Anyone who’s ever played games has run into some that allow two people to gang-up on a third player, or stand to the side while two other players beat the crap out of each other, ready to move in and strip the bodies bare (often referred to as “turtling”, that is, hiding your vulnerable appendages in your shell while the maelstrom rages outside).

Turtling is somewhat self-correcting; savvy players will not allow this to happen, and in fact, it can contribute to the fundamental mechanics of the game.

Players are more likely to make deals with each other instead of attacking, realizing that such attacks are going to create an imbalance that gives the “turtle” an advantage. They will delay attacks until such an attack can proffer them a distinct advantage, such as extra troops, money, or playing pieces.

This points us to a way to avoid the potential for turtling in your game design; rather than decimate the players in the fight, offer them both some sort of gain from the battle that puts the “turtling” player in a neutral or disadvantaged position, for example, the winner of an encounter gets increased resource production, armies, territories or money. The loser could get some consolation, such as extra cards from the winner (as with the Compromise in Cosmic Encounter).

This is a particular problem in war games.

Some designers dodge the bullet by splitting four players into two teams. War games are supposed to be a simulation of a real event, however, so turtling is a perfectly valid strategy. The cry of “I’m not the threat, he is!” is bound to resound in such games. The Turtle really does want to encourage opponents to decimate each other; there are few gains to be made in an actual war, and many losses. Here, one must decide between realism and quality of game play. And this is why so many war games are limited to two players.

Risk gives a great example of one solution; the game makes it obviously painful to be in a conflict and weaken yourself in front of 3rd parties, but it also rewards you highly in extra troops, maintaining a balance. Yet Risk contains many weaknesses, for example, ganging up on players.

In Risk, and many other games, two players can pick out one player and use double-forces on him, kicking him out of the game early and leading to a very unsatisfactory gaming experience. Manhattan also has this defect; it’s fairly easy for two players to stomp on one player they don’t like, effectively reducing his/her chance for winning to zero early in the game. Drakon had a lesser version of this issue; you could see how close to winning each player was near the end-game, and if one player was a move or two away from collecting their last piece, everyone would gang up on him. This led to games where everyone had 4 gold coins and were trying for the 5th for the win. While not a terrible flaw, it did sometimes lead to “kingmaker” situations where one player’s move could determine who (of two other players) would win the game.

In the example of Drakon, Fantasy Flight Games (FFG) solved the problem by the simple expedient of labeling the gold with varying amounts and hiding it from other players, so no one knew how close you were to winning. In the case of Manhattan, since the game is played in four cumulative scoring rounds, one could add an optional rule to make the player in last place invulnerable to attacks (you couldn’t play a building on top of him during the round), thus changing the dynamics of the game and wiping out the imbalance of “gang-ups”.

Risk is a trickier problem; ganging-up on the leader is necessary to maintain the stability of the game, so you can’t remove it as a mechanic as it’s critical to game play. Ganging up on a weak player to remove him from the game and grab all his territory is also a main strategy in the game. I have no real solution to this one; the basic design of the game is built around this mechanic.

Usually when I design a game, I try to make it so players can’t gang up on each other.

Many modern games avoid this by turning the game into (almost) a multi-player solitaire game, like Puerto Rico and San Juan, where player interaction is minimized. In the case of Puerto Rico, your main interaction is denying your opponent a specific ability for that turn. Dominion is similarly a solitaire game where you vie for common but almost unlimited resources, and where player interaction is limited to certain card effects available to anyone, and which often affect all opponents equally (such as the Witch). Other games, like Settlers of Catan concentrate player interaction on limited resources (board spaces) and more importantly, trade between players. Note here that when players interact, it isn’t an attack that results in weaker positions for those players, but trade that results in stronger positions for both players. The only way you could really gang-up on a player during trade is for players to avoid trading with him at all (and usually greed will prevent that).

Looking at some possible options to your design to avoid the “ganging-up” problem;

  • 1. Dodge the question by limiting play to 2 players or teams. Magic the Gathering did this (with 3 or more players, the gang-up issue is severe, and blunted only by the amount of alcohol consumed during the game).
  • 2. Make player interaction negligible or non-existent, as in Take-It-Easy. Player interaction may be simply limited to the question of “who’s ahead”, or who makes the best strategic (but non-interactive) decisions, as in Dominion.
  • 3. Make player interactions positive, so that players involved in any encounter both gain something, as in Settlers of Catan or Bohnanza. This is a fundamental characteristic of many successful Eurogames.
  • 4. Make the losing player invulnerable while in last place, or make “last place” a way to get certain gains no other player gets. For example, if you lose an auction, you get part of the money that your opponents have bid (as in Faidutti’s Boomtown).
  • 5. When a player attacks, distribute the effects equally among opponents (like the Thief or Witch in Dominion).
  • 6. In a 3 or 4 player war game, offer a “compromise” or surrender or occupation scenario, where the occupied player gains a free defense from the opponents forces and keeps his population, but essentially loses his territory, while the attacker gets the resources and points for that territory. The loser maintains the chance for revolt, also. Or, offer ways for players to share territories.
  • 7. Players compete for a limited pool of resources, as in Carcassonne or Kingdom Builder. Player interaction is dependent upon an individual’s choice each turn upon a common pool of resources, thus limiting the options available to all other opponents equally. There is no real chance for “ganging up”.
  • 8. Create a game where the players work together for a common goal, like Shadows Over Camelot, or almost any RPG.

And in summary…isn’t that a great phrase for a pedantic, boring article?…you might note that some of the games I’ve picked out as examples for methods to avoid the “ganging up” problem have also been some of the most commercially successful. In games where two people gang up on a third (who isn’t the leader), chances are that player isn’t going to play the game again. I’m sure I’ve only grazed the surface of this subject, and that many of you will disagree with some of my conclusions, but hopefully this will get you thinking about it the next time you put pencil to paper for your next game.

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Tom Jolly

Game Designer at Wiz-War, Drakon, Diskwars, Cavetroll, Vortex and More

Electrical engineer, writer, game and puzzle designer. I’ve an interest in physics, space travel, fantasy and science fiction, hiking, bad jokes. I enjoy having a pint or two with friends on occasion, usually with games involved.

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  1. Norv Brooks on January 29, 2014

    I like the way you articulated the issue and possible solutions to eliminate or reduce the “ganging up” element in games. “Ganging up” can be a real “fun killing” issue in a game.

  2. Patrick Barry on January 29, 2014

    I love the ‘make the losing player invulnerable’ idea. Very honourable.

  3. Justin Call on January 29, 2014

    I feel like Risk Legacy (ironically) provides a solution to the turtling problem by REWARDING turtling. In addition to receiving bonuses for controlling continents and countries, players receive infantry bonuses for their population (value of strategic cities + the total number of infantry, divide by three and round down). This means a viable strategy for success is turtling and letting your population grow exponentially (as opposed to the standard game, which forces players to lockdown an entire continent early and then concentrate on building enough troops to break through the defenses of those who received smaller territory bonues). This means, on the one hand, that there is an advantage to claiming the larger territories/continents (which means both players can be rewarded). Likewise, if you feel two people are ganging up on you, a viable strategy is to turtle up and maximize your population bonuses; you won’t gain units as quickly as the players who control more of the board, but it’s easier for you to come back from being attacked by two players if people are ganging up on you (which is what often happens in Risk). This roughly equates to a cyclical king-of-the-hill mentality, but with the added advantage of things being more balanced and players being able to recover quickly while choosing multiple paths to victory.

    • Nikolas Rex on May 31, 2018

      I absolutely love Risk Legacy, not just for this reason, but for lots of reasons… Now if only I can find a small dedicated group to play with me regularly…

  4. Alan Scott on January 29, 2014

    But since in Legacy, the goal is to collect red stars rather than simply to conquer territory. The turtling player loses out the chance to gain reward cards, which means they’re not in the race to win.

    That said, I always recommend that Risk Legacy is played with 4+ players. our campaign usually had three, which meant that someone was being ganged up on by default, especially once [spoiler changes] made it impossible to move an invading force between Europe and North America.

    • Nikolas Rex on May 31, 2018

      Risk Legacy with less than 4 people is pointless IMHO.

  5. Peter Vaughan on January 29, 2014

    Great topic, Tom! I find when I look at my own latest game design What the Food?! through this lens of ganging-up and turtling, some interesting issues. #1) I am actually counting on ganging-up as a counter measure against powerful abilities. I have a large group, heavily social game so when someone is doing well with certain abilities, I’m hoping the table calls them on it, and gangs up a bit to restore natural balance. This fits thematically the volatile, unpredictable nature of a food fight, but I am aware it can also go horribly wrong, especially if ganging up occurs out of the gate.

  6. Peter Vaughan on January 29, 2014

    To continue my point above, #2) Turtling is also possible in my game. In fact, late in design I realized that my core essence (an aggressive battle) fought directly against the best game strategy (stay out of it). Since the goal was to score lowest points, the best way to win is not to ever engage. Of course, that leads to a boring game, doesn’t it? I combated this at first with positive interaction from throwing food, but the two economies overwhelmed the casual players. In the end, I put the most offensive turtling abilities into deck cards that you may or may not see in the course of a game. In tests, by the time anyone builds up a hand of defensive actions it’s too late – they may be able to stop bloodshed, but they likely are not the winner unless they get out there and also score/heal. And if they are the lowest score and able to hide, well a few cards deal with those people. 🙂

    • Tom Jolly on January 29, 2014

      I probably should have mentioned that the “ganging up” mechanic is a perfectly reasonable mechanic to use in a game with 3 or more players where you KNOW that it’s imbalanced as part of the design, for example, Wiz-War. When one player gets ahead, then others can gang up and level the playing field. The only problem is that the mechanic works both ways. It can be used for evil as well as good!

  7. An interesting article but I feel many of the solutions are to create a different type of game. It’s a valid point, Euro and cooperative games are very popular, possibly because of the lack of negative player interaction, but sometimes you want to play (or design) a game about hitting each other. King of Tokyo offers an interesting solution, where ganging up becomes an actual mechanic within the game and a path to victory. Khemet awards attackers victory points but not defenders so only aggressive players have a realistic chance of pulling off a win.

    • Tom Jolly on January 30, 2014

      Good points. I was primarily trying to address the “ganging up” issue where it exists such that a player’s choices may be irrelevant toward a win, if two other players decide to take him/her out of the game (like in Manhattan). But yes, ganging up can certainly be used effectively as a positive mechanic, too, as you point out with KoT (good game, too!), or with many-player MtG, where there’s a natural imbalance and ganging-up is a necessity.

  8. D Brown on July 4, 2014

    Turtling can be avoided if everyone can get to everyone else.

    Ganging up can be turned into an advantage. In star wars risk: the original trilogy, there are 3 factions each with unique winning conditions. Generaly there are times where each pair needs to gang up on the leader, but the damage that can be done in 1 turn of cooperation is not so large as to knock someone out of the game. Not only do players knock down the leader, but doing so usualy advances their own interests too.

    Gangning up can also be minimized some if everyone has a fortress area far from the front. Your boundaries may shrink some, but that over extends your opponents while bringing their boundaries closer to you. Again, distance makes for the recovery.

    But yeah, unless a game is short, designing it such that player elimination is easy seems like a bad idea.

  9. kevin Q on December 10, 2017

    So really just yesterday I was out walking the dog, no that’s not code for anything, I was really taking the dog out on a business trip, see that was some hidden meaning there. Okay, when thinking about this very thing, I came to a resolution which I found trully only the logical way of doing things split up the victory points from the skirmishes, the size of the encounter with the other player determines the amount of VP/Resourses/Cards etc… that would be avaliable, so the only way to get the needed ‘thing’ whatever that thing is is to combat.

    Let’s say there are three sizes of encounters, small-medium-large. Case in point, if I have one unit you may not attack me with more than two units, thus its a small clash or skirmish and worth say 3pts or whatever we’re battling for, even if it’s in a territory that has a ton of resources and it’s in a spot that has a lot of pts that would go toward winning, if you are turtling on that location you cannot claim but limited resources for that location, (which would make total logical sense because your army is consuming the rest, just that the game is allocation the resources for you from within the rules rather than allowing you to collect them—in a way this even shortens the game) but when i go out to attack you, say send one unit as a “scout” then you may only attack me with two at most.

    Combat should be clear enough so that if I defeat your two, they retreat from that space and cannot re-enter and my surviving single unit may occupy that space with your pieces thus cutting of the flow of goods from that space to you. This action could be seen as sabotage or something of that sorts.

    You would then be forced to send outlets to say one or two more units after me the next turn, I should get a bounus for digging in, thus allowing me to combat your fresh units to some extent, however one unit should not be allowed to conqour four, so the mechanisim needs to be effective enough that I couldn’t win four times in a row but you’ve just lost three units against my one and you haven’t claimed any more resourses for it, unless and unlit I attacked you.

    In the above example I described two small clashes, each worth lets say, 3 pts, so I could win 2-1, or 3-0 and I could lose 1-2, 0-3, or even take a 2-1 loss, loosing the unit but claiming the VP.

    Then there would be larger meetups and still yet larger meeting in the game each worth progressivly more points.

  10. Nick on June 21, 2018

    KoT and KoNY had a great take on ganging up, in that both the gangers and the …. gangee? got something from the fight. KoT had the major design flaw that detracted from that fundamental mechanic, in that staying out of Tokyo and rolling victory points was usually dominant unless everyone was doing it, which led to a reversal of the intent of the game. KoNY fixed that by making victory point rolling more competitive/less lucrative.

    I think the question of ganging up is going to be the fundamental mechanic of any 3-player game that isn’t simultaneous solitaire (i.e., Puerto Rico), or mutual suicide through competition (i.e., roads and boats).

    The deeper problem though is the kingmaker question. Risk is especially bad on this front, as is Diplomacy. Interestingly, even though being a kingmaker is just as easy in Risk Legacy as it is in Risk, my gaming group didn’t see much of it in our playthrough. I think the Legacy aspect of getting the extra bonus choice and writing your name on the board was enough incentive to win that nobody was willing to play for second.

    I wonder what the minimum viable winning reward would be in order to keep everyone fighting for first… It would require the following elements:

    1) There can’t be any clear winner prior to the end of the game, either through obscuring some victory points (Castles of Mad King Ludwig, Samurai) or because the victory is actually still up for grabs in most situations (Risk Legacy).

    2) Some more concrete victory prize. I wonder if just the simple act of writing your name on the board was the pivotal part of RL…

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