Self-balancing multiplayer

14 Feb 2012

Lately I’ve been playing some games that aren’t video games and it occurred to me how some self-balance in a very useful way, allowing experts and newbies to mutually enjoy a game.

Three Flags Up is played with a frisbee (I suppose a ball works as well) and a group of friends. One is the thrower, and throws it to the remainder of the group, who have to vie for the catch, which is scored as a ‘flag’. After one person makes three successful catches, they replace the thrower, who takes the winner’s previous place with the group of catchers.

In other games like this I’ve played as a kid, you end up with one or two people dominating and trading off as thrower. However, the control allowed by the thrower and his or her own desire to stay the thrower encourages all of catchers getting as many ‘flags’ as possible. Once a tall athletic catcher has caught two high floating frisbees, the thrower will be encouraged to throw low shots, or away from the tall catcher, to people who have caught less.

Some of my favourite board games are excellent at this. Settlers of Catan has a trading mechanic, and usually as someone nears victory everyone ceases trading with him, allowing a chance for everyone else to catch up. Usually the last third of any Munchkin game is spent with everyone working together to bring down whoever is about to win. Even if it still doesn’t mean you have a chance to win, sometimes it can be just as gratifying to ensure your friend doesn’t either!

It’s tricky to do this right in video games, I think - many games reward players that do well, but you don’t want to make it even easier for them to keep winning. The Call of Duty games walk this line pretty regularly, at least for multiplayer.

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