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Subject: OBG 297: Argument Hour rss

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Erik Dewey
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In this episode, TC Petty III and Seth Jaffee have an argument.



(1:01:23) In the second segment, Brian Counter takes a look at another couple of Alexa games: Yes Sire and Rogue's Choice



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Direct download: http://traffic.libsyn.com/onboardgames/obg297_050718.mp3?des...
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Seth Jaffee
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I think that went pretty well. Interested to see what the listeners thought.

In this first installment of The Argument Hour:
* TC and I argued about the existence of "The Alpha Player Problem" (what does that really mean?),
* TC proposed "The Jaffee Fallacy," (I rephrased to The Jaffee Rule),
* We talked a little bit about inherent properties of some common mechanisms,
* And we reviewed Kingdomino (what type of player would like it?)
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Isaac Shalev
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Might be I'm biased, but I LOVED this episode. Great job guys, hope you'll do it again soon!
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Jonathan Powell
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Best new segment on a boardgaming podcast in a long while. Really enjoyed it. Hope there's more to come. Thanks fellas.
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Mr Osterman
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Not gonna lie: From the title I thought you guys had decided to live stream a game of Diplomacy rather than doing a PBF.

Still listening; more later.
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Mr Osterman
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Okay. Through the show and I have to say that you have the Alpha Gamer Problem completely wrong.

It is just that, it's a Gamer problem. It's not a mechanics problem, it's not a design problem. Specifically it's a "We don't want to deal with the Alpha Gamer so we're going to blame it on the game" problem.

The AG shows up the most in Solitaire By Committee game because that's where he can not only be the Alpha but he won't compromise his own game by doing it. It's also more socially acceptable for her to take control of the game there than it would be for her to do it in a more competitive setting. But the AG is not limited to coops.

Let's look at the AG in a competitive environs:

P1: I'm not sure what to do.
P2: I know what I'd do.
P1: What?
P2: I'm not saying until you commit your move.
P1: Makes move.
P2: See that was the worst move you could have made. If you'd done this, that and the other thing you'd be way better positioned. Too bad you didn't see it.

In Committee games that is more welcome because in that setting everyone ultimately wants to win. There having someone spelling out "the perfect move" gives the team a clear pathway to win. Even if you strip away the committee aspect with traitor mechanics, or hidden info, or other ways to encourage less dominance by one person the AG is still a problem.

Take Shadows of Camelot. The AG will simply lay out "the solution" and every turn remind players of the "conditions" by which certain moves should be made. "This early you need to draw from the deck." and "If you have these cards then you HAVE to go here".

But we keep the AG around because the solution is a lot harder. It means telling someone at the table that you don't like their attitude and the way they play games. If you game mostly with friends, it can be really hard to say "you dominate the game space and it's not fun." The easier fix is to move them into games where that dominance is more hidden and it is less socially acceptable.

It's the same problem in any office setting where there are committees and work groups. A single personality can dominate those settings and make productive work difficult. There, at least, you usually have an HR team or a boss to work out how to share responsibility, delegate tasks etc.

So with full respect there absolutely can be an Alpha Gamer problem (no quotes) in a game group. It just has nothing at all to do with the game, and everything to do with the group.
 
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Isaac Shalev
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There is an AG who is incurable. He's terrible in every kind of game, the only real difference is the how his terribleness is expressed.

But to me, denying the existence of the AG as a design problem is a straw man argument.

The way I see it, game design is (in part) about creating incentives for different behaviors, and having players evaluate incentives and rewards. Whether or not you're a jerk, SbC games incentivize you to try and find the best solution for the group. Some people prefer to listen, evaluate, and support good ideas. Other players listen, evaluate and critique ideas, trying to poke holes in them. Some players express their ideas with more heat or aggression or overconfidence. Some players will withdraw from the magic circle when tensions rise.

It seems to me that the goal of having fun in an SbC game is in tension with the goal of making the best decision in a committee. A good game design should address that tension and help limit the negative outcomes. Maybe... maybe we see the AG problem only with the jerkiest of players because game designs are actually achieving some of that? I'm not sure.
 
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Mr Osterman
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ender7 wrote:


But to me, denying the existence of the AG as a design problem is a straw man argument.



I don't think you can design-away the AG problem though. The Alpha Gamer is an Alpha Gamer. They get the most attention in a SbC game because they don't lose anything by taking charge in an aggressive way, but I think that even as you add more and more design elements to curb their influence they are still THE problem.

I follow that a good game design should address the potential for a player to "take charge" especially in a SbC game, but I think those are going to appear in any game with a social element as well.

In Werewolf, it's the player who bullies people into voting their way.

In Codenames, it's the player who trash talks her own clue-giver for not giving more obvious clues.

In Game Of Thrones, it's the player who pounds away on the same alliances as 'critical' to stopping 'that one player' (not himself of course) from winning on turn 5. Often, of course, said AG wins the game himself on turn 6.

I think the "fix" is a better job learning how to respect each other at the table rather than attempting to design away the problem.

That is, unless, by Alpha Gamer you mean any instance where someone, sincerely, just wants to offer advice in a coop/ SbC game experience. In those cases I think there is a failure in the instructions/ description. I don't consider myself an AG but I think in a SbC game it's my duty to the team to share my observations.
 
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Isaac Shalev
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An alpha gamer is a person.

An alpha gamer problem is a design problem.

Or, put another way: there are plenty of non-jerks who nevertheless dominate SbC games. It may not be as socially unpleasant, but it nevertheless subverts the intent of the designer for the game dynamic. That's the problem we're trying to solve for. Jerks are gonna jerk.
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Seth Jaffee
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ender7 wrote:
An alpha gamer is a person.
An alpha gamer problem is a design problem.

Or, put another way: there are plenty of non-jerks who nevertheless dominate SbC games. It may not be as socially unpleasant, but it nevertheless subverts the intent of the designer for the game dynamic. That's the problem we're trying to solve for. Jerks are gonna jerk.

I feel like I have to keep saying it, lest the error continue to proliferate...

You're assuming a lot about the intent of the designer, and (related) I maintain that you are conflating 2 distinct types of games.

Committee style games have a dynamic (not a problem), which you are suggesting people "solve" by making the game be a collaborative (i.e. not committee style) game instead.

As a designer, if that's your goal, then sure. Design a collaborative style game instead of a committee style one. There are many ways to make a game more collaborative and less committee-ative(?).

However, if the designer's intent was to make a game in which players play by committee, and you don't want to play by committee, then the "solution" is to not sit down to that game. The solution is NOT to complain that the players who do play that game by committee are "subverting the designer's intent." That would assume the designer intended to make a collaborative game, and made a committee style game instead by mistake. I don't know if we can know that for sure, but I'd prefer to give the designer the benefit of the doubt and assume they made the type of game they set out to make.

So when you say "that's the problem we're trying to solve for..." I just ask that you recognize the implied 2nd half of that sentence: "...when we design collaborative style games in lieu of committee style games."

I maintain that there's nothing inherently wrong with the committee style game genre, nor the people who play or enjoy those games. Problems arise when conflating that style of game with collaborative games. Calling them all "cooperative games" does nobody any favors because it promotes this conflation and this mismatch of expectations.

Edit: To put that another way, "alpha gamer problem" is only a problem if you're not trying to make a committee style game, and further, I dislike the negative connotation being put on "alpha gamer" in that phrase because it stems from a demonization of a player who is simply playing by committee in a committee style game.
 
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Isaac Shalev
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I don't think there is a game type which is "we all sit here, but one person actually makes all the decisions." That's not a collaborative game,that's just a bad time.

In any case, just bc the rules say 'the person whose turn it is gets to make the final decision' doesn't matter if that rule doesn't survive first contact with gamers. It's a funny thing, but gamers feel free to dispense with that rule when they'd never dream of drawing a different number of cards than the rules allow.

In part, the rule doesn't survive because it governs the wrong thing: the final decision. But by the time an alpha is through, I may genuinely agree with them, or at least decide that I'll do what they say so to avoid unpleasantness. The behavior the designer should be trying to avoid isn't modulated by the rule presented.

You can say that collaborative games are really fragile to group type, I suppose. But can't we still hope to improve their design and counter that fragility?
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Donald Dennis
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ender7 wrote:
An alpha gamer is a person.

An alpha gamer problem is a design problem.


As much as I hate to agree with Isaac, and I think we all know I do, he's spot-on here.

Players can be more or less alpha inclined, and games can certainly have mechanisms which facilitate or interfere with alpha gamer tendencies. Real-time games with hidden information tend to make it more difficult for one player to seize control, while open-information cooperative games have a tendency to encourage it.

There are going to be outliers in either category - some players are always going to alpha and some games may require a singular leader for the players to succeed.
 
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Seth Jaffee
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ender7 wrote:
I don't think there is a game type which is "we all sit here, but one person actually makes all the decisions." That's not a collaborative game,that's just a bad time.

Correct, that's not a collaborative game, that's a committee style game where some players are not participating in the committee meeting

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You can say that collaborative games are really fragile to group type, I suppose. But can't we still hope to improve their design and counter that fragility?

You might say that committee style games (the cooperative games that "don't try and solve the alpha player problem," because the whole point is to play by committee) have that fragility. But the solutions proposed are fundamental changes the genre of the game.

People might not want to agree with the terminology I've been using, or think I'm being pedantic for calling certain co-op games collaborative and other ones committee style, but that misses the point. I'm drawing a distinction between two significant different types of games here.

Saying "can't we hope to improve their design and counter that fragility?" in reference to removing the committee aspect of games played by committee, by definition, is calling the one type "better" than the other. You're saying that you can categorically improve a committee style game by making it into a collaborative game instead. There are fans of Robinson Crusoe, Pandemic, Ghost Stories, Forbidden Island, etc, etc who I think might disagree with that.

So yes, I agree that there are ways to improve games that aren't meant to be played by committee by adding mechanisms that curtail that committee aspect.

Do you agree that there exist games that ARE meant to be played by committee?

Do you agree that those games are fundamentally different in the way I'm describing from games that are NOT intended to be played by committee?

Do you agree that for games that ARE intended to be played by committee, it's not automatically better to remove the committee aspect?

Or is it undeniable fact that collaborative, non-committee style games are categorically better (not just "better in your opinion," or "better for your group," but categorically better) than committee style games?
 
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Isaac Shalev
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What I keep coming back to is that sorting games into collaborative vs committee is helpful (might be more helpful if they didn't both start with a C!). But the definition is kind of circular: a game is collaborative if players play it in that style. Pandemic. The rules are committee (hidden cards, separate player turns), but players play face-up and take their turns in collaboration. Kind of a lucky break that a failed committee game became a classic collaborative game, which reflects the strength of the rest of the design.

Is it possible to make a collaborative game that nevertheless is more resilient to alpha tendencies? I think so. Sentinels of the Multiverse is somewhat more successful than Pandemic, even though it doesn't restrict players from openly discussing their hands. To really alpha sentinels, you need to know the game pretty well. Because of how distinct each player is, the social cues point towards a more deferential kind of collaboration. Is that sufficient to make it a committee game? I don't think so.



 
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Seth Jaffee
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ender7 wrote:
What I keep coming back to is that sorting games into collaborative vs committee is helpful (might be more helpful if they didn't both start with a C!). But the definition is kind of circular: a game is collaborative if players play it in that style. Pandemic. The rules are committee (hidden cards, separate player turns), but players play face-up and take their turns in collaboration. Kind of a lucky break that a failed committee game became a classic collaborative game, which reflects the strength of the rest of the design.

It's difficult to even discuss these things without common terms. I've tried to be consistent in my terminology:

Committee style cooperative games: games where the point is to discuss play as a group, come to a consensus as to a course of action, and then perform that course of action (as opposed to having individual agency).

Collaborative cooperative games: games where players have their own agency to make their own plays, with the goal of helping the team.

If you think there are better or clearer terms to use, then feel free to propose them, but it is difficult to discuss if we don't agree that there are these two things, and if we can't refer to them clearly.

Quote:
But the definition is kind of circular: a game is collaborative if players play it in that style.

This is not what I've been saying at all.

My assertion is that the entire point of some cooperative games is to play by committee, and the entire point of other cooperative games is to not play by committee. It's not about the style by which people play -- these are distinct types of games.

Quote:
Pandemic. The rules are committee (hidden cards, separate player turns), but players play face-up and take their turns in collaboration. Kind of a lucky break that a failed committee game became a classic collaborative game, which reflects the strength of the rest of the design.

I disagree with this assessment. Also, I think you flipped the terms (at least with respect to the terms I've been using for this whole discussion).

Pandemic is a committee style game. It's design is such that you play by committee. I don't know for sure if that's what the designer intended, but it's certainly the way the game works, and these distinctions weren't talked about at the time, so it may have been by mistake.

If you DID flip the terms, and meant to say that Pandemic is a failed attempt at a collaborative game that, fortunately, worked as a committee style game, then that assumes the designer wasn't looking to create committee style game. That might be true, I haven't asked him.

Also, by saying that the game "luckily worked out despite being committee style speaks to the strength of the rest of the design" dismisses the entire committee genre altogether (and players that like it). As far as I can tell there's no reason to do that.

Quote:
Is it possible to make a collaborative game that nevertheless is more resilient to alpha tendencies? I think so. Sentinels of the Multiverse is somewhat more successful than Pandemic, even though it doesn't restrict players from openly discussing their hands. To really alpha sentinels, you need to know the game pretty well. Because of how distinct each player is, the social cues point towards a more deferential kind of collaboration. Is that sufficient to make it a committee game? I don't think so.

Yes, as I keep saying, there are many ways to make a collaborative game that is resilient to alpha tendencies... limit communication, limit time, make it complex, add a traitor.

I suspect you meant "Is it possible to make a committee style game that nevertheless is more resilient to alpha tendencies?" Well, you could make it NOT committee style... but is that the point? Maybe if what you want is a not-committee style game then that's the point, but again, that's just pretending a whole genre doesn't exist because you don't particularly care for it.

In other words, you could add time pressure, limited communication, and a traitor to Pandemic/Robinson Crusoe/Ghost Stories, but doing so changes the fundamental category of game to something different.
 
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Isaac Shalev
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I did flip the terms, and would suggest that we adopt somewhat clearer names.

I'd suggest that what you describe as collaborative be called 'consultative' - the dynamic is that players consult with others, but make their own decisions. Collaborative and committee both sound to me like we all work together to achieve consensus. Maybe consultative vs consensus are clearer terms?

As for Pandemic, the rules are pretty clear: you're not supposed to share what's in your hand. By denying players access to that information, the game is clearly saying each player, on their turn, is in charge of their own decision. They're welcome to solicit advice, but ultimately, since they're barred from sharing relevant info, the agency over the decision must lie with the active player. That's what I'd call consultative. Yet it's not played that way. It's played with open info, thus turning into what I'd call consensus.

You're saying that there are games whose very point is to be played w group decision-making. They are basically solo games that multiple people are playing, a core game dynamic is the group conversation. I believe that this is a bit of an overstatement. I say this because I see differences between games that are truly designed as solo games and those that are not, which is that non-solo games typically offer a greater connection between players and avatars, and usually have a decision rule that says something like the player controlling the avatar, or whose turn it is, or who expends some decision-making resource, gets the final say.

Do players play these games in line with those rules? Not strictly. In part it's because adult humans seek consensus, especially when stakes are low.

Now we have two questions:
1) Can a player not bound by the social conventions of cooperation, who places the utmost value on winning, who believes s/he has figured out the correct move, and expresses it loudly, and is derisive towards other -- can such a player be managed effectively by the game design itself?

The answer here is a resounding no. This isn't a game design problem, it's a player is an asshole problem. Their assholery may be more tolerable in other games, where other compensatory dynamics exist - eg, knocking the stuffing out of them on the board, or picking on them or shunning them in trades, etc. They're still assholes though.

2) Can the tendencies of non-assholes to nonetheless cross over into anti-cooperative, dictatorial behavior be curbed by a design, without fundamentally changing the core dynamic of consensus-based decision-making?

I think the answer is yes. Every time a game introduces a 'deference' mechanism, it's creating social guardrails. It's not saying 'only the active player must make the decision, though the rest of you should advise.' It's saying 'remember, the way to have the most fun is to share decision-making, to make space for everyone's opinions, and to help people find ways to positively contribute.' That, in my opinion, is actually the positive dynamic that consensus games are trying to instantiate. Games that do this, without, in my opinion, crossing the line into consultative, include 7th Continent, and Robinson Crusoe. 7th Continent, for example, has strong character representation, substantial random events, and very punishing outcomes. The game keeps telling you "hey, you're not actually that smart, don't pretend you have all the right answers." But it doesn't even have player turns, or any mechanism other than player agreement for deciding who should go next and do what. These games are more resilient to Alpha gaming behavior, but not to assholes.

Where's the line between consensus and consultative? I'd say it's where you have information or time restrictions that make consensus-building impractical.

Finally, we have the coordination games, which simply can't be played in any group decision-making style without breaking the game engine. Hanabi, The Mind, Magic Maze, etc.

 
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Seth Jaffee
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ender7 wrote:
I did flip the terms, and would suggest that we adopt somewhat clearer names.

I'd suggest that what you describe as collaborative be called 'consultative' - the dynamic is that players consult with others, but make their own decisions. Collaborative and committee both sound to me like we all work together to achieve consensus. Maybe consultative vs consensus are clearer terms?

I actually don't think that's clearer... 'consultative' sounds to me like you're inviting someone to tell you what to do, whereas you want something that does not invite that.

I think 'committee' is pretty obviously inviting that as well.

I thought 'collaborative' would be a good term that implies agency in pursuit of helping the team, each player plays their own game, but they collaborate toward the common goal. But if that term also implies a committee meeting to you, then I agree we should choose another (maybe, as you mentioned, one that doesn't start with a "c" )

Quote:
As for Pandemic, the rules are pretty clear: you're not supposed to share what's in your hand.


Are you sure?


Quote:
By denying players access to that information, the game is clearly saying each player, on their turn, is in charge of their own decision. They're welcome to solicit advice, but ultimately, since they're barred from sharing relevant info, the agency over the decision must lie with the active player. That's what I'd call consultative. Yet it's not played that way. It's played with open info, thus turning into what I'd call consensus.

If the communication were limited in the way you describe, then I would suggest that Pandemic is not (or at least it's less like) what I've been calling a 'committee style' game, and instead is more of what I've been calling 'collaborative'. However, as you can see above, that's not the way the game was designed.

It's possible that some players (such as yourself) would PREFER to play the game without sharing that information. I'm certain that would make the game more difficult. I am not sure what the designer intended exactly, but I have to assume he meant for players to share the info, as that's what the rules say.

But the point is, given that the rules of the game allow (encourage!) players to share that info, I maintain that that makes it a committee style game. Therefore, players who play it that way are not "causing a problem," they are simply playing the game.

If you prefer to play with a 'collaborative variant' where you're not allowed to share info, then that's your prerogative, but you can't reasonably demonize players who don't use the same variant that you do!

Quote:
You're saying that there are games whose very point is to be played w group decision-making. They are basically solo games that multiple people are playing, a core game dynamic is the group conversation. I believe that this is a bit of an overstatement. I say this because I see differences between games that are truly designed as solo games and those that are not, which is that non-solo games typically offer a greater connection between players and avatars, and usually have a decision rule that says something like the player controlling the avatar, or whose turn it is, or who expends some decision-making resource, gets the final say.

I feel like that's neither here nor there. In my view, a committee style game is all about having a committee meeting to decide on a course of action. Which player physically moves the pieces, or who's turn it is, doesn't really matter in that case, as the plan has been made collectively. Like, if it's my turn, and I can't reach across the table to move my piece to Sydney, and I ask you to do it for me, I'm not somehow breaking the game because I conceded the agency to move my own piece!

Regarding solo games, I recall playing Agricola solo variant with a friend (we called it "2-headed moron"). This was done in much the same way 2 players might play Pandemic: "We should do this, then we can do that," "No, I think it's better to do this instead, that other thing will still be available next turn..."

Whether games that are designed to be played solitaire, or designed to be played "solitaire by committee" (this is where that term comes from), is not much of a distinction -- if anything it's a question of complexity. Perhaps a solitaire by committee game could afford to be more complex, since it's designed to be worked on by a team instead of an individual. But I wouldn't call that a requirement.

Quote:
Do players play these games in line with those rules? Not strictly. In part it's because adult humans seek consensus, especially when stakes are low.

This is neither here nor there.

Quote:
Now we have two questions:
1) Can a player not bound by the social conventions of cooperation, who places the utmost value on winning, who believes s/he has figured out the correct move, and expresses it loudly, and is derisive towards other -- can such a player be managed effectively by the game design itself?

The answer here is a resounding no. This isn't a game design problem, it's a player is an asshole problem. Their assholery may be more tolerable in other games, where other compensatory dynamics exist - eg, knocking the stuffing out of them on the board, or picking on them or shunning them in trades, etc. They're still assholes though.

2) Can the tendencies of non-assholes to nonetheless cross over into anti-cooperative, dictatorial behavior be curbed by a design, without fundamentally changing the core dynamic of consensus-based decision-making?

I think the answer is yes. Every time a game introduces a 'deference' mechanism, it's creating social guardrails. It's not saying 'only the active player must make the decision, though the rest of you should advise.' It's saying 'remember, the way to have the most fun is to share decision-making, to make space for everyone's opinions, and to help people find ways to positively contribute.' That, in my opinion, is actually the positive dynamic that consensus games are trying to instantiate. Games that do this, without, in my opinion, crossing the line into consultative, include 7th Continent, and Robinson Crusoe. 7th Continent, for example, has strong character representation, substantial random events, and very punishing outcomes. The game keeps telling you "hey, you're not actually that smart, don't pretend you have all the right answers." But it doesn't even have player turns, or any mechanism other than player agreement for deciding who should go next and do what. These games are more resilient to Alpha gaming behavior, but not to assholes.

On the one hand, you've hit on the thing I said before -- that committee style games would do well to communicate to the players that they should expect to play by committee (which means people making suggestions of what they should do on their turn).

On the other hand, I fear you've underestimated the ability of a player to think they know the best thing to do in games that keep telling you "hey, you're not actually that smart, don't pretend you have all the right answers."

Quote:
Where's the line between consensus and consultative? I'd say it's where you have information or time restrictions that make consensus-building impractical.

Woo-hoo! two new terms! For consistency, I'll continue to use the terms I've been using, defined above.

I have said before (though maybe not in this thread), the line as I see it is whether the game encourages players to have their own agency over their actions, vs encouraging players to cede their agency to a committee meeting.

As both of these types of games are cooperative, it's relatively easy to blur the line between them, but in general, if the game goes out of its way to hinder that committee meeting (by limiting communication, or info, or time, etc), then it's probably intended to be a collaborative game, not a committee style one.

Similarly, if you're designing a game that you wish to be collaborative and not played by committee, then you would do well to hinder that committee dynamic (by limiting communication, or information, or time, etc).

Quote:
Finally, we have the coordination games, which simply can't be played in any group decision-making style without breaking the game engine. Hanabi, The Mind, Magic Maze, etc.

I don't think this is a 3rd category, but rather just examples of the collaborative style game -- steps have been taken in the design of those games to limit communication, thereby hampering the committee meeting. Thus, players must make their own decisions, with limited input from their partners, in an effort to help the team reach the common goal.
 
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Seth Jaffee
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All that said (whew! These replies are getting long!)...

My goal here is to get people to see the distinction between those two styles of games, the ones I'm calling 'committee style' and 'collaborative' (no matter what terms you choose to call them).

Once that happens, then I think ambiguous complaints of "alpha player problem" will be better understood as well, and directed at the correct thing.

That is to say, not demonize a player for suggesting moves in Pandemic, because Pandemic is a committee style game, therefore players should suggest moves to each other.

And similarly, not criticize a committee style game ("this game has an alpha player problem!") for not being a collaborative game instead!*

I contend (and my whole point from that original tweet mentioned by TC n the podcast) that many complaints of an "alpha player problem" boil down to "I expected a collaborative game, and this was a committee style game."

And some maybe boil down to "that person was being a jerk," but that's a different problem, I think.

* People are, of course, welcome to prefer collaborative games over committee style games, or like one type and not the other. My point is that "Caylus is not a war game!" is an odd criticism of Caylus, just like "Pandemic has an alpha player problem" is, to me, an odd criticism of Pandemic. Because Pandemic is Solitaire by Committee, and the "alpha player problem" translates to "you play this game by committee, and I don't want to do that."
 
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