The “alpha gamer” problem is an issue commonly referenced when discussing cooperative board games, like Pandemic, Forbidden Desert and Dead of Winter. Because all of the players are working toward a common goal, the games present a situation where one individual, for one reason or another, may step forward and dictate to the rest of the group what each player should do on their turn. In this way, the game largely becomes the “Alpha Player” playing the game, while the others at the table simply move the pieces.
Do you feel that the “Alpha Gamer Problem” is one stemming from the player or the game itself? Meaning, does the “Alpha Gamer Problem” occur because the game allows it to or because the group allows it to occur?
Consider games like The Grizzled, The Game and Hanabi, which limit the communication between players, against games like Forbidden Desert, Letters from Whitechapel, and Burgle Bros. which may thrive more on coordinated moves. What about games with a possible traitor, like Shadows over Camelot or Battlestar Galactica?
Explain your thinking.
The “alpha gamer” syndrome, to me, is a combination of the game, the individuals playing and their prior experience. It’s dependent upon players’ personalities, their knowledge and experience with the game at hand and sometimes thematic limitations in communication. If everyone is playing the game for the first time, mapping out the best strategy is likely a concerted effort—players sharing potentially differing opinions for the next action and its outcome. However, if a game has been played by any one individual, that effort can largely lean toward a more aggressively opinionated affair. It isn’t guaranteed but, if that previous account was a success or a similar scenario occurs, that person’s opinion becomes grounded in the “tried-and-true” territory. That, in and of itself, can take away from the mystique of a game and create a flat experience.
While I very much enjoy Flash Point, Forbidden Desert and Burgle Bros. where opinions and ideas are freely strewn about, games like The Grizzled and Hanabi where communication is limited offer a different experience altogether—a common objective with individual decisions (See also: winking). This enables decisions to effect the entirety of the group, without prior feedback, which makes for more reactive gameplay. In this type, the alpha is less common.
Ultimately, the group is at fault for allowing an “alpha gamer” situation. If you have an opinion, it should be shared with the group and discussed, if applicable. Actions can be unanimous or even voted upon if there are conflicting opinions for the available options. I, personally, am an opinionated person; I know this. Others know this. I was gifted a refrigerator magnet that reads “I’m not bossy. My ideas are better.” But, when it comes to gaming I try not to allow my opinions to dominate. I like to pose a question or idea for moving forward in such a way that the group feels involved and can contribute their thoughts, as well. As much as I’d like to believe my ideas are always better, they are not. Many times during cooperative gameplay someone will come up with a simpler or completely different idea that never occurred to me. This is what makes cooperative games satisfying for me. Discovering the most efficient and varied ways a goal can be achieved through a combined effort.
It would be a lie to say that I’ve never been guilty of alpha-gaming in a co-op game situation. In those situations, I generally attribute it to the my own personality and the fact that I prefer to have control in any given situation, which bleeds through into my gaming. I feel like the player’s personality and general gaming style definitely predispose them to alpha-gaming.
With that being said, though, I don’t think that alpha-gaming is entirely dependent upon the alpha-gamer: there are certainly some games that allow for it more than others. This could be true of games like Pandemic or Flashpoint where everyone has a common goal and getting things done is dependent upon the fact that players don’t have the same actions throughout the game. When players can perform actions for less action points, plans may hinge upon them utilizing those abilities on their turn, which may stop them from being able to do what they were thinking they’d do. I think that this is something we frequently encountered in Pandemic Legacy that we were fortunately able to discuss with one another as opposed to someone just taking over all the time. On the other hand, a cooperative game like Hanabi doesn’t really allow for it: you’re working to make sure other players are able to figure out what they’re doing to reach your goal, as opposed to trying to make a plan that suits the group based on what you can do (information that you actually don’t have).
Beyond the game and the gamer, there are also gaming situations in which alpha-gaming is more likely to occur. I think this is mostly limited to cooperative games in which a player is new to the game. When a veteran player knows the game’s agenda, it only seems natural that they might guide novice companions toward a certain course of action to win the game. This leads us back to the impact that a gamer’s personality can have on alpha-gaming in that not all gamers may feel the need to guide their newer companions.
Co-op games are not generally in my wheelhouse, often due to issues such as this – I have my own drummer corp to keep beat with. Still, while there certainly are those players that easily slip into the ‘Alpha-Gamer’ role, I would put the onus on certain types of games for both allowing it to happen, and even encouraging it. Pandemic, for one, would be what I consider to be the shining spotlight for problems; it’s such a tough game that everyone really has to be reading from the same script if you want to have any chance of survival. So much of it is built around what other players do, that it’s almost natural to script out several turns in a row: “Alright, I’ll go there, you give me your card, then he’ll transport me over *there* and… “ etc, which often leads to one player taking command. On the other hand (and since I enjoy arguing with myself), I would contend that game-induced Alpha-gaming isn’t really a problem unless the player in question chooses to ignore the input from his team, and goes the route of full-on dictator. At this point, their need for control is actively harming the experience of the others that are playing the game, and shouldn’t be tolerated.
Please feel free to discuss in the comments below!