Saturday, February 04, 2006


Subjectivity is essential in everyday life. All around us, the world is created and run based on the opinions of individuals and groups. In addition, real life is analog. We don't all move around on a hex grid. We don't measure all quantities in whole numbers.

For me, however, subjectivity in gaming is unwelcome. In all situations, the rules, the mechanics, and the resolutions should be 100% objective. For example, if the same situation came up in 100 different game groups, the result would be the same.

Let me begin by dismissing one kind of subjectivity: ambiguous rules. While the gaming world is occasionally infected with this disease, I don't think this is a matter of opinion. Right? We all want clear unambiguous rules? If you disagree, you better stop reading now, or your brain may melt.

The first form of intentional subjectivity is analog games. Mostly this pertains to miniatures, but has some carry over into traditional wargames. Units move around using rulers or other measuring devices. Line of sight is determined by looking at a target from a unit's point of view and "guessing". There is no instantaneous point at which a unit goes from seen to unseen. It's a guess. If the players disagree, there has to be a "random" resolution. On two different days, the decisions may be different. Range is a similar problem. You have to measure the distance between two units. Does the line touch his foot or not?

Likewise, with wargames. Line of sight may need to be measured across hexes that contain buildings o or other obstructions. In many cases it's perfectly clear that the "string" crosses something or does not. But often, there are edge cases. Well you gave me that last one, so I'll give you this one. Yuck.

I'm sure that miniatures players actually enjoy the unpredictability of the system. If I move there, will I be able to see him? Will I be in range? I'll admit it is more "realistic". But it also forces the need to "argue" about all the close calls. I've heard of various solutions, like allowing a player to make a call in his favor 3 times, etc. Or perhaps you roll a die on all close calls. How does this solve anything? It's just changes the conditions to say something is close. Close call, I'm going to roll. It's not close enough to roll; It's clearly blocked. No it's not...

I can't imagine playing a game where I have to constantly either argue to get something in my favor, or give in all the time. The end result will always feel unsatisfying. I won only because I'm more assertive, or I lost because I didn't want to argue.

The second type of intentional subjectivity is by rules. This is not the same as ambiguous rules where the designer forgot some case or combinations. It is the kind where the designer is intentionally leaving it up the players to decide how things should go. Again, yuck! Two examples of this are Shadows Over Camelot and Mystery of the Abbey.

In Shadows Over Camelot, the rules on collaboration are as follows (from SoC rules © Days of Wonder):
"Declarations of intent can be made freely; resources and capabilities can all be discussed openly, as long as your comments are general and nonspecific. However, you must never reveal or discuss the explicit values of cards in your hand, or volunteer any other specific game information not readily available to your fellow players."
This is ridiculous, and is the sole reason I would never buy a game that otherwise sounds incredibly fun. I've seen all the arguments. Even among those who play and enjoy SoC, there is disagreement as to what is acceptable. Some play it's ok to say exactly what you have as long as you role-play it. Some play that you cannot say anything that gives away your holding even indirectly. Still very subjective. If any given statement by a player cannot be 100% resolved as allowable or unallowable by the rules, then the game is broken.

In Mystery of the Abbey--another game by Days of Wonder--the problem is again to do with player interaction. You are allowed to ask questions of basically any kind, but you are not allowed to lie, even if the question is about the future. This leads to some interesting paradoxes and other unpleasant things. Fortunately, there are other reasons not to buy this game, so the subjectivity wasn't the deal breaker for me.

If I want a role-playing game, I'll play a role-playing game, not a board game. Player interaction in board games is fine. There are lots of board games with huge amounts of player interaction that are completely objective: Diplomacy, Traders of Genoa, Werewolf, Bohnanza. I'll stick to those.


At 11:33 AM, Blogger dave said...

As I write in, resolving ambiguities is one of my favorite aspects of gaming. However, I don't draw a line between discussing what the rules define as acceptable, and what the players deem acceptable.

However, the stuff about analog games is spot on, even though we still manage to enjoy Techno Witches. :-)

At 5:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Almost by definition, games will have a subjecftive element due to the interpretation and understanding of the rules. Also, there is a subjective part in all of the unstated rules that are implied (socially and culturally). Simply put, the human factor is always there, and humans are subjective.

For example, there is no rule when playing tic-tac-toe that states how long my move has to take. When faced with a "sure loss" I could simply decide to drag out the time it takes to play...simply to annoy my opponent and win! You can't have rules to account for everything, it just doesn't work.

As for playing games like SoC, sure..not everyone will agree, but as long as everyone who is playing the game agrees...then you're cool and everyone has fun.

Stephen Sniderman does a much better job than I in describing this issue in the following article:

At 5:14 PM, Blogger ekted said...

That's just being pedantic. I knew someone would post something like like this when I wrote the article. :)

At 11:21 PM, Blogger Jason Little said...

This would have been better as a GeekList... :P

Ambiguity is one of my biggest gripes about Eurogaming. Specifically translated imports. While I'm glad folks take the time to bring European games here to the states, I'm baffled by the number of translation mistakes, unclear language and rules open to numerous interpretations...

Any game dealing with negotiations that don't have sealed, simultaneous submission/resolution (like Diplomacy) are afflicted with this type of subjectivity -- other games include Mall of Horrors, Cosmic Encounter, Wallenstein and Game of Thrones...

With the right group on the same page about the interpretation, they can be fine... With disagreement, these become some of the worst game experiences possible.

At 4:43 PM, Blogger Michael R. Keller said...

Doesn't Diplomacy have some fuzzy rules concerning paradoxes concerning supports on attacks on convoys?

At 5:39 PM, Blogger Steve Janecek said...

Diplomacy does, and there have been official addendums to rule sets to answer those questions raised by these paradoxes. In addition, GMs are expected to announce their interpretation of certain paradoxes and therefore allow for orders to be resolved as understood by all players.

I feel this is different than what Jim means, as this type of ambiguity was not intentional, just an oversight.

Also, keep in mind, that these paradoxes are extremely rare, and having played over 100 games of diplomacy online and in person, have yet see a "paradox" come into play


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