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.
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.
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.
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.
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.