Roundtable

Roundtable Post: Games with Strangers

When Tim struck up a conversation with me about what games he should play with The Beau, it got me thinking about the idea of using board games as a way to get to know strangers. I decided to prod my fellow members of Team Acagameia for Extra Life with this prompt:

What insights about a person’s personality can you glean from playing board games with them? If you were to play board games with a stranger to get to know them, what board game would you pull out?

David responded first, focusing with laser-like precision on a single game:

I’d love to say that I learn the most about people from games like Twilight Imperium or Diplomacy, but no. The game I always turn to for strangers (assuming I don’t know their comfort with games) and the game I read people best through is Catan. It works so well because it’s quick to learn, and then it quickly degrades a game about bartering, deception, and general indecency. I’ve seen supposed introverts become bloodthirsty tyrants and outgoing people-lovers become conniving weasels. The most interesting are the ones who you see start planning everything out silently the moment the tiles are placed. I’ve been surprised amongst coworkers to learn who among them had hidden strategic foresight.

Games often allow people to explore the personalities they can’t be in real life; whether that is by their nature or the choices they make in their behavior. Games like Catan allow people to be that singular wicked personality they would be if all they cared about was getting ahead. It’s like Game of Thrones without the bloodshed. There are plenty of other games that draw this out in people, but few are as accessible and ubiquitous as Catan.

Taking a different course, Tim argues that bringing out a more complicated game can provide its own insights:

I do think playing board games really does help you get to know people, and this past weekend certainly helped impress that upon me. One particularly noteworthy quality that becomes paramount when playing games is how a person reacts to challenges- board games are a principle catalyst for this sort of thing, since people are the arbiters/processors of the rules, and thus need to do a lot more mental cataloguing than in most video games. This is why there are forums devoted to how to teach various board games to new players- there is a real risk of overwhelming someone with rules and errata, while on the flipside a hefty amount of patience is required to teach some people (myself, for example). 

So how does this person react when they can’t seem to grasp a rule? Or, as so often happens as people learn games, when they make a mistake? One thing that impressed me with the Beau was the good humor with which they took themselves throughout the learning of Netrunner– there was never a sense of frustration, even though I proceeded to lay out the various complications as they came up. That and I was playing a Haas-Bioroid Deck, so there was a metric ton of Brain Damage awaiting them with every Ice, so the propensity for frustration was totally there. 

Meanwhile, Matt puts an emphasis on what board games can tell you about the way in which a person thinks:

For example, I have a friend who is known for taking excruciatingly long turns.  We’ll call him Frank.   He will mull over every option until he’s chosen the optimal course of action.  This same friend will constantly check and re-check everything from resources to currency to points.  From this it’s easy to tell that Frank is a very analytical thinker who pays attention to detail.  Similar to his play style, he’s constantly planning and re-planning.  Looking outside of the realm of board games we see that Frank is a software engineer and uses all these traits on a daily basis as well.

These aren’t the only things that can be determined on the tabletop, though.  From a complete strategy to no strategy, aggressive plays to turtle-like passivity, even down to setting up the game itself, all of these can be indicators of different personality traits.  You can tell whether or not someone is competitive, inclusive, impulsive, a team player, a leader, or perhaps a cheater!  The trick is to pick games that lend themselves to revealing these things.

So taking all that into consideration, what games would these fellows pick to play with a stranger? David’s already staked his claim to Settlers of Catan, and Matt’s pick has a similarly commercial bent:

My personal favorite game to “people-watch” with is Bohnanza.  While the theme itself is a bit goofy (you’re a bean farmer), it has a lot of player interaction built-in and is pretty accessible.  Most of the game is spent trying to work around the fact that you can’t re-arrange the cards in your hand.  This forces people to be on the prowl for other players to trade with or otherwise offload beans to.  We’ve often house-ruled that you can even trade “futures”.  Essentially this is card debt (assuming you can remember it exists when the time comes to call it in).

Tim’s pick also has commercial themes, but he places more emphasis on watching a disaster unfold:

In the end, I decided to go with Galaxy Truckers – Why? Because, first of all, it comes with a great “tutorial” level that makes teaching it relatively simple. It’s also a game in which the vast bulk of it is watching your beautiful creation get broken apart by the unrelenting force of chance. But while the game can sometimes feel a bit cruel, there’s something remarkably social about it. Almost everyone has to deal with the same issues- I played with one group of people who would jointly inhale as the dice went down on the table, and every person would join in laughter as one of their number would suddenly realize that the asteroid had just managed to hit the right spot to sever their mighty Level III ship in half. There’s an entire portion of the game where people look at each other’s ships and laugh at them. Oh, and if you’re playing with someone who flips the sand timer too early, you can immediately know they’re a terrible person not worth your time.

Personally, I think the game I’d turn to to get the measure of a stranger would be Story War. Story War plays like a hybridization of Apples to Apples and crossover fanfiction. While the players keep track of points, the game is much more about telling interesting stories about a series of bizarre match-ups than about winning when it comes down to it. Finding out how attached a person is to winning and how long it takes them to let go of the notion that they need to dominate the other players is one of the best insights you can pull out of playing games with someone. Plus, there are bound to be exchanges in the game where things don’t go how you think they should. You might believe that Elves are too hyper-competent and graceful to ever slip on a banana peel, but if the judge for the round likes pratfalls, your Elf might find himself face-planting. Telling stories with other people says a lot about how they read genre conventions, and it can be instructive to see how they react when their assumptions are betrayed. If nothing else, it might shed light on what movies or shows you could recommend to them.

I’d love to keep this discussion going in the comments, so I pose the same questions to you, dear readers: What games do you like to play when meeting new people, and what do you think you can learn about them from playing games?

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