Have you ever played a co-operative game in which one player takes over, telling everyone else what to do? That player makes other people feel unimportant as he co-opts (pun intended) the game. This is the Alpha Player Problem: someone who simply takes over the co-operative game and makes it less fun for everyone.
“Boy, what a jerk! I don’t want to play him anymore!”
“Ya! No more co-ops with him!”
I have a confession: I have been the Alpha Player before. It’s true! I hate to admit it, but I can think of a few Arkham Horror or Pandemic games where I knew the right thing to do to win, and I let it be known to everyone. I admit I try very hard not to be that guy, but every so often, in the heat of the game, my Alpha Player comes out. And my friends, whom I adore, have also been the Alpha Player. We have all been that guy at one point.
I want it to be clear, in general, Alpha Players aren’t necessarily jerks. I have to argue that, or I am calling myself a jerk. Sometimes, a new player is really in need of a very guided tour of a game—In that case, the Alpha Player is acting as a guide/teacher. But, it’s a very thin line: too much Alpha Player and the guide becomes insufferable.
Alpha Player Syndrome
Rather than call it the Alpha Player problem, I’d prefer to call it the Alpha Player Syndrome. The Syndrome lurks within all of us (some of us more than others), so it’s not a problem per se, rather something that simply exists. If we know it exists, then we can work with it! If, on the other hand we deny it’s existence, then it will come out at the worst time and ruin a game.
Knowing that it exists, there are things to do to mitigate that effect.
- Don’t play with jerks. There are players who are jerks and will always be jerks. Don’t play with them.
- Don’t be a jerk. Recognize that you have that tendency and simply watch yourself. (Are you an Engineer? You might have a higher tendency towards Alpha Player. And yes, I am of that ilk.) You want to keep your friends and play board games with them more often, so just keep the Alpha Player in check.
There are some people who claim that some games “cause” Alpha Player Syndrome (Pandemic, Arkham Horror are two canonical examples). I disagree whole-heartedly with this sentiment! How can an inanimate board game cause players to be Alpha Players? That’s like blaming Moby Dick for Captain Ahab’s obsession! One of the major themes of Moby Dick was that the whale had no inherent evil: it simply existed and Captain Ahab ascribed the evil/lifelike qualities to it. I think the same can be said of board games: players bring their own conceptions to an inanimate game when they play. Having said that: A game, by its nature, can tend to attract a certain type of player. But that’s very different than saying some game causes “Alpha Player Syndrome”.
I bring this point up because I bristle when I hear: “That game has the Alpha Player Problem!” No, some people playing it may have Alpha Player Syndrome. I don’t believe we should blame an inanimate board game for something that comes from within ourselves.
Mechanics That Can Mitigate Alpha Player Syndrome
But, there can be mechanics that help “curb” Alpha Player Syndrome. I’ve played co-operative games for some time, and I’ve noticed the things below tend to mitigate the syndrome.
1) Keep the play moving.
As long as each player can player quickly and do something interesting on their turn, the Alpha Players tend to lie dormant. I’ve noticed that the Alpha Player tends to come out when there’s indecision or a slowdown in a game. They tend to “fill in” the slowdown to keep the game moving.
If your game moves along quickly for all players, there is less chance of the Alpha Player.
EXAMPLES: Space Panic!, Bomb Squad (anything with a timer), Sentinels Of The Multiverse (it plays quickly)
2) Each player has information that an Alpha Player can’t “absorb” quickly.
This could be something as simple as having secret information that the Alpha Player can’t know. Or, there could be just too many cards/pieces for the Alpha Player to read and figure out.
If someone can’t absorb what other players know/have/do, then they can’t make an informed opinion and the innate Alpha Player tends to remain quiet (rather than look stupid).
EXAMPLES: Shadows Over Camelot (some cards are hidden), Arkham Horror (each player just has a lot of stuff and it’s sometimes too hard to keep track of everything), Sentinels of the Multiverse (each player has a lot of cards with a lot of text)
3) Gameplay that recognizes the discrepancy between Expert and Novice players IN THE SAME GAME.
If a novice has to try to play at the same level as an expert, both the expert and the novice quickly become frustrated (and the Alpha Player quickly takes over). There are many games where the “simplest” character is given to the novice, and the “harder” characters are given to the experts. The novice can come up to speed and understand their character quickly, while the expert has to “read” and takes longer to come up to speed.
Although Pandemic doesn’t strictly do this, I’ve found that first time players should always play the Medic! It’s the easiest to play and understand and feel useful. Experts can have more complex characters which tends to engage them more so they are less likely to Alpha Player. The novice can come up to speed quickly and keep play moving (see 1 above) and the expert can become engrossed in his more complex character.
EXAMPLES: CO-OP (the rules encourage first-time players towards certain characters), Secrets of the Lost Tomb (directions encourage certain characters for certain games), Pandemic (see above)
4) Rotating Primary Player
Every turn, someone new is “in charge”, and it rotates through all players.
In TIME STORIES, a different character is Captain at the start of every “turn”. In CO-OP, the Karma Chameleon changes every day. In Arkham Horror, the first player rotates (a lesser notion of in charge, but a notion nonetheless).
Thus, that person that is in charge IS the Alpha Player for that turn! This is a great example of recognizing that the Alpha Player Syndrome exists in all of us! And then embracing it! We can let loose with our Alpha Player for a turn, then go back to a good citizen next turn. Let the beast out for a day, then put it away!
Seriously, if makes it easier to tolerate some Alpha Player Syndrome if you know your turn (to be Alpha Player) is coming up.
Some of the examples above won’t necessarily work together: You can’t put a timer on every game, some games don’t have simple characters, simplicity in design that makes an awesome game will not have the complexity that tends to fend off Alpha Players. But, they can help.
Alpha Player Syndrome does exist. We’ve seen it in others, and (some of us) have seen it in ourselves. Sometimes, it just comes out naturally because of the combination of people, experience levels, personalities, and ability. That doesn’t mean we should let it ruin our games. If we watch for it, knowing it can appear, we can keep it under control. As Jefferson said “Eternal vigilance is the price we pay for liberty”. Or perhaps, more apropos to a gaming blog, Jean-Luc Picard once said: “Vigilance, Mister Worf – that is the price we have to continually pay” (with obvious allusions to Jefferson). In this case, we must be vigilant of Alpha Player Syndrome, lest it overtake us.