Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Conflict without combat...

Many, you could say most, games these days have an element of conflict in them, usually framed in terms of some sort of combat mechanic. Conflict, in a game where you have multiple human players, is what makes the game competitive. Different styles of games deal with conflict in different ways and in recent years the German-style board game "school" has been on the rise.

"... [German-style] games emphasize strategy, downplay luck and conflict, lean towards economic rather than military themes, and usually keep all the players in the game until it ends." (Wikipedia)

While there may be a downplaying of conflict within German-style games there is no way to avoid the fact that with multiple human players (as opposed to human against AI, or the game itself) there is going to be conflict, even if the mechanics of the game (supposedly) play down these elements. Settlers of Catan, and Carcassonne represent two of the most popular games from this particular design school. For good reason too, they're both elegantly designed games, inclusive of all the players and easy to learn, but hard to master. 

Myself, and my partner, play a lot of Carcassonne. An awful lot. Mostly on the Xbox these days, but we still find time to play with people face to face every now and then. For me it's one of the most well designed games that I've ever come across and can be played in numerous different ways. You can always play friendly games, allowing the draw of tiles to define how the game evolves and who takes the eventual victory and it's fun. However, once you have the mechanics under your belt you can also be far more cut throat and bring the element of conflict into the game play far more. When we play on the Xbox cut throat tends to be the way we play - far easier to do when you don't have your opponent sitting across the table from you.

Carcassonne on Xbox Live - a great port of the board game.

At face value Carcassonne may play down the element of conflict but once you get deep into the mechanics it's apparent that conflict is actually built into those mechanics - if you choose to play that way. As it is a game of resource management and building the terms of conflict come from being able to restrict your opponents ability to build. In Carcassonne, when you finish a construction (road, cloister or city) you get your follower (or "meeple" as they have been nick named) back in your hand, able to be then placed on a different construction. Locking your opponents "meeples" on the board may be a somewhat anti-social move to make (usually done by placing a piece that would make their claimed construction unfinishable) but it does give you a distinct advantage in being able to take the victory. Making an opponents construction unable to be completed can be done by either placing a tile which requires them to draw a tile which there are none left of, or a tile which doesn't exist in the game. Surrounding a players "farm" (a follower placed into the field portion of a tile) with roads or cities to minimise the maximum score they can gain in the end scoring is also a valid (and widely used) tactic. Knowing how many of each tiles there are in the game becomes a key mechanic (for example there are only two cloister pieces which have roads on them) - much like card counting in a game of blackjack. 

The red player is in trouble, in the standard set of tiles they have no way to finish either their city or their road. 
Note this is not an actual game but a set-up to show how followers can be locked onto the board.
The conflict in Carcassonne comes from understanding the parameters of the rules and how to use the mechanics to undermine your opponents ability to utilise their followers. Conflict, in this way, is hard-wired into the games mechanics, despite claims that the conflict mechanic is downplayed in the game. If anything the game is grounded in conflict through understanding of its mechanics - in some ways more so than games which include specified combat mechanics. Conflict is not a separate mechanic like in some games but something which comes about from understanding how to maximise your outcomes as a player. Certainly conflict isn't framed in terms of combat, but that doesn't make it any less aggressive than games which have a specific conflict mechanic. 

Something should be said about the different format that you're playing on as well. As I said earlier, there is a difference between playing an opponent that you can't see and an opponent who is sitting across the table from you. Because the conflict mechanic is so deeply embedded in the game if you choose to play an aggressive game it can get somewhat uncomfortable if you opponent is right in front of you. Why? Because you are directly attacking their ability to play the game - it's not just an abstract removal of pieces from the board but an undermining of their opportunity to actually engage in game play. In some ways this type of conflict in a game is far more personal than those games where there is a separate combat mechanic. Of course if both players have a deep understanding of the rules, and an understanding of the conflict mechanic, then this type game play can still be satisfying, and not as personally attacking as I have described. Still, as a mechanic it is a deeply personal way to attack your opponent. 

Playing Carcassonne face to face will certainly make you think about how you approach the conflict in the game. 

Conflict is fun and it frames so much of the game play which people engage in these days. Of course not all games have conflict built in - it's not always necessary to have fun, but when it's done well, and with the understanding of the players that it's inherit in the process of playing the game it can make for some thrilling gaming encounters.   


Notes : Carcassonne is actually a real place, something I haven't even touched upon in this post, check out the picture below.

There are also a whole bundle of expansions available for the game - though personally I have always found the basic version to be my favourite.

 As a game it is available on most formats, table top, Xbox Live, Ipad / Iphone and numerous online versions. I highly recommend checking it out on your preferred platform!

Carcassonne in France - the inspiration for the game is incredibly clear!


  1. Great article Scott. It makes me really want to play it again. :) I bought the Hunters & Gatherers version, but have only played it once. We need more game days!

  2. Cheers Spiro - it's a bit of an addiction for us. Haven't played the Hunters & Gatherers version myself. We'll organise some more game days once we've got a bit more of a solid household situation - the last day was great!