After Jamey Stegmaier read my article on The Problem with Naked Aggression, he posted a comment to say that he’d been considering the same issue for his own game, Viticulture. He asked if I might be interested in a guest blog on the subject. I accepted, so the following is Jamey’s take on the topic. One of the things I particularly like about it is that Jamey talks more about why naked aggression can be bad, while I jumped straight to solutions. Also, when he looks at solutions, he looks toward the euro sort of scarcity conflict, which is a nice alternate take on the issue. –SA, 9/14/12
More Solutions to Naked Aggression
by Jamey Stegmaier
I stumbled upon Shannon’s blog entry, The Problem with Naked Aggression, a few weeks ago. Shannon touched upon some key elements of game design that I often think about. I asked Shannon if I could share those thoughts on his blog, and he graciously agreed.
Just to give you some context of who I am, I’m a game designer in St. Louis — at least, I think I’m now allowed to call myself that because my first game, Viticulture, just reached its funding goal with almost a month left to go on my Kickstarter campaign. I love discussions about game mechanics and design.
Shannon defined naked aggression as the following: “The ability to wantonly and freely attack another player, to crush their hopes of victory, to see their resources driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women (or men).” It’s an apt definition, and one that I hope other game designers take to heart.
I’ll start with a story: Way back in college, my suitemates and I played a lot of hearts (the card game). $5/person/game, just to keep things interesting. Most of those games are a blur in my memory because we played so often, but one particular game stands out.
Hearts has a clever mid-game self-balancing aspect. It’s not perfect, but it’s good. If someone has far fewer points than everyone else, the players tend to try to get that person to gain points. It’s to all of their benefit to do so, and although the player in the lead feels like the others are ganging up on him, it’s to be expected. You go into the game with that expectation, and the challenge is to foil their plans.
At one point in the game, the player in the lead (I’ll call him Jim) tried to shoot the moon, and another player (Mark) was ready for it. Unfortunately, one of the other players (Bob) wasn’t paying attention, and he ended up getting in the way of Mark’s plan to foil Jim’s attempt to shoot the moon.
Mark was mad. Maybe he was having a bad day, maybe he really wanted the $15 payout, maybe he and Bob were having issues. Regardless, Mark was ticked.
So Mark decided to throw the game. He pretended like he was shooting the moon, but then he purposely played the last two cards out of order, and he gained 25 points, ending the game. Everyone walked away from that game frustrated and unhappy.
I’m here to say that the designer of hearts should be ashamed of himself for giving players a way to throw the game. It’s inexcusable.
I say that because I believe that it is a game designer’s responsibility to prevent naked aggression. I believe that it is a disservice to gamers everywhere if the design of your game — the constraints, rules, permissions, and mechanics — allow for people to carry personal issues and emotions into the game. I believe that it is a shame if you can ruin someone’s day through the way you treated them within the context of the game.
In an ideal world, this wouldn’t be an issue. People would put aside any hangups they might have — whether they’ve brought them to the game or created them during the game — and play the game strictly with the goal of winning the game.
But we all know that’s not the case. You might even be guilty of it. Maybe you blocked someone out of spite in Settlers of Catan. Perhaps you attacked someone in Risk because they didn’t like the cheese dip you made. Or maybe you targeted someone repeatedly in Dominion just because they had a reaction that got funnier every time.
We’re all at fault. But we don’t have to be — it is possible for a game to allow for conflict without hostility.
Shannon listed some good examples, most of which I wasn’t even aware of. I have a few other games with clever solutions to share.
Agricola: In Agricola, you use your “family” to take a growing number of available actions on the board. Once you take an action, no one else can take that action. And that’s literally the closest to any form of interaction you’ll get in the game. Balancing interaction and conflict is very difficult, but it works in Agricola because there’s always something good to take, and up until the very last round, there’s time to get what you need. This is a solution of abundance.
Stone Age: In Stone Age, you take turns placing all of your workers (player by player, not worker by worker) on various resource-gathering areas on the board. Depending on the number of players, each player is limited to the resources that X number of players haven’t taken (i.e., in a 3-player game, only 2 people can choose each resource). This prevents players bumping elbows to get the same resource. This is a solution of scalability.
Viticulture: In Viticulture, you place workers one by one on limited spaces on a common board, and you control your vine-growing and wine-selling strategy completely independent of other players on your vineyard mat. There are summer and visitor cards in the game that give you bonuses, but none of them affect the other players. So, very little room for hostility, right? Except that there’s a lot of competition for those limited spaces on the board, and without one key rule — I’ll call it the “no a-hole rule” — players could feasibly take out their personal frustrations on other players. That rule? If you can’t take a particular action, you can’t claim that action.
For example, if you look over at my vineyard mat and realize that I need to build a Yoke, you can’t place one of your workers on the last remaining “build a structure” space just to get in my way. You have to actually have the money (which is scarce) to build a structure. And even if you do have the money and your intentions are indecent, I’ve made sure to employ Agricola’s solution of abundance in the game. You block me here (regardless of your intent), and I still have a bunch of other viable options elsewhere, and I’m even rewarded if I’m the first person to choose one of those options.
Thank you, Shannon, for publishing this guest post. I toast all of the burgeoning game designers out there who take responsibility for naked aggression in their games.
Author’s Note: It’s not my plan to regularly run guest articles here, but if you ever want to respond directly (and at length) to one of my posts, feel free to drop me a line. And now, please go check out Jamey’s Kickstarter of Viticulture. —SA, 9/14/12