Quarterbacking in Board Games: The Player and Developer Perspective

"This is a fantastic game," said our local game shop owner. "Everyone's loved it."

We picked up Magic Maze and set it up in a few minutes. The premise was simple: everyone controls the direction that pawns move and the movements they can take. Pawns must collect an item and then escape the maze. Oh, and it has to be done simultaneously, and in complete silence.

"Let's play the tutorial first," said RL, our group Rules Lawyer (a position that is both a gift and a curse, mostly a curse). "The tutorial allows for talking."

"Alright, that sounds good."

"OK," said RL. "Now... Blue, go up. Green, go left. Red, go down. Blue, up again. Green, escalator. Red, portal. Blue, up to timer. Red, down..."

And it progressed like that: just a series of shouted, mechanical movements, with scarcely a moment to think. Magic Maze's tutorial is designed to help you get the flow of the game without the restriction of not talking, but it actually just made me (briefly) hate the game. Moreover, it was interesting to me that they had created a game with a core mechanic that defied quarterbacking and then setup their tutorial to explicitly encourage it.

The Problems With Quarterbacking

Nearly every cooperative game ends up with a quarterback; the person who is shouting directions to others. It only makes sense. That's how teams work in real life. Someone has to be the leader.

The problem enters in when the quarterback essentially makes the other players superfluous. The other players are no longer playing the game, they're simply listening to directives.

In games like Pandemic, everyone may be able to discuss things, but it'll ultimately come down to group consensus. Even though it's technically "your character's turn," everyone else weighs in on your movements to the point where turns and player characters meld together.

And it's frustrating to players because they don't get to play. They just get to listen. 

And it's frustrating to developers because their game isn't played the way they wanted it to be. (Though, of course, this is something developers often need to get used to.)

Quarterbacking as a Player

For players, quarterbacking generally occurs for one of three reasons:

  • One player is more experienced at the game than others, having played it multiple times before.
  • One player is more adept at the game than others, either being naturally intelligent or simply accustomed to the type of game.
  • One player is more GODDAMN LOUD than the others, potentially leading to complete disaster.

If you're in a good group, quarterbacking naturally emerges because someone is just better at the game. They know what to do, others don't, so others defer to them. But it's still not enjoyable, because you're really not putting anything into the solution. You're just waiting.

We saw this happen in the Unlock! puzzle rooms. These "escape the room" style puzzle games give you a sequence of puzzles to solve. What often happened is that one person simply grabbed the cards and solved them. Solutions to puzzles don't really lend themselves to a large group the way it seems they would, because a lot of it just "clicks" in your head. (See: Myst and every other adventure game.)

Of course, if you're in a bad group, quarterbacking ends up happening because one player is simply fricking loud. If a player in a cooperative game has capitalized OPINIONS, they will often bully others into following those opinions... even if they don't really understand the game.

Players can limit quarterbacking in a good group, but the funny thing is, the quarterback themselves are in control of that. Good groups have to be conscientious about their quarterbacking and their quarterbacks need to go out of their way to involve their team.

And quarterbacking isn't necessarily bad. As mentioned above, it's really the way that groups naturally work and form themselves. It becomes bad if no one else is involved or having fun. Quarterbacks need to understand that though someone might take the wrong action in, to use the same example, Pandemic, that's part of the fun -- and part of them playing their character.

Quarterbacking as a Game Developer

On the other end, there's game developers. One reality that a developer simply has to get used to is that it's difficult to force players to play a game the way that you want them to. Players are going to do their own thing, given a set of directives. It's your responsibility to figure out the directives that yield the most optimal results.

In talking with a very experienced friend, we essentially came to the conclusion that quarterbacking can only be avoided:

  • If the environment is limited specifically to avoid it. In Magic Maze, people can't talk. In Mountains of Madness, a timer means that decisions have to be made quickly, by the entirety of the group. Quarterbacking usually requires that one person have enough time to give people individual directives, during briefing phases.
  • If players have their own goals. In games like This War of Mine, players have their own agendas. Having your own agendas means that the quarterback isn't necessarily right about your actions, and, in fact, can't know the optimal path for you. It can be difficult to incorporate agendas into a cooperative game, but it is possible. 
  • If everyone is forced to play their role. If every player has a very unique role and they learn this role through gameplay, it's less likely that a quarterback is going to emerge. However, it doesn't avoid the situation entirely if someone is experienced enough with the game to know all the roles. If players, however, have unique abilities that change from game to game, it can help.

Many developers try little tricks that you'll notice. For instance, the rulebook might say "you must keep your action cards a secret." Often that's not just to increase the challenge of the game, but specifically to avoid one person saying "Alright Tom, you play the castle card, then I'll play the water card, and then..."

Ultimately, quarterbacking is something that is very natural and always going to emerge in games. But developers and players conscious of quarterbacking can take action to limit it when it starts infringing upon their fun. For most of us, winning is only secondary to having a good time with friends... and things like quarterbacking only become a problem when "winning" becomes more important.