A few years ago I received a late-night phone call from a friend’s wife. She was calling to let me know that my friend, who was at that moment driving home from my house after a day of table-top strategy game playing, wanted to apologize for the way he behaved at the end of the game and the acrimony with which he had left. She added, with a sigh that implicated both my friend and myself, that he was too embarrassed with his behavior to call and apologize himself. Other than the call from a spouse, this was not an uncommon conclusion to game night, at least not when Twilight Imperium, our strategy game de jour, was involved. And, I should hasten to add, more often than not I’ve been the one offering the apology.
All games offer the occasion for poor sportsmanship, hurt feelings, and acrimony (see this year’s NHL playoffs as exhibit one). But multi-player table-top strategy games (ex: Axis and Allies, Risk, even Settlers of Catan) introduce an element that rarely goes over well: the role of kingmaker. A kingmaker ending happens when there are two or more potential winners with a third player who cannot win herself, but whose actions will determine which of the two leaders will. Some games are better than others in avoiding this kind of end-game scenario, but, if I can make a generalization, the more complex and prolonged the game, the more likely its tendency to end with a kingmaker. Twilight Imperium (TI), which has both complexity and extensive play time in spades (games can last for 6-7 hours), frequently ends with a kingmaker and thus is a particularly well suited game to consider in this context.
I have some thoughts on the role of kingmakers, but first I want to think about why having a kingmaker is so unsatisfying. A friend, who refuses to play TI after his first game for this very reason, put the complaint best: he pointed out that it’s frustrating to make every right decision, play the game with perfect mastery, and still lose. If we think of games as sets of rules, games that end with kingmakers must, my friend would argue, be flawed because mastery of the rules does not produce a winning result. Contrasted with a game like Chess where a mistake-free game where every right decision is made (thus demonstrating mastery of the game) will necessarily produce a winning result, a game like TI must clearly be flawed (as the argument goes).
But, of course, one cannot reasonably compare TI to Chess because where Chess is played one-on-one, TI is a multi-player game. When I play a table-top strategy game I am not play an opponent, I am playing opponents; I play against every other player at the table simultaneously. The cost of having multiple players in a game is the satisfaction of a clear winner and the potential for a kingmaker ending. Let me be clear: there is no multi-player game without kingmakers. They are a ruleset under a single heading, a die of the same cast.
How then to have a satisfying conclusion (sans threats of physical violence and multi-generational curses) to games other than Chess? The answer comes from, as the alternate title of this post suggests, embracing the kingmaker as a feature rather than a flaw. As a player enters a game, he must realize that it is him against the field, not him against a singular opponent. Floating in the ether above the rule books and game pieces is a network of relationships (a meta game) that must be managed just as carefully as the pieces on the board. The skilled player will constantly be asking himself questions about how his actions will affect the meta game: Will this action produce an enemy? Will this action strengthen an alliance? Will this action come back to haunt me later in the game? It seems perhaps obvious, and at some level it is–you meta game in strategy games whether you know it or not. But what I’m advocating is simply a more conscious awareness of the meta game. If you played all of your pieces correctly, made all the right choices, but critically misjudged an opponent such that she was now content to play to see you lose, then it is not a flaw of the game–you’re just not very good at playing games with multiple players.
There is, of course, good-form and bad-form to be considered here. The player who swears to do nothing but thwart an opponent for this an all subsequent games (including into the next life) early in the game and at the least provocation, will rob any game of fun. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about that final end game move where multiple players stand on the verge of victory but the deciding vote come down to the player who has suffered through (in the case of TI) hours of game play with no hope of victory. Indeed, after a player has been eliminated from contention there is naught to play for except the opportunity to have a say in the ultimate outcome of the game.* Games decided by a kingmaker are not random or illegitimate, they’re simply tallied twice: once by the score on the board and a second time by the meta game tracker–the network of alliances, enemies, and other relationships that play out in the ether above any gaming table that seats more than two.
*One very legitimate flaw in Twilight Imperium is that there is no graceful way to surrender. A player effectively spoils the game for everyone if she leaves before it concludes