Conflict-free Competition

puerto rico dubloons

As I plunge deeper into the world of (mostly German) boardgames I develop a new perspective on my long entrenchment in the videogame world. Their game designs and themes are a breath of fresh air relative to the constant frustrations and repetitiveness that competitive videogames are providing. The highest rated and most popular of these games (according to BoardgameGeek), Puerto Rico and Agricola, are especially profound because they are highly competitive without ever having direct conflict.

Take Agricola for example. This is a game about growing a seventeeth-or-so century farm by planting grain, breeding livestock, having kids, and taking on side jobs. This is a solitary job. You mind your own business. The closest there is to any interaction with any other farmers is when each of your family members does an “action” that claims a resource or ability from a shared, global supply (basically, the town.) Once something is claimed no other player can take it for that turn, but they can do anything else that is available. This is what I mean by a lack of conflict. You can’t go into the other player’s farm and burn their crops, or poison their cows, or have sex with their wife. Their farm is theirs alone and whatever they build or do there, with those common resources, is theirs and theirs alone. This might sound like a boring rule-set for a multiplayer game, but it is surprisingly competitive, strategic, and fun.

While there is no direct interaction between players, everyone is competing to create the best farm in the allotted number of turns. The challenge, and all the strategy, emerges from how you use the shared, and limited, global supply. As an Agricola player you need to be aware of what everyone else is doing, what you think they are trying to do, and, more importantly, how this might affect what you need to accomplish your goals. If everyone is constantly accumulating wood to build pastures and stables and new rooms for their house, it might be more beneficial to change your plans towards growing grain and gathering the clay that everyone else is busy ignoring. Of course the nuances of Agricola are far more complex than this and require a lot more writing to properly explain, but the basic idea is just that: manage the resources you need to grow your farm and feed your family amidst a dynamic market, trying to anticipate other player’s needs and the demands they create. It’s, basically, an economic game without the money. It’s also really fun.

I try to think of equivalent designs in the modern videogame world, especially in the commercial spectrum, and I can’t think of one popular, competitive multiplayer game that is strategic with no direct conflict. Not a one[1]. The genre is dominated by shooters (war, violence), fighting games (violence), real time strategy games (war, violence), and turn based strategy games that, too, are often war based. If there are equivalents, they are obscure. It’s a single-minded market.

Amongst some people, there is talk of so-called Ludonarrative Dissonance, about how videogames have a hard time conflating the mechanics of a system with the narrative elements behind the motivations in it. It’s a fine challenge to tackle, but it seems to me to be a lesser issue than the overall thematic bankruptcy that is present. As technology advances, allowing for improved dynamic situations and presentation and control, the vocabulary developers have at their disposal increases. But if it’s applied to nothing but more elaborate ways to shoot people in the face, what’s the point? You are still using the exact same metaphors as one of the oldest videogames: SpaceWar!

This is why boardgames are so fascinating. Free of those technological advances they’re forced to explore mechanics and rule-sets and player interactions rather than new ways to present the same thing. Granted, it’s a specialized market with an audience (and publishers) that’s seemingly willing to try new things. From the boardgamers I’ve met, it’s also generally an older market, one that’s not obsessed with the blockbuster fly-by-wire explode everything attitude that permeates every pore of the videogame biz[3]. That’s not to say that boardgames are without their own set of problems, but not having billions of dollars at stake every year certainly minimizes them.

Market demands and audience considerations are good excuses for a little while, but videogames already are big enough to allow for diversity. There are developers, and scenes, that focus on niche markets and do so with success. So why is it that even they, when creating multiplayer games, stick to the same metaphors of conflict?

Perhaps the general consensus amongst videogame publishers is that non-violent multiplayer games can’t be as exciting, and can’t sell as well[3], as their war-mongering counterparts. Maybe they think there could never be enough competition, excitement, betrayal, surprise, defeat, skull-daggery, and general griefer-worthy assholeishness in a game without direct conflict. But the last year’s worth of news out of Wall Street tells a different story. It’s a tale of a system corrupted from the inside by the scheming, cheating, gaming of a few powerful and greedy individuals. If this is not prime material for a videogame, I don’t know what is.

So all this might have been the build-up for a self-serving question, because this is something that I want to play, but I have to wonder: in this economic climate, where are all the economic games?[4]

  1. Not counting things like global leaderboards and indirect competition like that. I’m talking specifically about multiplayer games based on such mechanics.
  2. There’s a culture of one-upmanship that occurs in the battle for those dollars: every big million seller needs to be topped by an even bigger one.
  3. Settlers of Catan has sold over 15 million units over its life. Suck on that Killzone.
  4. This is why I’m curious and excited about Cities XL.
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