Tabletop Problems, Online Solutions
by Shannon Appelcline
In this column, I discuss a lot of different genres, depending on where my personal interest lies at any moment. A couple of years ago it was movie scripts; before and after that, more general writing; and more recently it's been tabletop strategy games. My purpose has always been the same: to look at these other genres, most of which are more mature than the online gaming genre, understand them, and then apply their lessons learned to our own type of games.
I've been covering strategy games a lot again lately, and so this week I want to more directly connect up those ideas to the field of online gaming. Thus, this week I'm going to discuss problems which we can see in the tabletop genre, investigate how they may appear in our genre, and then give what suggestions I can for solution.
To maintain focus, I'm going to concentrate on a subset of tabletop problems: those that are ultimately caused by the actions of players--because in any game, in any genre, players will engage in many of the same actions, and thus cause the same complications.
All said, I've got four player-oriented problems planned for discussion: table talking, analysis paralysis, kingmaking, and outright cheating.
A common problem in tabletop games has always been "table talking". At the extreme, this could be defined as any type of talking around a table, except that which is specifically allowed by the game. Some players get upset at table talking which suggests strategies or gives encouragement or discouragement to other players. However, the only type of table talk that I consider really troubling is that which reveals hidden information that should only have be known to the talker. This could be explicit ("I have the Ace of Clubs, so I'll take the trick.") or implcit ("Go ahead and lead Clubs; I'm sure we'll be OK.").
This sort of table talk is generally considered unfair because it breaks down some of the strategic walls put up in a game. Worse, because some people will be willing to engage in it and others won't, it'll create an unfair disparity among players.
Online Variants. For online RPGs, table talk is almost a non-problem. This is because they tend to be more cooperative and less competitive than tabletop strategy games, and thus everyone expects that it's OK and desired to share secret information. However, table talk remains a problem for online strategy games. Most online strategy games have integrated chats; people are less likely to "accidently" say something they shouldn't because they have to think to type it in, but could still do so purposefully if they wanted. Perhaps more worrisome is the ability to table talk via "out of band" methods (e.g., ICQ, Yahoo!, etc.). This gives players the ability to explicitly and secretly share information if they so desire, and can be very detrimental for strategy games.
Online Solutions. As already noted, table talk is not a problem for RPGs, and in-band table talk seems to be less of an issue for strategy games. However, out-of-band talk is a big problem, and because out-of-band communications are uncontrollable, it's almost impossible to stop this sort of table talk.
The best method that I've ever come up with to solve this sort of problem is personal translation, meaning that each player sees the game through a filter; since out-of-band communications are unfiltered, they're effectively meaningless. This works great for some sorts of games; for example in an online Clue, my Noose might be your Candlestick. However, I can't imagine a good way to filter Bridge. You could theoretically name each suit differently for each player, but that's a problem that could be solvable if players compared their whole hands, and it also feels very kludgy. So, personal translation might work for some games and not others.
Another possibility is anonymity. If players can't figure out who others are, they can't engage in out-of-band communications. This can generally work if you don't include much personal information within a game, but you also have to have fairly large communities, so that two players coming in at the same time, and who know each other out of game, can't easily link up.
A third possibility is to make games that in some way penalize this sort of communication. For example, if all games were two player, there'd never be any reason for out-of-band communication. Avoiding partnership games is another possibility that might be considered, as they're the most prone to this type of problem.
Finally, you could just clearly state that engaging in out-of-band communication is cheating. This will clearly reduce the number of people engaging in it, but beyond that it'll be pretty impossible to police, because the net is a big place.
The problem of "A.P." is more common the more complex a game is. Generally it revolves around a game that has a large decision tree, which results in players sometimes become paralyzed and unable to make a choice among all the decisions possible. It's not exactly a "slow player" problem, because it's also related to the game: a player that's normally fine can grind to a complete stop if he has too many options in front of him.
Online Variants. Analysis Paralysis is, if anything, a much worse problem online. Online games with any strategic variety are just as likely to cause the problem of A.P., but the problem feels worse because you can't see and don't entirely know the other players. This means that you can't easily tell if a player is sitting on his hands or has been disconnected. You also don't have the same casual familiarity that lets you say, "C'mon Joe, get off your butt and move!"
Online Solutions. This is generally a hard problem at the tabletop, and so a hard problem in online venues too. Fortunately, the computer can help out.
The simplest solution is to have a timer. Cosmic Encounter Online does this; if you don't make a decision within the specified time (which varies based on how difficult the decision is), the computer automatically makes the most obvious decision for you. A simple variant would be to penalize a player whenever he exceeds his time limit, or cause him to lose the game if he exceeds his total time. (I still like the CEO answer the best.)
Another option is computer-assisted analysis. If you can have a computer lay out all the options for a player, and maybe highlight the ones which have the greatest short-term or long-term benefit, then you might be able to help a player better make his decision.
(These options both require at least some rudimentary levels of AI, but are nonetheless probably well worth while.)
The problem in kingmaking is simply that a non-winning player can choose which of several winning players will actually win the game.
There's actually some debate whether this is a real problem or not. Some people claim that, at heart, all games are about negotiation, and so if a player kingmakes another player over you, that's because you failed at negotiation. Personally, I find that too often out-of-game issues come into a decision like this (like, "I'm sleeping with Wilmena" or "I'm tired and I don't give a damn") and so I find kingmaking to be a real issue.
Personally, I think that a player decision should never be made as "Will A win or will B win?", but rather as "Does this decision improve my position or hurt it?" (while one of the other people I game with would say, "Does this decision make me more likely to win or less?").
Online Variants. Again, we see an issue where this problem doesn't really affect online RPGs, because of the fact that they're more cooperative--and also because there isn't a straight "win" or "lose", because the games are ongoing. Kingmaking does appear in online strategy games, just like it would in tabletop strategy games, but if anything, I think it's less of a problem, because you're less likely to have personal connection to the other players, and thus less likely to make a decision for out-of-game reasons.
Online Solutions. The solutions for online kingmaking are pretty identical to those for tabletop kingmaking.
The easiest answer is don't allow it. However, this typically means ensuring that your players can't affect each other in very notable ways, and thus greatly limits the type of game you can create. Nonetheless, a game with no meaningful interaction might be better than one with just a tiny bit of interaction.
A better answer is incentivize scoring placement, not just winning. The advantage that you do have in online play is that many players are probably in your game for the long haul. They'll still be there next week and next month. Thus you can offer rankings and make sure that your rankings incentivize placement. I've read about an offline gaming club that uses a very simple ranking system: the winning player gets a number of points equal to the number of players; the next player gets two less than that; each additional player gets one less; down to the last place player who gets 0 (so in a five player game, finishers would get 5, 3, 2, 1, and 0 points). At the end of a "season", whomever has the most points, "wins". Our own Gang of Four has an even stronger incentive system. Each player gets ranking for each game they play. The first-place player gets ranking points for beating all 3 other players; the second-place player gets 1 loss and 2 wins; the third-place player gets 2 losses and 1 win; and the last-place player gets 4 losses. Thus, the better you manage to do, the better your ranking does (and in fact you can usually improve your ranking with a second-place finish, and in rare cases even with a third-place finish.)
So finally we come to the lowliest form of player problem: outright cheating. This means players explicitly and specifically breaking the rules of the game in the hope of placing better. It can involve moving tokens, grabbing extra markers, weighting dice, and what not. If you see cheating, you know it.
Online Variants. To large extent, cheating is reduced in online games. Many of the easiest forms of cheating aren't possible because they're simply not allowed. You can't accidently pocket an extra $1000 because you have no way of doing so. However, more sophisticated players can find ways to cheat, often by hacking clients or viewing unprotected information streams, and the resultant problem can be a lot more troublesome because it's much more invisible.
Online Solutions. I've actually already written a full article on this topic, called Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #145, How to Cheat at Online Games, so I'll refer you to that. (It also covers some of the other topics here from a different direction.) I've included the topic here as well mainly for completeness.
Next time you play an offline game, consider the problems that you discover. They might be enlightening for your next online game, outlining possible problems and suggesting solutions.