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Recently we have had a number of 'explosive' games of Catan and Risk, where the game has become very heated because use of 'prompting' or 'suggesting' of moves to other players. I see this as a valid strategy, however one of my rival players sees it very much the other way and thinks it is unsportsmanlike.

To give a better illustration of the issue here is a scenario for Catan:

  • It is a 4 player game, around half way through
  • I am Player 1 and am currently not leading the game
  • Player 2 is currently in the lead as I see it, and they are a good player
  • Players 3 and 4 are in similar positions to me, and look unlikely to win.

At this stage I feel like if the game plays out then Player 2 has a high chance of winning, they are unlikely to make any major mistakes and it would take a sequence of bad luck to unseat them from the victory.

It comes up to Player 3's turn, and they have several moves they can make. They initially choose to attack me. At this point I speak up and prompt another move that attacks Player 2, and illustrate that they are currently winning the game, and that they need to be stopped, implying a loose alliance. This play is beneficial to both me and to Player 3 by keeping us in the game, but damaging to Player 2.

At this stage Player 2 'explodes'. I am berated for making such a suggestion, called a bad sport, and are accused of being of weak moral fibre.

Unfortunately Player 2 has been a better political opponent as well as player, and has the backing of some of the other members of the group, as this is not the first occurrence. They have been building support for their 'anti-prompting' cause for a number of weeks/months.

I back down, and stay quiet, and watch a number of games go by that were largely uninteresting because of a lack of any team play to slow down the winner. Part of this issue is with the way the game operates, in this case Catan:

  • You can see the progress of each player to within a 1-2 victory points in most cases, as well as how they trending
  • The game seems to be decided quite early in many cases due to strong starting positions and early moves
  • It has a large chance factor for starting positions and early resource gains
  • By having only one winner it can be very cut-throat and does not explicitly lend itself to cooperation

The end result of these properties is that I feel many games are decided early, and the remaining 45-30 minutes is spent going through the motions. Ideally I would not be in this position, as the other players should see the primary threat and that we should work together toward a common goal of taking out the leader and then one of us may have a chance of the win. Unfortunately this is not often the case, and I'm not allowed to make any mention of this, or I get berated again.

Ultimately this comes down to trust also, if I suggest poor moves then no one will listen. The issue is that, as a strong player, my suggestions are often strong and insightful too, negating a major play or situation that has gone unnoticed. This is clearly aggravating for the player I'm doing this against (Player 2), but my only other option is to sit there and let them win.

Do you allow prompting in your games? Is it an issue? Do you think it is unsportsmanlike? Should I back down and keep quiet? How should I bring this up as a valid and accepted part of the game if I choose to try an get this included as an allowed behaviour in future games?

  • 14
    If your group hates Diplomacy and its entire legacy, as being "unsportsmanlike", then it seems like you're asking the wrong question. It's irrelevant what the norm is for Catan, what matters is how to make that aspect of play enjoyable to this group. If all you do is demonstrate that it's a valid part of the game, they just won't want to play with you. – Steve Jessop Aug 9 '16 at 10:47
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    Isn't diplomacy a core gameplay element of Risk? – CodesInChaos Aug 9 '16 at 10:57
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    @wizzwizz4 Allied players are overpowered - and that's exactly why everyone should try to do it. Risk without diplomacy is just... rolling dice for 3 hours. – Nuclear Wang Aug 9 '16 at 12:09
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    I am generally the Player 2 type player in my group. If I am the well established leader in the game I would fully expect the other players to work together to slow me down. However, I have also had people gang up on me from the very beginning of a game because I "always win" and that is something I am not a fan of. – Warlord 099 Aug 9 '16 at 16:34
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    This is only poor etiquette when I am in the one in the lead. – Jeroen Aug 10 '16 at 8:25

12 Answers 12

48

This isn't really an ethics question, it's more that you and Player 2 haven't agreed on which game you're playing.

You want to play a game that involves loose alliances and table talk. Player 2 wants to play a game with strict solo play and no talk.

There's not much you can do here apart from agree, in advance, which version of the game you're playing. If you want to play the game differently, you'll need to play with different people or put up with agreeing to something you don't like. Careful phrasing of this can get you away from this being a right/wrong thing.

What you can do is bring games where open alliances are part of the game. That could well loosen up player 2 to come round to your way of thinking. Diplomacy, Cosmic Encounter or Avalon would be a good start.

All this is separate from the issue of people outside the game giving advice. Personally I find that to be bad form.

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    Good points, and I particularly like how you phrase it as 'solo play', this is a great way to illustrate the problem to my group. Also thanks for the advice about other games that use this mechanic to operate. – Brad R Aug 9 '16 at 16:16
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    This is an excellent summary of the problem. Also worth noting that Catan is slightly peculiar in that it can be fun played either way. Most games push players very firmly down one path or the other, which makes me wonder if you are, perhaps, playing the wrong game for your collective enjoyment. – Matt Thrower Aug 9 '16 at 16:28
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    If a player 'explodes' in Catan, I wouldn't recommend trying Diplomacy with him :) – Deo Aug 9 '16 at 17:16
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    @Deo: throwing your toys out of the pram and stomping off, leaving your country in anarchy, is at least part of Diplomacy gameplay though, for all that it's annoying when it happens ;-) – Steve Jessop Aug 9 '16 at 17:42
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    "All this is separate from the issue of people outside the game giving advice. Personally I find that to be bad form". Fully agree. Very annoying when a plan fails because an outsider pointed to the weakness you wanted to use. – Jeroen Aug 10 '16 at 8:26
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There can't be definitive answer to this question, as ethics generally doesn't provide hard guidelines. But I can suggest several points to consider:

  • Think about Player 3 first in isolation from "you vs Player 2" shenanigans. Was suggested move directly helpful to them? Haven't you tried to play the game for them? It's about whole group, not just you and Player 2. Try to evaluate "Player 3 is missing a move" situation, and act same way. Say, they forgot they have a port and traded some resource with highter rate. Would you tell them? Would they be grateful or annoyed if you tell them?
  • Would you be okay on Player 2's place? If you are in the lead and other players gang up on you, how would you feel? Because if this practice will be accepted by your group, this will happen eventually.
  • Where is your group on competitive/casual scale? I would forbid such "prompting" in tournament play, but I wouldn't have any problems with it in casual beer-and-pretzels play. Looks like at least you and Player 2 have competitive mentality.
  • Catan is a game of negotiation, so I would expect highter allowance for such meta-gaming than in other games. Also, the decision is for Player 3 to make, if they're not ok with this play, they can just don't do it.

Ultimately, meta-gaming can fix the game as well as ruin it. And it doesn't end with "gang up on leader", there are a lot more possibilities like "I don't care about my own score as long as I don't let Bob win" or "Me and Sam will ally and help each other so one of us has better chance of winning than everyone else", etc. In other words, I don't recommend to open this Pandora's box unless you are sure.

[Update] There are other things to consider aside from ethics, and one of the most important in games is fun. Right now you don't seem to have much fun with this game, so let's focus on this problem instead and analize some solutions. The problem as it stands: there is runaway leader and all other player's chances to win are miniscule.

First point I want to add: If all players have about the same skill level the issue disappears without any need for prompting. Changing a group is an option, but rarely a good one. Then again, if you continue playing with same group, less skilled player should pick up strategies and get better, so eventually you'll have equally skill leveled group. Probably won't happen soon though.

Next, the problem is runaway leader. The means to mitigate it is not prompting itself, but "gang up on leader" strategy. Prompting is used to try to convince other players it's time to apply this strategy. This is the point I would try to explain to the group: playing with no chance to win isn't fun for everyone, so keeping leader in check makes game better. It's not about prompting, it's about general strategy. If this point get's accepted, there might be no need for prompting, since players would try to apply this strategy on their own. Then again, this shouldn't be all-time applied practice, because constantly ganging up on any leading player will just prolong the game and equalize scores. It should be applied cautiously to leave possibility for victory for other players when one of them is getting too far away. Although this is self-regulating behaviour, because ganging up on leader is not directly beneficial and unless there are no other viable options, players would chose more directly profitable moves.

  • Yes, at this stage I agree that there may not be a definitive answer. I do like the points you raise though, and yes we do play pretty friendly, pointing out missed resources or ports. Ganging up on the leader is feature in some games anyway, just not in this form, particularly with trading late in the game, and personally I like the idea even if I am in the lead. That said I was the victim of a "don't let Bob win" after destroying a player in a previous game, and the following games were extremely frustrating, as the game was handed to the 3rd player a couple of times. – Brad R Aug 9 '16 at 10:16
  • I don't think equal skill levels fixes this problem. There will always be interesting, important decisions to make in any game. As long as those decisions could affect me, I have a vested interest in "convincing" the active player to make the move that's in my best interest. A higher-skilled player may see more of the complexities of the board state, but it doesn't eliminate cases where there are two good options for Player 3, one bad for Player 1 and one bad for Player 2. – Nuclear Wang Aug 9 '16 at 12:05
  • @Matt The question was about suggestions to other players. If my skill level is higher, I can point to consequences other player might have missed and thus have them re-evaluate and possibly change decision. If they have same level of skill, they have alrady assessed situation as deeply as me, so what I point won't influence their decision. Also, with less skill difference people will be much less willing to accept your advices as perception of it changes from "help" to "intrusion". – Deo Aug 9 '16 at 12:29
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You're asking the wrong question here. It doesn't matter whether a bunch of people on the internet think that suggesting moves is good or bad etiquette - the problem is that player 2 'explodes'.

The real issue here has nothing to do with gaming etiquette, and everything to do with dealing with interpersonal conflict.

The solution is, to have a calm discussion about whether suggesting moves is acceptable. If you find that you can't agree, then simply don't play with that player. Frankly, someone getting that upset about a game is not someone that I would want to be playing with anyway.

At the end of the day, you are playing the game to have fun. If you are not going to have fun, don't play the game. If the ending is determined half way through, then stop there. If the other player is trying to insist that you keep playing, but according to their rules, then simply concede - it's not worth the hassle of fighting them on it.

Note that you should only do this if the other player is really being a problem; if you're just getting bored in the game but the other players are having fun, you should stick it out - after all, you wouldn't want them to drop out when you were in the lead, would you?

If every time they start yelling at people about sportsmanship, then very quickly either they will learn not to do that, or other people will stop being willing to play with them.

On the other hand, if it's only you that has an issue with this, and the other players are fine with it, then you may instead find that they are no longer willing to play with you. In that case, you clearly have some fundamentally different ideas about what makes a game fun, and you should try a different game or a different gaming group. If the problem really is with you, then taking the above advice (about conceding when they start acting up) will just make you come across as a passive-aggressive a**, so do try the conversational approach first.

TL;DR

Your problem is with the player, not the game, so talk to the player. Make an agreement before you start on what rules you will play by. If you can't come to an agreement, then don't play the game.

This question really has nothing to do with boardgames - I suggest you try posting it somewhere else (e.g. quora.com - they're good for questions like this).

  • I'm not sure I agree that it has nothing to do with board games, while this is a social phenomena, it is specific to one or two games, and would rarely come up in other real life situations. Also your suggestions of not playing or playing another game are general solutions, but they are also ones I have already considered - our group has spent a lot of time and money learning and buying multiple copies of the game, I'm seeking a solution that could work for all parties. I agree about making an agreement though, although I was asking more for specifics about how I should go about that. – Brad R Aug 9 '16 at 16:27
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    "If you are not going to have fun, don't play the game. If the ending is determined half way through, then stop there." I would not do that. I would consider that very bad etiquette and being a sore looser. play the game til the end, the best you can. But clearly articulate afterwards that you did not have the fun you expected, and will not do participate in another match under those circumstances. – Polygnome Aug 9 '16 at 17:02
  • @BradR It can come up in other situations, admittedly only ones involving games, as that's the only place where this is something that could happen. But you can get the same situation in a multiplayer computer game, in some sports, and of course in pen and paper RPGs - where it is actually so common, a tool has been invented specifically to address it (The Same Page Tool). In fact, rpg.stackexchange might be a good place to post this... – Benubird Aug 10 '16 at 9:28
  • @Polygnome You're right, and I agree with you. Stopping half way through is basically the nuclear option, and you should only do that if there is a problem with the players, rather than the game. If you are just not enjoying the game, then you should keep playing so as not to spoil it for others - you committed to play, so you need to follow through. But if the problem is that another player is behaving badly, then it is reasonable to put the game aside until you can sort out your differences. It's a fine line to walk. – Benubird Aug 10 '16 at 9:33
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    @Benubird Yeah I agree its the nuclear option. It is indeed a very fine line to walk, and I would really only use it when there is something drastically wrong. Playing a game you are not having fun with, you lose an hour or two of fun time. But if you leave the game, the people you play with might have strong reservations against ever playing with you again - how can they trust that you are actually commited to the game when you have withdrawn before? On the other hand, I have walked away fom the board once before, because the situation was simply toxic, and the others needed a wake-up call. – Polygnome Aug 10 '16 at 9:42
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They initially choose to attack me. At this point I speak up

Separately from whether alliance-forming should be part of the game, I think it's also worth considering whether negotiating with someone after they've declared their move, in an attempt to talk them down and make them withdraw that move and replace it with another, should be part of the game. This goes beyond just suggesting a temporary alliance, or discussing possible moves with your allies: you're telling your opponents that the choice they've just made isn't good enough for you.

Catan has no formal planning phase of the turn (unlike, say, Diplomacy, which more or less demands that you play by suggesting moves to other players and mutually discussing the options). So there has to be some flexibility about when moves are discussed, if they're going to be discussed at all. But you're persuading them at the most frustrating time. Quite aside from the fact that Player 2 doesn't want any plotting against him at all, you're not presenting the concept of teamwork to anyone in the best way by (as it probably seems to them) demanding that another player delay their turn until they've heard your arguments as to what they should do.

Having an idea who's in the lead and what a given player can do to obstruct them is part of the game, true, and players 3 and 4 apparently aren't doing this very well. Maybe they don't think about it at all, or maybe they disagree with the moves you'd prefer them to make for reasons that make sense to them even though with your superior strategy you know they're being fools to themselves. But the biggest problem is that they're playing badly, and this makes the game dull. Not that they refuse to let you argue their moves.

Therefore I recommend that you approach this by talking to players 3 and 4 (in particular, but 2 as well because excluding him would be a poor move both politically and in terms of friendship). Not initially about team play as such, but about the importance within the game of preventing the leader doing too well. Any teaming up is a means to that end, but it's perfectly possible for each player to come to their own individual conclusion who's ahead and what they can do about it. If you can persuade 3 and 4 before the game starts that their best chance of winning is to inconvenience you when you're in the lead, and 2 when 2 is in the lead, you won't have to interrupt their turns with your protests. If you can't convince them of that before the game, then telling them in-game which moves they should make in order to achieve a goal that they've chosen not to try to achieve (a close game in which they have a shot of sneaking the win), is just rude.

Now, you might still face complaints about team-building when you say, "hmm, player 2 seems to me to be pulling away, I think we should all block him where we can". But at least you can't be accused of prompting/suggesting specific moves as alternatives to a player's announced move, because you won't be doing that any more. Focus on changing one thing at a time: you see prompting at the point of declaring a move as being the only way (or the best way) to change how players 3 and 4 react to player 2 taking a lead, but it shouldn't be the only way and they clearly don't like it.

5

This is purely based on your group and the people you play with.

This form of "prompting" is often als called meta-gaming. You game outside the game. With the people I frequently play with, this is abundant. It adds a new layer of depth to the game. You get shifting alliances, backstabbing, and politics during the game.

Another observation is that this levels the playing field (games are often decided within a few points), but also significantly prolongs the game. Most matches my group play go over two or three hours, instead of being over after one ore 1.5 hours.

On the other hand, when disallowing meta-gaming, the game usually has one clear winner, and ends more quickly, allowing for more matches.

However, there is a distinction between meta-gaming and out-right "playing the game for others". For example, if I only had a few points, and was attacked by another players, instead of him attacking a player with much more points, I would say something like "Are you sure you want to do this? I not a threat anyways". Or I would simply let him attack me, while pointing out that this decision wasn't -- in my opinion -- the best tactical one. I would never suggest a concrete move to another player, e.g. "use your knight at that crossing to get the robber away").

This can lead to some funny situations, like everyone at the table shouting and fighting and cursing (in a freindly, game-ish manner).


The problem is that you and Player 2 disagree on whether meta-gaming is allowed or not. He clearly does not want to allow it, you seem to want it.

This can not be solved by looking at the rules.

I would suggest an honest conversation about it with your friends. This might involve you explaining that the game is not fun for you without some politics at the table. Explain hat you hate to see one runaway winner and not being allowed to do any intrigue against it. Try to explain how you think it enhances gameplay. One key point I would focus on is that a game with one runaway leade is fun for one person, a close game where each one can pull off a win is fun and engaging for four players. I have often experienced games that lasted for 3h and were decided within one round, with the winner gaining the last point just before the next player could make his move and also win. This kind of close games happen much more often when meta-gaming is allowed. Also, winning is so much more sweet if you had to battle three people constantly (because you were in the lead the most time), and is also much more gratifying when you can get the victoy in an unexpected coup. When the stakes are higher, there is more fun (imho).

Also, try to gauge what the other players think, but also try to gauge what fors of meta-gaming they think are acceptable. it might be that Player 2 actually isn't against meta-gaming, but just has a problem with you telling others what to do. be open to step back and use more indirect forms of meta-gaming, if that is what it takes to each consensus.

So talk. But be prepared to be told "no". Your group might just enjoy playing differently then you.

but, tl;dr:

Is prompting players with alternate moves poor etiquette?

Depends on the group. In my group, if the "prompt" is subtle and not to concrete, its more or less actively encouraged! You'd be seen as a whimp when not doing it. But you can also be frowned upon if its not wanted within your group.

  • Great points about the concept of meta-gaming, and the clear explanation. I actually had not considered the time issue too much, and that is a pertinent point in my group. Player 2 has made it clear he prefers quick simple games, as we are usually in a social situation. He has actually on a number of occasions brought out timers and made jokes about the 'longest turn' card being added to the game. – Brad R Aug 9 '16 at 17:03
  • Well, in my group we enjoy long games. With the Cities and Knights expansion (Don#t know if thats the actual title in english, I translated it from my native language), we even experienced 4h matches (there was some pretty bad dice luck involved, too, but it can happen, especially when you have to constantly rebuild cities). – Polygnome Aug 9 '16 at 17:04
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In my opinion, the question if prompting moves to other players is welcome or not depends on the intention of the helping player. I think it's always nice to help players, e.g. to avoid bad mistakes, especially if they are new to a game and as long as this does not directly help or harm any other players.

If you prompt alternate moves because they would fit better into your own strategy, it's disputable.

If you deliberately utilize weaker players by prompting them better moves, so you increase your own chances to win against the strongest player at the table, it's disputable as well.

But in the described case, you have a runaway-winner at the table and all other players have the same weak chances to turn around the game. In this situation, I actually would expect most gamers to team up automatically, without even discussing or suggesting it.

What would happen if you would openly suggest an alliance against Player 2? Would he accept this as long as you don't suggest concrete moves or are alliances completely forbidden?

  • You illustrate some important points. By changing either scenario or the way the players perceive the game it alters how 'ethical' it is, which is a major issue. What if Player 2 is in the lead, I'm an outside chance to win, with the others further behind. In that case it may be considered questionable, as I'm really only helping myself in the long run. I may help their position - they may not lose as badly, but ultimately they won't win. Another issue is they may read the situation differently, other players may think I have some VP or just interpret it differently, leading to animosity. – Brad R Aug 9 '16 at 10:05
  • "depends on the intention of the helping player." Expect that intentions can not easily be seen without mind-reading. So imho its best to either forbid it completely or accept meta-gaming and hidden agendas as types of gameplay. Furthermore, if you meta-game from the start, its unlikely one player gets such a clear advantage in the first place. – Polygnome Aug 10 '16 at 14:10
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Have you considered playing better other games? Catan and Risk are pretty much designed to be explosive in exactly the way you mention. Communication itself isn't the problem, so much as ease of manipulating an other player's strategy into your own.

For fully cooperative games there's Pandemic, Forbidden Island/Desert, and many others.

There's competitive strategy games where your immediate paths cross a bit less than they do in Catan. Think Puerto Rico, and Agricola (PR's been heated for me too though -- Agricola not so much).

Anyway, shop around. A lot of people feel a big sigh of relief when they find games as challenging and fun as Catan but without the constant clash and manipulation against each other.

  • I have made some suggestions previously about other games, there are a couple of issues though. Firstly everyone in the group has taken the time to learn the game to a reasonable level, and most people own a copy. Secondly it's not so much my choice to make, I have already bought some other games but they didn't seem to go down very well as everyone needs to start again and the old rivalries need to be reestablished. I do appreciate the suggestions and that there may be light at the end of the tunnel if I keep pursuing other game options! – Brad R Aug 10 '16 at 5:34
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Fascinating. I think on some level your friend player 2 and yourself are, as has been stated, playing a different meta game.
I gathered some opinions about this from my current gaming group (my wife and 12 yo) to see how this bounces off them. We all agreed that “ganging up” on the lead player is all part of the game, and should be encouraged. However, we all very much dislike the idea of telling other people exactly what they should be doing. Couple things,

  1. You stated that after player 3 declared their move, to attack you, you decided to point out how wrong this move was and they should attack someone else. While I would not accuse you of “weak moral fiber” (ha) I would say that this is kind of over the line. You might grumble a bit, and hope that player 4 does not also capitalize on your weakness, and address player 2, but player 3 already said what they were doing, so be quiet. That said, pointing out who is in the lead, and what a favorable position they have is perfectly fine between declarations, in fact encouraged at our table. Keep everyone in the loop, but maybe not suggest every move.
  2. If I was player 2, and had played my game carefully and through a stroke of luck, player 3 decided to not press me, I might be a bit put off by your request that they attack me after declaring their moves.
  3. Consider that Player 3 might have thought that attacking you (in Catan?) was more helpful to them, than focusing on the current leader.

Lastly, perhaps while you consider yourself “a strong player” in your words, the rest of the table is actually not impressed with your suggestions. Consider that maybe Player 2 is the only one who is vocal about it. Being a bit oppositional-defiant myself, I do not actually appreciate someone telling me what the “best” move is throughout any game, and maybe Player 3 is sick of your … attitude. Raising kids, I find that I have to back off and let them make mistakes so that they can see and experience the consequences of a less than ideal choice. When a person is not a strong player either because they are new, or just don’t want to spend the effort to become one, they might find much enjoyment out of just seeing what strategy A can do vs strategy B. When new, we might actually enjoy losing, because we were just trying to gather maximum wheat…. just because.

I do not want that last paragraph to sound harsh. I hope it didn’t.

I find that this gets MUCH WORSE with cooperative games like pandemic, where mostly, the group decides the best course of action, and there isn’t really much room for individuals to make any decisions. I’d suggest your group stay away from that one.

TL;DR Yes. After they’ve declared their intentions, it should be avoided. Nothing wrong with sweeping generalizations about the state of the leader, however.

  • My group sounds very similar to yours. We do broad comments after declarations in an attempt to shed light on a potentially bigger threat. But, as we say, "A card laid is a card played". Once the decision is made, a prompt to undo that decision results in some arguments amongst us. If player 3 moves the robber to a hex with players 1 and 2, and says that he is picking one of player 1's cards, then that is the decision. Player 1 may comment something like, "oh sure, pick my card when player 2 is in the lead" while at the same time holding out his fanned cards to have one selected. – smckitrick Jan 11 '17 at 15:34
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At this stage Player 2 'explodes'. I am berated for making such a suggestion, called a bad sport, and are accused of being of weak moral fibre.

Unfortunately Player 2 has been a better political opponent as well as player,

Fascinating. So Player 2 not only disapproves of you doing "politics" during the game, but also is heavily "politic'ing" outside the game. Did you consider that his "explosion" is actually metagaming? Why can he tell you what to do when you are not allowed to tell Player 3 what to do?

In our Catan games, the boardgame itself is usually just a shallow backdrop to the real game, which is the political stage. Everything goes, and people are rocking their best, and worst, in these games. Every kind of emotion is faked as necessary, all kinds of arguments are used. As long as the physical movements on the board are according to game rules (what is placed where etc.), it's perfectly fine!

If that is not the case in your group, I don't see what would help you, really, except picking another game. Catan in itself (without the political aspect) seems quite dull to me after a few rounds, because as soon as one pulls ahead, it's over, unless the others band together.

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    Great observation on Player 2, I totally agree with you. Sounds like OP and Player 2 are good players and 3 and 4 are "sheep" ;) – parker.sikand Aug 13 '16 at 0:49
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This is similar to "kingmaking" in board gaming, which is a loose term to describe players who are in a unwinnable situation deciding on actions in order to ensure the player of their choice wins the game rather than the currently leading player. This can also be in the form of a collusion of players that cannot win themselves in order to help another player win rather than the currently leading player. This behaviour is very often (generally?) considered unsportsmanlike, as the kingmakers don't actually improve their game position and the player who earned (by luck or by skill) his current top position is de-throned, often (not always) out of spite.

Your situation is different, though, in that the colluding players actually gain from the collusion and can still win the game. In my play group, this is usually considered acceptable and only frowned upon if either i) actual kingmaking is involved ii) it get's excessive, where an all-vs-all game becomes a huge gangup and a player is targeted by a group of other players repeatedly to the point where the game only resolves around stopping that particular player, and the eventual winner is a coin toss among the rest

  • Great points here about kingmaking, and it does complicate matters. For example if I propose a move the does not immediately or obviously benefit me, or Player 3 ends up winning, then I could be seen as kingmaking, even if that was not my primary intention. – Brad R Aug 11 '16 at 4:31
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For Catan specifically...

Ganging up on the leader is part of the game. Attacking someone other than the leader for a personal gain is part of the game. Making mistakes is part of the game. Knowing other player's positions by meticulously keeping track of the details is part of the game (I tend to keep track of exactly which resources everyone has in their hands, and playing IRL I'll even watch exactly where each card is if I really need to pull an Ore from someone... they really don't like that ;) ). Not knowing players' positions because you are distracted is part of the game.

In my opinion, any information which is unhidden by the rules, like what resources a player has picked up recently, is fair game and I don't think it's poor sportsmanship for it to be discussed freely. Speculation, like if you think a player has a VP point card, can be tricky and really misleading to a newer player, but again, just in my opinion, it's fair game for discussion.

So to provide a suggestion for resolving this issue in your group, I would just explain to them that talking about the score and prompting someone about moves is all just part of the game. But you all have to remember that it's not necessary to listen to the suggestions. And you have to remember that the other players are free to play how they like, and that making suggestions to them might rub them the wrong way and ultimately come back to bite you, and that's your problem. Being attacked by Player 3 when Player 2 is leading is your problem, and you have to deal with it. Prompting them to attack Player 2 instead is one way to deal with it, but it sounds like it's not very effective, so you need to figure out a better way to avoid that situation. Because remember, getting screwed over is part of the game.

I think it's fine for you to prompt, it's fine for the other players to get annoyed, and it's fine for Player 2 to call you out. To me, that's all fair game. Getting frustrated is part of the game.

If your tone is: "You should attack Player 2 because they are going to win soon if you don't" that might be effective, but if your message is "You need to attack Player 2 otherwise you are an idiot and ruining the game", that's probably not going to get anyone to listen to you. So think about that.

Here's a tip:

A strategy I use online, not so much in real life, is as someone starts pulling ahead, I'll sprinkle in comments to suggest that player is dominating the game, and it can often get the other players to attack that player:

  • "Wow, White's city on the ore is really paying off..."
  • "Red has the best board setup..."
  • "Blue can buy anything they need..."

And comments about how bad I'm doing (especially if I am doing well...):

  • "Man, I should have built there instead..."
  • "I can't get anything I need..."
  • "I'm getting such bad luck..."

Playing online is different because you can't see what move a player is about to make, and there's no undo, so berating someone for a bad move after the fact usually gets you nowhere. Try slowly influencing the other players throughout the game, instead of suddenly saying "DUDE YOU GOTTA ATTACK HIM".

So even if you are totally right that Player 3 should attack Player 2 for the benefit of everyone, you have to find a better way to get into his head. You have to read the other players better and find a better way to manipulate them.

And you should suggest to Player 2 that he only thinks it's unsportsmanlike because he's not confident in his ability, because if he was good he would win anyways... they will be pissed at you at first but I bet they would change their attitude.

TL;DR; No it's not bad etiquette for casual play, but you can't expect everyone to listen to you and you have to understand there might be negative consequences for you for doing it.

Updated TLDR

Catan was designed for these kind of conflicts and questions over "morals" and "etiquette" to arise. It's intentionally ambiguous.

  • "playing IRL I'll even watch exactly where each card is if I really need to pull an Ore from someone"... Assuming you are talking about stealing a card when moving the robber; then this seems strange, because it should always be common practice that before someone has a card stolen from them, they randomize the cards in their hand to eliminate this sort of possibility. – GendoIkari Aug 12 '16 at 15:38
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    @GendoIkari yes exactly, so if they forget to shuffle, it's their loss. My point is that in my opinion, since it's fair for them to shuffle their cards, it's equally fair for me to watch the cards. People understandably get angry at this but I just explain that it's on them to shuffle their cards. What I forgot to explain is that sometimes I'll attack a non-leader, because I'm reasonably certain I will pull a card I need... but if it doesn't work out for me then I get blamed for screwing up the game. But in the end, I think it's all fair. – parker.sikand Aug 13 '16 at 0:44
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There are no rules saying you can't give helpful points to less experienced players. As a matter of fact I consider it my duty to point out poor playing choices to others. Even to my detriment. My goal is for everyone to have fun, and for me that is having good competition. Often I am the 'person in the lead' and if I just tromp the other players each time it certainly isn't any fun for them and for me it's like beating a 5 yo at chess.

Now if all players are close in ability then the prompting should be pulled back, but still, we use it to help reign in the leader. Generally we all do it to each other, and none of us 'expect' to just win. I actually find it even more satisfying to win against a group that are trying to foil my plans.

Personally, unless there is something in the rules saying otherwise it seems to me to be a poor sport who can't handle a little competition. Is it fun having a major plan foiled? no. but it's part of the game.

Of course it can be taken too far. I know someone (T) who played a game with a friend. The friend believed (T) was some mastermind on the game and played the entire game 'preventing' (T) from winning. He thought it was a great strategy. He didn't try to win, just stopped (T) from having any chance. THAT is not fun, I would also refuse to play with that type of individual myself. Even if I wasn't the target.

Ultimately, most of the time I consider that kind of table talk/prompting to be mentoring players to become better at the games. A teaching experience if you will. If all 3 of the other players at the board want you to shut up, then do so. However, anyone not willing to take advice deserves their fate. I would also seriously consider avoiding play with player #2.

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