The “alpha player” in coops is a symptom, not the disease

If you’ve played cooperative games, you might have heard of the “alpha player”. The guy who tells everyone what to do – to the point of not letting others play – is a common source of contention. Critics, players and designers alike often debate about its implications and what steps can be taken to curtail it.

However, I believe the alpha player is but a symptom of deeper issues.

SYMPTOM

To truly understand the alpha player problem we must ask, not just what impact it has on the table, but how it comes to be. What causes it? Why can one player tell everyone else what they should do to win? I believe there are three answers to this question, each pointing to a different cause:

  • Alpha player always knows the best move (Lack of depth)
  • Other players are unable of finding alternative moves  (Skill disparity)
  • Other players find it socially difficult to play (Poor player behaviour)

In that sense, I liken the alpha player to a fever. Nobody likes to have a fever. However, fevers are rarely a cause of concern for themselves. Most of the time, they are a sign of other problems such as an infection or a metabolic disorder. By treating the alpha player like its own problem, we miss the underlying issues that cause it.

Only by digging deeper and exploring these causes can we get rid of it. And like other symptoms, rarely is the alpha player the only area requiring treatment. Let’s examine the causes one by one.

DEPTH

Cooperatives often lack the depth of their competitive brethren. Devoid of human opponents and charged by the combined prowess of several players, matches may fall into rote patterns. These situations are fertile ground for an alpha player. After all, it’s easier to take control of the game if we don’t need anyone else to win.

A lack of depth explains why this issue is more frequent in family games. I can play all sides in Pandemic and win. But Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective is challenging enough that I’ll do better with teammates. If good play doesn’t require working with others, an alpha player is inevitable. Depth should arise from teamwork.

This is why placing limits on communication, like Hanabi and The Crew, works. It’s not that they prevent alpha players, it’s that they make cooperation part of the challenge. Giving clues, communicating in code and understanding each other is an interesting mechanic. In other games, sharing information is not as engaging.

Sadly, instead of addressing this lack of depth many games try to mask it. Time pressure, randomness and hidden information are typical band-aids. But they do not address the core issue. The focus should be on enlarging the strategic space, not limiting players.

SKILL

Android: Netrunner is one of the best games ever made. Sadly, I can’t play it with most of my friends. After 3000 plays and countless tournaments, matches would be too lopsided. The same can happen with cooperatives. A large disparity in skill can give way to an alpha player.

Newbies don’t want to bring the whole team down. However, their inexperience prevents them from helping better players. Conversely, experts may not want to dominate the table, but that’s the inevitable result. If the skill difference is too large, cooperating becomes impossible.

This can happen without anyone meaning to. It’s natural to ask for advice. In fact, I’ve ruined my fair share of matches by overexplaining. After all, what can players do? Staying silent while your teammates make mistakes goes against the whole point of cooperative games.

The only way to address this problem is to acknowledge it. Treating first plays as a learning experience and focusing on bringing newbies up to speed paves the way for a better experience later on. Beyond that, there’s little that can be done. For most games, it’s an inevitable result of their design.

BEHAVIOUR

Playing board games is a social activity. Our behaviour as players shape the experience as much as the rules and pieces on the board. I believe poor sportsmanship, be it in the form of rudeness or a mere lack of interest, is the most common cause of alpha players.

It’s easy to come across stories of disrespectful players. Some people seem completely unwilling to engage with others or listen to their input. Cooperative games are often recommended for players who can’t handle losing, too, making ill-mannered players more common in cooperative games.

Let’s be honest. If your friend is a twat, no amount of game design will change that fact. Nor should it. Games are not responsible for players being dicks. Blaming cooperative games or the “alpha player problem” just shifts our responsability to others. We must accept we are responsible for our own bad behaviour or allow toxicity to flourish.

A more common issue not being invested in play. Often, it’s not so much that one player dominates but that others don’t step up to the plate. It’s important to create an environment where everyone feels comfortable. Asking others, especially newbies, for their thoughts is a good first step.

We must make sure we are capable of playing, not just on a strategic level, but also a social one. Conversely, we should not play with people who are not interested in doing the same. In this sense, the alpha player problem can be a symptom of a dysfunctional gaming group.

10 Comments

  • Great article! I completely agree that the alpha gamer problem is *not* just a player problem – we can and should address it with design. People are to quick to dismiss this.

    I think Aeon’s end does a good job of this. I don’t believe the cards are strictly secret but since they are played by default hidden from your teammate reduces the scope of information. The subtle way the decks work (and interact) as well as the multiple branching scenarios from random turn order create a situation that is just very difficult for even very good gamers to “alpha”.

    I wonder if either randomness or time pressure are truly just band aids though. Sure, poorly implemented random events won’t help. But I wonder that if they serve (as above) to simply multiply the decision space enough that it just about overloads a single player (In Aeon’s end its basically impossible to have a perfect understanding of every player’s deck rhythm and composition). In that sense it does a similar job to hidden information. I also think there’s a case that making decisions under a time-based constraint is a distinct kind of skill. So I’d say that too can be a good approach (I think it works in Escape for instance) if the game is properly designed around this idea: Not just a bolted-on patch for a game that otherwise was going to be turn based.

    • Thanks for the comment James! I appreciate a designer’s view on this.

      I agree randomness and time pressure don’t have to be band-aids. In fact, I think one can make interesting games through those mechanics. I just feel they are usually an after-thought. The time element of XCOM: The Boardgame felt like this, as it did not really contribute much to the game. It felt like playing Chess with a quicker clock, not like an actual feature of the design. I just think these features should be a big part of the game and not something you do to adress the problem.

      Sadly I haven’t played Aeon’s End. From what I know of it, it seems like it fits the bill of a good design. Having other builds building their own decks is better than being on your own, just like playing Dominion with others is better than playing 3-handed.

      • You’re more than welcome. Makes sense to me. I’ve not had the pleasure of trying XCOM either but that does sound like poor design.

    • I’d politely disagree with Aeons End avoiding Alpha Players. Since the differences between starting mages is basically one card and their abilities (and different breach rotations) it’s not that hard to wrap ones head around things. Especially since the market is so limited that it wont allow for vast variations in how players build their decks.

      I tried this by soloing the app version with different playercounts and it wasnt particularly difficult. There is clearly a lack of depth at play. One would have to double or triple the ammount of cards in the market to allow for vastly different decks to be built and avoid alphaplayers.

      • So I must admit I’m a bit surprised by your experience there since I have rarely seen the alpha gamer issue arise in numerous actual games. But I think its also important to note that just as much of my experience comes from playing the legacy version where decks and heroes inevitably develop towards specific rhythms. The combination of multiple character powers and cards may well increase the problem space quite substantially.

  • Pixxel Wizzard

    I came expecting my favorite genre, coop games, to get belittled, but the author makes some excellent points and observations.

    To be fair, I can’t say I’ve ever experienced the alpha player issue, despite playing mostly coop, or semi-coop, games. I will say, Space Alert tried to address this issue by making an alpha player essential to winning, but I didn’t care for that game at all.

    • I was actually thinking about Space Alert, and I would argue that it actually uses time very effectively to undermine an alpha player. It is certainly possible to play solo, but there is so much happening that it tends to limit alpha playing–there just isn’t enough time to dictate everyone’s plays, especially at higher difficulty levels.

  • One thing you should add to the list is the ability to keep players engaged which is something overlooked sometimes. Pandemic has huge alpha gamer problems but Pandemic Legacy tries to eliminate the issue by being so much more engaging and it is a much better game for it. This is especially important in this age where attention spans are much lower than 20 years ago. (I too am guilty of this.)

    Oh man how good is the ANR artwork tho. Makes me sad that my collection just keeps collecting dust 🙁

  • I wonder how much the alpha player is a symptom of shallowness, skill, and behavior or a symptom of a particular kind of player, one whose own ego gets in the way (a twat if you will). You describe both players who know right way to win even playing alone and players who can’t compete against lower newbies. To me that sounds like players whose ego gets in the way of the game. In tournaments, this is fine as the goal is to win the entire tournament, but at game night the goal is usually to share time with old or new friends.

    Does Netrunner have a problem because a high skilled player will crush a newbie? Probably not if that play is expected at the table. But if a newbie plays, is the goal to enjoy time with someone or enact a crushing strategy. I think the same goes for co-ops. Pandemic doesn’t have a depth of strategy problem because one player has control issues. The randomness doesn’t serve as a bandaid but as a way to broaden the strategic concerns.

  • Jonathan Pickles

    I’m going to be more explicit than Mike. Really this sounds like a series of excuses for why you alpha game than actual causes of alpha gaming.
    Complex games with hidden information are more difficult to quarterback than simple ones but you could still choose to avoid doing it. (Randomness in coops/solo games is there to prevent them having one perfect solution, hidden information can be fundamental to how a game works. As for time pressure, I’m not a fan in a serious game but it can be hilarious.

    If the other players are not so good as you then maybe you need to play a bit better to rise to the challenge, or just suck it up. As Mike says it is a social activity hanging out with people that you (presumably) like.

    And in decades of gaming I have never encountered players so disinterested that someone had to take the lead to save them from themselves. Maybe players are not invested because they know that their moves will be tutted over and “corrected” by other people at the table? Disinterested parties do not seem to be the type to complain about alpha gaming anyway. If they are that disinterested then indeed walk away.

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