Tobold's Blog
Thursday, December 02, 2021
Social contract for board games

More than 4 decades ago, when I was at university, a group of more experienced students went once a year with the freshmen students to a chalet in Switzerland for a weekend. And I used to bring the board game Junta to these events, as the game plays best with 7 players. The only problem with that is that some people agreed to play without knowing the game, and there was no discussion about what to expect. We explained the rules of the game, but didn't talk about the social contract. Junta, like Diplomacy, is mainly a game about negotiation and betrayal. In order to play well, you need to be able to stab your friends in the back at the right moment, when they least expect it. Not being prepared for this, we had more than one case of couples breaking up after playing Junta, because one of them felt so betrayed by the other, and projected the resulting lack of trust onto real life. This is the sort of game I wouldn't play with friends anymore these days, and especially not with partners. It would need people who are very well able to separate trust in game from trust in real life, and that isn't that easy.

In pen & paper roleplaying games nowadays there is frequently a "session zero", in which the social contract of playing the game together is discussed. That avoids conflicts later, when some people in the group wanted to play one way, and others in a very different manner. It allows you to discuss what sort of behavior is acceptable, and what not. But for board games I have never heard of anybody doing something similar.

My wife and me don't like to play competitively against each other, so I mostly buy cooperative or solo board games. But even there we don't necessarily have exactly the same motivation: My wife is mostly playing for the experience of playing, while I can't always switch off my "gamer genes" and also try to play well. I like to understand complex games well enough to be able to play them competently, to understand the underlying gameplay mechanics. For example I wrote a blog post over a year ago on how to win at The 7th Continent; and sometimes I see YouTube videos of people playing the game, not understanding how it works, and then giving it bad review marks for being too hard. I find that somewhat annoying.

But then it is surprisingly hard to find good sources on board game strategy. I recently started to play the digital version of Wingspan, which is excellent, but didn't have much luck finding good advice on how to play the game better. When you search about strategy advice for Wingspan, you will find lots of discussions on which individual birds are overpowered, but as you don't necessarily find one of these overpowered birds in your starting hand, that advice isn't all that helpful. After a number of games I understand the mechanics of the game well enough to get to over 90 points, but I haven't breached the 100 point barrier yet. But then, 90 points seems to be the "competent player level" of the game, I've seen the designer play Wingspan on YouTube and get 93 points. I can see how Wingspan would be fun to play as a board game with a group of people all playing at that "competent player level". But I could also see a group of friends or random stranger sit together and them having very different level of competence and experience with this particular game, and that then not being much fun at all. Wingspan is an "engine building" game, and if one player builds a far inferior engine than the others, his turns will be much shorter, give much less resources, and feel much less fun.

It is easy to see that players will often have different levels of experience with a competitive board game, and possibly different motivations. If one player not only knows the game much better than the others, but also has a competitive motivation to crush his opponents, chances is that nobody will have much fun in the end. Cooperative games and pen & paper roleplaying games are a much safer ground. But maybe talking about the social contract before starting to play would be a good idea too.


I found Wingspan to be completely uninteresting. The game itself is very beautiful, and if you like the game you really should the "IRL" version. But for the rest it plays like too many of the games released in the last year: you have to build an engine on your board, in more or less complete independence of other players, and dealing with a constant stream of random card. Again, one more game where the winning strategy is not to plan and do the best, but to deal with the draw of the cards and do less worse than the other players. It felt to me like playing Terraforming Mars but without the planet.....
Randomness + play alone = I won't buy it, even if it's beautiful.

Maybe one of the reasons this kind of games have success is exactly because everyone plays on his board and there's really no way to "backstab" anyone, so any conflict is avoided from the start, and the question of "social contract" is simply not at the table.
Randomness and playing alone is fine IMO, it is the essence of many solitaires and roguelikes / lites. The question is what a tabletop game adds to that; I guess it is the fun of playing the same game together and seeing everybody's developing board. But I can how that could be less fun for someone whose board is least advanced.
Yeah, when I play wingspan online with my friends, the conversation goes dead as everyone is just focused in on their own world.
I never played games like Junta and Diplomacy. I know how some people react to those things, and it always seemed like the potential drama wasnt worth the fun that could be had. Especially since other games that are equally fun were also available.
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