Saturday, January 26, 2013

Social Contract and Gaming

I was going to update the movie blog and I might still actually but I feel like writting about this topic so whatever.  Also I am seeing Broken City tomorrow so I guess I'll update it with a big fat movie round up.  I also kinda wanna write something on unconvensional detective movies.  I have two so far and I prefer to do a 3rd... Who Framed Roger Rabbit I WIN!  So working out problems one day at a time.

Anyway back to the topic that I put in the subject line.  So social contract and gaming.  This popped into my head when we were playing Cosmic Encounters the other night at anime club.  Cosmic Encounters is one of my favorite games.  It is fast, frantic, fun, and it is almost impossible to take it personally because who you are attacking is randomly determined most of the time.  I like random!  Alliances last for a whole turn and then are more or less gone.  It is nice.  It of course encourages lying, back stabbing, double dealing, bluffing, and all the other things that excist in American games and that's when I started to wonder.

The concept of the non binding deal excists in one form or another in just about every game that has a deal in it.  It is this tantalizing ability to burn someone to come out ahead that is both omnipresent and yet, in just about every play group I've experienced, rarely used.   Take Cosmic Encounters.  You can take allies to help you.  You can take a lot of allies, then you can loose on purpose and take everyone with you.  You can also make a deal where both people can play a negotiate card and they can trade stuff.  If only one person plays a negotiate card they auto loose the encounter so it requires a lot of trust to get both people to play negotiate cards.  These are just basic back stabbing things you can do in the game and of course no deals are binding ever.  The thing is that these forms of the back stab are fairly rare reason being that once you burn someone no one else is ever going to trust you.  You make 5 people loose 4 of their ships to the warp because you failed to deliver victory by acident... well shit happens.  If you force everyone to loose 4 ships to the warp on purpose no one is going to trust you again for a very long time.  You essentially decided that you are going it alone, and any time you are being attacked then you have gaurneteed an instant and rather permenate alliance against you.

Now in a con setting I can see a lot of this coming into play and being very useful.  These are people you aren't going to be seeing again so why not put the devious fuck lever at 11.  It is part of the game.  However, when you are playing in a set group of people this starts to become less worthwhile.  Part of the reason is that it just makes it more difficult to make deals in other games.  Once you get that reputation for being a devious fuck head then it is hard to break it.  It is easy to write off the fact that it is "part of the game and people need to be mature" but there is the plain and simple fact that if I have to tie up one of my eyes watching out for your knife heading towards my back that I might as well just not ally with you in the first place and find a more stable/reliable partner.

I've found that being a good neighbor in a game often times gets you a hell of a lot further in the playgroup setting than being an asshole but that's me.

So the main reason is why bother in the first place?  Or to ask a better question what happens when we remove the non binding deal mechanic.  To examine this I am gonna look at two games Twilight Imperium and Diplomacy though not in that order actually.   Diplomacy is interesting because unlike most games with the "non binding deal clause" Diplomacy is built in such a way so that at one point during the game you are going to backstab someone else.  It is impossible to win without working with someone and it is impossible to win without betraying someone.  The game is pretty abstract on how the mechanics work but you are still capabable of doing some pretty clever things.  Still you can't do them without someone else.  As a result the idea of betrayal is on the tin.  It isn't optional.  Being devious is the only way to do it.  It isn't like Cosmic Encounters where most dickery is optional.  It isn't like Illuminati where you can change your mind during a deal at the last second causing someone you promised to help to loose, it isn't Monopoly where you promise to sell something and you don't.  In Diplomacy you gotta burn someone it is just a matter of who how and when.   A good poker face also helps because damnit James picked up what I was doing pretty hard when he saw me eying Turkey as he was eyeing Italy.  The Italian player came to the sudden deflated realization that she is to nice for the game.

My paint here is that when the game is built for the dickery it works.  Dipomacy isn't some fly by night game.  It has been around for over 50 years in dozens of printings.  It has been played by important people the world over.  The game, design wise, is literally a work of art.  It takes 10-15 minutes to explain and 99% of the complexity comes from the human interaction.  Most of all when I said it is physically impossible to go it alone I meant it. 

Diplomacy differentiates itself from its other American cousins in the fact that the art of the non binding agreement is an intrinsic part of the game that is inescapable.  Whereas in most other games it is tacked on as a sort of "oh yeah you can be a dick".  As a result it slips past the social contract.  Unless the gamer is particularly immature or vindictive it is understood that this is how Diplomacy is played and there can be only one.  

Just in case I didn't make it clear earlier in most other games it is possible to go it alone or to win without backstabbing your partners.  As a result the devious trickster guy generally finds himself to be the cheese that stands alone.

Twilight Imperium is different because first of all the game is pretty unrestrictive on the sort of deals you can make.  Despite this I would fucking kill for a military passage deal that excistis in games like Civ series and Europa series.  Still there are all sorts of deals from non aggression pacts, trade goods, votes, planets, initiative thingies, trade agreements, there are tons of things you can do and for the longest time all of it was non binding until the second expansion came out and they did away with it.  Now there are contracts we can give each other that come with consiquences for when a deal is broken.  Some of them are pretty stiff consequences at that.  The non binding deal is dead long live the binding deal!

So what is lost by throwing out the non binding deal?  Nothing.  I mean not really.  In fact it leaves the ability to free form backstab still intact because first of all no one would expect it, and second of all since the stabbed player is recieving immediate compensation the stabbing fits more into the over all structure of the game's mechancis and not just "player x is a dick and can't be trusted".  For the non stabbing inclined it is nice to have a layer of security to back up deals and should the backstab happen it is easier to plan around.  All in all it adds an extra layer of stradegy to the game without adding to the game's rather staggering complexity and it is a beautiful concept. 

I love the idea of the binding contract.  Do this or this bad thing happens to you.  It is a perfect concept that can be used in just about every game with a non binding contract system.  I hope it is something that starts making it into more and more games because in general the non binding contract feels more like a board game tradition rather than a deliberate design decision and that's silly.  Why not take it to the next level and make backstabbing an integral part of the game lie Diplomacy or add the binding contract and see what interesting new things can be done with it like in Twilight Imperium.  Alright back to work.

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