Variant: Groupthink and playing it “wrong”
Some time ago, I came across an interesting article about playing a game the “right” way versus house ruling it and playing the game other than as intended. Rather than talk about House Rules (shameless plug), which the author covered pretty well, it inspired me to get into another bogeyman of gaming: groupthink.
Groupthink is a phenomenon in which individual group members would rather be in harmony than realistically analyze options and depart from the group. When applied to gaming, it means that someone comes up with a counterproductive strategy that not only hurts them, but hurts the experience and that strategy is adopted by all players. Groupthink allows a group to play a game completely by the rules as written, but end up with a terrible experience.
One example that comes to mind was an experience with Settlers of Catan. Settlers is a fine game, though I’ve played more than enough of it and haven’t really returned to it much in the past several years. In any event, I met someone at a con and we were chatting it up when he told me how much he hated Settlers. Throwing a little hate at the classic gateway game has become trendy in recent years. So I asked him where his hate came from. And that’s when I was shocked.
He called it a dice fest with absolutely no strategy that all came down to rolls. When I explained that it was set up so that you had to trade, I found out the problem. His group had played it (once) without any trading. They knew they were allowed to trade, but refused to do so. One player had remarked that a trade would help his opponent as much as him and so he refused to do it. Every other player adopted that logic and no trading occurred the entire game. As a result, the game lasted several hours, dragged on forever, and the players felt out of control. If this were typical, I’d completely understand his hate.
I explained that the game encouraged and even required trading. I also pointed out that trading was a good thing. After all, if player A and player B trade, then they are both better off when compared to player C. That’s part of why Settlers only works with at least three players. I’m not sure I convinced him, but it was clear to me that groupthink had crept in and changed the dynamic of the game entirely.
One of the reasons I play with two different gaming groups (other than I have friends in both and enjoy their company) is that I can avoid some of this. The groups tend to play differently and a presumed powerful strategy in one is completely upturned by a new perspective from the other. It’s also why I love playing at conventions. New people means new ideas.
Now, some players will bristle when told that they’ve played a game “wrong.” Especially where, as with the Catan example, they didn’t break any of the rules or implement house rules. Still, I think it’s fairly clear that somehow they had lost their way. An enjoyable enough game with a 60-90 playtime instead became an non-interactive dice rolling multi-hour nightmare.
But that’s different than simply playing the game in a different spirit. Over the holiday, I was able to play Werewolf with my extended family. They played the game, as is typical, as a party game, with laughter, crazy accusations, and some light-hearted roleplay elements. A grand time was had by all. But once a month I play Werewolf with a group that treats it as a strategy game. Instead of the party atmosphere, every statement is analyzed to see if it gives something away. Claims and counter-claims occur, sometimes with multiple claimants. Regular villagers try to get killed to avoid having special villagers killed. Both ways feel very different and I couldn’t say that either group played it “wrong.”
Groupthink is different, though. It asserts a dominant strategy that may not be so dominant – especially if all players adopt it. It can be difficult to say that a game is played “wrong” even where all rules are followed. But if you have an absolutely abysmal experience, odds are that you missed something somewhere. Very, very few games make it to market in a completely broken, un-fun state.