Squabbly games

Monday September 29, 2003 @ 11:24 AM (UTC)

So last night we bought the game
Munchkin, and took it over to the abode of some friends. Munchkin is a rather simple game with a lot of rules (no, really) which pokes fun at the stereotypical D&D dungeon crawl — each player controls a “character” who is really no more than the sum of their magic items, and you all kill monsters and take their stuff while lying, bribing, and cheating your way to the top of the pack. Towards the end of the evening, when sleep was seeming appealing and victory was lurking around, waiting to pounce, a little bit of grumpiness entered the atmosphere. Not big grumpiness, not shouting or tooth-gnashing or anything, but I guess I am a big cholerophobe, because when we left, my stomach was clenched like a child’s fist around an enemy’s ponytail.

So today I will be musing on competitiveness in games — not the characteristics in a person which make them prone to it, but the characteristics in a GAME which encourage it.

I mentioned to Matt in the car that he had in the past put his dislike of my beloved
Lunch Money down to its over-competitive nastiness, while he is a big fan of Munchkin. He responded that Munchkin does not force you to attack other players, whereas in Lunch Money, that’s the entire action of the game.

Upon further rumination, I think that may be part of the problem! At first, in Munchkin, you have to be nice to people so they’ll help you. But as the game progresses, attacks start to be advantageous or necessary. In one case, some people are ahead and no one will help them anyway, so they are free to alienate the others. In another, someone will win if you don’t attack them, so you jolly well attack them! Let’s face it, the game has, “Stab your buddy” as part of the tagline. By the end, you’re doing all sorts of nasty things in-game when everyone is used to the more cooperative feel of the beginning of the game. Whereas in Lunch Money, you have to hurt people from the beginning — it’s not a shock, it’s not a betrayal, it’s the way the game is played. You are emotionally detached from the “nastiness”.

Also, Lunch Money is a short game. You die? You get dealt back in in 10 minutes. I think our game of Munchkin yesterday took more than two hours.

Furthermore, I think people get grouchy when they have built something and it is taken away from them or ruined. Magic: the Gathering is prone to this. Settlers of Catan, much less — and you’ll note that almost nothing you have built or acquired in Catan (roads, settlements) can be taken from you. In Magic, every freaking thing can. In Lunch Money or Brawl, you don’t build anything. In Munchkin, you do. I think we get angry when people knock down our blocks. Or our house of cards.


I didn’t think anyone let the in-game competitiveness carry over after the game last night, but maybe you noticed something I didn’t.

I love competitive games, as long as everyone involved understands that the things people say or do to each other in the context of the game aren’t at all representative of their feelings toward each other in real life.

The thing is, everything that everyone did last night was done with a smile (perhaps a mischevious smile, but a smile nonetheless), and there was no name-calling or insult-throwing (aside from the occasional good-natured “Fuck you!”). Hopefully nobody walked away holding a grudge.

No, I don’t think they did—believe me, at school I saw in-game competitiveness spillin’ over (There’s a folk-tale that one game of Diplomacy at Matt’s fraternity once ended three friendships!), and that ain’t it. However, as I noted, I was being extra conflict-sensitive last night (maybe pigtails are antennae for negative feeling?) so I ended up being all tense after the game. Could also have something to do with my MONDO-RELAXING weekend discussing nostril health with my grandpa and seeing how lonely and depressed he is. Feelings are tricksy like that.

Again, I do think that the more cooperative part of Munchkin at the beginning doesn’t set up the “screw people over” portion of the proceedings at the end very well. There’s a transition somewhere in there, and it can be a little jarring. (Note to players in Munchkin game: Matt and I later decided it was a major tactical error for me to have sicced the Humongous Ancient Intelligent Squidzilla on Candice. I should have sicced it on Matt. My bad.)

As a tangent, it is interesting to note that the divide between in-game animosity and out-of-game friendship can be quite interesting in roleplaying games. Once at school my Kender rogue and another party member got into lots of horrible arguments over right, wrong, and shooting pickpockets - they got really heated, and I think there was some foot-stamping. However, at the end of the day, our OOC interactions were along the lines of, “Wow, thanks for making this session really interesting. That’s the most pissed-off I’ve ever been in-character!” - quite cordial, really.

Maybe we should play Trivial Pursuit next time. Or Pictionary.

Or Hoopla.

And no, I really don’t want you guys to start thinking I’m fragile about competitiveness in games. I myself am very competitive. I just was intrigued by the different ways games encourage or discourage competitiveness.

I very much agree with the idea that games which involve building a power structure that can be collapsed are the worst for engendering pissy competitiveness—I think the worst is probably Illuminati (not the collectible one). You laboriously build up giant, complicated structures of groups over hours, only to have them knocked down by a few leaping ninjas backed by $15M and the mafia. I’ve almost come to blows over that game.

I have seldom played that game, but I remember it being better at being funny than at being playable.

Building things is my vice, in games. Matt figures I’ve been playing Magic long enough that he shouldn’t have to remind me to attack - so I don’t. I just cast things and smile benevolently at them. Ooh, look at all the gorillas I have! Oooh, look at that pretty card! I arrange them in rows - flyers, walls, et cetera. Then Matt kills me with his stinkin’ fungi.

I really don’t suggest Trivial Pursuit. Felicity is a trivial force unto herself :)

I really like the fact that there’s a turning point. One of the most interesting aspects of Munchkin is the prisoner’s dilemma aspect. You have to choose the points where the strategy of the game changes from making friends and earning good will to backstabbing. It’s very similar to Catan, really.

At the beginning, you’re almost surely far too weak to win a battle on your own, so you need help. Both sides benefit from a joint victory, level 10 is far off, and thus help is easy to find.

As you grow stronger, by winning treasure and levels, you become more self-sufficient. At some point in the mid-game, you can take on most monsters yourself. It’s not unusual for a late mid-game player to be able to take the biggest monster in the game on his own (unmodified, of course).

At some point, you look up, and people are nearing the 10th level. At around level 6 or 7, competition gets a bit more cutthroat. Whoever you’re helping out might cost you your victory by winning first. In addition, by this point, you probably have the means necessary to interfere with other people’s combats, and so serious jockying for position occurs.

By level 8 or 9, no one will help you and in fact, they will probably do everything in their power to keep you from winning.

I can definitely sympathize. It’s why I suck at RTS games. I don’t want to attack. I just want to build an incredibly fortified, ultra-symmetrical base and squat in it feeling superior.

I have that tendency as well. This is why I play Zerg—it is easier to get into a “build build build, click on enemy, build build build” when it is FOR THE SWARM!

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