Betrayal in the Game from the Box

Not long ago, I discussed schadenfreude and how you can manage it in your games. But somehow, I managed to miss one of the most effective ways to get players at each others’ throats: betrayal.

Today, I’ll talk a bit about the psychological underpinnings of betrayal, the many forms it can take in games, and how those forms can affect players’ emotions and psyches.

Betrayal and You

Betrayal: it's just a part of the human experience.

Betrayal: it’s just a part of the human experience. Image from Benoit des Ligneris.

Betrayal is a fundamental part of the human experience, one that can affect us in profoundly emotional ways. Some of us are more insecure when it comes to trust than others, but discovering that a friend was using you like a pawn never feels good.

Games give us a safe space to explore these issues, right? While games may be a more ethical venue to release Machiavellian impulses than, say, places of work or high school proms, don’t forget that your players’ emotions are very real. Betrayal in particular can be an extremely touchy and emotional experience, so it is very important to know how your game allows or even forces betrayal amongst your players.

Betrayal in Games

Betrayal takes many forms in games, but below I’ve narrowed it down to three broad categories. I’ll discuss how each form works and how they are likely to affect your players emotionally.

Forced Betrayal. Most games pit players against each other from the very beginning. But forced betrayal games feature hidden alliances. Players aren’t sure who they are actually working with and who they’re working against. Games like BANG! and Battlestar Galactica have one set of players trying to determine who amongst them are the traitors. These games include a lot of additional moving pieces, and the genre is possibly best represented by the minimalist The Resistance, where the whole game revolves around determining who the traitors are before it’s too late. The aptly named Betrayal at House on the Hill also fits in this category. Even though the betrayer isn’t determined until half way through the game, that player has no control over which side he or she ends up on.

Don't let the name fool you. The betrayal in Betrayal at House on the Hill isn't really a betrayal.

Don’t let the name fool you. The betrayal in Betrayal at House on the Hill isn’t really a betrayal. Image from Board Game Geek.

While these games require players to lie to their friends’ faces, they don’t really feel like betrayal games. Why? Because the game dictates who’s betraying and who isn’t. There is no player choice in the matter. Even if your best friend spent the whole game manipulating you, you can’t really hold it against her… the game made her do it.

While the feeling of betrayal in these games is relatively low given that they are all about betrayal, they can be disappointing for the betrayers. Believe it or not, some people don’t enjoy lying to their friends, even in a game situation! For these players, randomly being a traitor will lead to a disappointing and possibly uncomfortable gaming experience.

Optimal Betrayal. For some games, betraying the other player is the optimal strategy (or at least very close to an optimal strategy). The game might not require betrayal to win, but it highly incentivises players to betray, and therefore betrayal is nearly inevitable.

In Diplomacy, you expect even your best laid plans (and friendships) to crumble. Image from Board Game Geek.

In Diplomacy, expect even your best plans (and friendships) to crumble. Image from Board Game Geek.

These games tend to involve a number of players all fighting each other. Temporary alliances form and crumble over the course of a game as they are convenient or useful for players. Some games, such as Risk, merely allow these fragile alliances. In other games, like Diplomacy and Illuminati, forming and breaking alliances are built into the rules. Either way, those who play clean tend to be vulnerable to those who are more ruthless and less sentimental.

Real betrayals take place in these games. Players aren’t required to betray, they choose to betray. And that makes the betrayal feel all the more real.

That said, most players come into these games knowing that betrayal is a very likely possibility, which softens the blow. As the game designer, it is your job to make sure that players know that betrayal is part of the game. Include references to broken alliances in the rules, and make sure the theme implies betrayal. Even with your best efforts, some sensitive players may accidentally find their way into these games and have a bad time because of it.

Optional Betrayal. In many games, betrayal simply is not possible. Players can never work together or make arrangements that can later be broken. The last class of betrayal games don’t fall into this category, but also do not actively encourage betrayal. Betrayal may be an effective strategy at times, but the game doesn’t require or even incentivise it, and other strategies might be superior to it.

Perhaps surprisingly, these betrayals can be even more painful than those of games where betraying is the right strategy. Your friends aren’t betraying you to do better in the game; your friends are betraying you just because they can. Ouch.

Table-flip moments are exciting, but generally are something to avoid. Image from Iron Man Mode.

Table-flip moments are exciting, but generally are something to avoid. Image from Iron Man Mode.

This can produce table-flip moments: exciting but dangerous. The tricky thing is that this type of betrayal can sneak into games unexpectedly. I wish I could give you concrete advice on how to keep optional betrayal out of your games, but the best I can do is list a few ways optional betrayal can creep in and offer some ways to avoid it. This list isn’t exhaustive and I encourage you to chime in with other potential betrayals and ways to avoid them in the comments.

When players can make deals they can later break, that’s an opportunity to betray. State in the rules that all transactions must be explicit and immediate to avoid this, or that players have to keep their contracts. Or disallow agreements altogether.

When players can choose who they attack, there is an opportunity to form and break alliances. Keep in mind that attacking doesn’t have to be explicit with a sword or a gun–it can be any way one player can hamper another player. Games like Dominion solve this problem by making attacks affect all other players. You can also make attacks random or semi-random (like in Citadels), or just avoid attacks in your game altogether.

When players can create informal alliances, that gives them an opportunity to break their alliances. Having set teams from the beginning usually prevents players from betraying their team mates. Alternatively, preventing players from helping each other or trading prevents alliances from forming in the first place.

Nothing Evil

To conclude this post, I want to mention that even though I’ve talked a lot about avoiding betrayal in games (just like I talked about avoiding schadenfreude and avoiding long waits when I discussed simultaneous action), that doesn’t mean you should strive to completely eliminate it from your games. When betrayal comes as a surprise, it can feel awful. But feeling good is only one of many reasons people play games. Another reason is to explore experiences they don’t often have in real life. Yet another is to prepare for actual experiences. Allowing for betrayal in games can not only give your players an outlet for any impulses to betray they might have, it might even prepare them for the betrayal they will inevitably experience in their personal and professional lives.

Designing games is not easy. For one thing, as a game designer, you will need to balance many conflicting requirements. Betrayal can be fun, but it can also be emotionally devastating.

For another thing, there is no right answer and no one to tell you when you’re done. You’ll have to make that judgement for yourself (with the assistance of lots of playtesting data, of course). No game is perfect so you’ll have to decide when your game is close enough.

I have two hopes for posts like this. First, I want to bring potentially dangerous issues like betrayal to your attention. Second, I hope to offer some tools to help you control them in your game. You’re going to have to walk the tightrope yourself, but here’s hoping it’s a little easier.

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