Kingmaker

The term kingmaker, in board games, refers to someone who can no longer win, but can still influence who does win. It’s generally considered a crappy situation because the player has no incentive to continue to play rationally (in terms of the game) and becomes a spoiler.

Even if the player can’t make a king, being in the ‘known loser’ position before the game actually ends is unfortunate, because they just have to sit around while everyone else continues to play the game like it means something.

Now, since a kingmaker can often make a king by either inaction or action, I normally consider it best to default to inaction as a policy. It seems less vindictive. But when someone recently engaged in what seemed to me like kingmaker behavior, his explanation caught me off guard. He explained that he was shooting for 3rd place, instead of 4th. Which made his actions much more reasonable.

It surprised me because I’m used to playing just for first. But thinking about it, there are a lot of advantages if all the players treat non-first positions as worthwhile.

Why it’s good to care about second place

  • First and foremost, you solve the kingmaker scenario as much as you can. Now the only kingmakers will not be people that know they will lose, but people that know they cannot change their relative ordering. A much smaller, less likely group of people.
  • It makes the game more fun for all involved. If second place is meaningful, you will still derive some satisfaction from attaining it. So you’ve generated satisfaction where there was none before.
  • Lowers the barrier to play. Marginal players or players who don’t necessarily enjoy a fully cutthroat game will still be able to come away with some sort of prize. They may be more inclined to start a game than if they only cared for being first.
  • Reduces the power of sore winners and sore losers. Since winning becomes analog, there’s much less to complain about.
  • More strategy. Pretty much the direct analog to minimizing kingmakers: people wouldn’t stop trying to play the game before it ended. Even the player in last still has a reason to optimize his/her play.

So why don’t we?

I dunno. Gaming culture (and culture in general) rarely gives out prizes for second place. But it’s just a matter of mentality.

Our play group sort of toyed with this idea by informally instituting a ‘glory’ system. Whereby the winner was entitled to 100% of the glory from winning a game, but could share that glory as he/she saw fit. So the front runner could team up with, say, the third place dude and together win the game but share the glory. It was almost a blessing of the kingmaker system.

One nice advantage of it was that it tended to end long strategy games sooner. But it was capricious in that players who did not hold much power in the context of the game might happen to be pivotal in terms of making a king. What we should have done is divvy out this fake glory in proportion to rank at the end. But it’s hard to make people care about 10% of the glory of a game. 🙂

Solutions

How to encourage people to care about 2nd, 3rd, 4th, etc.?

The very easiest way is to have players bet on the game and pay out according to ending position. But this would add a new barrier to entry, rather than the opposite.

Another idea is to make it more standard to continue playing for second once the game is over. But this is anticlimactic, not always possible, and pretty slow.

Another possible solution is to keep some sort of simple lifetime rank, towards which even non-1st place would count. This rank might be enough to incentivize relative rank play.

It would have to be extremely simple, since it’s just not worth keeping track of a complicated system for such a minor lifehack. So, not like chess’s ranks.

What if we gave out a small number of points for each ending rank. Maybe based on powers of two (since it’s probably twice as difficult to win 1st as 2nd…). Like so:

1st 2nd 3rd 4th 5th 6th
2 players +1 -1
3 players +1 +0 -1
4 players +2 +1 -1 -2
5 players +2 +1 +0 -1 -2
6 players +4 +2 +1 -1 -2 -4

If a group of people tied for an ending position (say, three people in a four player game tied for 2nd), count up all the points they would have gotten individually and take the average, giving the same number of points to each (in our example, they’d each get -0.5 points).

This can also work for games like Cosmic Encounter which don’t really have a way to decide ending position — just treat it like everyone that won tied for first, everyone that didn’t tied for second.

Now, I know you’re saying this is all too complicated. And you’d be right. But still, it just takes one person to keep track of these things and then you’re golden. Plus, everyone likes ranking charts.

How to get the players to actually care about the ranking charts, rather than just look upon them with interest or bemusement? Give out something for doing well in the rankings. But since few of us are made of quarters, it would ideally be something inconsiquential. Even small rewards can be enough of a spur to turn on the competitive part of the brain.

What about giving the highest ranked player in a group about to play a game the choice of color and seat (e.g. comfy seat or seat that always falls apart). That’s nothing that matters, but is non the less a source of contention in usual games. “I want red.” “Too bad, I’ve already got it.”

Eh? Something like our Magic ratings, but simpler and with real-world consequences. Hopefully enough to make games more fun and interesting.