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The original Kingmaker was Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick. He was instrumental during the Wars of the Roses in the deposition of two kings. The term kingmaker has come to mean, "a person or group that has great influence in a royal or political succession, without being a viable candidate." The term in game theory has come to mean:

Kingmaking: in a game of three or more players (on three or more opposing sides), during and endgame situation when a player who is unable to win is able to determine which player among others is the winner.

Kingmaking to me basically comes down to purposefully taking actions in a game so that someone other than yourself wins. It is slightly unusual that only the actions of the last player are considered kingmaking, when it is the total contribution of all players over the entire course of the game that determines a winner (i.e. If some else prevent you from getting 4 VP from shipping on boats in Puerto Rico on turn 5, but I prevent you from getting 4 VP on turn 19 and you lose by four points...why am I the kingmaker?)

Any game with more than two opposing sides is susceptible to kingmaking. In the world of competitive gaming, kingmaking can even occur in games with only two sides (due to rankings of multiple players). In Sumo Wrestling, for example yaochō or "match fixing" is where one wrestler who has already achieved a high paying rank throws a match on purpose to allow the opposing wrestler to secure a higher paycheck. In Magic: the Gathering tournaments, where a player may have no chance of making the top 8, they might concede a match to help a friend have a better win-loss ratio, while trying their hardest against any other opponents.

In a multiplayer MtG game, players may openly collude to help destroy the player with the best board position. In other groups, tabletalk and open collusion banned, but it is still expected that most players will gang up on the player with the best board position. The rules for MtG can also be exploited in multiplayer. A kingmaker player on the verge of elimination might cast an instant to hurt an unfavored player in hopes that they don't win or to make the game end earlier so they can play another game. A kingmaker might concede before damage is dealt so an unfavored player doesn't gain life from lifelinked creatures.

There are other examples from games like Ticket to Ride - purely blocking moves, and Settlers of Catan monopoly card ethics and future trades (these aren't the exact links I was looking for. I thought that one of these talked about the ethics of performing multiple trades circumvent the no zero card trade rule) , Monopoly trade before losing. Looking over the highest scored answers, it appears that there is still some question about whether kingmaking is a problem or the normal part of any game. In Risk Legacy, the line is blurred even further since the game is played over multiple rounds. A player without the chance of winning might purposefully lose to a particular player to improve their odds in future games.

Is kingmaking a problem that needs to be fixed? (Are only certain kinds of kingmaking an issue? Collusion, playing to lose/disrupt the game, etc.)

What steps/rules are helpful in mitigating kingmaking in games? (general concepts, but real world examples preferred)

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6 Answers 6

up vote 33 down vote accepted

Kingmaking can be a desired feature in its own right

Particularly in games with a political or simulational bent, kingmaking can be a desired feature. The kingmaker gets to feel like he accomplished something even if he didn't win, and the tension and turnabout can contribute to a more exciting play experience.

Thesunneversets' answer addresses this much better than I can.

Threats of kingmaking are a strategic tool

"If you take me out, I'm going to make it so that you can't win afterward."

In most games, this isn't really a problem. It's just allowing players to use a "rattlesnake" defense when their more conventional defenses have faltered. Mutually assured destruction is basically a higher-stakes version of the normal tit-for-tat trading that goes on in strategy games.

When every game session turns into a complex web of MAD checks-and-balances leading to a spectacular flameout, though -- well, at that point you've gotta either call it a feature or redesign the game.

To reduce rattlesnake behavior, players need a way to trump the rattlesnake's threat, e.g. by more slowly setting up a victory that can't be disrupted. Is one player keeping the whole table at bay with an overgrown Shrine of Burning Rage, for instance? It's important for the game to have cards like Krosan Grip, Trickbind, and Shining Shoal to stop him.

Undesirable kingmaking is a motivation issue

In the previous case, the kingmaker is still looking to win; he's just holding the threat of you losing over your head to keep you from taking an action against him. Full-on kingmaking behavior is a motivation problem, resulting from players abandoning the goal of actually winning the game. Two possibilities exist here:

  • Winning is no longer a reasonable goal.

    If a game puts a player in a situation where she can no longer win, then that player is functionally aimless. Such players may turn to kingmaking because it's the only way they can still interact with the main goal of the game, indirectly.

    If you want some overly reductive advice, either eliminate losing players quickly or provide some "come from behind" / "alternate victory" mechanisms so they can still engage with the game's goals.

    Alternatively, a less winner-take-all model can keep players "playing to win" even when they're not in a position to actually seize first place. This is probably easiest in games with results that roll forward, such as tournaments where even finishing 3rd vs. 4th has an impact on overall scoring, or wargaming campaigns where the disposition of your surviving units has as much of an effect on future battles as the win/loss outcome of the skirmish itself.

  • Winning is a reasonable goal, but a player has decided to dismiss it.

    I think this is really a social issue. The player has broken with the goals of the game and created his own. Part of good game design is avoiding this by keeping players engaged with what they're supposed to do, but as a layman I honestly can't speak to how good games do this.

    One thing you can definitely do as a game designer is to clearly signpost your "come from behind" features so that players don't feel a game is hopeless when it's not.

    Beyond that, though, the players themselves need to address disruptive kingmaking as a sportsmanship problem: fundamentally what's happening is that a player is following the rules but not the spirit of the game. Sometimes it's because the kingmaker has lost interest, sometimes it's because social goals have trumped gameplay.

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I was going to answer, but now I can't because this has already said everything. Now I'm going to go away and rethink my whole approach. In the meantime, this deserves +many. –  Tynam Jun 1 '12 at 7:01
    
@Tynam Do come back and write an answer, though! This seems like the kind of question that really benefits from multiple perspectives. –  Alex P Jun 1 '12 at 8:43
    
@user1873 Here's some seemingly-related stuff about multiplayer game politics and threat analysis that I wanted to link to but can't quite synthesize or work in. Figured I might as well throw the link your way while I'm thinking of how to work it into the post. –  Alex P Jun 1 '12 at 8:51
    
There are some other subtleties as well e.g. are the other players aware of the kingmaking deal or is it secret. Might also be worth mentioning collusion in games for money being tracked by pattern matching –  jk. Jun 13 '12 at 10:46
    
@jk. Oh, good point! I didn't even think of outright collusion as a form of kingmaking. That's sort of the sportsmanship problem above all other sportsmanship problems. I don't know much about pattern-matching in games for money, though... maybe you could add it as an edit or new answer? –  Alex P Jun 13 '12 at 13:12

To a certain extent, kingmaking is a desirable element in multiplayer games. Suppose that another player has been making my life a misery throughout a game, to the extent that I fall so far behind that I no longer have a chance of winning. Obviously it's not exactly fun for me to then have to spend the rest of the game taking my persecutor down with me, but it's probably more fun than me not being able to.

Politics can be an important and beneficial part of many multiplayer games. Take Settlers of Catan. I know some people just hate having to victimise others with the robber (I believe their pain has been documented on this site!), but to me it's an important part of the game that stops everyone from just playing solitaire with occasional pauses to make fair trades for resources they need. When the robber comes into play you're generally forced to pick sides, play politics, and put people's noses out of joint. It keeps things interactive and adds competitive tension to a game that might, dare I say it, be a bit dull without such a mechanic.

I would say that the worst kingmaking problems solve themselves... over time. Let's suppose you play with a group of roughly the same people every week. If your "friend" Richard takes you down from behind in one game, you have every right to stab him in the back the next week. Either a truce will be drawn up in due course, or before too long no one will want to play with either of you! I used to have a delightfully political friend called Frances whose main tactic in Family Business was to advise everyone at the beginning of the game that "if you go out of your way to attack me in this game, I swear I will try to destroy you in both this game and in the future". A bit drastic perhaps, but it's well worth making it clear to people that if they behave like unsportsmanlike jerks in games that are after all's said and done meant to be fun for everyone involved, there will be consequences!

It's all politics though, and politics is hard. If it's a one-off game with strangers, and someone destabilises the balance of power in a random and vindictive way... at least you don't have to play with that person ever again. Actually this reminds me of a guy I sort of co-ran a boardgames group in Seattle with. He was a pretty good tactical player, and as such quickly decided that I was his biggest competition in most games we played in together. As such, he'd attack me right from the start of games we sat down to together. The upshot of this was... that most of the time I'd come last, and he'd come second from last. I'm not sure if that taught him a lesson, but I certainly made sure the lesson was available for him to learn from, if he cared to think closely on the matter...

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The only way to stop activity such as you describe in the last paragraph is to finish at least one place ahead of your friend; otherwise his tactic is likely to be seen on his part as successful. I was once backstabbed on turn 1 of a 7-player Diplomacy game by Italy (playing AH); I finished fourth, and Italy finished 7th. That player never backstabbed me early in a game again. –  Pieter Geerkens May 31 at 2:19
    
And the two players who most likely goaded Italy into taking Trieste on turn 1 finished 5th and 6th. ;-) I played heavily on the obvious unreliability of Italy to maneuver alliances that would keep me in the game while Italy was swiftly destroyed. –  Pieter Geerkens May 31 at 2:23

I've seen this come up in games a lot. For the most part I think it's something that has to be lived with, especially if the game you played doesn't have a mechanism to defend against it. For the most part, it's punishment for eliminating a player's chances of winning, but still leaving them in a position to disrupt your end game. Sometimes you can't get around that. Most games aren't cut-throat enough to include mechanics to eliminate players before the game ends.

I've only noticed players get into this behavior if they cannot win themselves. So as a player, you can try to keep the game as close as possible until the end. You can also play games that have a catch-up mechanic--sort of like running in Hearts or blind nils in Spades. This way players always have the off chance of pulling off a win from behind.

From a pure social engineering approach your gaming group can decide that it's unsportsmanlike behavior. I don't quite like this approach myself. I prefer to consider any valid action according to the rules to be acceptable.

I've seen one game that actually built king-making in as a mechanic. Solium Infernum(a very board game like PC game) includes a victory condition that is triggered if you chose the actual winner.

There's one last approach you may try: bribes. Cookies, pizza, or beer for the appropriately aged gamer.

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The Dune board game has the Bene Gesserit win if they can correctly guess the winning faction and winning turn at the start of play. Best mechanic ever. –  Alex P May 31 '12 at 23:38
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Bribing with out-of-game stuff is worse than kingmaking! If you're going to play-to-win, then at least leave it at the table. Bribery encourages social drama. –  Paul Marshall Sep 11 '12 at 19:51

Most of the answers so far say that king-making can be an acceptable feature of a game. However, there are certainly people who don't like it, whether they are the king-maker or not. As such, making a game that avoids king-maker situations is a good goal, not because it's bad, but because it's seen as bad by some (many?) people. King-making is especially annoying in more competitive games, or with competitive players. Such situations can't be solved outside of the game, with house rules on sportsmanship, bribes of pizza, or playing badly to give others a chance. There seem to be far more games that don't try to solve the issue, so making games that try to avoid it in mechanics may prove to be a defining feature of your game.

If a player wants to not win and instead be a king-maker, there's not much you can do without making a low-interaction game, or making it so that players' actions have little meaning. So it's better to concentrate on avoiding accidental king-making, instead of deliberate.

It's a difficult problem to solve. It comes down to the existence of "lame-duck" situations, where a player is unable to win, but is still playing. For example: when there aren't enough VP cards in the bank in Dominion to be able to come back, or if the other players have boxed you in in Settlers. This is not a terribly fun position to be in for some people, including me.

One way is to make players unaware as to who is further ahead, so that someone who is unable to win is unaware that they are. People can usually have a fair idea of what's going on, so this works better when there's lots of hidden information. This may be undesirable if you'd like to keep other kinds of player politics in your game, though.

Another is player-elimination. This is not great for casual games, because this makes players sit and do nothing, or go elsewhere and forget to care about the end of the game, which leaves a bad impression of a lack of closure to the game. And it is good to make a game cater to both hardcore-competitive and casual-fun players. You can't get the hardcore players without them playing casually, at first.

You can make a system where even the player coming last can still win. You can make it so that, as long as the player coming last keeps making intelligent moves, then they can cross some kind of winning condition without the other players advancing much at all. This requires a game with a lot of interaction, so the losing player can obstruct all of the opponents while still advancing themselves. The danger is making it feel like the rest of the game didn't matter.

Make the players team up into two teams. Turn the 4-player problem into a fake 2-player solution. This is something your game would have to be thoroughly built around, and thus is not a solution that can be used in most games (unless you want to specialise and only make team games).

I rather like the method used in Puzzle Strike 3rd Edition. There's no win condition. Players just see who is in the best position when the end-game situation rolls around. The timing of the end-game situation is somewhat difficult to predict, but (at least in this case) can be influenced by players. "Who's in the best position" can't be so static as to feel like little can be done about it, but also can't be so dynamic as to feel random. Sirlin details his design decisions on this here: http://www.sirlin.net/blog/2012/4/30/puzzle-strike-casual-play-matters.html (The two free-for-all sections are on this topic.)

So, to answer your question, "can it be fixed?": Maybe. It doesn't appear to have ever been totally solved, only reduced, and most solutions have some kind of drawback or can only be used for certain kinds of games. The solution you use for your game is likely to be dictated more by the game itself than by suggestions found on forums. Just keep testing with both casual and hardcore players.

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Nice answer. Welcome to B&CG! –  Alex P May 31 '12 at 23:34
    
I feel that another possible solution to kingmaking is to have the player rankings matter at the end of the game. Most kingmaking is done by putting oneself in an even worse condition than before--but the kingmaker doesn't care, since he's already going to lose. IMO, the easiest way to accomplish this solution is to give rewards for the next game. For example, you may have come in 3rd in game X, but the next time you play you'll receive more starting resources than whoever came in 4th. (Whoever was 1st wins the game and therefore receives no special benefits next game) –  Ski Dec 14 '12 at 21:54

There are some mechanics which limit kingmaking.

We once played a 3-player version of Magic where anyone could attack anyone, and the winner was whoever had the most life at the moment the first of the three players died.

In this game, kingmaking is the last place person's job. It provides them with the best shot at whittling down the leaders to bringing a win back in reach.

It actually helped the game stay exciting though, keeping things interesting.

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That's how Puzzle Strike handles multiplayer as well. –  bwarner May 29 '13 at 17:33

My piece "The Three Player Problem", first chapter in the book Tabletop:Analog Game Design, addresses this question at some length. The book can be downloaded for free at http://press.etc.cmu.edu/content/tabletop-analog-game-design

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Can you post a summary? –  Tom77 May 31 at 8:31
    
Answers here are expected to be more than a link to an external site - they have to contain a satisfactory answer independently, because if that URI becomes invalid, this answer becomes useless. Are you able to edit this answer with the key information to make it an answer in its own right? –  doppelgreener May 31 at 8:52
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Also, I notice your answers so far all promote your own materials. Please check our advertising policy in our code of behaviour - it's the bottom section, titled "Avoid overt self-promotion". We appreciate you disclosing your relationship to your own products, but bear in mind the second paragraph: "If a large percentage of your posts include a mention of your product or website, you're probably here for the wrong reasons." –  doppelgreener May 31 at 9:25
    
While this link may answer the question, it is better to include the essential parts of the answer here and provide the link for reference. Link-only answers can become invalid if the linked page changes. –  sitnaltax May 31 at 20:05

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