding to play a certain way to increase their enjoyment, rather than anyone's individual chance to win.
Here's another quote from the book:
What occurs to me now is that this search for a well-played game is already a radical departure from what we do, as adults, when we play games together.
Normally, the only common intention that we have been able to establish with each other is that we have each wanted to win. Though we have been playing games together, the only effort in which we are usually united, the only accomplishment that we have all been able to validate, is winning.
It is clear to me, now, that the result of such a union is separation, always separation.
The word 'only' is important here. What de Koven believes is that each player playing to win is not enough by itself to create a well-played game.
As for 'separation', it puts me in mind of an attitude that sometimes seems to accompany 'play to win'. What I'm talking about is a desire for the other players to 'play right' so that they can be reduced to just another factor in my win-maximising algorithm. I've seen a player get angry at another in a game of Puerto Rico for making 'suboptimal' moves that interfered with his strategy. And related to this are the interminable debates over what a player 'should' do if they no longer have any chance of winning. If we're only playing to win, we feel like this behaviour needs to be codified to avoid unfairness.
So does all this mean that I'm a tree-hugging hippie who hates competition? Absolutely not! I enjoy nothing more than four experienced players going at it tooth and nail over a game of Tigris & Euphrates. But that's because for that group that is the well-played game they're looking for right then. De Koven's notion is inclusive of, not in opposition to, playing to win.
Do I play to win? Sometimes. Do I play to play? Always.