Best Player Wins?

A friend recently speculated that he was having trouble getting people to play Hyperborea because the best player tends to win. Hyperborea has some variability between games but a very small amount of uncontrolled randomness. It is not as pure a strategy game as chess or go, but it is far to that side of the continuum even for a Eurogame. If someone is significantly better than you, you lose.

I can see why that would not be fun. I frequently object to games where it is unknown whether victory is even possible. This is the opposite case: victory is known to be possible just exceedingly unlikely. All your decisions are meaningful, but the outcome is still pretty certain because you do not (yet – growth mindset!) know how to make better decisions. Instead of the frustration of an unavoidable loss that is out of your control, this is an unavoidable loss that is entirely your fault. You can still have Theory of Fun fun in learning to play better, but many people are not excited about diving into a lost cause.

This is a frequent theme in skill-based PvP games. In a fair fight, half the players will be below average, and the average skill of your opponent tends to increase as s/he plays more and the worse players quit. Even if everyone is friendly, polite, and supportive of you as a learning player rather than cursing you as a newb, the average player would rather be a wolf than a sheep.

For tabletop games, this is often less a worry because you are playing with your friends, which is usually the point of playing. Rivalry is friendly, and more casual players can use how much they lost by as a measure of progress (serious but poor players are harder to satisfy there). Another player I know counts herself as “not losing” so long as she is not in last place. In friendly games, the stronger player might take a handicap or provide advice to competitors.

Players want a chance to win. If that means devolving the game to almost pure chance, so be it. I am reminded of children who like to play ridiculous variations on existing games, partly because kids will try most anything as a game but partly because it nullifies others’ experience with the standard game. A work event at a bowling alley included three “fun frames” whose main purpose was to keep the serious bowlers from getting too far ahead; if you have trouble bowling 100, bowling between your legs or with your off-hand won’t make you do much worse, but it forces the pros down to the novice level again. Randomness helps the weaker party.

Personally, I find little satisfaction in winning through no merit of my own, although it can still be nice to win. I don’t have a reference handy, but I recall that many (most?) people would happily trade getting credit for their merits so long as they did not get blame for their faults. It seems an even easier trade to say you’d rather win through no merit than lose by your own fault.

: Zubon

2 thoughts on “Best Player Wins?”

  1. Pretty sure that the definition of someone with a gambling problem is someone who thinks their skill impacts a game of pure chance. People internalize a win as it projects some thought of power and externalize a loss as it reduces their power. Convincing yourself of your level of involvement in the outcome is therefore tied to self-worth.

    Gets into the whole “no red pen” and “infinite praise” debate.

  2. So with a pure chance game, you’d win about 50% of the time. In a pure skill game, it’ll be based upon how skillful you are compared to the rest of the players (I find most players, including myself, tend to overestimate their skill level).

    There’s a third category which applies in a lot of games (and to some degree in real life as well). That’s the game where they player with the best gear usually wins. Gear typically acquired by time played or the cash-shop. I think this is what many players are conditioned for and therefore feel a game is bad if they don’t win 80-90% of the time.

    Have you tried Robocraft? I tried it recently because my 11yr old son was playing it. It’s quite a bit of fun and I think rather balanced for a F2P with cash shop. Your cash buys you time rather than power. The rank tiers keep you from playing with players who have a vastly different power rank than you. Pretty well done imho.

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