Player Experience is Other People

This is the third topic in a multi-part essay covering board game “Player Experience” or “PX” You don’t have to read the others first, but it does reference several concepts from before, so I highly recommend it.

“L’expérience, c’est les autres”

— with apologies to Sartre

When designing a game, there is one major factor which is nearly impossible to predict, and accurately accommodate for, all combinations of: The other players around the table. Since most games are competitive, players are attempting to beat one another, overcome the obstacles put into place by each other, etc. Therefore, a huge aspect of Player Experience is necessarily who is sitting across the table from a player[1].

A troll player who disregards the intent of a game, or intentionally goes out of his or her way to grief the other players is going to cause a negative experience for them. Likewise, a player who never wishes to “step on toes” may also impact the game negatively by failing to drive in-game battle economies as expected.

As if that weren’t enough, different personality types tend to favor differing types of stimuli — many may be familiar with Meyers-Briggs, which plots people as one of two outcomes on four axes Extravert-Introvert/Sensing-iNtuiting/Thinking-Feeling/Perceiving-Judging, creating sixteen possible combinations. Certain subsets of “Introvert” personalities are most comfortable and content when doing contemplative, alone-time things. Sitting down with four other people to play a board game may be the most social interaction they desire for the week, while others (generally from the Extravert sets) gather energy from others, and crave high-energy interactions.

How does this factor into design? A game with a lot of standing up, shouting, and ‘take that!’-ing may not result in a pleasant Player Experience for the introvert types, while a think-y game with lots of calculating and planning may turn off the more extraverted types.

Following that, these personality types may tend to create, either intentionally or unintentionally, their desired environments. During two tablings of the same game, the outcomes may be very different with different crowds, based on the mix of personality types. Both groups might even enjoy the experience they have “crafted for each other” greatly — but this may not always be the case. A mixed group could end up in a sate where the people are of different types and subconsciously creating that type of experience they crave, making it unpleasant for the others at the table.

IMG_0653In the previous chapter, we also discussed how each individual player in the act of experiencing a board game comes into each session somewhere on a two-axis Spectrum of Familiarity. How each of those people experiences the game will also depend on the experience plots of the others present. A highly familiar-this/familiar-all player may feel compelled to ‘teach’ the game the entire time with a group of unfamiliar-this/unfamiliar-all players, which they may enjoy if they love teaching games, or they may find this discouraging if they were hoping for a different experience. The lone new player amongst a crew of familiar-this/familiar-all players can feel like they’ve been thrown into the deep end of a shark tank, as the other players pull out their most devious strategies and play no-holds-barred against each other, landing the new player in the crossfire — or they may ‘go easy’ on the new player. Either way, this impacts the new player’s experience greatly.

Personality and Familiarity can also combine to detrimental effect during Cooperative games with the phenomenon termed “alpha gamer syndrome” — oft applied to Pandemic, the complaint is that one player, at least familiar-this/ if not familiar-this/familiar-all when it comes to Pandemic, if also the most extraverted of the group, often seems to “take over” and essentially issue dicta to the other players around the board. This may be a good experience for this player, in that they (and their compatriots!) “won”, but the other players may wonder why they are actually present, if their in-game choices are being made for them, which has a hugely negative impact on their experience. (Though an unfamiliar/unfamiliar with the right personality traits might actually enjoy this as well! You do you.)

As if this weren’t enough, players may have extenuating relationships with each other. The number of relationships R among a group of n individuals is described by the formula:


R(n) = \frac{n(n-1)}{2}

So a four player game involves \frac{4*3}{2} = 6 relationships in the mix. One need only plug in higher numbers to see how the relationship count explodes for games of Mafia/Werewolf, or other party games. These can also impact the experience: The married couple who won’t attack each other; The person who most often wins games in your group, putting a target on her back when a new game starts (And why do these serial-winners always choose to play as the black tokens, amirite???); The host who knows everyone at the table, and has invited guests who have never met each other. The people in all these examples both end up with, and cause, a different experience than/for those around them.

While we could academically pick apart any mechanic or sets of mechanics and try to determine which combinations would appeal to which segments of the population, and how they might be expressed in various collections of players, ultimately, the dimensions on both the input matrix and output matrix of that thought experiment are huge, it is probably best left to the reader to consider specific cases on your own.

“Other Players”, this third pillar of the Player Experience can be one of the most difficult to plan for in a design, owing to the limitless number of possible players, and combinations of players around a table at any given time, which there is no way for you, as a designer to account for or predict. I think, if possible, after a few successful play tests, when a clearer image of the audience you feel your game is going to appeal to forms, it can be advantageous to hand-select groups of testers, to check your hypotheses about how certain types of players will interact in the context of your game. But being cognizant of the variables at play is definitely the first step.

In the next installment, we dive into a little bit of neuroscience and brain chemistry in effect while people are at play — why do some games “end the night”, While others leave players contemplative? Why are some games easier to learn than others. Could a board game be addictive (in the DSM sense)? Continue on to Player Experience #4 now!

[1] Ignoring, for the moment, the recent trend of porting board games to the digital/video space. And not in an XCOM-has-an-app-at-the-table kind of way, but in a Ticket to Ride-for-the-iPad kind of way, where the other players are asynchronously abstracted through moves updated over the internet]