In Twilight Struggle, if you cause nuclear war, your opponent wins and you lose. Twilight Struggle is a two-player strategy game that simulates The Cold War. As you know, in the real world, if there is a nuclear war then everyone loses. But in Twilight Struggle, nuclear war leads to one winner and one loser. This speaks to limitations in what a strategy board game can effectively simulate.
Twilight Struggle is simulating a semi-cooperative situation, which means it combines cooperative and competitive elements. A semi-cooperative game is one that allows one player to get ahead of the other, but also allows outcomes which are good for both players or bad for both players. Note that ties don’t count, because they aren’t good or bad for both players! A semi-cooperative game requires at least three distinct outcomes, outside of ties. In Twilight Struggle, the three outcomes are USA wins, the Soviet Union wins, or there is nuclear war. This is challenging to adapt to a board game format, because players are accustomed to only two non-tie outcomes: winning or losing.
Under the standard rules of Twilight Struggle, neither player wants to press the big button. If you’re behind in the game, you might think you’re losing anyway, so might as well go out with a bang. However, there’s always a chance that you might catch up if you play on; meanwhile there’s no recovering from nuclear war. So the three outcomes get mapped to win/loss conditions like so:
Ahead -> Likely win, opponent likely loses
Behind -> Likely loss, opponent likely wins
Nuclear war -> Guaranteed loss, opponent guaranteed to win
Nuclear war is clearly the worst choice, successfully simulating the real world.
Now suppose we create a variant of Twilight Struggle where both players lose to nuclear war. So our outcomes are now mapped as follows:
Ahead -> Likely win, opponent likely loses
Behind -> Likely loss, opponent likely wins
Nuclear war -> Guaranteed loss, opponent guaranteed to lose
The problem is that some players may look at that third option and say, actually it looks better than the second option. If I can’t win, then neither can you. Call this “spite”. Not all players will be spiteful, but if one of them is, it completely breaks the game. Nobody would ever be able to win against a spiteful player, because it’s trivial for a player to cause nuclear war if that’s what they set out to do. Another possible result is that players would try to stay away from nuclear war as much as possible, lest they give their opponent a chance to force a loss. But if players do that, it also breaks the game, and fails to simulate the brinksmanship of The Cold War.
So that’s why Twilight Struggle is designed that way, with one player “winning” nuclear war. Essentially, we use probability to simulate 3 distinct outcomes, while remaining within the win/loss binary.
Interestingly, the loser of nuclear war isn’t always the person who caused the nuclear war–technically the player whose turn it is loses. If you play the Olympic Games card, your opponent can sometimes force a nuclear war by boycotting the Olympics. But since it’s your turn not theirs, you lose and they win. This arguably doesn’t simulate the real world, where pinning the blame on your opponent doesn’t exactly help you survive nuclear war. But it’s an interesting little loophole that catches players off-guard, and I suppose that makes the threat of nuclear war more real.
What are other methods can we use to design semi-cooperative strategy games? I will describe a few approaches that I have seen.
1. Hidden identity games
Hidden identity games like Avalon or Battlestar Galactica have traitors who are hidden amongst the players. If you are not a traitor, you want to cooperate with other team members, but be cautious about trusting potential traitors. In effect, this is also making use of probability, because the identity of the traitor is randomly chosen at the beginning of the game.
King-making refers to a situation where two players stand to win, but a third player gets to choose which one. In my circles, we talk about games with “politics”, which primarily refers to king-making mechanics. I generally don’t like board games with a lot of politics, because I don’t particularly enjoy the experience of playing favorites among friends friends, or having friends play favorites with me–but some people like that stuff I guess. (I’m not making a point about whether games are political or not, “politics” is just what we call it!)
King-making may lead to semi-cooperative gameplay. For example, in Carcassonne players can share points by building cities, farms, and roads together. If you cooperate with one player, both of you benefit–you’re using your king-making decisions to boost them, and they’re doing the same for you. So generally you cooperate with lots of people (although fully prepared to stab them in the back). But ultimately only one player wins, so if you believe that a certain player is ahead, you might stop cooperating with them.
In effect, this is also making use of probability. Since only one player wins in the end, when all is said and done the cooperation either helped you or hurt you or did nothing at all. But during the game, when the outcome is uncertain, cooperation can be mutually beneficial, because it increases both players’ probability of winning, compared to other players not in on the deal.
Or at least, that’s how I think about it. I recognize that not every board gamer has the same analytical approach that I do. Some players make decisions based on favoritism, trust, grudges, or spite.
3. Iterated board games
In card games like Hearts, it’s common for players to play multiple rounds, and add together the points from each round. During each round, you get a number of points, and you want to minimize the number of points. This creates a hierarchy of outcomes with a clear preference ordering:
26 < 25 < 24 < … < 2 < 1 < 0
Ultimately only one player wins, but getting a lower score is still desirable. The lower the score the better, since it sets you up to win in a future round. In other words, lower scores increase your probability of winning.
Hearts isn’t the best example of a semi-cooperative game, but it does have a tiny bit of cooperation. For instance, if one player tries to “shoot the moon”, other players might cooperate to stop them because if one player shoots the moon everybody else gets the maximum number of points.
4. Speculative approaches
In all the above examples, I argued that what really enables semi-cooperative play is probability of winning/losing. Interestingly, these approaches mostly only work with 3+ players, and Twilight Struggle is a very rare example that manages with 2 players. But is there a non-probabilistic approach? What’s to stop a game from just declaring the players should have a particular preference ordering among 3+ distinct outcomes?
Strategy games already have a few common tools to break away from the win/loss binary. For instance, players may intrinsically value points above and beyond their utility in winning. For example, maybe it’s the last round of the game and I already know I’m winning. But I want to win BIG, so I push around cards and meeples trying to get as many victory points. In short, I have the following preference ordering:
Lose big < Barely lose <<< Barely win < Win big
However, some players might ignore the scores beyond their utility in winning. In other words they’re truly indifferent to winning big vs barely winning–they’re both just winning. I’ve definitely watched players who, when they find a way to win, they get exactly one more point than their opponent and promptly end the game.
Also, many players only care about score differences, not absolute score. After all, reducing your opponents’ score is an equally valid path to victory as increasing your own score. But if players only care about the differences in scores, that’s not sufficient to support semi-cooperative gameplay, because the outcomes are all zero sum.
In games with 3+ players, some players may care about rank placement. For example, even if I’m sure I’m not winning, I might try to fight for 2nd place. This raises a philosophical question. If you have a choice between X% chance of getting 1st place (getting 3rd place if you lose), and having a guaranteed 2nd place spot, which do you prefer? In a competitive tournament where only the 1st place winner matters, it is correct to prefer any probability of getting 1st place, but that’s not necessarily how players play in practice!
Overall, I think there are many ways that board games could break out of the win/loss binary to make a semi-cooperative experience. I’m sure commenters will tell me about other approaches, as well as other games which put those approaches into practice. However, I think a general problem is that board gamers may not respond consistently to the range of possible outcomes. And, of course, it’s not necessarily bad that gamers have different approaches to board games, but if the designer has a specific semi-cooperative experience in mind, they may require more consistency.
Ultimately I don’t think there’s any fundamental barrier to stepping outside of the win/loss binary to create semi-cooperative games. The win/loss binary is just a player expectation, and it’s not even universal across gaming. For instance, I don’t think table top RPGs or video games always have the same norms about the win/loss binary. And maybe that’s because other kinds of games are more open-ended experiences, while strategy games are more rigid. It’s also a reflection of my own rigidity–I’m not sure I would enjoy a strongly semi-cooperative board game if I had it in hand! I just like the idea, really.
(Related article: my discussion of cooperative board games from 2017.)