Just Shut Up Already

Even though I argue a lot, I am not really known as being a talkative person. I mostly work alone these days, so I don’t have the pleasure of the back and forth conversations that you get when you work in a game design group. I miss some of the old epic arguments I used to have with Robert Gutschera and Mark Rosewater back at WOTC, although their memories may be more in line with the title of this column. The one area that I don’t miss conversation, however, is when I am playing games. That brings us to the subject of table talk.

There are some games where table talk is unavoidable. If you are playing Diplomacy and you don’t talk up a storm, you will probably lose badly. Even some of the older classic games like Risk have a fair number of politics and table talk about who should be attacking who and why none of the other players should bother with you since you are obviously a terrible player and an insignificant threat, despite the fact that you somehow managed to take over half the board, presumably by luck.

Looking at somewhat modern games, Werewolf is probably the classic example of a game based on table talk and is probably this generations Diplomacy. In Werewolf, if you refuse to talk you will probably be killed by the townsfolk who think you are being quiet to avoid attention because you are a werewolf, or killed by the werewolves who might think you are the seer and trying not to draw attention to yourself. Note this might actually be a reasonable strategy for a townsfolk trying to protect the seer, but the point is that you will typically end up out of the game if you do not participate in a game based on table talk. The hoi polloi will just view you as an outsider even if you are in fact a brilliant strategist.

Other games do not even allow you to talk at all. I have played a lot of tournament Bridge over the years. Bridge is a hidden information team game and in Bridge tournaments, you are allowed almost no talking during the game and are required to use a box of cards called a bidding box to indicate your bids so that you do not have to say them. The reason for this is that a lot of information can be conveyed by voice inflection. A player bidding “One Spade!!” probably has a much stronger hand than a player bidding “One Spade?”

In gambling games, table talk can be a powerful tool in your arsenal, as several of the readers like Randy Buehler and Henry Stern can attest to. There are some expert players like Phil Ivey who prefer to sit quietly and will generally answer questions quickly and briefly and generally do not talk very much. There are other players like Daniel Negreanu that will talk about everything and anything in an attempt to glean information from the opponents. For experts, the more conversation they hear, the better the baseline they can get on how you talk when you have a good hand and how you talk when you have a bad hand. Everyone is familiar with the common tells you see the villain do in James Bond movies like tapping your fingers or twisting your wedding ring, but many people have vocal tells as well. When they are concerned about a hand they have, they might talk faster and cut off the conversation more quickly. When the player has a strong hand, they might be more willing to answer questions in hopes of getting the player to call. Expert players will pick up of these voice patterns the same as they will pick up on physical body language like sitting forward or back in the chair or other fidgeting behavior.

A large number of board games fall into a nebulous category where you can talk, but are usually limited from revealing hidden information that you possess. For example, it would be inappropriate in Hearts to state that you do not have the queen or to suggest that someone lead a suit because you are out and can dump points on another player. Or similarly, to point out that someone is attempting to shoot the moon and should be stopped is also considered inappropriate. Similarly, a suggestion in a game like Tichu of “Play the dog if you have it” would generally be viewed as cheating. However, in a number of games like Settlers of Catan, you can talk and suggest strategy or try to cause some sort of outcome usually by being as whiny as possible. This is the type of table talk I hate. For expert players, the players will know when one player is winning and will generally avoid allowing that player to advance their position through a trade unless it will be a much greater advancement of their own position. The losing players will be more open to cooperative play to get back in the game. If the players are following the game, the table talk usually is only an attempt to make a players position seem weaker to encourage a trade that is more favorable for the player. I may be in a minority, but I almost prefer Settlers games with no trading for that reason, since trading often results in a “rich get richer” scenario that breaks the enjoyment of the game for me.

It is for this reason that I also don’t get the hype around some of the modern cooperative games like Pandemic and Space Alert. I had a lot of fun the first several games of Space Alert, but then realized that the optimum strategy was for the best player to basically direct all of the other player’s actions. In that game, if multiple players are plotting strategy, it is probably inferior to one directing the hive. The learning curve on this game breaks down to listening to the expert player until you reach the point where you can become an expert player and control a group. Once you have mastered running a group, you have probably hit the replay limit on the game. I view Pandemic as having similar features and while I consider these games fun for a few plays, the “commander” play pattern does not seem as captivating for me as more head to head competitive games are.

In short, if I want to hear conversation, I can start an argument any time with anyone. Trust me on this. In most games, I just want to focus on the strategy of the game (and be able to hear all the voices in my head advising me on strategy also), so for me at the gaming table, Silence is Golden.

-Mike Elliott


9 Comments so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. My playgroup tends to treat the commander strategy in Pandemic like Bridge players treat table talk in general: it breaks a core element of what makes the game work. If somebody starts to fall into the commander role, we generally muzzle them for a little while, giving the other players time to think.

    (One of the closest games of Pandemic I’ve played was saved, at the last minute, by a suggestion from the new player at the table; the commander model isn’t necessarily the strongest strategy, either.)

    Not to say that there isn’t something beautiful about the Cathedral silence of a formal chess tournament, but with a good group, and where appropriate, table talk can enhance a game.

    (I wouldn’t want to play a game of Elder Dragon Highlander Magic without the trash talk, for example; it would just sap the flavor out the endeavour to be silent.)

  2. Sean McCarthy,

    You’re pretty much right about Pandemic, but I think in Space Alert there is a bit less consensus. There are groups that think having one commander is the best strategy, and groups that think having the players each be responsible for 1-2 threats is easier. I fall into the latter camp.

    I wonder if it’s just a function of whether one person in your group is way better than the others at Space Alert, because if you have more than one good player I’m pretty sure it’s a waste to not lean on them all.

    There’s also the aspect where Space Alert just isn’t hard enough for experienced players. I guess if you can consistently win in any case, then whatever you’re doing can be seen as a good strategy.

  3. I wonder how much of this is driven by your background as a non-electronic game designer. I suspect that you want to delve into the game and experience the design, so you see the chatter as a distraction.

    As a computer game designer myself, I take the opposite view: if I want silence I can play any number of games on the computer without sound. On the other hand, if I’m going to get my friends together to play a board game, it’s going to be a social occasion. I want chatter and kibbutzing! For me, that’s part of the fun.

  4. Kyle Orth,

    I agree with you, Brian. When I sit down to play a game with a group of friends, there is going to be talking and lots of it! I think that the majority of the talking enhances the enjoyment of the game as we can make fun of the struggling players and just have a laugh. But I do think that, at least with my situation, there is a point where the table talk goes too far and starts to detract from the structure of the game and result in cheating. When playing 500, a common phrase heard around the table would be “diamonds are a girl’s best friend” to give a subtle hint to lead with a diamond. This is where the game starts to break down, as team mates are clearly giving away what is meant to be hidden details. Many times the table talk is taken too far and ends up ruining the game, but generally by this point many players may already have started to become bored and restless. This also seems to happen more to the losing team (funny that…).

    However I can see your point Mike, where you want to have silence at a game so you can focus entirely on the strategy of the game. There are times when too much talk can detract from the game and end up ruining the experience for everyone. Also when it becomes distracting to players and you lose your train of thought when planning moves, this can become very frustrating. However I think if you can get an even balance of friendly conversation without going over the top, most games can become more enjoyable for everyone.

  5. Rob,

    For many cooperative games table talk is poor, I agree. The biggest exception I find is in betrayal based cooperative games, like Shadows Over Camelot, and to a greater extent Battlestar Galactica. In these games table talk *is* the game. The “power strategy” would be to let the strongest player guide you, but the odds of them being a traitor force you to spread decision making around among the group, which causes a happy medium.

    The other thing I have found to really benefit table talk is a hard line on what you can talk about. In BSG we follow the “you can talk about public information but not private information” rule. So you can say “I draw plenty of Research cards, I can do a lot in this check” but not “I have two fives, I have this easy”

    Once your rules for what can be said are clear, the other thing I find that drives games is “calling”, forcing players to make a move or play. My group says “chess clock” when we start to get bored at all, and this is a signal for “make a move now”, which pushes the game forward so the table talk does not dominate.

    Really table talk falls into a more social sphere than direct game design, with different groups handling it different ways across the games I have played.

  6. Willi B,

    Co-ops without traitors are like most games for me – I want to do my own thing for right or wrong. I also don’t want to play with any ‘experts’. Teach me the rules and let me handle the strategy.

    Table talk dilutes and occasionally subverts the game designer’s intended strategy paths and replaces them with the strategy of the snake oil salesman. I don’t mind talking at the table, but I am happiest when that talk has nothing to do with strategy.

  7. This may be a bold statement but I think any game that relies on players remaining silent against their best interests is poorly designed. Either remove the benefit from telegraphing or add a mechanism where opponents can punish the revealed information. The more detrimental it is to play to reveal, the stronger the punishment. The strictest example (albeit non-subtle) is for charades where speaking is obviously disallowed, but the punishment is a loss of turn and violations are easily recognized.

    But letting people talk yet insisting they not give hints, I just don’t like the whole approach. As they say, information wants to be free.

  8. Interesting topic, especially vis-a-vis the co-op comments. I have to say that I have had a different experience – I have found most of the high profile co-op games quite enjoyable and repeatable. I have to admit that my inclination was to take on the “commander” role, but after the first couple of times I found that my play group was willing and able to assert their opinions. We have even had a few interesting discussions on probability and risk/reward develop from gamestates in Pandemic (w/ expansion).

    @ Amarsir

    From a design standpoint I don’t necessarily think that a game “relying” on a certain type of give and take amongst the players is more poorly designed than a game that relies on strategic parity or familiarity with rules minutiae to maintain a “fun” interchange between the players. Perhaps it is a line that is finer to walk, but it is certainly a valid design tool.

  9. I had a lot of fun the first several games of Space Alert, but then realized that the optimum strategy was for the best player to basically direct all of the other player’s actions.

    Totally agree. But it’s odd how many people don’t see this. I think maybe games like this are more fun for people who aren’t good at managing many things at once and so find it difficult/inconceivable for one person to just run everything. As opposed to people like me or you who are better at tracking lots of things, but worse at teamwork and communication, so it’s the collaborative approach that seems harder to us.

    There’s a fair amount of discussion of this disagreement here:


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