The Dominant Player Problem

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I've been designing a co-op game for a short while now. Typically when I design a game, I'm also writing about the game. As soon as I wrote that I was working on a cooperative design, I learned that people are really excited about co-op and they are obsessed with the dominant player issue. Honestly, it's an almost hyperbolic piece of rhetoric. It reminds me of the bickering jabs made by liberals and conservatives during the presidential campaign.

But is it an issue?

The dominant player issue is reportedly the case where one player dominates the play experience and ruins the game. This one player tells everyone how to play, forces everyone to follow his or her lead, and generally scars everyone for life. I can't really fathom the prison camp in which you first played Pandemic with the dreaded Inmate 42219. It sounds like a horrible place!

I don't really believe this issue is such a widespread problem to warrant a mention in every co-op design discussion I've had. Furthermore, I don't think it should be the focus of any design as I don't think it can be solved. In this post, I discuss (ramble) about cooperative design and the table elements that emerge. Some of it is purely my opinion, some of it is social commentary, and some of it may help you with your own cooperative design.

Firstly, and most importantly, don't play with horrible people. I have a really great group of board game friends that run the gamut of tastes and preferences. Not everyone likes everything, but we typically have a good time. None of us are AP (i.e. suffer from analysis paralysis), nor do we have any sore losers. When we play cooperative games, we also have a good time. Everyone is contributing, shouting, making suggestions, and playing the game. If you play with bad people, your tabletop experience will be less fun. This may be why I avoid cons that are primarily random people playing games. I just don't want to run the risk of exposure. Don't waste your early design brainstorms trying to compensate for humanity's worst members. If they lack social skills, your game won't fix this.

Secondly, cooperative games are designed to be social and collaborative experiences. People are supposed to chime in to collectively solve the problem. People are supposed to suggest things and voice their opinions. If you don't like this, then don't play cooperative games. They may not be for you! Have you thought that instead of going after this dominant bogeyman that the issue is more that you don't want people invading your play space? It's fine if you don't like that. I understand!

Cooperative games are difficult. You're fighting a cruel, emotionless mechanic that seeks nothing but your destruction. The hope, is that the combined brain power of the group and a little luck will win the day. If you create a cooperative game whose sole purpose is to eliminate the dominant player problem, you may be making a game that isn't collaborative at all. Be careful how far down this road you travel! People play collaborative games because this seek an experience in which they work together in a team.

One of the reasons people perceive the dominant player problem is that there is almost never a time when all players are of equal skill. How often do you play games where everyone is exactly the same skill level? I played a great deal of Forbidden Island for a month or two last year and I was almost always teaching new players. I didn't want to be a jerk and tell everyone how to play. Therefore, I would pay attention to my teammates and watch for their confusion. For example, if a teammate wasn't sure what to do on his turn, I would walk him through his options. For example, I'd say:

  • Here is our goal (quick reminder)
  • You are closest to the Red Treasure, so perhaps you could go there?
  • We need to protect our path to the landing site, so perhaps you could shore up?
  • You have the chopper card, so perhaps you could fly your teammate to this spot?
  • And so forth.

Basically, I would use my experience to break down the options. If they asked my opinion, I would provide it, as well as reasons for why I thought it was the right path. YOU have this special ability and should use it, or we know this piece of the island will be drawn next. Basically, if you are very experienced with the game, that's fine! Don't shy from it, but use it to be a teacher, not a bully. Use it to guide and instruct. After all, in playing a game you're just wasting time together. The sooner they learn, the more fun it is for them. Encourage discussion!

This last point leads me to my next one. People don't like to lose. It's just human nature! But, people especially don't like their bad decisions to be the reason for everyone else's defeat! This is where cooperative games can truly shine. Help each other, voice opinions, and create noise. This way, everyone is a solution and everyone is a problem. Succeed together, fail together. You're only as slow as your worst member, so make sure they feel included and helped.

Finally, always remember to give every player their space. Make sure there is a portion of the game they own. What does this mean? It could be as simple as a hand of cards. Or, a class. Pandemic is wonderful in that every player is unique. Every player does something better than everyone else and is therefore essential and special. Let players place things on the board and make a visible, tactile impact with their decisions. We're all in this together, but can I help?

Have I glossed over this issue? Shed new light on the issue? Pointed out how you need a new game group? Share your thoughts below!

Comments

I feel like DPP is an issue when I play games like Pandemic because you pretty much have all the information in front of you. When you're waiting for other people to take their turns, it's easy to say, "Optimally you should do this." Essentially the game becomes a giant version of solitaire for the best player, which isn't fun for everyone.
This is why (I assume) why most of these games have token, "you can't tell people exactly what cards you have." But that's not altogether satisfactory.
Essentially, what you want is for everyone to play their own part, without others feeling the need to chime in. Perhaps have even more information hidden from the players would make things a little more interesting -- perhaps each player has a different view of the game board?

A different view, or a different perspective (mechanically) could help. And really, the public information --> super optimization guy can be an issue. That's why I only play with stupid people, like me.

I hadn't thought about it in exactly the way you phrased it. The idea I'm toying with may solve this issue (more accurate to say mitigate it). We'll see. Hopefully we can play it at work soon.