Politics as Usual

Posted in Serious Fun on March 3, 2009

By Kelly Digges

Kelly Digges has had many roles at Wizards over the years, including creative text writer, R&D editor, website copyeditor, lead website editor, Serious Fun column author, and design/development team member on multiple sets.

When it comes to games, my chief concern is having fun. In two-player games, I most often have fun by winning, but I'd always rather lose a fun game than win a dull or unpleasant one. In multiplayer games (and I'm not just talking Magic here), fun trumps winning by a long shot, and I'm generally happy with any game in which I get to at least partially enact my plan, whatever that is. That's partly because beating five people is so much harder and less likely than beating one person. It's partly because I group multiplayer games in the "social" category rather than the "competitive" one. And it's partly because multiplayer games are so often decided by today's topic: Politics.

I don't mean to say that politics can't be controlled or isn't important or anything like that. But at some point in most multiplayer games, somebody is going to make a choice that's out of my control. And while obviously there are some factors they're going to weigh in making that decision, I don't know what they are (especially because I tend to play with different groups of people from week to week). People have different ways of looking at political decisions, and while I could try to predict what those are for any given person in any given game, the very thought makes my eyes glaze over. I'd rather make a good play that I'll enjoy and not worry about what arcane political strategies everyone else is pursuing.

Predictably, that gets me into trouble when everyone else is pursuing arcane political strategies.

Last week, I got into a situation where my way of playing (or not playing) the political game and someone else's clashed pretty dramatically. To briefly recap: Alexis helped me out when she didn't have to, but didn't mention anything in particular she expected in return. As a result, when I saw a chance to take her out, I did so. I wondered last week whether that was scumminess or just bad strategy. I'm now starting to wonder, if it was bad strategy, on whose part?

I'm not especially interested in picking apart the different political approaches to get an edge in the game. Like I said, that's just not high on my priority list. Rather, I want to figure out how my friends approach multiplayer politics so that I can avoid blundering into dirty looks and recriminations, because win or lose, that isn't fun for anybody.

The Strategic Planner

I tend to think of Magic as a strategic game more than a political one. I don't like forming alliances, I don't like trading favors, I don't like kingmaking, and I don't like "playing the table." I like attacking—it keeps things moving, and it's also sort of a habit from the many hours I've logged playing competitive Limited. But in Free-for-All, any time I attack, or do anything else that affects another player (which is, after all, the point), I'm making a choice that's going to make enemies and have consequences and all this silly, stressful stuff. I just want to smash someone with a Bull Cerodon! I don't even care who it is—but the aforementioned someone certainly does, and therein lies my dilemma.

This is why, as you may have noticed, I prefer multiplayer formats that are less political than ordinary Free-for-All. Star format reduces the number of people you can attack in a five-player game from four to two. Attack Right and Attack Left narrow it down even further, to just one target at a time. Two-Headed Giant and Emperor take four- and six-player games, respectively, and essentially turn them into two-player games. I generally like all of these formats better than Free-for-All, precisely because they take that political moment out of my favorite phase of the turn.

But I do play Free-for-All, and at some point I attack, and obviously I have some way of choosing who to attack. I tend to think strategically, so I make that choice based on strategic considerations, and I make it differently from turn to turn as situations change. I don't like making commitments or being obligated to act outside my immediate interests. I want to look at the board each turn and decide what to do, without feeling like I owe anybody anything.

But I think that's puts me in the minority, and many argue that in multiplayer, politics is strategy. Let's take a look at some of the other ways people approach the political question in multiplayer.

The Steadfast Ally

We've all seen alliances form in multiplayer games; after all, there are so many reasons for it to happen. Two players in weak positions band together against one stronger one. Two players in strong positions don't want to wear each other down to become easy prey for the rest. Two players have compatible strategies; two Sliver decks, say, or two creature-light control decks with lots of board sweeping. If nothing else, the nature of multiplayer is that at some point, you are going to choose which players you harm and which players you leave alone (or actively benefit).

All of these conditions can change over time. Strong positions get weaker and vice versa. One of the control decks gets its finishers out before the other, or one of the Sliver players lands a Ward Sliver set to a color the other one is playing. These things happen.

When you make an alliance, you intentionally restrict your future actions. You say that even if the strategic situation dictates that you attack your ally, you won't. After that, you have two options: adhere to the alliance, or don't. Adhering to the alliance means that your ally will continue to support you (probably). At best, this takes pressure off of you so you can do what you want. At worst, it sets you up to play kingmaker (which is what always seems to happen to me).

Then there's not keeping your word, which is sort of like the old joke about a particularly impressive incendiary magic trick: it only works once. I suppose you could pull this off, if you really wanted to, by playing with lots of different people. But in practice I don't think you could avoid building a reputation as back-stabber. And if you're an alliance-builder, your reputation over the long term is key.

Take my friend Jeremy, for instance. I haven't played Magic with Jeremy in years, but I still play board games with him now and then. Jeremy's method is simple: whenever possible, he'll make an alliance with a player he's otherwise likely to come into conflict with, and if that player abides by the agreement, he will never, ever be the one to break it. One famous game of Risk 2210 AD ended with Jeremy and another player each controlling half the world—and half the moon for good measure—and declaring eternal co-dominion over the earth and space (Jer has a flair for the grandiose).

It's the Special Corollary to Jeremy's Method, however, that fascinates me: if you go back on an alliance with Jeremy, he will spend the remainder of the game doing everything he can to destroy you utterly. Winning is no longer his goal; he is solely devoted to ensuring that you don't win. He's not even vindictive about it—it's just the way things are.

Jeremy has carefully, faithfully, and sometimes ruthlessly created this reputation over the course of years: steadfast when allied, fearsome when betrayed. The result of this is that nobody ever breaks an alliance with Jer unless they can destroy him in one stroke or he's the only other player left (and, as with the Risk game, sometimes not even then).

Some people go the other direction and make temporary alliances—armistices, really—for some number of turns, or even for some specific set of actions ("If you don't attack me this turn, I'll kill Dave's Darksteel Colossus when I untap"). This is alliance-building for people who, like me, don't want to tie themselves down. This isn't something I've played around with, although last week I did offer to grant someone one "boon"—a single game action of their choice—for killing Peter, whose combo shenanigans made me nervous. That was pretty fun, and I might do it again sometime.

Building alliances works wonderfully if you're willing to abide by them. Keep your word, and you build up a reputation; break it, and you build up an entirely different one. The downside is that you're relying on essentially that same social pressure to keep your opponents from turning on you, and that won't always be enough. As I said, I keep ending up in the position of allying with someone, helping them to the top, and earning only the right to be the last one on the chopping block.

The Table-Talker

Unless your group disallows table talk, you've almost certainly experienced it. Players discuss who's a threat, who isn't, what sort of things might theoretically lurk in their hands, what certain players and decks have done in the past. This frequently turns into an attempt to influence one another, which can range the gamut from honest to perfidious.

Some people hate this, or so I'm told. Come to think of it, I don't think I've ever encountered someone like that. Every game of multiplayer Magic I can ever recall playing has seen a lively discussion as people made important decisions, and ultimately has been the better for it. Sure, sometimes the biggest threat at the table is going to convince everybody to attack you, but that's all part of the fun, isn't it?

The Knife-Sharpener

In some groups—often either new ones where people have little reason to trust each other or old ones where they have good reason not to—there just isn't a lot of alliance-building or trading of good deeds. Everyone has decided that they're better off just relying on their own position than trying to rely on anybody else's good faith.

That's fine—but it often has a funny result. If you can't trust anybody, then you end up needing to be very careful. If you're at a five-person table, that's four people you can't trust, any one of whom is ready to stab you in the back if you make a false move. And so groups like this—as you've probably seen at one point or another—end up not making those moves. They jockey for position, sharpen their knives, mix their metaphors, and wait for their enemies to blink. The first one to make a move will usually get annihilated, so nobody wants it to be them.

Now, when I find myself in that situation, I'm perfectly happy to be the one who blinks. I know that that slow, distrustful accumulation of advantage is what a lot of people enjoy about multiplayer. Me, I find it cripplingly boring. I like attacking, remember? So at some point I'll get bored and attack, and the knife-sharpeners will destroy me, and then they can go back to glaring at each other and preparing for Ragnarok. Honestly, everybody wins. Well, I mean, I lose. But I have fun doing it.

The Goofball

Speaking of getting bored, we've probably all played with someone for whom the avoidance of boredom was a driving force. You especially see this in roleplaying games, but I've certainly seen it in Magic as well.

The goofball is like me, but taken to the extreme. They want something, anything, to happen. They play Grand Melee. They play Confusion in the Ranks and Endless Whispers. They counter spells at random, act completely without regard to winning the game, and don't really want anything other than a good time. Experienced politicos often hate this because goofballs can't be bargained with; experienced strategists often hate it because goofballs can't be predicted. And even if you're me, it can be frustrating as hell to lose because one bored person decided to Fog the huge attack I sent against the person who's going to kill me next turn.

That said, a goofball is the cure for a stalemate, and whatever sort of game you have with a goofball, it's not going to be boring.

The Favor-Trader

Here's a method I ran up against Last week. Over the course of one (admittedly very long) game, various opponents left a missing 'Tron piece on top of my deck with Thoughtpicker Witch, destroyed my Plains enchanted with Genju of the Fields rather than one without so I could replay it for more cards and Angels with Mesa Enchantress and Sigil of the Empty Throne, split a Gifts Ungiven in the best way possible, and aimed a Congregate at me for 30 life. And that was just me. Around the table, spells were being third-party countered, Trade Secrets was being politically aimed, and so on. Someone even intervened to save someone else from certain death—and this is in a format where certain death is a temporary condition.

There weren't any formal agreements attached to these things in most cases, which I felt really weird about. Clearly, I was expected to return these favors, but when, to what extent, and at what cost to myself? I had no idea, and the result was confusion and, in the end, hurt feelings.

I don't like this method at all. As the favor-trader, I think you give something up without much assurance of getting something in return. If the person on the receiving end thinks more like me, you're apt to get nothing at all. That means you won't help them out again, but I, for one, prefer it that way—because as the person being favored, you have this weird expectation placed on you that you didn't ask for and may not have wanted. At least, that's how I feel. I can hardly say, "No, please don't Congregate me," although maybe I should.

It all works out over time, though. Those who are amenable to trading favors will do so over the course of games, tit for tat, and those who aren't will simply not return the favors. And pretty soon, people who don't return favors will stop getting them—and, in my case at least, everyone will be happier.

The Way

The point of all this isn't to figure out one best way, one "unifying theory of multiplayer." The point is that, as with any communal activity, everybody has their own way of doing it. To avoid friction, you need to know what you do and don't enjoy, and it helps to know the same for those around you. I present these broad archetypes so you can "diagnose" yourself and your fellow players and act accordingly—either for strategic gain or for maximizing fun, at your preference.

So, what sort of political player are you? What about those around you? I'm sure I've missed plenty of ways that people play the political game, so hop in the forums and share the other archetypes you've seen in action!

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