What can dictators teach us about game design? (Paint the Roses #4) November 05 2019, 1 Comment

This is the fourth post in a series about our upcoming Alice-in-Wonderland-themed game Paint the Roses.

The Dictator's Handbook, by Alastair Smith and Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, has a simple proposition: a ruler’s position determines his behavior more than you’d think. What looks like bad behavior from the outside is often the only logical behavior. 

Imagine you’re a despot. You’re well-off, but your people are poor and hungry. You have a budget to distribute. Do you:

  1. buy your generals expensive villas?
  2. build public schools and agricultural infrastructure?
  3. do a little of each?

Before you pick your answer, a hint: two of these answers end with your death at the hands of political rivals.

The only choice that keeps you alive is to fill the pockets of your generals, and keep everyone else poor and hungry:

  1. If you don't pay the generals, the military will install someone who will.
  2. You’re a despot, so your people would probably choose a different leader if they could. If they’re not weak, they’ll revolt.

In other words, you’re hostage to the system you’re in, despite your leadership role. This is why, for example, freedom fighters who overthrow oppressive regimes sometimes end up acting just as oppressively when they take over.



Most complex systems are like this: they incentivize emergent and unintended behaviors that can be hard to anticipate and understand from the outside.

Consider US elections: the electoral college wasn’t designed to incentivize candidates to ignore most states, but it does. It makes swing states the only ones that matter: two-thirds of campaign stops in the last election were in just 6 states.

Games, too, are complex systems that create unintended emergent behaviors. That’s why game designers have to playtest and iterate so much.

But it’s often even harder to understand the emergent incentives in games than in political battles. The reason: games are often played as low-stakes affairs, so players aren’t as hostage to a game’s incentives than they would be in a higher-stakes situation. As a result, they behave more randomly, and it can be harder to infer a game’s incentives from their behavior.

This causes lots of confusion about game design. For example, in a recent post about how I designed our upcoming game Paint the Roses to minimize quarterbacking, I claimed quarterbacking is a design flaw in most cooperative games. Many commenters said I was wrong, and that quarterbacking is a player problem.



Who’s right? If it’s true the low-stakes nature of games makes their incentives hard to see, maybe I can strengthen my argument by imagining how a high-stakes cooperative game will play out. Let’s do that:

Imagine you and your friends are going to play Pandemic, and you’ll each get $10,000 if you win. How would you play the game in that situation?



If one player is better at Pandemic than everyone else, unless you’re an idiot, you’ll have that player dictate every turn, while the other players watch.

This illustrates clearly that the incentive to quarterback is built into the game. It’s not a player-flaw.

You might object: if Pandemic is always played as a low-stakes affair, then none of this matters, because players will never face a situation where the game’s incentives so strongly drive their behavior. Here’s the problem: different players perceive the stakes of games differently. If you sit down with a player who cares a lot about winning, the problem emerges. Lots of players care about winning, and they're not wrong for caring. Games must accommodate the various common ways players approach them.

So there's a real problem, and cooperative games can be better than they are now if it's fixed. That's why it matters that our upcoming game does things differently. 

A larger lesson for game design

Game designers should look for ways to conduct high-stakes tests, so emergent incentives are clear.

How? Some ideas:

  1. The cheapest (but most unreliable) way is to do the thought experiment: try to imagine what players would do if the game were high-stakes.
  2. Put your game on an online platform with lots of players like Board Game Arena. Watch how the best and most committed players play.
  3. Hold a tournament for your unpublished game, and pay close attention to how the finalists and semi-finalists behave. It’ll work even better if you can offer a desirable tournament prize.

Any others?

Paint the Roses will launch on Kickstarter in 2020. To be alerted to new blog posts and the Kickstarter's launch via email, sign up here.

Previous posts in the Paint the Roses series

  1. Why I designed a logic game set in the illogical world of Alice in Wonderland.
  2. How to fix the biggest problem in cooperative games. 
  3. Feedback wanted for a key component in our next game.