We’ve all had that experience of playing a game, and just getting angry at it.
“I’m playing my best game, and nothing is going right!”
“I can’t DO anything! I’m stuck in a hole that I can’t climb out of!”
“My entire plan got shot to hell, and it’s no fault of my own!”
“Why is everybody picking on me when I’m so obviously losing?”
Some reviewers like to speak of the “Fun Factor” when evaluating a game. What about the “I’m-not-having-any-fun-at-all Factor”? Who is rating the “I’m-mustering-all-the-maturity-I-can-to-keep-from-turning-over-the-table Factor?
Let’s just call it the “Frustration Factor”.
I was reminded of the Frustration Factor during a game of Richard Breese’s Key Harvest. In Key Harvest, players are collecting tiles which they place on their boards in an effort to create large connected clusters. You may not just take a tile and place it. Rather, you first take a tile and then put it in a public market, and show what you’re willing to pay for it. The turn has to pass among all your opponents before you get to pay for and place it. Until then, any player may instead pay you for the tile and place it on his own board.
The essence is that the player who wants a tile most is the last one to be able to secure it.
You need to set a price high enough so that no one else will be able to – or want to – pay it, and yet low enough so that you don’t pay too much. It’s a cool idea. The problem occurs when you put up a tile you absolutely positively need, set a very challenging price that you think no one can match – and some scoundrel takes it away from you anyway.
“My entire plan got shot to hell, and it’s no fault of my own!”
Well, it’s probably some fault of my own, but getting stuck with a big hole in your set up is still extremely frustrating. The key thing that makes it frustrating is the fact that somebody gets to take that “must have” tile away, and you have no recourse. You can’t increase the price you’d pay. You can’t draw your dueling pistol. It’s over.
The first time I played Key Harvest, I did this to another player and I thought it was great. His whining only made me appreciate the game that much more. It wasn’t so great the second time I played the game and somebody did it to me…three times. It was… frustrating.
There were two elements which combine to make Key Harvest so frustrating. One is the lack of final control and the other is the permanent effect that an unfortunate move can have on your game.
A similar frustrating experience occurred during a playing of Goa, by Rudiger Dorn. In Goa, there are auctions in which players acquire assets for their engines. It can take many turns to build up your engine, and the assets you buy at auction can save you several actions when they provide you with items that you don’t otherwise produce well. The auction is a “once around” and the player to my right kept complaining that he was bidding high for the things that he needed – but that I kept outbidding him. He was looking a little hopeless and irritated. I wasn’t outbidding to harm him. I had finally learned that in Goa, it is better to overpay for the things you really need than to get bargains on the things you don’t. I really needed those things.
The key to his frustration, I think, was the fact that the auction is once around. Any item doesn’t necessarily go to the person who is willing and able to pay the most. Unless you’re the last person who gets to bid for an item, you place your best bid, but if somebody outbids you then there is no recourse.
My opponent felt that he was playing his best game, but that unpredictable circumstances were ruining it for him. I felt that way at Key Harvest. In each case, when we made what seemed to be good moves, they were unexpectedly countered, and we had no recourse. Additionally, these moves were not tactical ones which we could readily adapt to. They were “do or die”. We died. We got frustrated.
In a multiplayer game such as Key Harvest, Stephanie might place a high price on a tile she really needs, and be understandably frustrated when Chris buys it anyway. The problem isn’t that Chris made a smart move; it’s that he might have made a terrible move, but now Stephanie is still put in a weak position compared to Marc. She played the best game possible but still lost due to circumstances outside her control.
Does having your best move not turn out as planned- even with no recourse – necessarily make a game frustrating? Consider Reiner Knizia’s Medici vs. Strozzi which uses a similar mechanism as the one in Key Harvest. Medici vs. Strozzi is a two player set collection game. In the game, the active player selects up to three tiles randomly and then sets a price. The twist here is that the OTHER player has the first option to accept the price and take the tiles.
At first this seems to be a mechanism guaranteed to frustrate. You choose tiles with some degree of strategy, and then you set the price – but ultimately the other player decides. It seemed when I first read the rules that it ought to work the other way around. The player who selects the tiles ought to have the final bid, even if that means that his opponent gets to name the price.
The fact that Medici vs. Strozzi is a two player game turns out to make all the difference.
THERE IS NO WHINING IN TWO PLAYER GAMES.
While the active player has no control over who ultimately wins the auction, he has a 100% understanding of his opponent’s position and what the bid means to him. He understands the consequence for both players if the opponent accepts the price, and he has complete control in setting the price accordingly. So while his opponent can “surprise” him by accepting what seemed to be a prohibitive price, the opponent is just making his best move. This is different than the case of a multiplayer game, where you can be hurt by an opponent’s weak move.
What about bad luck, though? Well, of course, bad luck can happen even in a two player game (it can happen in a solitaire game!) and it can indeed be a great Frustration Factor.
Consider the woeful player of Klaus Teuber’s Settlers of Catan. Derk has carefully set up his settlements on hexes that pay off when a “6” or “8” is rolled – but the dice keep coming up “10’s” and “4’s”. Scott keeps getting paid off in bricks and wood, keeps building roads and settlements, and eventually cuts Derk off and locks him in a corner. When Derk finally rolls a “7”, he has to summon all his self control to shove the robber on Scott’s forest rather than up his nose.
Frustration is by its nature subjective. What one player may find frustrating may challenge and excite another player, while the third just accepts it and rolls with the punches. There are some things though which will tend to amplify a difficult situation and turn a “challenge” into a “frustration”.
First is a sense that there is nothing you can do to improve your fate, that you’re stuck in a hole. In the Settlers game above, Derk might moan a little when those 10’s keep getting rolled, but once Scott cuts him off, that is the last straw. Wolfgang Kramer has said that in any game, a player should always have a chance of winning, no matter how remote. I’m not convinced that is true, or that it is even the case in many of his own games – but a player always needs to feel he can make headway. Maybe you’re 25 points ahead of me and I have no chance of catching up. At least, I want the sense that I can continue to build up my engine (if it’s that sort of game), and maybe close the gap. Maybe I’m no longer playing to win, but I’m playing to improve my position. But if fate has placed me in a downward spiral, it’s just no fun.
Whatever the degree of luck in a game, we need to feel that we can manage and respond to it. Louis XIV by Rudiger Dorn is a widely admired game – but it has come under some criticism for the way it doles out surprise bonus points at the very end of the game. In Louis XIV, players collect chips in six different colors chosen randomly, and they stay face down during the game. At the end of the game, each chip is worth a point – and the player who has the most chips in each of the six colors gets a bonus point. It’s a very small part of the game overall, and it introduces less luck than do many other Eurogame mechanisms. However, one player I know has made a good observation on why this bit of luck is irritating: it smacks you in the face at the very end of the game, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Had there been an opportunity to respond, the mechanism would not have been so disappointing.
Conversely, Sid Sackson’s Can’t Stop is a “push-your-luck” dice game – and bad luck can slam you over and over again. Yet few people find that luck to be frustrating. One reason is that Sackson always holds out a carrot in front of even the most unfortunate players. You rolled poorly up until now, but if you’re willing to take some chances, you can possibly keep going and going and going – and steal a scoring opportunity from someone who was leading you. Misfortune may continually rain dow
n upon you, but you can always make it up by taking chances.
What contributes to the Frustration Factor in a game? The two most evident factors are how long you are left frustrated and how irreversible your situation is. Being locked into a corner in Settlers of Catan is pretty bad. There may be nothing you can do to reach into new territory, and there is nothing about your position which helps to speed the game up. You may be sitting around struggling to build your next city for a half an hour. A frustrating situation in Settlers can be both long and irreversible. The case mentioned above in Louis XIV is irreversible, but since it occurs at the end of the game, it isn’t particularly frustrating. You curse your luck and move on (unless you’re the type who replays the last two turns in your head for the rest of the night!) A frustrating position in Key Harvest can be long – but not necessarily irreversible. In my game of Key Harvest, I was in a position where I knew my game was sunk because I had lost a key tile that I needed t
o join two parts of my territory. It was not a fun game, but Breese did build in an escape hatch that let me *possibly* get that tile back. As long as that escape hatch was there, I felt I had a reason to go on – no matter how delusional that may have been.
Apart from the escape hatch, I could at least continue to play the game and advance my position. I was able to claim more tiles, get some scoring bonuses, and even if I wasn’t about to secure a winning score, I could try closing the gap. A player who is locked in during Settlers of Catan is not so lucky. He’l
l typically need to place twice as many roads to reach a location that pays half as well as ones his opponents can reach – and he’ll have fewer resources to do it with. Few things in a game are more frustrating than a “death spiral”.
Mike Fitzgerald has always built a “Hail Mary” play into each of his Mystery Rummy series of games. In each game, there is the potential for a player who is behind to succeed in a high risk move and score lots of points while shutting out his opponent for the hand. It’s a great idea which always keeps trailing players in the game, while also enticing them into risky play with a big payoff “bomb”.
Sometimes, even short term setbacks can be frustrating when they create a boxed in feeling similar to a death spiral. Consider that feeling – which can arise in many games – when you are falling behind, it’s your turn, and you look at the board and realize that there are no good mov
Being bogged down in a game is always frustrating – whether it was caused by poor play, bad luck, or other circumstance. Still, a situation always seems worse when it was caused by circumstances out of our control. So many Eurogames involve elements of luck, and yet sometimes the luck is really bothersome and sometimes we accept it. When does luck seem to be acceptable in a game?
My belief is that the distinction is between “luck” and “risk”. “Luck” is part of the environment of the game which you don’t control but which you must put up with. It imposes itself on you. “Risk” is luck that you accept as part of your game decision.
Consider the use of dice in Settlers versus the use of dice in Can’t Stop. When a player builds on a space that pays off on the roll of a “9” in Settlers, he realizes that the dice are beyond his control, but all he’s really buying into is the notion that his “9” ought to come up about 4 times every 36 rolls. A “9” ought to be better than a “10” and not as good as an “8”. If a “9” seems to never come up and the player falls materially behind because of it, that Frustration Factor will start to build.
“I didn’t buy into this luck when I built there. I bought into the notion that this space was going to pay off about ‘so often’ on average. My game is getting hosed and it’s no fault of my own.”
Now Can’t Stop is a shorter more freewheeling game, and it’s all about the dice, but more than that, it is about risk. Every time the player rolls the dice, he might advance or he might crap out – but he knows that he bought into that risk when he chose to roll. If the dice come up short, most likely he’ll curse himself for getting greedy rather than curse the dice.
A game of risk – in which players assess an uncertain situation and then act on their expectations – is less likely to generate frustration than is a game of chance, where stuff happens and there’s nothing you can do about it.
Those risks need to be entered into voluntarily. Andreas Seyfarth’s Airships walks a tight line in this regard. In Airships, players are building a production engine. In this case, the engine consists of how many dice, and which kind, a player may roll during his turn. During his turn, a player must choose which new piece of the engine he’d like to improve – or whether to go for victory points. Whatever his choice, that card will show how many dice he must roll, and what total he must achieve. The better his engine, the more dice he gets to roll – and he may then choose only those with the highest values on their face.
This is an excellent risk/reward situation. The player can attempt to go for something aggressive – where his odds on the dice are remote – or he can play it safe and go for a smaller upgrade. Of course, sometimes a player is just going to roll poorly. Most often, though, the player who fails at an aggressive roll realizes that he’s responsible for the risk he took. That’s if he had a meaningful choice between a high risk and a low risk action. But what if all the cards either present impossible odds or are worthless? It can happen in Airships. Now the player is forced into taking a high risk – and when it fails he’s likely to feel as though the game cheated him. Fortunately, Seyfarth has made good choices in the way options are presented to players. The rewards and the risks are calibrated to escalate steadily during the game. Typically, there are many cards available on the display, and they cycle quickly. Additionally, when players take risks and fail, they get a reasonable compensation which can help them on later turns. Airships is a game of risk and rewards which works and often avoids the Frustration Factor which can harm a dice game.
It can be unpleasant to be the picked-on when you’re the leader, but that’s nothing compared to the frustration of being picked-on when you’re the loser. This is a problem that often surfaces in multiplayer conflict games, especially in the “Ameritrash” genre. In many such games, a player will receive new resources based on the amount of territory he holds. When it’s your turn to expand, you naturally seek locations which are poorly defended. All too often, that territory is being held by a pathetically trailing player who received the fewest defensive resources to begin with. Rather than being given the opportunity to get back in the game, a weak player ends up in a death spiral as the stronger wolves in the pack abuse him and feast on whatever flesh is left on his bones.
In games of player elimination – from Risk and Monopoly – to Diplomacy and Samurai Swords, this death spiral is a necessary part of the game in order to keep it from going on endlessly. More contemporary games have eliminated the need for this frustration factor by providing alternate victory conditions which may be based on a strategic objective or victory points. However, while a lack of player elimination may eliminate the need for the death spiral, it doesn’t necessarily eliminate the phenomenon in which the strongest player is encouraged to pick on is the weakest one.
One effective way of avoiding this problem has been to insure that no player can get too weak – or too strong. When certain resources are strictly limited, this can impose other limits to growth, which in turn can cause the strongestplayer to be most easily attacked.
The Euro-wargame hybrid Shogun, by Dirk Henn, addresses this very ingeniously by giving all players limited actions, limited food, and the need to feed all districts in their territory, however large they grow. A player may harvest food a limited number of times before he must feed his territory, and harvesting can disrupt other actions taken in a region. The effect is that as you grow, your resources get more stretched. An aggressive player, rather than becoming a behemoth, becomes more fragile. He must focus on making the most of the territory he has, rather than simply taking the most territory. Conversely, a player who has already been kicked to the ground, while he does get fewer resources, does not get proportionately fewer. He still has the same number of actions each turn as everyone else does. This proves to be an excellent balancing mechanism which can reduce a trailing player’s vulnerability to a death spiral by not necessarily making him the easiest target.
We’ve looked at several sources of frustration in games. Players can be stuck with no good choices. They can hit a wall with little possibility of advancement, much less winning. Worse, they can be caught in a death spiral where a bad situation can only get worse. They can be in situations where the chance element ends up driving the game, rather than presenting unexpected challenges. What these have in common is the feeling of helplessness they create in players. If a player feels as though his current situation is his responsibility, and that he still has meaningful decisions to drive his future situation, he is not so likely to become frustrated. If he feels that he’s in a hole because of circumstances he couldn’t control, and that nothing he does in the future will make much of a difference, then the game is likely to become more irritating than fun. It’s got The Frustration Factor.