BrettSpiel is a blog about board game design, written by game designer Brett J. Gilbert.

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The Wisdom of Crowds

Struck, I leant more promptly out next time, more curiously, and saw it all again in different terms.

Philip Larkin, The Whitsun Weddings

I was going to write about so-called ‘cooperative’ games, following a confluence over the past week of game designers, boardgames and playtesting, and a set of lively discussions with and about the same. I was going to observe that cooperative games are tricky, mercurial constructs that rely so much on the agreement and complicity of their players for success that the games themselves almost disappear. I was also going to point out that the semantics of how these games are labelled is rather revealing. After all, here’s the dictionary definition of ‘cooperation’:

Cooperation
The act of working together for a common purpose or benefit.

Can and should, therefore, ‘cooperative’ be used as a label to describe a game which has the potential to split the players into winners and losers? It’s one thing if everyone wins or everyone loses; quite another if so-called cooperation leads to a divided and possibly divisive outcome. Another possible candidate for a useful gaming adjective is ‘collaborative’; this time the dictionary is more circumspect:

Collaboration
1. The act of working together to produce or create something.
2. Traitorous cooperation with an enemy.

Collaboration, then, not only offers a more neutral definition of the collective act, but also the possible fracture of the collective itself. And doesn’t that sound like a richer, more exciting and more surprising space for the game designer to explore?

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not for one minute attempting to diminish the value or success of purely cooperative games, which for my purposes I shall classify as those in which the collective must act for their common good and must stand or fall as one. This year’s deserving Spiel des Jahres nominee Forbidden Island, for example, is not only a sophisticated cooperative game — albeit one that cleverly masquerades as something rather more mainstream — it’s also whole heaps of fun.

No, I’ve nothing against cooperative games — and, as I say, I wasn’t even going to write about them — but I do think that the semantics of how we talk about them is important. Words are important. And the twin notions of cooperation and collaboration are important for the game designer because game design itself is a collective act.

The oft-stated mantra for the game designer is “playtest, playtest, playtest” and, if I’m being honest, I have at times resisted this, precisely because I knew how transformative it could be. Part of me wanted to keep my game mine; I didn’t want other people coming along, playing it and promptly telling me how it should be nurtured and how it might grow. I wanted to preserve its clarity and precision and only then, when it was done, when it was perfect, would I let them in.

What an idiot.

Here’s the thing (and I’ve said this before): Games, if they are about anything at all, are first and foremost about other people — so how can the designer design if he leaves all those other people out of the equation?

And when we playtest our games, we should be careful. It’s easy to say to ourselves: Let’s just see if the pieces fit; let’s just see if the engine starts; let’s see if the cogs turn and the lights come on and nothing snaps; let’s see if it ‘works’.

But this, to me, seems like the cheapest and least ambitious of readings. When we playtest the question shouldn’t be “Does our game work?”. We should ask instead, with rather more conviction, “Is our idea any good?”.

Our ideas, like our words, are important, but their existence doesn’t imply their virtue. And unless we can demonstrate the courage to ask, we can hardly be deserving of the wisdom to the know the difference.

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