Let’s Play Together: Interaction Structures in Board Games

Jason Schumacher

Social interaction is an integral part of playing board games, but in-game interaction that affects another person’s strategy is not. All games, to some degree, involve talking, competing, and otherwise interacting with other players. That said, some games popular today, such as Dominion, are possible to play without any in-game interaction whatsoever. In these, you may never have the opportunity to affect an opponent’s board position or strategy.

This may intuitively sound a bit odd – after all, I largely play games as a way to spend time with friends, but varying the levels of in-game interaction is more a design choice than anything else. So, what happens when you vary the amount of in-game interaction each player has? Let’s look at a few ways of categorizing games to answer that question.

Solitaire Games

Strictly speaking, every board game I’ve played has some amount of in-game interaction, but some games minimize it to an extreme level that they have virtually no way to affect other players in the game. As I mentioned before, Dominion is a popular example of this style, as is Race to the Galaxy (as Jordan raised in his recent article on free time). In these games, players develop their board or deck independently of one another, but without the threat of the other players throwing a wrench in each other’s plans. This genre often has a specific goal to achieve, such as claiming the most victory points or being the first to complete a full board, but this race against time could be decently replicated without anyone else around.

One of the reasons that this style of game is popular is that they offer players the opportunity to focus on creating optimal, efficient decks without the threat of interference from other players. While in-game interaction is often enjoyable, being able to create your own world, free of interference is also a tempting idea (look at how popular sandbox games such as The Sims and Minecraft are). For solitaire board games, the focus is still on winning and allows players to do so by strongly min-maxing the resources available to them.

Direct Interaction

If Dominion epitomizes the interaction-less game, games like Risk or Small World are its opposite. Many of the classic, American-style games are based around some sort of zero-sum competition with other players: in-game interaction is not just facilitated by the game, it is the game itself. While rules moderate the interaction among players, direct conflict over some objective forms the heart of the genre.

As should be expected, much of the fun from games in this group comes from thwarting other players’ plans, as well as adapting your own to adjust for unexpected scenarios. Whereas solitaire-style games reward careful planning and forethought, games based on direct interaction shun such a methodical perspective.

Take Natural Selection as an example. As the name would suggest, the game is built around adapting to new circumstances. Players can choose to specialize in particular habitats and have their pieces do more in those locations, but other players can affect how long those habitats stay in play, creating tension between short-term control and long-term survivability. Ultimately, because each player has choices in how they interact with each other – by eliminating habitats favored by opponents, adding habitats in which they are specialized, or even adapting to leech off an already established strategy – the interaction forces adaptation.

Indirect Interaction

The happy meeting zone between cutthroat direct competition and methodical solitaire is what I’d like to call indirect interaction. These games almost always have both a shared board and a personal board, offering players direct competition as well as a solitaire element. When people think “economy-based game,” it usually falls into this category (Puerto Rico and Agricola are both great examples). In these games, players usually compete with others for resources, which allow them to advance their plans. In addition, resources are often limited, which rarely denies a player access to a resource, but can make it much more costly if others are interested in acquiring the same.

The economy track featured in Power Grid is a perfect example of this type of interaction. There are four resource types, each of which replenishes at a different rate, creating shortages and surpluses based on supply and demand. Each player has a chance to purchase resources each round to fuel his or her power plants, but each player can drive up the price of resources for opponents by purchasing earlier in the round.

What makes these types of games fun is the ability to influence other players, but not to destroy their board position directly. Instead, your actions hinder opponents while also helping you, though you can never knock a person out of a game

What does this mean?

Most of the people I know tend to favor one type of game, which seems to have a strong correlation to the type of in-game interaction it fosters. I enjoy games with a lot of indirect interaction based around some economy, which allows me to undermine my opponent and launch myself ahead. At the same time I don’t like having to knock players so far behind in the game that they’re done playing, though I want to affect people more than is possible in a solitaire game.

Generally, the more in-game interaction, the less predictable or formulaic each game session will be. With solitaire games, I know my strategy before the first turn of the game, and if other players can’t affect my position I have no reason to deviate. As interaction increases, I have to adapt to what other players are doing to ensure my success. If the game is more or less solely based on interaction (Risk), I find it much more important to anticipate what my fellow players will do instead of developing a plan based on the rules.

Design-wise, interaction is usually good but not for its own sake. Interaction should facilitate fun.  In a recent group game of Notre Dame Jordan, Aaron and I played, we observed that the carriage element of the game allowed us to interact but that interaction wasn’t especially fun or useful.

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