Now and then our family gathers around the dining table for a night of board games. There are four of us: My wife, my wife's mother, Squish, and me. We all have very different playing styles, sometimes best exemplified when we play Carcassonne, a game that's about building fortified cities and connecting them via roads (and, as it happens, defending them from interlopers like me):
- One of them is a completionist who likes to build complex cities and finish them without other people's interference
- One of them sees the whole board like a puzzle with holes to be filled in
- One of them plays kindly and generously, adding to or completing other people's cities so that they can achieve their goals
And then there's me. My preferred style is to wedge myself into other players' developing cities, forcing them to share their hard-earned points with me. If things go well, I can even build my presence in those cities, robbing them entirely of their points, and claiming them all for myself. Meanwhile, I build big cities of my own, and since nobody tries to steal them from me, I rack up even more points.
Nobody else likes this.
Recently we played Ticket to Ride, a game that's about completing rail routes beween cities. Each player has some "route" cards that tell them where they must lay their trains, and then they work toward that goal. At the end of the game, the player with the longest continuous train scores a small bonus.
In this play session, I noticed that, if she completed the route she was working on, one of the other players would end the game with the longest train, robbing me of the bonus I'd been quietly building toward. So on my next turn, I placed a very tiny train that interrupted her continuous route. It guaranteed me the bonus! It was a competitive, smart move.
Everyone hated it.
Like, loathed it.
So we have a rule in our house now: Before we start a game, we discuss what sort of play styles are acceptable. If nobody's feeling up to a cutthroat game—my play style—then we agree not to play that way. (Well, I agree not to play that way.)
I've just learned about a board game called Wingspan, in which players populate the wild with various kinds of birds. To my understanding, though the game is described as 'competitive,' it isn't aggressively so; for example, players can all benefit from choices made by a single player. (But I won't be able to send my birds out with orders to assassinate the others, apparently.) The game's goals are low-stress, the pieces beautifully designed.
I've ordered it. I expect it'll do well in our house, and won't require complex negotiations before we play. I'll probably still look for ways to disrupt the other players' ecosystems, if at all possible, just so I'm prepared when everyone turns cutthroat on me. (They're just biding their time, I know it.)