All's Fair in Games and War: Dealing With the Cheating

“Stop fiddling with the pieces.”

“I can’t help it, I just fidget.”

“But you keep mixing them up.”

“No, I’m pretty sure this is what I had.”

While most people dislike cheating, calling out a cheater can make things incredibly awkward. Even if others agree with you, it often feels like you’re turning what should be a light-hearted hobby into something altogether too serious. And that leaves one to silently stew in their own frustration, watching someone else rack up points and interfere with their game with impunity. Ultimately, it can feel like a waste of your time.

But really, how seriously you take cheating depends on how seriously you’re taking the game -- and the intent of the cheater. There are many different types of cheating, some of which may leave the cheater completely unaware that they ever did anything wrong. Coming to terms with this is the first step towards finding a happy medium.

The Oblivious Cheater

One of our players kept picking up her hitpoints and playing with them. We kept telling her put those down. Every time we looked at her counter, it was in a completely different area. Eventually, she started aggressively snapping back, don’t tell me what to do.

From her perspective, we were making strange demands of her, and exerting a level of control that we had no right to exert. From our perspective, we were frustrated because being able to easily see hit points was a mechanic of the game, and we couldn’t tell who to target.

e realized eventually that what’s obvious to us isn’t necessarily obvious to someone else, especially if they haven’t played a game before or don’t play a lot of games in general. Instead of telling her “please stop playing with the dial slider,” we had to tell her “when you move the dial slider back and forth like that, it becomes harder for us to tell how much damage you have and it’s easy to make a mistake.”

From there she made a real effort, because she understood better why we were asking.

But there is one notable problem: games that require a lot of self-policing. Take Bunny Kingdom, a game in which people do their own scoring and you usually aren’t even paying attention to the other players when they’re calculating their scoring.

In games like this, I’ve noticed quite a lot of players are either fudging their scores or simply not calculating things correctly, and ultimately this leads to the players who are paying the least attention to the game winning. There’s little that can be done besides paying attention -- and if you’re playing a casual game, perhaps you don’t even care.

The Polite Cheater

“You know what, let’s just say I didn’t do that, and I’m going to do this instead.”

“Okay… but you did do that.”

“Yeah, but I wouldn’t have done that if I knew you were going to do that.”

“Yeah, but I go… after you… ...okay.”

Polite cheaters most commonly crop up in cooperative games. “Let’s just turn back the clock,” “let’s just pretend that didn’t happen.” It’s an easy way to get through a game, but for some, it can lead to an unsatisfying win.

It’s just a difference in emphasis. Some people enjoy playing the game, with all of the mechanics in place, whether they win or lose. Some people enjoy winning the game, whether or not the mechanics stay in place. These are just different styles of play.

Because of that, a “polite cheater” is really a matter of taste. In some groups, some games, and some settings, rolling back an action or throwing out a few rules is absolutely fine (in fact, polite). In other settings, it can become taxing. But because the polite cheater is not only polite but open about their actions, they’re far less difficult to deal with than any other cheater. Just be polite, but firm, right back.

(In a lot of these situations, it really is all about the I statements. Instead of “you can’t do that because it’s against the rules,” try something like “I feel like I’m not going to enjoy our win if we do that.”)

The Clever Cheater

Clever cheaters find ways of breaking the game that are often not really cheating at all. For instance, a card that’s meant for one use being used infinitely because it isn’t actually specified that you can’t. Because a clever cheater is technically obeying the rules, they’re not a cheater at all; they’re an exploiter. The cheater may not be playing the game as intended, but they are playing the game as written.

The reaction you have to a clever cheater really depends on how seriously you take the game and what your environment is. In a lot of cases, a clever cheater is doing things that are interesting or unique enough to be given a pass. But if clever cheaters are persistent, or are aggressive in their actions, it can become frustrating.

One important thing to remember with this type of “cheater” is that turnabout is fair play. If they want to exploit some specific resource or issue with the game, that’s absolutely fine… but in most games, you’re free to do so as well.

The Brazen Cheater

And finally there’s this type of cheater: the cheater who is legitimately skewing the results of the game towards themselves. They add a few points every time they move their marker; they hide cards or hold onto more cards than they should. These are people who are consciously playing to win at all costs.

The brazen cheater is really the easiest to deal with; don’t play with them. But for the most part, these situations tend to resolve themselves; in an elimination game, a cheater will quickly be ganged up on. Once dispatched, play can continue as usual. In a victory point game, sometimes it’s all you can do to disrupt them.

The core of board games is to have fun, and cheating really only ruins games when it stops being fun. Finding clever little hacks and loopholes isn’t necessarily a bad thing if the entire group as a whole enjoys it, and no one’s saying that groups can’t bend the rules a bit in cooperative games if they feel like they want to.

For the most part, cheating can be dealt with simply by politely correcting it and moving on, with the caveat that in order to correct cheating, you often need to be clear about what you’re correcting and why.

Remember that ignorance is almost always more likely than malice, and that some people simply don’t have the emphasis on winning a “clean game” that others do. For some, playing a game is about structure and mechanics; for others, it’s a purely social activity. Whatever works for you and your group is the right answer.