Design Philosophy: Excusing Aggression

Welcome to 2022! I took a few weeks off from my posting to enjoy the holidays with my family, but it’s time to get back in the habit. In professional news, I’m happy to report that the cinematic teaser for the new Elder Scrolls Online chapter I’ve been working on the last few months has dropped here. I worked on a lot of the main story, so I’m super-excited to see what people think of it.

Anyway, on to the game design topic of the day!

Unexcused Aggression

I’m a big fan of conquer-the-world games: Risk, Civilization, Master of Orion, Twilight Imperium, and so on. I love the strategy of picking out your objectives, figuring out what forces you’ll need, and finding clever ways to grab the territory you want. But one overlooked drawback to these multiplayer free-for-alls is the fact that people hate to be picked on, and many people hate to be the aggressor. Those games demand what I call unexcused aggression, and that’s a lot to ask from players.

So, what exactly is unexcused aggression? I define it as the situation in a multiplayer game when, before anyone has done you an injury, you have to pick someone to piss off. The “multiplayer” is important here: when you sit down in a two-player game, you know it’s you or the other guy. No one feels picked on in chess or checkers or tennis or whatever.

Risk is the classic example of a game built on unexcused aggression. I bet you know someone you don’t play Risk with because when you attack him he takes it personally. Fred perceives your swing at one of his territories as unexcused aggression, and it gets him angry. Heck, the unexcused aggression in Risk starts during set-up! If you place one army in Australia or South America to stop Fred from controlling a little continent at start, that might be enough to sour Fred’s experience for hours.

Unexcused aggression is a lot of feel-bad for players who are, well, humans. It’s natural to get riled when someone treats you unjustly, and unprovoked attacks certainly feel unjust. Plus, some people are simply nice, and don’t like to be placed in the position where they have to make a friend angry. They don’t like being forced to hand out some unexcused aggression.

Anyway, game designers gloss over the social dynamics of multiplayer games all the time. I think that’s a serious oversight. People usually game with the same friends over and over again—everybody’s got their customary gaming circle. Asking the people who play our games to act like assholes (and provoke the drama and “feel-bad” that go along with unexcused aggression) is a bigger ask than game designers think it is.

Excusing Aggression

So how can we make things a bit easier for players who might have to keep living in the same house with the opponent they had to backstab or screw over? “Get over it!” isn’t really a great answer. But there are definitely a couple of things you can do:

  • Pre-set Alliances: Multiplayer games where players are automatically on one side or the other avoid the unexcused aggression problem. When you play Axis & Allies, you know Germany and Russia are supposed to fight. It’s excused aggression, and no one gets mad about that.
  • Catch-Up Mechanics: Games that give players in bad positions a chance to feel good about coming back can take the sting out of receiving that first hard slap. Risk actually does this because the card set bonus keeps getting bigger—the guy who gets the last big army wins the game, not the guy who gets the first.
  • Unpredictable End: If you know your “ally” is going to win next turn unless you do what the other players want you to do and betray him, you have to pick someone to disappoint and that sucks. But if you don’t know for sure that the game’s ending, there’s a lot less expectation that you need to be the guy who takes him down “for the good of the game.”

When I designed Conquest of Nerath, I leaned on the idea of pre-set alliances. Yes, you can play in free-for-all mode, but the game works best as 2 versus 2. And in Ultimate Scheme, I made sure that plenty of the event cards worked better for trailing players, so there’s a catch-up mechanic of sorts. (Although I probably could have pushed that a lot further, to be honest.)

One Enemy, One Friend

A final thought on the multiplayer challenge. Long ago back at TSR, Bruce Nesmith gave me an excellent piece of advice for playing in free-for-all games: Choose one enemy, and choose one friend. For the duration of the game, never betray that friend, and never forget that you’re working to bring down your enemy. Truces and skirmishes with other players might come and go, but don’t get confused about your enemy and your friend. (If it comes down to you or your chosen friend at the end of the game, then it’s okay to fight for the win. But be loyal otherwise.)

Does this help you win games? No, not really. Your friend might backstab you. You might miss a chance to work with your enemy for mutual advantage. But it will help you enjoy the games you play more, and that’s the whole point.

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