Learning Conflict Without Hostility Through Gaming

By Jamey Stegmaier
Guest Contributor

When I was a kid, I wanted to conquer the world.

Through the game of Risk, of course, not actual global conquest. I loved Risk. I played the game every day at family reunions, and I was always trying to get friends to play.

The more I played, though, the more I realized that not only does Risk encourage hostility, but it incentives you to end another player’s game, which is basically the least fun thing a game can do. The more I played, the more I struggled with balancing the goal of winning with the goal of making sure that everyone was having fun and staying in the game. If you’ve played Risk with similar goals in mind, you know that it’s nearly impossible to maintain that balance. It is, after all, a game about conquering the world.

In hindsight, I wish that games like Agricola and Stone Age had existed when I was growing up. Built into the design of those games is the lesson that your goals can conflict with other players’ goals without the need – or possibility – of hostility. It’s a lesson that both kids and adults can take away from well-designed games.

It’s with that lesson in mind that I designed my game, Viticulture. Viticulture is a worker placement game about creating and selling wine—it doesn’t appear underage friendly at first glance, but my goal was to romanticize the idea of running a vineyard, not the idea of drinking alcohol.

Current design for the game board

The conflicting goals in Viticulture involve worker placement. There’s a scarcity of action spaces on which workers can be placed, meaning players will be unable to get everything that they need in any given season.

The key rule, however, is that if you can’t take an action, you can’t place a worker on that action space. For example, if you know I need to play a visitor card, and you don’t have a visitor card in hand, you can’t place your worker on the “play a visitor card” action space simply to get in my way. It’s the “don’t be a jerk” rule. Most games don’t have this type of rule, but I see it as my responsibility as the designer to remove unneeded frustration from the game. Unlike Risk, I don’t want to incentivize or allow the targeting of any one player in Viticulture.

Example of two of the cards in the game

Interaction in board games is important—if the other players are irrelevant, why are you playing a game with them? But through careful game design, interaction and conflict can flourish without allowing for hostility between players. Hopefully we can carry that lesson over into daily life and relationships—you can disagree with someone without insulting them, and you can compete with someone without hurting them.

Conquer the world with kindness, I say.

About the Author

Jamey is a director of a St. Louis-area nonprofit, a writer, a publisher, and a game designer. His game, Viticulture, is seeking support on Kickstarter until October 7, 2012.

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About Guest Contributor

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3 Responses to Learning Conflict Without Hostility Through Gaming

  1. Cyrus says:

    Some excellent thoughts here.

    Conflict is one of those game mechanisms that many gamers look for, although the method and the means of the conflict is as widely diverse as the game in which they can be found. Risk, per your example, is all about area control, while Viticulture is about worker placement. Can we argue that both are forms of conflict, although one is much more aggressive and the other passive? I think so, and furthermore, both serve a purpose necessary for all games. That being, competition.

    Without any level of contention in a game, I doubt you will find many willing to play it. How the game goes about it, however, is what starts defining the differences in game play and, to a very large extent, the player’s level of stress.

    I think conflict is important in games as it teaches players to cope effectively with change, understand that not everything will go their way, and that to obtain personal goals requires effort. It’s a reality check, of sorts, and a very safe place to learn the lessons that will serve all players well in their daily lives.

  2. Jason says:

    Nice, succinct point and article. Myself – I’m in the camp that would tend to disagree. I don’t think a game designer is under any sort of responsibility to soften conflict in his/her games – but that can be a wonderful personal choice, as you have made, and those games certainly serve a purpose and demographic in the hobby. But don’t underestimate the ability of games with cutthroat competition and even elimination mechanics to teach kids how to deal with losing like a good sport – and the earlier you start, often the better. And while the “don’t be a jerk” rule is good, in principle (and I teach it to my kids), there are times you do need to deny a player something even though you may not benefit from it, because it might mean they win if you don’t – that can be a legit strategy. Of course, knowing your kids’ and your gaming group’s personalities is always key to what kinds of games you play.

  3. Cyrus and Jason–you both make good points about the value of conflict. Jason, I think it’s a very fine line (both when designing and playing a game) when it comes to blocking opponents. Here’s an example that I think fits into that category, but the design of the game allows the game to stop being fun for a player who has been blocked, regardless of the player’s intentions: Settlers of Catan.

    If you’ve played Settlers, you’ve probably been blocked out of the game at least once. You can mitigate this through strategical placement, and you can continue to draw resource cards even if you can’t build anything. But it’s quite frustrating. Perhaps that’s a necessary evil in area control games, but it’s disappointing that there isn’t a way around it.

    I think there certainly is something to be said for learning that what happens during a game can stay in the world of the game–sure, someone might block you, but it doesn’t mean that they don’t like you in real life. There’s a certain maturity that can develop within that context. But I do hope to avoid the potential for hostility in all of my game designs.

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