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Oftentimes in a big game of Settlers of Catan (4 or more players) it comes down to two or three players battling for the winning point and one or two players who have too few points to offer any realistic chance of victory.

Rather than just watch, the losing players are free to make overly generous trades to control who wins in a weird inversion of control.

Is this a natural side effect of the games? Is this just a manifestation of be nice to people on the way up?

I find this really frustrating as more than once I've ended up losing because I've annoyed someone in a previous game. I'm I just being a poor sport?

The only way I can think to avoid this style of play is to run a league setup such than even if a player isn't going to win, it's worth them trying to get an extra few more points.

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Not sure whether to mark this as a duplicate or not, but Is Kingmaking a Fixable Problem is definitely related. – Gregor Feb 24 '14 at 1:57
I personally think that, if I'm not winning a game, the ability to influence who does win helps a lot to keep the end of the game interesting. Though I usually do it while still trying to maximize my position at the end. – Gregor Feb 24 '14 at 2:02
For me personally, I just let my friends know that Kingmaking is in my opinion poor sportsmanship, and it makes the games less enjoyable; thus I am less likely to want to play games with a person that is known to do it. – GendoIkari Feb 24 '14 at 3:30
@HNJSlater Your last question, about your actions in previous games making players mad at you (and affecting the current game) would make an excellent separate question. Would you consider editing it out of this question and asking a new question with it? (And welcome to Board & Card Games!) – Paul Marshall Feb 24 '14 at 23:39
One thing to consider is that if a player is losing badly enough and has a reason to keep you from winning you might want to re-evaluate your play style so that they don't want to keep you from winning. – Joe W Jan 28 at 2:33

5 Answers 5

up vote 15 down vote accepted

This situation is called The Kingmaker Scenario. It is an effect that is largely seen as being undesirable in games, yet at the same time is also considered somewhat inevitable in games with 3 or more sides in a Free-For-All situation to at least some extent. Game designers are always trying to find ways to fight against this effect, and there are a number of ways to reduce the effect that Kingmaker has on the game when designing a game - here are a few examples:

  • Completely eliminate a player from the game after they are behind by a certain threshold
  • Create a "comeback mechanic" that allows a player to fight back against the feedback loop holding them in a low position
  • Using concealed information to make it more difficult to determine the values involved in the victory conditions

When dealing with a pre-made game like Settlers of Catan and not with a game of your own creation, your options are limited - you can either create house rules of some form, or simply accept that aspect of the game. It may be best to try and find what others have done to solve the same situation for the same game - if it is widely considered to be a problem by other players, than there may be popular and well-tested house rules that already exist. On the other hand, if there are not, it may be a sign that regular players do not consider it to be a major factor in play.

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Good answer. Multiplayer dynamics are a tough thing, and while ameritrash games ebrace the in-game politics and kingmaking, Euros usually try to fight it, but its not easy. For example, concealed information does not solve the problem. If a player simply has a perception he is behind, he may alter his play. Strong comeback and balancing mechanics make players try to lay low and only pounce at the win in the last turns, in order to enjoy the boost for being low and avoid leaderbashing. Player elimination is a problem with games that are 30+ minutes. Kingmaking is a difficult problem to solve! – K.L. Feb 25 '14 at 8:32
How about leagues? Keeping track of total victory points would lead to players always working towards getting more VP even if they can't win. But does that break the dynamics? Encourage players to go for the safe points and let someone else win? – HNJSlater Feb 25 '14 at 23:36
@HNJSlater If people are allowed to do whatever they please in the rules, you have to count on them making any of the legal choices, and that includes having vendettas against other people. – Southpaw Hare Feb 25 '14 at 23:50

Kingmaking is a dynamic which means the leaders of the game should be making un-even trades to the people in last place to help them along. If you help a person in last place build some additional settlements they will still be trying to win the game, rather than bored with no hope of victory in sight.

What is a rational trade when you have no chance of winning? Ending the game as soon as possible is pretty rational when you are so far behind you have no chance to come back. If you want to avoid this, don't let people fall so far behind. You can do this by trading at only marginal benefit to yourself and large benefit to them. Normally you would only swap 1:1 if its going to let you gain a VP next turn, but if someone is miles behind, you might swap 1:1 with someone just to gain a slightly better hand, or even 2:1 to avoid having 8 cards for the robber.

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I cant really see how this adresses the issue. One player doing bad-for-himself trades with the worst players just cripples his efforts to win. Any opponent fighting for first place and NOT doing such a thing should automatically win, not having an additional resource burden. That way YOU would be the kingmaker, in a way. – K.L. Feb 25 '14 at 8:27
I'm not saying to do trades which are bad for you, but normally there are many trades offered which are slightly good for one player, and very good for another. If you do those trades with players in lower positions, then you will benefit and you won't leave disgruntled people stuck on 3 settlements. – Nick Feb 25 '14 at 9:35

There's two "house rules" - or really culture, options:

  • Agree that losing players will prefer to compete for 2nd, 3rd, etc. place instead of kingmaking, or compete to maximize points as a consolation prize instead of win. That is, if you think you are going to win, try to win. If you don't think you are going to win, you may not do things to throw the winner. There is a corner case (which I can't quite imagine happening in Catan) that goes like, "If you don't help me, I am now vying for 3rd place, and must necessarily hurt you to reach that goal." Should that legitimately arise, it is legal and strategically interesting.
  • Allow it strategically. "If you damage me now, I will kingmake your opponent." Or more draconian, "If you don't help me a lot right now, I will lose and therefore may as well credibly threaten to throw it to your rival." Note this isn't necessarily bad - it's arguably a far more interesting and game theoretically deep dynamic to introduce.

If your friends insist on less immediately strategical forms of vindication, well, you have two options here.

  • Stop seeing their forms of vindication as somehow beneath you. It's obstinate to insist that your strategy is good, when it has the side effect of leading to people throwing the game against you in the 11th inning stretch. That's a valid reason for your strategy to be bad. You might call it the "blue shell effect."
  • Play any other game. Settlers is really bad for this.

For the record between those two options, I would pick the latter. I don't think games with that loose of a social / strategy balance are fun. More strategy is good, or more social (including things like Coup) are good. Settlers I avoid.

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"kingmaking" is a feature of a number of board games, including Setters of Catan. More to the point, it is an important concept in "real life."

That is, even if you are losing, and have no chance win, the determination of the actual winner often does matter, especially after the game/election/whatever ends. One winner will be greatly preferred to another (at least by the "loser").

Perhaps players can "formalize" this by having "house rules" that give "second prize" or something to the "kingmaker. In "Diplomacy," for instance, the winner needs to have 18 (out of 34) supply centers, but one version of house rules says that any group of three or fewer (a minority of seven) can declare themselves "co-winners" by reaching 18. One player with two supply centers managed to be included in a "winner's circle" with two other players totalling 16.

Even when they don't get first prize, playing kingmaker is an important skill (and play "with" a kingmaker an equally important one). One real life "kingmaker" game was the 1824 Presidential election, where John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson were the front runners, with Daniel Webster and Henry Clay running far behind. Clay threw his support behind Adams (enabling him to surpass Jackson) and was rewarded with the Secretary of State.

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We solve this problem by keeping a running score. Individual games don't matter as much as the entire session.

For example, consider a session of three players where player one has won three games, player two zero games, and player three one game. If I am player two and I become kingmaker, I would help player three. This is because if player one wins, he will have a 4-0 lead on me, while if player three wins, I will trail the leader by 3-0.

Kingmaking is part of the game, and it is inevitable in Settlers of Catan. Few people like to lose, and those who hate losing would prefer the winner to be the person they consider the least threat to their status.

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