A Look at Competition at the Game Table – Ask The Bellhop

One of the best questions we’ve ever received at Tabletop Bellhop was from Patron Brian Kurtz who asked a detailed question about competition.

Brian writes:

Hi Moe and Sean,

As you know I’m a Tabletop Bellhop megafan – I’ve loved your show from the very first episode. From your patient explanations of different mechanics in games to reviews and recommendations, I have gotten a lot out of the show and the website, and I’ve bought some fantastic games on your recommendation. Thank you so much.

My question today is a little different than some other questions you’ve had which look for specific suggestions of games that meet certain criteria. Mine is a bit more… philosophical. I want to know what you think about competition, and gaming.

While I encourage you to go wherever that vague prompt takes you in your discussion, the source of the question comes from some experiences I’ve had watching friends or acquaintances get nasty in competitive situations. Dating back from my childhood playing Monopoly or Atari games and observing the “sore loser” phenomenon in family members or peers, to the first time I played Settlers of Catan in the late 1990s, to trying to weather the mood storms of children (and sometimes grownups) who struggle with competition,

I’ve been struck by just how bad this can get.

As two people who game with family, friends, acquaintances, and strangers all the time, what insights do you have into this phenomenon? How do you anticipate when competitiveness can go awry and head it off at the pass? How do you handle people who want to game but aren’t good at checking their zest for winning when the situation requires it? Do you have any rules – explicit or implicit – that set the tone for gaming at your house or your events? Apart from sticking to strictly cooperative games, any tips for choosing games based on what you know about your fellow gamers and their ability to handle competition?

Thanks guys!

The Short Answer: Like many things, competition is good. In moderation

Two players playing Scoville, one looks to be having more fun than the other.Competition and players being competitive is not a bad thing. Most games are competitive by nature and part of why we play them is that spirit of competition. The problem is that, like many things, it can be taken too far.

I personally believe that everyone should always play their best, and play to win, any game they are playing. The thing is, that the important part isn’t the actual winning.  It’s the joy of playing a game with other people at the same table. Gamers need to remember that you all sat down together to play a game and have fun. While winning can be part of that fun, it should never be placed above the fun of anyone else at the table.

It’s important that players try to win without taking things too seriously. Everyone should try to remember that it is just a game. Remember that you are sitting down to have fun with friends. Even in a tournament situation or when gaming with strangers this is important to keep in mind.

The Long Answer: There are a lot of aspects to competition in games

The topic of competition at the game table is a big topic. It’s something better discussed as a group rather than one person trying to tackle it. To that end, I strongly suggest anyone reading this check out the podcast where Sean and I do exactly that. We discuss this topic in quite a bit of depth. In addition to the two of us talking, we also interacted with our live chatroom which had some great things to add to the conversation.

You can check out that episode here: The Spirit of Competition – Episode 37 Tabletop Bellhop Gaming Podcast.

For those of you who would prefer to read my thoughts on the topic feel free to read on. I’m going to break this up into a couple of different sections based on some of the specifics of Brian’s question.

How competitive is The Tabletop Bellhop?

A group of gamers having fun playing ZhanGuo at the FLGSI have said this many times over the years: I play to win but winning isn’t really all that important to me.

When I sit down to play a game, I always plan to play it my best. No matter what happens in the game I will always try to maximize my personal score. I’m much more interested in seeing how I improve at a game over time rather than what place I come in during any one specific game. I’m also not one to throw a game or goof around if I’m not winning. Even when I know there’s no chance of winning, I will play my best to see how well I can do.

I have to admit that this is how I expect other people to play as well. It always surprises me to see someone who either totally doesn’t care about winning or someone who is overly obsessed with it.

How can you anticipate when competitiveness can go awry and head it off?

This goes back to something I talked about when I was writing about hooking new gamers, as well when I was talking about teaching games. One of the things I do when I meet a new gamer is try to find some common ground. Find out what they have played before and the kind of games they are into. As part of this conversation, I will also try to determine just how competitive a player is.

Frustration playing Gaia Project?The main trick I’ve learned over the years is to try to match players up with other players with the same level of competitiveness. If you’ve got someone sitting down to the table and all they care about is socializing and messing around, then you want to try to make sure they aren’t at the same table as the heavy wargamer who’s all about historical accuracy and doing anything they can for the win.

The other thing is to set expectations before the game starts. Every time I sit down at a table with a new gamer or when I meet someone for the first time at an event I’m organizing I will explain that everyone is there to have fun. While we expect people to play their best, we don’t worry about who wins or loses. While I expect people to play competitively, I don’t expect them to be overly competitive. The goal of the game is to have fun and I expect everyone to play their part in keeping that goal. It’s important to communicate these things to someone new to the group or to the table.

Now these expectations can change. This is especially true in a tournament situation with prizes. In this case my expectation speech will be more about following the rules, being a good sport, knowing that while this is a competition, also remember we are trying to have fun. I will point out any specific event rules. Things like no kingmaking: if you know you can’t win attempt to do the best you can and don’t go out of your way to hurt or help a specific player.

Note that this doesn’t just apply extremely competitive gamers. It’s also important to point out that people plan to take the games seriously and that you expect everyone to play to win. A non-competitive gamer who just plays around, makes bad moves on purpose, and/or messes with other players for the fun of it can be just as disrupting to a game as someone taking things too seriously.

How do you manage people who want to game but aren’t good at checking their zest for winning when the situation requires it?

Dealing with a player who is ruining the fun for others isn’t easy. Here, I’m going back to setting expectations, right from the start. Make sure everyone at the table is on the same page before the game starts. This can do wonders in making sure that something doesn’t go wrong during the game.

Tom planning his move in Keplar

If you have had this initial conversation and someone starts heading down a bad path, remind them of the initial conversation. “Hey, remember how, before we started the game, we talked about not taking things too seriously. I think you may be heading that way.” This can either be done at the table or you can call for a break and mention it in private. As I noted above the same situation can happen with someone not taking things seriously enough and that can be handled the same way.

Getting back to taking a break. This can be a wonderful way to break tension if things escalate very quickly, too quickly to slow things down. Sometimes games can be intense, and tempers can get heated. This is when it’s a good time to call for a washroom break. Everyone get up, get a drink, go for a smoke, whatever. Spend a few minutes away from the table before resuming play. Anyone at the table can do this. If you notice things start to head south, you don’t even have to call out a player or the situation, just note you need a minute and step away for a moment. That will often snowball with everyone at the table taking the chance to catch some air as well.

In the worst-case scenario, if someone really has gone too far you need to stop the game. Trust me, I know this isn’t easy but stopping the game is better than letting things continue to escalate. If you aren’t comfortable asking the other player to leave the game, you can leave yourself. Use an excuse if you must, though it’s always better to let someone know their behavior is ruining your experience. In some cases, people don’t even realize they are negatively impacting another players enjoyment of a game.

Do you have any rules – explicit or implicit – that set the tone for gaming at your house or your events?

Players having fun playing Azul

I personally don’t have any explicit rules, though it’s something I am strongly considering for the next time I host an event. Having the rules written down and documented makes communicating them easier and makes sure that everyone is on the same page.

For my events I do what I mentioned before: Every time I sit down at the table, I give a short speech setting the expectations for that game. That varies by game but always includes the fact I expect everyone to play to win, but not take it too seriously, followed by a strong reminder that we are all there to play games and have fun.

Apart from sticking to strictly cooperative games, any tips for choosing games based on what you know about your fellow gamers and their ability to handle competition?

First off I have to say that Brian makes a great point mentioning cooperative games here. They really can be the best for dealing with an overly competitive player. It’s much better to have someone taking things very seriously on your side rather than playing against you.

The cooperative board game Big Trouble in Little ChinaThe thing to watch for here is the whole quarterbacking thing. Often an overly competitive player who wants to do anything to win will manipulate the other players into doing only what they think the other players should do. To curb this, make sure that you set the expectation that players will make their own decisions and those decisions will be final.

As for non-competitive games, I don’t have any hard and fast rules. In general, a competitive player is going to like heavier games. Games with less randomness, games with more of a simulation or recreation feel, games where the decisions they make directly affect their chances of winning. A non-competitive player is going to be much more interested in light party games and games with a high random factor where things like the luck of the dice have a larger impact on the chance of any one player winning.

So those are my overall thoughts on competition at the game table. I think the most important thing is to set expectations before you start the game. Make sure everyone is on the same page, before the first turn. What are your thoughts on competition and competitiveness? Let us know in the comments!

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2 Responses

  1. Interesting post. When recommending games, I will also ask players how competitive they want their gaming experience to be. I think a lot of players newer to the hobby have only experienced games like Monopoly and Risk, which are both ultra-competitive. While obviously there’s nothing wrong with competition if you like it, it’s good for players to know there are alternatives.

    Board games with a strong focus on personal score go a long way toward curbing competitiveness, too. While games like Azul and Wingspan certainly have a winner and loser, they’re not all that in-your-face about it, especially during gameplay.

    1. Kristen,

      I think I must be playing Azul with a different group of people then, because our Azul games are very much in your face.

      “What you only need one red tile to finish that row, too bad for you, I’ll take that.”

      It’s a good question to ask. The only think you have to watch for is people who don’t actually know what they want. I have met many gamers who claim they want a very competitive game only to find out they would much rather be playing multi-player solitaire games and don’t take well to confrontation during the game.

      Thanks for the comment,

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