So a game or a play test went sour. But wait, was it the game or the players? Here are a couple categories of gamers who might take a game down, including us designers.

I remember the days when Ticket to Ride would hit my table a bunch. My game group used to call it, “Anxiety Train”, because in a full game, sometimes you’d really be sweating those few key spots you NEEDED to get. The game wasn’t meant to be aggressive – these blocks just happened, sometimes before you could do anything about it, you were locked out of a critical city. Admittedly, that was even rare – you had options – the game is designed well (and fixes/changes occurred in later maps).

But what if (and you know you’ve thought about it), you saw that your friend really needed that last route into Chicago, and you either were in a mood that night, or losing anyway, and you could just do it to…


For the purposes of this article, I think I need to separate the types of game wreckage, into accidental and purposeful. The newbies and the jerks?


This is certainly a frustration in games, but not everyone plays optimally and there’s not much you can do about it, other than curb your player list. Sometimes you’re roping in casual players into the hobby, so you have to be ok with people doing all sorts of moves you would not do. In co-op games, you have to fight against your core Alpha Gamer. We’ve all done something dumb, and in fact, I often advocate that for the first play in any game, nobody should worry about proper moves anyway.

It’s not about learning. I guess I’m referring to games that seem to have some dependency on doing things “the right way” to create the experience, or that risk breaking with analysis paralysis or kingmaking. Here are a couple examples of a games that have been wrecked a bit with a new player:

  • Settlers of Catan – I played with this person who built roads for no good reason, and I was totally boxed in early and couldn’t enjoy the game at all. [Insert table flip… ]
  • Puerto Rico – One of my all time favorite games, but like chess, there can be opening moves, and one inexperienced play can actually hand a good player the win. It’s all good, it’s just a game, but the greatest joy is from certain tactical decisions you make along the way – You hope you can count on reasonable moves.
  • Through the Ages – just finished an advanced game over several lunches, and something occurred that was almost in the jerk category, but it was honestly not meant that way. This player in third place was faced with a late game choice with no cards that helped him. So he was taking a card to burn it. Instead of stopping 1st or 2nd place (far ahead), he targeted me in last place to “remain in 3rd”. Wait, WHAT?Through the Ages


Ok, forget accidental now. We’re talking serious messing with people, or goofing off in a game. And I don’t mean take-that games like What the Food?! or Munchkin where you target folks or a good game of Diplomacy where you purposefully lie behind your back. I mean, we’re playing a game and you do something against the spirit of that game.

There’s an episode of Tabletop where Felicia Day does this a bit – it was Last Night on Earth and she’s sitting there deliberately running a zombie around in circles pretending he’s remembered his former life as a doctor and wants to stay in the medical office. Now, don’t get me wrong – it was hilarious! But in a sense, she might have wrecked Wil’s game or even the other players experiences.

Now before I throw any rocks at glass houses here, I’ll admit I’ve done it. This year, in fact. I was at Kublacon, playing a late night game of Euphoria. Second time playing, 6 players – I was excited! I got a character whose ability was to gamble, and I love to gamble. Normally, you get 1 card when you draw. My character could turn over 3 cards instead of 1 and keep any matches. If I didn’t match, I got nothing. So I tried it, and it failed. No cards. I tried it a few more times – zip.

If only I had all the wisdom of James Ernest and probability theory in my head, I might have calculated the odds and deemed that card not worth it. But I was determined now to get a match at any cost. I did it again, and again, and again. The table became a bit uncomfortable with my play. Luke Laurie said to me, “you know you can just take a card, right?” Other players would laugh nervously, and say – “just take a card this time.” But I wouldn’t give up.

Euphoria example

Later, I wondered if I wrecked the game for anyone. I don’t know that I did – I changed nothing really, and actually I had my eye on the ball and came in second! Not bad for someone goofing off, I think. But I wondered if I had indeed soured any part of that game for those players, because I obsessed on that card draw. Here’s a couple of other games with purposeful wreckage:

  • Agricola – My buddy Jon and I played a lot of games of this when it first came out. Jon’s a calculating player. He would often look over and see that I needed wood, and take the wood to screw me over even though he didn’t need it at all. Now you could argue that a WP move to prevent point gain is just as valid as a move to gain your own points (negative vs positive play), but I’m pretty sure it ended our Agricola enthusiasm.
  • Robo Rally – One game I saw my friend Doug attacked and attacked and attacked despite losing the race. The attacker was just having fun with lasers, as players will do. Doug threw his hands up and admitted the game was just no fun under those circumstances. I mention this one primarily because it is really supposed to be a race to the flags, right? Ignoring the main goal can happen in any number of games.
  • Lords of Waterdeep – This one from Jeff Cornelius. He was playing at a local meet up, with one stranger. Jeff pulls a 40 point quest and looks to be the target, so he gets a mandatory quest from the newcomer. Understandable. Mid game, Jeff hasn’t scored much but he could tie, so he’s hit again. Ok, fine. But late game, way in the back of the pack with no hope to win, the third mandatory quest hits. Sure his buddy Tom Lathos might do this (as discussed on Board Games and Brew) – but a complete stranger?


Ok, there may be a third case. What about prototyping? As designers, isn’t it ok to do goofy things like I did with Euphoria to explore and hone our design skills? I’ve been modifying game rules at home game nights, and dissecting how things work in games for years in order to understand the mechanisms. Surely, designers get a free pass?

Sometimes, you want your friends to try anything to break a game. Video game prototyping of course has an entire phase of QA where the goal is to find bugs. There’s a couple guys I can count on to try to break games. Larry Lembcke discusses with Richard Bliss on Funding the Dream, Ep 228 why competitive types like poker or Magic: The Gathering players make excellent play testers for this very reason. But playing to break something doesn’t always equal success.

Many times, early on in designing, a game is in a fragile state, where a designer just wants to see if an auction works or if mechanic X is unbalanced, or worker placement spots work as expected. If you go into that and deliberately wreck the game, doing random things or counter intuitive things to find odd strategies, you may be in fact preventing the right feedback from occurring.

In Part I of this series, Luke Laurie mentioned that he set the tone early, encouraging players to listen to the designer, and play to what the designer wants tested. I think that’s valuable, and falls in line with other lessons of being a good tester (waiting to give feedback until the end, being constructive, etc).

Ok, I’ll leave you with a couple questions:

  • 1) Is any play fair game? Ignoring accidental moves – is there any place for purposeful “playing against the spirit” of a game at game night? At a play test?
  • 2) A tough decision… Would you rather have someone who plays to break games or is AP prone in your next play test?