What is "Kingmaking" and Why Did Someone Just Flip the Game Table?

We were halfway through a game and one player had nearly lapped the others across the board. It wasn't that he was cheating or anything so crass. He just happened to have made an extremely good choice at the beginning of the game, which locked him into a very successful synergy. You could see the frustration in the other players' eyes as they struggled to catch up.

"He's clearly going to win," said one player. "There's nothing we can do."

"Alright, well, how about this. If you all attack him next round instead of attacking me, I might be able to win," said another player.

"But that will hurt us, because we can't possibly win against him," pointed out the fourth and final player.

"Yeah, but it will help me attack him later."

"So we just make a pact to help you win?" 

"Well, yeah, so he doesn't."

"OK, sounds good to me."

What is Kingmaking?

"Kingmaking" occurs when a player (often one who has no chance of winning) decides they are going to help one player win over another, often at their own personal expense. It's a controversial issue, partly because it's not something that people who play a lot of board games would even notice. After all, isn't the goal for other players to lose? If you aren't cheating, what's the problem? 

Not everyone considers kingmaking bad, even though it's almost universally frustrating to be on the other side of. Some amount of kingmaking is present in virtually any game, and it really falls into a gray area. In many games, you're going to find yourself striking out at someone out of sheer spite, or trying to attack someone because they won the last game. In these situations, you may also find yourself inadvertently helping someone else more than yourself. But when it starts occurring consistently, it becomes an issue.

There's also some confusion in the board game community about what kingmaking really is. Kingmaking isn't just deciding who is going to win; that is unavoidable in many games, where you'll find that some action you take in the last round or so is going to benefit one player and hurt another. Kingmaking is actively attempting to sabotage one person by helping another, at the expense of yourself. 

Likewise, there's a distinction between kingmaking and simply piling onto the person in the lead. Piling onto the person in the lead makes absolute sense. It's a core mechanic in many games -- it's why you have visible scoring to begin with.

Kingmaking is distinguished by the fact that:

  • You aren't just trying to hurt one person, you're trying to help another.
  • You are doing so at the expense of your own advancement and resources.
  • You are doing so continually throughout the game, not just a one-off instance of spite. 
  • And -- most importantly -- you aren't doing it for an in-game reason.

Because kingmaking hurts you (regardless of whether it's impossible for you to win) and helps another person, it's essentially giving them additional resources that they shouldn't technically have available to them. In some games, this doesn't matter. In other games, it can wildly unbalance it. A single one-off instance of kingmaking isn't terrible. Doing it throughout a game can make it incredibly unfun.

The Problems with (and Benefits of) Kingmaking

The core issue with kingmaking is that it feels unfair. Conversely, though, the argument is that it's perfectly fair for every player to do as they desire, even if that means trying to prop up another player. Another argument is that a player shouldn't put themselves in the position to be targeted to begin with; if players are trying to consistently kingmake against you, you've probably ticked people off more than you should have. 

In a game, the idea is that every player is playing to win. This is true even if there is no hope of winning; you should still be taking actions that are generally desirable to yourself. This is how it should be, but in reality, it often isn't. In a lot of our games we argue and bicker, point out that someone should do this or shouldn't do this, and threaten and barter. When all things are equal that is fine. When you have a dominant personality at a table with people who are willing to follow, on the other hand, that's when it becomes unfun.

When polled on the topic of kingmaking, many players said it was rude except "if the other player had been a dick." (This was a very scientific poll.) Kingmaking out of spite related to things that happened in-game is generally considered to be valid; after all, it makes sense that someone might want revenge for things that happened inside of the game itself.

Further, kingmaking is flat out unavoidable in a lot of games. Catan is notoriously friendly to kingmaking, as are many trading and negotiation games. However, it's satisfying if kingmaking happens for in-game reasons: you screwed me so I'll screw you. When kingmaking happens because of external reasons (you won too many games tonight, I like this other person better), it begins to feel frustrating and unfair.

Ultimately, like all things, it depends on the group. But it's worth consideration if you find that a group member tends to pile onto one member more than others, or if strategies dramatically change when one person in particular is in the lead. After all, the end goal of any game isn't to win: it's to have fun. When things stop feeling fun, something has gone wrong.