Social interaction and board games in the library

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ticket-to-ride_962x292_scaled_croppWhat level of social interaction is optimal?

All board games have some level of social interaction inherent in the game. Just as all libraries have an expectation of patron interaction and behavior. So striking a balance between these two elements is important. When considering whether to choose a game for a library gaming group it is important to take into consideration the space and proximity towards other patrons and the type of interaction the game may produce (and thus level of table-talk and noise). This post will discuss a few different games and the type of interaction they potentially produce.

First, ask yourself a few questions.

  • How much noise is appropriate in the library?
  • Is my library a “loud” or “quiet” library?
  • What space am I considering – an open, accessible space (common area) or closed, exclusive space (meeting room).
  • Am I encouraging new players or catering to experienced ones? Or both?

Then think about the games.

Social interaction can be minimal. A player’s head can be buried into a hand of cards or player board…lost in contemplation over where to place a certain element. Interaction can be high and loud, competitive or cooperative in nature with players talking, planning, bluffing, bidding or negotiating. Some games provide a type and level of interaction where the player’s decisions directly or indirectly affect (or hinder) another player and can potentially encourage conflict (which is fine!).

To encourage new players, I have my library gaming group out in the open – three tables right in the middle of the library’s common area. As patrons come in to use computers, browse the collection or check out/in material, they can see us playing. The level and type of interaction presented there help sway patrons to stand and watch, jump into a game or come back next week to play. Or it may scare them away…

All games involve player interaction.

Some make it a primary component and others as a supplement to other mechanics. A newbie to board games may walk into a group playing high interaction games like  “A Game of Thrones” or “Diplomacy” where negotiation, bluffing, player elimination and deceit are necessary mechanics and be immediately turned off or intimidated enough to avoid playing. This is not to say that these elements are bad: They are not. However, they may not be welcoming either. In a similar vein a game like “Dominion” where players are playing largely independent of other player may seem exceedingly boring with little to no talking, active competition, or interaction with other players.

Balance and community are pivotal to the success of a library gaming program. Knowing what your community prefers will help you succeed. As a general rule I prefer to start with games that contain a moderate amount of player interaction – what I would call “friendly competitive” where your decisions affect other players indirectly. But in the end, it is your responsibility to listen to, understand and respect the wishes and needs of your patrons.

To begin with, have a selection of …

Solitary Games:

These are games that minimize interaction tend to focus on building your own deck or tableau independently of other players. In this “alone together” situation, players optimize a personal board, set/complete for goals, claim points or race against a clock.  Players tend to completely ignore other players and are unable to affect other players by their decisions (granted, there is a range here).

Games where, fundamentally, each player is off in their own world, worrying about their own problems, and not in anything resembling dynamic conflict or co-operation with their friends. I find them dull. But I’d go further than that. I’d actually call them failures of design. ~ Quinn from Shut Up and Sit Down and hater of solitary games. (Go home, Quinn, you’re drunk.)

Games like “Dominion” and “7 Wonders” tend to be quiet, engrossing and somber; punctuated with occasional outbursts of glee. But, I admit, even those outbursts are solitary in nature. This style of game often has a specific goal to achieve, such as claiming the most victory points or being the first to complete a full board, but this goal could be decently completed without anyone else around or even caring what the rest of the players are doing.

Deep focus is engaging. Developing a tableau is rewarding. Optimizing resources is challenging. However, new players will not likely wish to be included. It seems too closed off, private and guarded. I tend to limit these games to the sidelines for attendees to pull if they wish and I don’t feature them at the main table.

I leave the main table reserved for…

Friendly Competition

Some games encourage interaction through a shared board and personal objectives. These combined elements of shared and solitary play can create an diffused sense of competition. Games which feature competition for specific areas to control, a race towards a singular goal, or competition over limited or optimal resources fall into this category. The game-play is not particularly cut-throat as you are not purposely playing in a manner to trip-up other players (at least not often). In addition, resources are often limited, which rarely denies a player access to a resource, but can make it much more costly if others are interested in acquiring the same thing.

Good examples of this type of game are “Power Grid“, “Carcassonne“, “Agricola“ and “Ticket to Ride.” Each provides a limited amount of resources, choice tracks of land and a level of interaction to achieve personal goals. You can make it difficult for other players while furthering your own goals but the interaction is rather indirect rather than direct confrontation so the competition remains friendly and diffused.

These games develop a consistent, pleasant hum of table-talk which is welcoming for both new and experienced gamers. Voices tend to be charged with a moderate level of excitement and limited gloating or sullen silence.

What makes these types of games so wonderful for a library is that the interaction will bring a curious crowd. The game-play looks fun and inviting. The people seem engaged and friendly.

Then keep a few of these for the experienced gamers or adventurous newbies…

Direct Competition

Games where the main mechanic is a confrontation with another player would be included in this category. Game-play can be cut-throat and vicious where players are rewarded by tripping-up, deceiving or attacking other players. Conflict is a primary component of the game where players keep other players from specific item or goals.

The Settlers of Catan“, “A Game of Thrones“, “King of Tokyo,” ”Small World“ and “Diplomacy” are all good examples of games where direct competition and conflict are integral aspects of the game. These games tend to be the ones that will elicit loud exclamations of the four-letter nature and can seem very intense to new users. When I feature games that contain a large amount of direct competition, I also moderate the game closely to ensure a pleasant experience for everyone.

The most engaging aspect of these games comes from affecting other players in a manner to cause them to lose. While this is fun and enjoyable, it can be off-putting to some people and not particularly welcoming to a group of strangers or inexperienced gamers.

So, balance it out with some…

Cooperative Interaction

It may not be surprising that I tend to favor co-operative games at the library because the co-operative rather than competitive nature of the game encourages players to work together towards a goal. They encourage players to examine all the roles of the game and the scenario presented in order to ensure success for everyone.

Examples of these types of games include Pandemic, Castle Panic, Forbidden Island, Hanabi, Arkham Horror and Flash Point: Fire Rescue.

The games tend to sound very deliberative with plenty of collaboration and table-talk. Players will pose questions and present scenarios through-out the game with rare moments of complete silence. They can end with a “doom silence” when everyone realizes that there is no way to win a particular scenario and we are all going down with the ship, being eaten by Cthulhu or stuck under the rubble of a collapsed building.

Be warned! While all players are working together towards a common objective and struggling together to win, there is a tendency for the loudest or most experience person at the table to dictate the moves of everyone else. This can be detrimental to the overall enjoyment of the game, and while I love these games; I tend to moderate them just as much as games with direct conflict.

Personality vs. Game Design

These are not cut and dry categories. The element of interaction between players will vary with the players’ personality, the game’s mechanics and … I don’t know … how much coffee I had before the game. One expressive person can make a solitary game very interactive and increase the table-talk. A good moderator can make anyone feel included in even the most competitive game. When I host a game session at the library, I do a few things:

Moderate. I consider myself a moderator first and player second.

Expectations on behavior should be obvious to everyone.

Encourage non-players to team up with experienced ones.

Provide a supportive environment for new and a challenging one for experienced players.

Leniency for mistakes or confusion.

Smile and use humor. Have fun. Laugh.

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