The subtleties of kingmaking

Let’s say you’re in the final stages of a multiplayer game and you’re winning. Your objectives are now simple – increase your lead and attack whichever player is threatening you the most. But what’s your objective if you aren’t winning? Most players would probably say ‘to attack the winning player’. But now let’s say the game is nearly over and there’s no possible way you can catch the leader. Is your goal the same or do those factors change it?

Some players say that your goal must stay the same – to attack the player in first place, even if doing so lets someone else win, and you come last. Other players think that if you can’t affect who wins, you should do whatever you can to come second, attacking players other than the leader to secure the best possible position you can.

If you go for the first option – attacking the game’s leader to weaken their position and help someone else win – then you’re kingmaking (or queenmaking; it’s a historical term, but the point still stands). As you can imagine, kingmaking can be controversial, with players using it to help their friends win or even just drag down someone who wronged them earlier (“I’m not winning, but neither are you!”).

Social contracts

It’s important to note that kingmaking isn’t cheating; no-one’s breaking the game’s rules to do it. They are, however, potentially breaking an implied ‘social contract’. Briefly, a social contract is an unwritten code of rules that players expect each other to abide by. Things like ‘Don’t quit out of a game you’re losing’, or ‘Don’t get in the way of your teammates’.

The problem is, different players have different social contract ‘rules’ in their heads and get annoyed when others don’t follow the behaviour they were expecting. Some players think the rule is, ‘Always do what’s needed to help your team win’, while others say it’s ‘Do what you can to get the top score, even if it costs your team the match’.

To bring this back to kingmaking, whether players attack the leader (even if it doesn’t help their personal position), or attack someone else because it helps them, even if doing so pushes the leader further ahead, someone is probably going to get annoyed.

Taken from MIT Press’ International Security journal, the ‘security curve’ argues that increasing power can actually make you a target.

Kingmaking in action

For a great example of kingmaking, check out Rock Paper Shotgun’s series of diaries by players running through the turn-based strategy game, Solium Infernum. With its complicated alliance and victory rules, this game strongly encourages politics and backstabbing, and it’s fascinating to watch as players make secret deals and discuss who they’re going to betray.

If you’re thinking that kingmaking solely features in strategy games, consider Mario Kart. Amusingly, this game manages to annoy both players who enjoy kingmaking and those who don’t, thanks to the much-argued-about blue shell. If I’m lagging in seventh place and the game gives me a Bullet Bill power-up, firing that is likely to take out the players in, say, fifth and sixth place, helping me towards my goal of winning the race. But the blue shell power-up skips over every player in front until it hits the race leader, helping the player in second place without improving my race position at all. That’s kingmaking right there.

Encourage or discourage

So, what is it about some games that encourage kingmaking? Basically, the game must have more than two players, and players must be able to recognise when they aren’t going to win. Let’s explore both of those, as they also provide methods for avoiding kingmaking.

First, if players can’t tell that they’ve definitely lost, then they’re more likely to keep fighting to win, rather than giving up and kingmaking. You can do this by hiding the scores until the end, by adding post-match bonuses, or by ramping up score values as the match gets close to the end.

Alternatively, you can make it difficult to know exactly when the game’s going to end, such as by including multiple victory conditions (see Civilization’s scientific, cultural, dominion, religious, and diplomatic victories). You can also link games together, so even if I can’t win game one, it’s still worth me pushing for points as that may help me win overall.

Games such as Armello demonstrate that kingmaking isn’t inherently good or bad, with some players complaining that the game is rife with it, and others enjoying that.

Know your audience

Despite those suggestions to prevent it, kingmaking isn’t inherently bad for games; indeed, some players love this sort of backstabbing and politicking (see CCP’s EVE Online for systems designed to encourage it). So rather than saying ‘this is bad’, I wanted to raise the issue so you can decide whether you want to encourage or discourage it, and how kingmaking affects the type of players you want your game to appeal to.

Power play

As the name suggests, kingmaking isn’t limited to gaming, with people using it in ancient politics (when it was literally about making kings), to the nuclear arms race. In 2011, Davide Fiammenghi came up with ‘the security curve’. This shows that as someone gains power, their immunity from attack goes up (as no-one wants to be punished), but if they continue to gain power it starts to drop (as others are forced to gang up on them). However, if they survive this phase, then further power gains effectively make them immune (with everyone turning on each other for second place).

Kingmaking conditions

Kingmaking occurs in games for more than two players because you can’t kingmake if it’s just you versus an opponent. This can also apply if multiple players are grouped into two teams, either at the start of the game or by becoming allies. Why and when players become allies is a topic for a separate article, but whether a group of allies can win together (like the board game, Cosmic Encounter) or are forced to back-stab each other (like the Game of Thrones board game) will have a big impact on kingmaking.

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