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Is board game quarterbacking a game problem or a player problem?

Board Game Quarterbacking: Player Problem or Game Problem?

A Hot Topic

The concept of quarterbacking, or alpha gaming in co-op games is a highly debated topic in the board game sphere, where both sides have very strong opinions. So, allow me to stagger in with all the grace of a rum-soaked, but far less charming Jack Sparrow. Lets parley.

You can find a video version of this article on my YouTube Channel.

In my humble opinion, neither answer is correct, and this is a hill I’m prepared to die on. Quarterbacking can be a player problem, or a game design problem. It can even be both at the same exact time. It completely depends on the game and the people at the table, and I’m going to explain why.

The Pandemic Boardgame
Pandemic has a famous alpha gaming problem.

The topic itself is important for a couple of reasons. Understanding and acknowledging the differences can help navigate the already complicated social space of board games. It’s nice to know if Gideon is being an overbearing quarterback because he is a jerk, or because the game encourages or even leans on that type of behavior.

That means the solution can range from having a conversation, identifying what games work when playing with Gideon and what ones don’t, or possibly removing this theoretical, totally fictional, and non-existent jerk named Gideon from the table.

Secondly, I do believe that when it’s a game design problem. It’s an actual game flaw, and we need to be able to talk about flaws openly, without facing a tidal wave of “It’s a player problem” in response. Constructive criticism is healthy, even if the flaw in question doesn’t always need to be fixed, and in this analysis, you will notice that sometimes, that’s true.

Quarterbacking Dissection

The first thing we need to do is clear the air about what quarterbacking is. When most people hear the term, they probably picture a loud-mouthed and aggressive jerk who believes they are God’s Gift to strategy and forcefully tells everyone what moves to make. That is certainly one type and by far the worst kind. But that’s not always the case.

Quarterbacking can be as simple as someone experienced with the game making a suggestion. It seems innocuous, and working together is core to playing a co-op game. However, in many medium to lightweight co-op games, players don’t really get to do a whole lot each turn. A player choosing to go with that suggestion might not get a turn at all. If it happens multiple times, they aren’t truly getting to play.

A close of up the Pandemic game
Not all quarterbacking is obviously aggressive.

Many co-op games are simple but challenging. This has the side effect of having a very limited number of actions you could take, but one or two dire ones that will have consequences if you don’t take them on a given turn. Think of how quickly Pandemic can go bad, or how fast someone can starve in Robinson Crusoe.

Saying, if you hunt, we will have enough food, or if you get wood we will be safe from this, etc. Very quickly turns into one or more players not having agency over their own choices. Yet, the only way to remedy this is to intentionally withhold information that could help the team in order to not step on someone’s toes. That seems counterproductive to a game focused on working together. Intentionally playing badly isn’t any more fun than having your turn played for you. Either way, someone’s having a bad time, even if they don’t voice it.

The important takeaway here is that quarterbacking isn’t always malicious. Odds are it is just someone enthusiastic and knowledgable, and the game itself encourages that behavior.

When It’s the Game

Most of the time, this issue is going to arise in lighter games. This is due to the limited scope of the game’s strategic depth combined with the fact that the point is to win the game together. What do I mean by that?

Let’s look at a game I reviewed recently called The Spill by Smirk and Laughter. Every turn oil dice drop from the tower and fill different rows of the board. Three dice in a row cause a spill out, more dice in that row overflows into another row. This cascade can lose you the game. At the same time, players have to try and rescue animals before they are contaminated and sent to the sick bay.

Marine animals contaminated by oil dice
Many co-op games such as the spill have a thin margin of error.

Obviously, you and your team want to win the game. There’s a very good chance that on any given player’s turn there is a critical action they need to take. It might be to remove dice from a packed row so it doesn’t overflow. It might be to rescue an animal before it’s sent to the sick bay. That player, might not see it. That doesn’t change the fact that if they don’t do it, the game is likely to end in a loss.

Another player will probably see it, especially if they have played more or are more experienced with gaming in general. They can, and in the spirit of a co-op game probably should suggest it.

The player, whose turn already consists of super quick things such as moving and removing dice, will listen to the advice and do it. It was the smart thing to do, and the players are closer to winning. That player also didn’t really get a turn, so despite that, it probably didn’t feel fun.

Now, the player may ignore the suggestion, but that is unlikely in the case of a more experienced or skilled player advising a less experienced one. That is unless that player ignores the advice to intentionally block what they perceive as quarterbacking. In that case, that’s as antithetical to the concept of working together as it would be if the other player intentionally withheld the information, so as to not quarterback in the first place.

What if all the players are equally skilled and experienced? Well, you already hit the lotto as far as probability is concerned if you managed to put together a whole group on the same skill level. But, the game will likely follow a linear track. The optimal move is obvious to everyone, so there’s no real table talk because the game’s strategic depth has a low ceiling.

As a rule of thumb, any game where a single player can easily play a table worth of characters or roles alone is going to have this flaw. Emphasis on the word “easily” because it’s going to be important later on.

Robinson Crusoe Game
Robinson Crusoe is often viewed as complex, but the bones of it are very simple.

Imagine you were playing Scrabble, but instead of having a row of letters, each person at the table had two letters, and you had to make a word out of it. Do you think that each player would contribute to the word as an individual or one player would see a word through everyone’s letters and then suggest it? In essence, solving it themselves.

This is doubly true if a player can play multiple roles, and still lose the game. Four heads aren’t always better than one when it comes to certain puzzles. If you have ever worked in a place that had too many managers or supervisors, then you know I speak the truth.

It’s hard to argue that it’s not a game design issue if the way to successfully play a co-op game is to withhold critical information and intentionally not work together. It’s hard to argue that it’s not a game design issue when a game presents so few options for a player to take, that there can be a single correct one to be pointed out in the first place.

The Nightcage game
The Nightcage mitigates alpha gaming with an optional silence rule.

There are exceptions to this rule of thumb, however, but it takes intentional effort from the game designer. The Night Cage, also by Smirk and Laughter, is a good example. It has all the same issues I talked about but includes an optional variant that prevents players from talking to each other unless their characters are adjacent. Silencing players wouldn’t work in most games, but it fits the theme of the Night Cage strongly and it works great as a co-op game when using that variant.

When it’s the Player

It’s a player problem when either the quarterback is a know-it-all and constantly suggests poor moves because they aren’t actually skilled or knowledgable. Or when the quarterback has to exert effort to quarterback. This is why it’s almost always a player problem in more complex games, not a game design problem.

The reality is, that you can quarterback any game if you try hard enough. It’s the trying hard that outs you as a problematic player. It’s effortless to suggest a move that plays another player’s turn for them in a simple game. However, it’s going to take time, and effort to play my turn for me in Spirit Island, for example.

Spirit Island Boardgame
It takes serious effort to alpha game in Spirit Island.

Spirit Island has the most table talk of any game I’ve played. Turns are simultaneous, so every round has players working together to cover hot spots and set up combos. The difference is, that the language is almost always vague.

“Can anyone cover this land, I can’t.”
“Would having +2 range on anyone’s powers help?”
“Oh! You’re doing 8 damage in that land? Let me use my power to push these invaders into it for you”

To quarterback in Spirit Island. You would have to take a lot of time to analyze the entire board AND ask to look at each player’s hand to figure out what powers they have, what they can afford, how they would combo, and then tell everyone in detail how to run the string of actions for that turn. The moment you try that, it’s obvious to the whole table that you are being a problem, and you can be called out on it.

Even if someone is an expert at the game, there’s rarely a single correct answer because the possibilities are so wide. There may be cases where a land is in danger of blighting and cascading that blights into more lands. But there are also likely multiple solutions or ways to mitigate it. Even if you pull a Doctor Strange, and out of 14,000,605 possible futures there’s only one where you win. You’re unlikely to see what it is without overstepping your boundaries to gather information from everyone’s hands and status.

A setup Spirit Island game
Complexity is a natural barrier to alpha gaming, but far from the only one.

Remember how I said that the word “easily” was important? You can play multiple Spirits in Spirit Island. But it’s not easy by any stretch of the imagination. It’s a large mental burden to perform. I would be very impressed if anyone could play four Spirits, and also ensure that they don’t overlook any rules, or forget some interactions because attempting to do so, while fun, would be a huge mental tax.

To some degree, higher complexity is a natural barricade to quarterbacking. It’s possible sure, but it’s not possible without the quarterback very obviously showing that they are the problem.

Does it need to be fixed?

So, when quarterbacking is a game design issue, does it need to be fixed? My personal answer is yes. The real answer? Maybe. Relatively speaking, co-op games are fairly young. Many of them are designed still following concepts that I find outdated. Games that attempt to mitigate quarterbacking, such as Spirit Island, are fairly new.

But, the popularity of co-op games as they exist today is due to the success of the games I consider flawed. As a consequence of that design, there is a group of people that play these games in a slightly different way. That type of player has probably spent the entire time reading this shaking their head.

The thing is, their playstyle is no more invalid than mine is. This type of player is one who enjoys co-op games as a committee. A group that plays by committee doesn’t see themselves as an individual character or role contributing to the team. They see themselves instead as part of a whole. A cog in one machine.

The medic in Pandemic
When playing by Committee, the medic belongs to the group, as opposed to a single player.

Committees don’t really play the game turn by turn. They talk through the entire round as a single entity. Discussing and voting on what every character is doing. One player isn’t playing the Scientist, the scientist belongs to the committee, as do all the other characters. It isn’t, “John should do this and Jane should do that.” It’s “I think red needs to cover this, and green needs to cover that”. They basically throw ideas out and vote on them. And, it works.

The problem is, that you can’t mix the two. Someone who wants to work with the team as an individual and one that wants to play as a committee isn’t compatible at all, and if they play together, someone’s fun is going to suffer.

Do I still think it’s a flaw that needs to be fixed? Sure, because I don’t think fixing it harms the committee’s playstyle. You could play any game like that, even Spirit Island. It would take more effort, but by nature, it takes more effort to play a complex game than a simple game in the first place.

Nightcage game close up
Simple games can discourage alpha gaming if they are designed with it in mind.

Do I think all simple co-op games need to be complex games to be a barricade to quarterbacking? Not at all. The Night Cage is just one example of how you can design rules, even optional ones to mitigate it.

I think there’s plenty of room to design simple games while keeping quarterbacking in mind as a factor without upping the complexity. High complexity is just a natural deterrent to quarterbacking, but far from the only one.

Regardless, when it comes to what kind of problem quarterbacking is, just like most things in life. It’s nuanced. It can be a game problem, where the design encourages it. It can be a player problem where someone needs to respect boundaries, and it can be both at the same time.

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