The Runaway Leader “Problem” - Inside Up Games
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The Runaway Leader “Problem”

The Runaway Leader “Problem”

Over the past week, I have been fortunate enough to take some time off from work to spend some time with friends from out of state. Games have been getting to the table left and right and for the first time in a long while, I have been able to get numerous titles to the table, many of which are new to me. I have to say, it feels great getting some games off my shelf of shame. Throughout this process, we began discussing some various topics regarding board gaming in general. Things like analysis paralysis, how long a game should sit on the shelf before getting played, whether or not new games should be purchased if there are still games on the shelf of shame, fear of missing out, etc. Throughout these conversations, the topic of the runaway leader was brought up; i.e. is it problematic if a game has the possibility for a player to get way ahead of the other players to the point where they are incredibly difficult to catch or even impossible.

If you haven’t heard this point made before, the discussion generally revolves around the idea that 1) everyone at the table should have a chance to win the game and 2) if a game is beyond anyone catching the leader, is it worth finishing. Afterall, everyone at the table already knows how the results are going to be divvied out in the end. Attempting to settle the frustration, designers have implemented catch up mechanics to allow those lagging behind a little boost to keep it competitive. Generally speaking, these mechanics are well received as long as the boost doesn’t seem to large. While I do understand why this is accepted, the motion to make games score tighter in the end is having some negative effects.

To begin with, from what I have observed, many players in the hobby claim that winning doesn’t matter. I tend to believe this sentiment and genuinely think gamers making this claim are being honest. That said, it also seems like gamers are concerned with how badly they lose. If an individual loses by 5, it was a close game and clearly they “understood” the game; however, if that individual loses by 30, they didn’t have a chance and the game fell outside the realm of their own comprehension. While I can understand this sentiment, this is a dangerous notion to accept. This means that games can be manufactured and designed to produce particular results. If the scores are tight every time with any audience, it means that the game is producing the scoring results rather than the player making decisions throughout the game. All the “complex” decisions a gamer makes offers an extremely similar result in the way of end game scoring. One might ask if they are really decisions at all.

Some don’t have a problem with this, and that’s ok. Maybe playing games is more about seeing new mechanisms at work and seeing the systems designers create. Maybe winning, making decisions, and creating an impact through choices doesn’t matter. In that case, having the ability to really explore the mechanics is what matters. Working the board in new ways and exploring new routes to victory is what counts in the end. Well, if this is the case, the runaway leader is not a problem here either. I know when I see someone destroy my score in a game, I want to hop back into it right away. I’m asking myself, “how did they score so much?” It generates curiosity and the game hits the table more and more until I am able to grok the system. In a culture where games are only played once, twice, or maybe three times; this element is hugely important. In fact, this lends to a game staying in my collection longer because I know I need to play it more.

The largest problem with designing games to have players end with similar results is that it further adds to the myth that someone should feel stupid when they do not perform well (close to winning if not winning). If gamers are consistently getting close scores over and over, game after game, than it becomes more difficult to play a game without such even scoring because it tricks the gamer into believing they are not smart enough to play the game or that they are somehow inferior. Many who advocate for mechanics that lead to preventing a runaway leader say that having closer scores will reduce this feeling in the individuals who play the game, but in reality, it perpetuates the notion that no one, unless they are dumb, should lose by more than a handful of points. It creates more and more aversion to truly competitive games where all of the decisions throughout have significant impact on the end game score.

Games should be designed to offer choices that make an impact, that allow for players to engage in the game in meaningful ways, and, more than anything, call gamers back to the table time and time again. What are your thoughts? Are runaway leaders a problem? Am I missing part of the puzzle? Let me know in the comments below.

Thanks for reading and keep on gaming,

Matt Pioch  

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