Competition in Gaming

One debate that seems to come up time and again is the one of closed versus open holdings in games. More often than not it this is in reference to Acquire but other games are often included as well. For those unaware this is usually referring to whether or not information that is track-able is secret or not. In the Acquire example this refers to a players stock holdings. Itís track-able because all purchases are done "openly", that is, a player declares what he or she is purchasing. The rules (in most sets anyway) state that a players holdings are secret however so if you forget what Bob purchased last turn, well, thatís your tough luck, you canít ask him. (Ok, I suppose you can ask him although itíd be foolish for him to answer.) This is where the debate usually springs up; because the information is track-able its possible that anyone could, in theory, know what every other player currently holds. As the rules (again, in MOST sets) state that you are not allowed to take notes during the game this means that you have to memorize all purchases in order to accomplish this. Most players can easily keep track of a few key holdings. In almost every game Iíve played Iíll fight for control of at least one chain with another player. Knowing precisely how many stock he or she has is crucial to victory. However, thatís a far cry from knowing what EVERY playerís holdings in EACH chain are. I suspect that the majority of players are like me, they have a vague awareness of who owns what but are not exactly sure. However, for a game like Acquire this is certainly within the realm of ability for some (many?) players. The debate then proceeds along the lines of why should these players be "rewarded" because of their superior memory? The most obvious solution to this perceived problem is to play with all holdings "open", that is, face-up in front of each player. This way players without good memories will not be at a disadvantage when playing with those that have. Iíve never heard any single point that led me to side one way or the other on this issue. Its never been more than a theoretical issue with me as no-one in my gaming group has ever exhibited this ability (at least not to a greater extent than any of the other players).

The best argument Iíve heard in favor of closed holdings is the questioning of why SHOULDNíT a good memory be rewarded? After all these games are played as an intellectual challenge and memorization can be considered as much of a skill as strategic or tactical ability. Thereís certainly less argument that a games rules should be altered because one player is a better tactician. (Note that Iím referring to arguments or debates here. I think that there are a LOT of games, particularly 2 player ones, where the rules are altered to handicap one player. Itís just that thereís not a lot of debate about it.)

The best argument in favor of open holdings is that it makes the game more enjoyable (for the proponents anyway). The line of reasoning is this: Most players COULD memorize every players holdings if they tried hard enough. Obviously this will be much more difficult for some than others but it can be done. The problem is that its not that enjoyable a task for most people and we are talking about games here after all. Instead of wasting all that effort memorizing the game-state why not just have it open in the first place?

I think that last point comes closest to revealing the true root of this argument (and the subject of this article, at long last): enjoyment, specifically in relationship to the competitive nature of games. There are two main reasons why people play games in the first place: the enjoyment and the competition. Obviously these two reasons are not exclusionary and I suspect itís a varying combination of the two for most players. I would also suspect that competitive players are more likely to be in the closed holding camp while those in favor of open holdings play more for the enjoyment of the game.

Enjoyment is a rather difficult term to define or use in a discussion though. Likewise, it can be said that enjoyment and competition are not really opposite ends of the same scale but rather that one derives from the other. (i.e. A games enjoyment derives from its competition.) I guess I need to try and be a little clearer about what I mean. By enjoyment Iím referring to the pleasure derived from a game regardless of its outcome. In fact, regardless of an outcome at all. Parlor games like Charades come to mind here (at least the non-commercial versions where no score is kept). Very obviously thereís no "winner" and so the separation of enjoyment and competition is a little more distinct. By competition Iím referring to the opposite, pleasure derived from a game based entirely on its outcome. (Iím hard pressed to come up with an example here. The best I can think of are Japanese endurance contests where all manner of abuse are heaped on the contestants until only a single person remains.) While these arenít the greatest examples hopefully they give a good idea of what Iím referring to here. Perhaps a couple more "close to home" examples might help:

Role Playing Games: This is still a bit tricky. While its correct to say that thereís no "winner" there are usually tasks to solve or complete which could be said to be "competition". Furthermore it seems that most people keep "score" by how well their particular character is doing. I think I was unique in my group in that I often preferred playing characters that were inept in some way or another and never really "improved" as such. This was true role-playing as far as I was concerned and closer to the fiction that we were trying to emulate. For me, RPGís are purely enjoyment.

Samurai is a game that succeeds for me on an enjoyment level but not necessarily a competitive one. The biggest problem I (and many others) have with the game are the odd victory conditions. Its quite possible that you can lose a game by capturing an extra token where you would have won if you hadnít. Considering that the game is all about capturing these tokens it strikes me as a rather strange and undesirable quality. To my mind the game just does not reward good play, the player who had the best game does not always win. Iíve heard the arguments defending the scoring and while I see their point I donít agree with them. Still, I regard Samurai as a very good game and one that Iíll gladly play almost any time. Why? As far as I can tell its because I enjoy the game-play so much that its competitive failings are somewhat irrelevant.

Euphrat and Tigris is another game that receives a lot of discussion concerning open or closed holdings. In this case itís the victory points of each player that are in question. A playerís tactics depend a lot on what the other playerís scores are. If you know that Roger already has 15 blue points you could perform an action that gives him a few more without it actually improving his score. As this comes up quite often in actual play keeping track of the scores is fairly important. Again, the question of enjoyment versus competition is raised. In my group (and others from what Iíve heard) have implemented a middle ground: Once a player gains a multiple of five points in any color he or she must publicly announce the fact by cashing in for a 5 point cube. (With the now customary phrase: "Ka-ching in blue!")

Krieg und Frieden seems to be getting a lot of discussion lately and there are two conclusions that many people have come to:

  1. The mechanics of the game are very good.
  2. The victory conditions are poor.

The problem that comes up is that the last Cathedral piece is worth 3 victory points and almost always determines the winner of the game. This was certainly the case the one and only time I tried it but many others have noted this as well. (I should note that the game does have its defenders who insist that this isnít as big a problem as others believe and that it is the whole point of the game Ė setting your self up so that you DO win the last piece.) The interesting thing is that most people are willing to play the game multiple times before giving up in the hope that itíll "work". I imagine that this is partly because the game is enjoyable despite its shortcomings as a "competitive" game.

Long, epic type games such as Empires in Arms are often described much more for the experience of having played them than in who ultimately won. In fact, often its mentioned almost as an afterthought, "Öoh yeah, and France won it by the way." While Iíve never played 100+ hour monsters like that I have played long games of Civilization and Dune where it really was the playing that I enjoyed and it was somewhat disappointing when the thing was over. It may be that longer games such as these are less attractive to a competitor than an "enjoyer" because they offer less "bang for the buck" than a series of shorter games in which multiple victories can be scored. To be honest I havenít noticed whether or not competitive players shy away from these longer games though so I may be off on a wrong track there.

Hopefully Iíve made it a little clearer as to what Iím talking about concerning enjoyment and competition. The difference between these two types can cause other problems than rules specific ones like open holdings in Acquire. Namely how much effort should be put into winning the game. There are going to be people (enjoyers) that feel a game should be played in a relaxed and friendly manner, the object is to have fun. Others (the competitors) feel that every skill or advantage should be employed, the object is to win. When a game is played by either type exclusively thereís no problem. Mix them together though and its unlikely that anyone will have a good time. Danís upset that Rogerís throwing the game away by making a stupid mistake. Mikeís mad because Alís spending an eternity calculating his best move. The two ideologies are clashing here and thatís the root of the problem. This situation most often arises when playing with new people. This is not really surprising as youíre unlikely to play many games with members of the "other camp" after a few bad experiences. Certainly this is the case at conventions. Some people wonít play in tournaments or with certain players as they are "too serious". Others prefer to play ONLY in tournaments as thatís where the greatest competition is.

Just as in the open vs. closed holding debate I donít think either side is any more "right" than the other, both have their good points. So, are you a competitor or an enjoyer? The easiest way to answer this question is with the following choice:

  1. You play games as often as you wish. You NEVER win.
  2. You only play games very infrequently. You ALWAYS win.

Which do you choose?

(For choice B Iím assuming that you want and try to win, no weird Twilight Zone situations where you canít help winning.) Giving the choice a little thought, itís probably not that easy a decision. My gut reaction is to choose A. Still, I quite enjoy winning (despite myself) and would probably grow pretty frustrated enduring loss after loss. On the other hand while winning is nice it would be equally frustrating going long periods of time without actually playing. Forced to decide Iím pretty sure that I would indeed choose A which agrees with my opinion that Iím more of an "enjoyer" than a competitor. Now ask your gaming partners which they would choose and I suspect that its more likely theyíll choose the same as you. (But then again, maybe not, its worth it as an experiment though.)

Iíd be more than happy to hear opinions on this and especially any ideas on other reasons as to why we play these games in the first place.

This article originally appeared in Counter #6.