In Gameological Unplugged, Samantha Nelson looks at trends and new developments in the vast world of tabletop games.
I’m not a fan of most competitive games. I hate realizing I’m so far behind that there’s no way I can win even though I’m stuck playing for another 20 minutes while things wrap up. I hate when I’m doing well and all the other players gang up on me as result, typically egged on by whoever’s in second place. I like winning, but considering I’m almost always introduced to a new game by someone who’s already quite good at it, I tend to get frustrated long before I’ve played enough to actually have a shot at victory.
That’s why cooperative board games—games when players try to beat the game rather than each other—were such a revelation for me. When I join my friends in facing down randomly generated menaces in Ghost Stories and Arkham Horror, the board game experience becomes what I was always told it should be: a fun way to hang out with friends. That’s a nice break from my frequent struggle to keep my temper from flaring up while not becoming so detached that I got bored. When I lose in a cooperative game, I’m losing to the game itself. I can get mad at a game without making it awkward to hang out later. Cardboard doesn’t hold a grudge.
But a cooperative game can become less enjoyable when you’ve got someone at the table that feels like he or she has mastered it. In an ideal co-op setting, players talk out strategy and make moves that they think are both effective and fun. A veteran player, though, can wind up dictating what others should do and might blame setbacks on the subpar actions of others. When everyone’s cards are literally all on the table, you can wind up with a multiplayer game effectively being played solo.
Enter the traitor mechanic. Board games like Battlestar Galactica, Shadows Over Camelot and Betrayal At House On The Hill all have players working together to win the game as a collective, but they keep things from getting too cozy by making it possible that at least one player is working against the rest.
In Shadows and Battlestar, players receive cards at the beginning of the game that dictate if they are a loyal knight or a turncoat, a human or a Cylon, and their goals for the game are determined accordingly. In this setup, players can’t reveal all their cards or possible tricks for fear the traitor will capitalize on the knowledge. And if one player tries to take charge of the proceedings, the resulting suspicion will typically keep everyone else from being too obedient—wary that the great strategies being proposed are actually part of the traitor’s evil scheme.
Betrayal At House On The Hill is a weirder case. The game starts with everyone on the same team, setting out to explore and survive a haunted house that you all build piecemeal, tile by cardboard tile. At some point, one of the players goes bad, typically in an obvious fashion. But the knowledge that someone will turn on you still puts an edge on the early game. If misfortune weakens one player, you can hope that person winds up being the traitor. Likewise, if someone gets too many good items, it can make other players uneasy. At the same time, the well-geared player is unlikely to want to share with people they might wind up having to kill later.
The traitor-in-our-midst device definitely changes the mood of a game, but not always positively. While Shadows and Betrayal can feature a traitor, not every playthrough has one. (That sets them apart from games in which the whole object is to ferret out disloyal players, like the many variations of the party game Werewolf—aka Mafia and Witch Hunt.) Strangely, some of my best experiences with “traitor games” are ones in which all the tension gave way to the revelation that all of my friends really were my friends. A loss that’s even partially engineered by someone you know stings a lot worse than losing to an antagonist made of cardboard.
But the real victim of games with traitor mechanics is often the double agent herself. When I sit down to a game of Shadows Over Camelot, I want to do knightly things like beating back barbarian hordes and questing for the Holy Grail—the premise of the game, after all, is to complete as many quests for the forces of good as possible. I don’t want to be the one turncoat, taking incredibly quick turns where I just place another siege tank at the gates of Camelot, even if that is the most effective strategy. Battlestar also dramatically reduces the actions you can take once you’ve been revealed as a Cylon.
As a result, I’ve found that traitorous players often play suboptimally: They spend too much time doing helpful things to throw other players off their scent while dreaming of a big, dramatic reveal that too rarely comes. (It’s akin to a nervous poker player “slow playing” a killer hand.) In addition, rulesets tend to favor the “loyal” players, and loyalists also have the advantage of being able to bounce ideas off each other while traitors typically have to plot alone. The upshot is that traitors in those games are rarely victorious.
The emotional dynamics get even more complex when allegiances can change in the middle of play, as is the case in the Battlestar Galactica game. The object here is for the humans to collaborate—by shepherding resources and managing crises—on a journey to their home planet of Kobol. In the context of the show’s fiction, it makes sense to have Cylon “sleeper agents” who think they’re human, only to start working for the toasters once they’re activated. This is in keeping with the events of the TV source material. So are Cylon sympathizers: humans who see the sad state of things on Galactica and think they can get a better deal working for the bad guys.
But for a player, changing allegiances mid-game is a jarring experience that makes it hard to get excited about your new role. If you’re a Cylon sleeper agent, it’s all too likely that you’ll find yourself with no friends and a human fleet in good shape to achieve victory, meaning you’ve just been traded to the losing team. And if the humans are in dire straits, a sleeper agent doesn’t get to enjoy the fun of trying to come back from behind, either—you just wind up kicking your friends when they’re down.
It’s more fun to be the traitor in Betrayal because there’s just not much to the game until the reveal happens. When you turn into a vampire or befriend a poltergeist, you often get some neat new powers and monster friends to play with. Here the balance of power shifts a bit too far in the other direction, making it very hard for the “good” players to win and bringing back my problems with competitive games. Traitors often spend a lot of time chasing down individual characters and removing them from the game. When you spend 30 minutes with nothing to do but hope your surviving allies can eke out a victory, it gives you a lot of time to think on how smug your friend looked while stabbing you in the back. It makes me long for the camaraderie of a purely cooperative board game all over again.