The Alpha Player Problem

Some reflections via  Notes From Your Move (What Boardgames Teach Us About Life)

This short book is a collection of essays by Jonathan Kay and Joan Moriarty about games and life. You can find my notes on a few of the chapters that stood out. I enjoyed the book and as usual, my notes aren’t a summary but keepsakes of what I want to remember. It’s me connecting dots for my own benefit and sharing because why not.

A few points:

The 2 authors’ approaches (as explained by Joan)

Jonathan Kay

My co-author Jonathan is a journalist and former engineer who loves to tease out the patterns that link the abstract world of gaming with real life, even when it comes to controversial subjects. And so he treats the game world more as an intellectual laboratory than an emotional sanctuary and enjoys passing from one side of the circle to the other.

Joan Moriarty

By contrast, my own essays reflect a more protective attitude towards the integrity of the magic circle1


. I have spent much of my career at Snakes & Lattes amidst many personality types, observing all the differences and the degree to which their enjoyment and, indeed, their sense of self-worth can be ways in threatened when the circle is compromised. Making sure everyone at the table has a good time is not only my job but my duty.

Another difference in approach lies in our research methodology. As a teacher at a board game café, my “research subjects” arrive at my doorstep every day unbidden (and pay my employer for the privilege), Jonathan, on the other hand, has adopted a more conventional shoe-leather approach, interviewing board game designers, visiting gaming tournaments in North America and Europe, reading essays by gaming fans and critics, and playing lots and lots of board games.

(Kris: I enjoyed Joan’s distinction because as I was reading the book I thought to myself “if I wrote this book I would have taken Jonathon’s approach” which made Joan’s approach that much more special to me. The parallel perspectives in these essays are mutually enriching because they show how a thing can differ depending how you approach it. Said otherwise — everything is path-dependent. The faster you learn this, the better listener you will be in life. I heard that’s sexy so there’s something in it for you too.)

The “alpha-player” problem

A loved one was helping some folks in a business coaching setting. One of the people was complaining that they struggle to be empathetic or listen to others who are clearly wrong. In the Moontower survey, I found that a subset of readers listed this as their own shortcoming. They are impatient with lesser talents or “don’t suffer fools gladly”.

There is an outstanding chapter in the book that will delight anyone who has played Pandemic or other cooperative games. I offered the lessons from the chapter to the loved one to carry back to the group.


A common problem for organizations is incompatible goals.

For example:

A team of lawyers has been tasked with a complex legal problem. The team is composed of several senior partners and a few juniors. At first, everyone is happy and united. As time passes, pressure builds, and the file becomes more complicated, and the seniors get frustrated by the slow pace and high error rate of the juniors. Eventually, they start doing all the work themselves, relegating the juniors to mundane clerical roles. The job gets done. No one yells at anyone, or even says a harsh word. It does not seem like there is any real conflict here. Yet everybody ends up frustrated, especially the juniors, who are left wondering why they were brought on to the project in the first place.

Scenarios like this, which probably arise more often in most companies than episodes of outright hostility, are hard to manage because they are not covered by standard mechanisms for resolving disputes, like rules of workplace conduct. The only way to address them is through some kind of unspoken company-specific meta-rules about the trade-offs. [A familiar trade-off is] short-term goals such as task efficiency and long-term goals such as mentorship, morale, and staff retention.

Believe it or not, this is a common problem faced by board game designers, and some have come up with novel solutions for addressing it…Certain kinds of board games can help your organization solve or at least identify conflicts that arise when different people within the organization have different assumptions about the best way to balance short-term task execution with long-term capacity development.

The “play contract”

Whenever you sit down to play a game, whether realize it you or not, you are entering into an unspoken agreement with your fellow players. There is no universally agreed-upon text for the play contract. But if there were, it might include these basic precepts, which flow from our discussion of the magic circle in the book’s first chapter:

  1. I agree to abide by the rules of the game as I understand them; no cheating.
  1. I agree to take the game seriously enough to make a sincere effort to win; no throwing the game.
  1. I agree to not take the game so seriously that it will affect my real-life relationships with my fellow players; no behaving like a jackass.

[Kris: reminds me of the spirit behind the social club I helped start]

The problem is that the second and third points sometimes come into conflict. How hard do you have to play to satisfy the need for a sincere effort? How easy do you have to take it on your fellow players to keep things from getting too heavy? Those stories you have heard about wounded feelings and damaged friendships: in many cases, they are caused by players coming to the tabletop with conflicting answers to these questions.

The Alpha-Player Problem is one way cooperative games can mirror the conflicts in real-life cooperative groups

For a lot of people, the prospect of playing a game with someone who is much better than them is attractive. But in Pandemic, the other players are not your opponents, they are your teammates. In theory, playing with someone who is much better at it than you should be a good thing because she is on your side.

But is it always better?

Suppose one player can see more clearly than the others which moves are more likely to lead to victory, and which ones are more likely to cause problems. If she is following the play contract, trying to play as well as she can, she should be doing her best to help the group win by telling her teammates what she sees. If you are about to make a sub-optimal move, she should point out why it is a problem and perhaps suggest a different move you could make, one which would achieve a better result. No harm, right?

Now suppose our expert player does this for all of her teammates. Suppose she does it every single turn. The group may have a better chance of winning but now only one of them is actually playing. The others are reduced from teammates to spectators. They might as well not even be there. Perhaps this reminds you of the junior and senior partners at the imaginary law firm I described a few pages back.

This happens fairly often in cooperative games-often enough to need a name. And so players and designers have dubbed it the alpha-player problem. You might also hear it referred to as quarterbacking. In a traditional competitive-style game, there is no alpha-player problem because the play contract ensures a natural kind of sustaining tension-everyone is out for his own gain. But in a co-op game, the play contract doesn’t always work.

Solutions to the alpha-player problem:

  1. Follow the third precept of the play contract at the expense of the second. That means the alpha just accepts that she is not going to play her absolute best. She allows the others to play the game at their own level, and to win or lose on their own terms. A less paternalistic way of going about this would be for the non-alphas to impose this solution by shushing or otherwise declining advice from the alpha.
  1. Reframing Redefine “optimal” according to a long-term framework that takes larger goals into account such as a firm’s need to develop future talent and leadership. In the same way, an alpha player might see it as “optimal” to allow newer players to make mistakes because it helps them get better through trial and error, thereby helping to keep the gaming group together and lay the groundwork for more fun in future games. (A gaming purist might say that this step serves to break the magic circle because the alpha player must compromise in-game objectives to satisfy the real-world social and psychological needs of other gamers. But as with all forms of doctrinal absolutism, this sort of fundamentalist attitude to gaming serves to make the enemy of the good.)
  1. Design nudges Good game design can get us around this problem….In Antoine Bauza’s award-winning Hanabi (2010), for instance, players work together to accomplish a common goal but each has access to information teammates cannot see, and all are severely restricted in their ability to communicate. Without access to the entire picture, no alpha player can know for certain which moves will or will not be beneficial to the team. So everyone has to try his or her best with the limited information they possess. Another way of dealing with the alpha-player problem in cooperative games is to put players in a time crunch. In Eric M. Lang’s alien-invasion resistance epic XCOM: The Board Game (2015), Vlaada Chvatil’s space-borne comedy of errors Space Alert (2008), and Kane Klenko’s nail-biter of a bomb disposal game Fuse (2015), all information can be shared among all players, in theory. In practice, it is impossible to share more than a few snippets of it because players must make choices within a severely limited amount of time. Potential alphas do not have time to micromanage everyone else. They and all the rest must decide when a piece of information is important enough to be worth expending the group’s precious time and attention to share it. [Kris: Both are interesting points in broader real-life contexts of how constraints can actually unlock ingenuity] Can this trick of tackling the alpha-player problem by providing players with limited information or limited time to act on that information be extended to real-world organizational behavior patterns? Definitely. One of the main reasons some bosses micromanage is that they do not have a lot of work on their own desks. Give a boss something to do, and she will tend to give more autonomy to her minions. Likewise, minions who are tired of being told how to tie their shoelaces may rebel against corporate higher-ups by hoarding data within their fiefdoms and throttling the flow of information. The boss cannot micromanage a department she cannot fully survey or understand.

The right teammates

Ultimately, the best solution to the alpha-player problem isn’t based on picking the right rules. It is based on picking the right teammates. In a game of alpha players, nobody is an alpha player. Similarly, if everyone is new to a game, players can stumble happily along as a team, making mistakes together and learning lessons about how to win on the next attempt.

Final word:

This is not an airport-rack business book to show you how to get the most out of your employees, improve staff morale, or reduce friction within your organization. But playing games really can provide important lessons for people running companies. In particular, cooperative games such as Pandemic teach us that group dynamics can get more complicated, not less when people are trying to cooperate rather than compete. This is important because most businesses, NGOs, government agencies, social clubs and even families can be thought of in some way as cooperative projects, even if real life tends to lack the well-defined rules and victory conditions you would find in a cooperative board game.

Like players in a cooperative game, close colleagues may end up struggling with the balance between the ruthless pursuit of short-term performance and the long-term effort to enhance their colleagues’ skills and sense of engagement. Too much of the former, and the company becomes a haven for alphas but alienates everybody else. Too much of the latter, and the company might have trouble satisfying its clients even as it develops a great reputation for in-house vocational mentorship.

In most organizations, there are unwritten rules that govern the desired mix, much like the play contract at the tabletop. These rules go a long way toward defining an organization’s culture. And if you are going to join up, you will probably want to make sure that your own values are congruent-whether it is a multinational corporation making widgets or just a few friends gathered around a game board, trying to save the human race from extinction.

A personal bit

Joan Moriarty wrote in the book:

At family gatherings, my father’s relatives used to play [a game] called Fictionary. One player would take a dictionary, open it to a random page, find a word none of the players knew (this might take a couple of tries) and then write down the definition. The other players would each invent a phony definition for the word, write those down, and pass them to the player with the dictionary. Then, one at a time and in a random order, all the definitions, real and fake, would be read aloud. On the second reading, the players would try to guess which was the real definition. They would score one point for guessing correctly, and one point for each other player who was tricked into that their phony definition was the real one.

Party game fans will feel deja vu. This is the game Balderdash.

Joan makes a comment in the book about how sometimes a clever entrepreneur can get people to pay for something that is actually available for free. I love the game Decrypto but it’s also a game that you could play for free. Unlike Balderdash, the game components and art are actually pretty cool. Take my $20 please.

I do have fond memories of playing Balderdash with a group of NYC friends back in the day. My friend Ben had written a couple amazing answers that I kept in my wallet for many years until the ink finally bled off the slips of paper. One twist we added is to keep a spreadsheet where you log who voted for who’s answer every round. We liked seeing if certain people were susceptible to another player’s specific writing style.

I think my friend Lukshmi had me pretty dialed in.

Anyway, go play some games.

  1. Games, at their best, have the power to create a special space, a world within the world. It’s a kind of magic circle where different rules apply.

    Inside the magic circle, failure is not only accepted but welcomed. Even necessary. As everyone who has ever played Telestrations knows, failing in a game is not the same thing as failing in real life. In real life, failure can be an unparalleled teacher and a stepping stone to success. But in play? Failure is the whole damned point. Failing does not mean you are bad at being playful. If you are failing and still enjoying yourself, that means you are doing it right. It means the magic circle is protecting you, just as it is supposed to do. There are plenty of factors that can cause that magic circle to fail, though, and we’ll be covering many of them in the chapters ahead. Our sensitivities and biases, our fears and recriminations, our past experience and future expectations can all conspire to make even a casual game feel as deadly serious as a job interview after months of desperate unemployment. Much depends on context.

    Every time you start a new game, you and your fellow gamers make decisions about how much of the real world will be allowed to come inside the circle.

    On one side of the spectrum are, say, professional poker players and other high-stakes gamblers for whom the magic circle is non-existent. The game is literally their life. On the other side of the spectrum are fantasy gamers who meet up at tournaments or gaming conferences to construct collectively elaborate in-game universes, sometimes without ever even learning each other’s real-life names. The entire universe they share lies within the magic circle. And when the game ends that universe implodes. Most gamers lie somewhere in between these two extremes with their position on the spectrum being a function of their personality.

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