Fair play in an unfair world

I played El Grande for the first time tonight, despite owning the game off and on for over twenty years. It was tense, highly strategic, and deeply intriguing the whole way through, and I’m angry that I had never managed to get it to the table before.

But it was clear, during the game, that one of the other players thought that I was picking on them. Specifically, there was a point where I gave a different player–someone new to this whole “complex strategy games” thing–some advice about what they could do; they followed that advice, and then a turn or two later it set up a situation where I benefited greatly1.

My first response to this was something close to outrage. Of course I wasn’t trying to game the system in my favor, and how dare they think that that was the case? But this person hasn’t played all that many games with me and isn’t aware of the precepts I bring to the table.

The first and most important precept is this: I want everyone at the table to have the best time possible. For newer players, this often means giving them suggestions as to what they could do, in an attempt to winnow down the often overwhelming field of choices that modern board games can provide2. For other players, it means keeping far away from their decision process. I tend to err on the “help” side, and try to keep myself in check if I feel like what I’m doing is steering too close to my alpha-gamer tendencies, but of course this sort of thing isn’t perfect.

The problem comes in a game like El Grande where just about every decision a player makes hurts someone else at the table. The game has very few “just good for me” moves; almost anything that improves your position on the board is messing with someone else’s plans, or even directly stealing points from them.

Now, I try to be scrupulously fair with my advice–and I’ll admit that there is almost certainly some unconscious bias as to the hints and tips I give, no matter how hard I try to make that not the case–but when anything I suggest is, by design, going to hurt someone at the table, I can understand why it might seem like I’m trying to inveigle some advantage under the cover of providing in-game suggestions3.

This is hard for me. I can of course just sit back and never provide any advice at all, but I know that for some people that would make for a quantitatively worse experience, and I’m definitely one of those “some people.” I like looking for the great move another player has lying in wait, even when they don’t see it themselves. I think a game’s more interesting when people are playing at close to the same level, and if I can help nudge it in that direction I feel almost obligated to do so.

But I think I need to be more careful when it comes to games like El Grande, where every move has deep and lasting consequences that can sway the game hard one way or the other. It’s a tough line to walk, given my propensity for advice, but a line I clearly need to get better at finding.

Fortunately, everyone seemed to really enjoy the game, even the person who felt picked on, and we had a discussion afterward that (I hope) cleared the air. I don’t like that that had to happen in the first place, though, and I’m going to give serious thought to how I should manage similar situations in the future. Hopefully it’ll result in even more fun at the table for everyone involved, which is right in line with my first precept4. And any game night with no hurt feelings is a better game night indeed.

Not so super heroics

[Mild spoilers for the game Watch Dogs below, although I don’t name names.]

At the very end of Watch Dogs, a mediocre Ubi-like I beat last night1, you are given agency in the story for literally the first time in the entire game: you can choose to shoot a man in the head or walk away.

I was streaming the game at the time, and I said: “Well, if it were up to me, of course I wouldn’t shoot this guy. But Aiden Pearce is such a raging asshole that there’s no way he doesn’t shoot him.” And then proceeded to put a (virtual) bullet in the character’s head.

By this point I had already completely disassociated myself from the actions the main character was taking, something that doesn’t happen very often in games. Hell, I’ve played a ton of Assassin’s Creed titles, all of which involve high-to-extreme body counts, and even there I could empathize with Alta├»r and Ezio far more than I could Aiden. There’s a difference between an anti-hero and a villain protagonist, and in my mind Watch Dogs crossed that line early on and kept cruising further away like it didn’t matter.

It does matter, though.

I watched all of The Sopranos with my mother. We enjoyed it immensely, but the entire time I was watching I honestly couldn’t stand the main character (or most of the cast, to be honest, with Dr. Melfi as the obvious exception). Years later, I watched the first season of Breaking Bad, swayed by the plaudits and the recommendations of my friends. As the final episode of that season ended, I went “nope.” I had no desire to see what happened to anyone else in the show; as far as I was concerned, Albuquerque could have been nuked from orbit and the world would have been a better place2.

Apparently The Sopranos basically tapped out my willingness to watch shows with villain protagonists. Conflicted characters are fine–I love me some Firefly–but when my gut reaction to the main character’s actions is mostly “someone should stop this person,” that’s a good sign that I’m not going to enjoy it.

Part of getting the platinum in Watch Dogs3 involves doing a certain number of online missions against other players. And I noticed something deeply strange to me when I was hacking these players scattered around the world, playing their own stories out in the game: so many of them were in gunfights with the police. So many. It was baffling to me, as someone who generally plays games in a way that minimizes conflict; the only times I ever got into trouble with the police in-game were when the plot forced me to, or when I was getting the last couple of stupid trophies that necessitated that antagonizing. But clearly I was the exception to the rule.

Then I thought of the game’s characterization of Aiden Pearce. Of course most players would gravitate to maximum antagonism; that’s what the game all but spells out for you! No matter how good I was outside of the scripted missions, those missions relentlessly drive home the point that Pearce shoots anyone who gets in his way, police or otherwise. If anything, I had been playing the game strongly against type the entire time, acting like a do-gooder between the plot points then grimacing my way through the story where all my actions felt undone. I was pushing as hard as the game allowed against the villain protagonist role… up until the end, where I shrugged and said, “nah, this one time I’m going to do what the game has taught me it wants me to do.” Cue bullet.

Don’t play Watch Dogs, by the way; it’s not a very good game. You can fairly ask why I played it, and I can only say that I really want to play Watch Dogs 2 and have a stupid compulsion to play games in sequence, hence putting up with its aggressively mediocre “Assassin’s Creed meets Grand Theft Auto, only worse than both” design. That’s separate from the villain protagonist problem, which may or may not be an issue for you personally.

As for me, I think Watch Dogs tapped me out on that front, the same way The Sopranos did for television years ago. Playing the villain is just not for me, I’m afraid.

I’d rather nuke them from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.