Responsibility and Empathy in Times of War

This is going to be one of those articles where I start somewhere and end somewhere else with the path b’tween full of twists and slopes. I want to jaw about responsibility. It’s something that’s been gnawing on me for awhile. It’s something that often occupies my thoughts long into the black sky A.M. It sits comfortably uncomfortable alongside my emotional winding down of a night with intense conflict and strategic maneuvering.

Responsibility is something we should own. When you sit down to play a game with others you’re entering, and in fact creating, a delicate ecosystem. It’s a unique environment composed of unique individuals. In addition to myriad personalities, shared histories, and both explicit and implicit rules structure, there are specifics of the moment, a fallout from that exact time and place. Below the laughter, below the plastic bits and wooden table, there’s a tempest that belies the calm and calculated nature at the surface. It’s something we cannot hope to control but it is something we can attempt to ride.

What the hell are you talking about?

What I’m saying is that it is our responsibility to ensure a good time is had by all. This requires a bit of empathy and a bit of sacrifice. This concept isn’t radical. While this hobby is what it is and I’ve seen appalling behavior, the majority of individuals I associate with subscribe to this philosophy. Aaron hates Tigris & Euphrates so I don’t push for it. Jeremy has a disdain for cooperative games so I leave those in the ground. Ben’s been itching to play Factory Fun so I take a break from shoving publisher supplied review copies down his throat for an evening.

By the way, games lie people. Factories suck and the most eventful days include someone losing an appendage or getting their flimsy bits stuck between two cogs. That ain’t fun.


But anyway, those sacrifices are small. What picks at the scab of my heart is a conflict of responsibility with rules incentivized behavior. What I’m talking about is in-game action that causes another pain.

Story time.

So I have a buddy, let’s call him Hal because that’s his name. He’s a very external fellow. Wonder what he’s thinking? Take off the Beats™ and this dude will let you know. Mostly, Hal is a bit negative. I can’t often tell how he feels about a new game because his vocal chords live in the same pitch as Bolt Thrower’s bassist.

Nevertheless, I will curb my in-game behavior based on reading the group and Hal is definitely part of the group. When I was teaching him Eclipse, one of the best games ever designed according to a bunch of rad people (I’m rad), we came to a moment where I could crush him. It was his first game and he was playing competently, but I had forcefully grasped the center of the galaxy and was exerting my influence like a malevolent space dictator. He was beaten back and I wanted to deliver a final blow, virtually removing him from the game with a couple of rounds remaining. I felt like it was the right move strategically as I’ve been burned more than once exercising mercy.

I couldn’t do it. 

It would have soured the entire experience and left him dejected. This messed me up. I let him live.


I didn’t want to fail Hal. As an architect of this ecosystem I had a divine responsibility to ensure its health. But don’t I have a responsibility to the integrity of the game and its collected systems? Do I have a responsibility to the other players sitting nearby, expecting an honest effort within the spirit of the cardboard we’re battling over?

That line is fuzzier than a ball of three-second-rule peanut butter.

Another story: it was our first play of Scythe, a group of FNGs eager to get on with the growing and destroying. I was playing a faction that was heavily incentivized to plod across the map and pickup the encounter tokens. I nabbed those on the borders first, keeping myself within striking distance of a few other spaces in neutral territory. One player decided to move towards one such space so I reacted by claiming it first. This effectively wasted his action. He proceeded to lose it and was teeming with anger.

His protestations centered around me continually thwarting just him, effectively picking on him over the others. I was baffled. Was I really doing this?


He was visibly upset, frustrated, and even angry. It shook me and really threw me off. I internally vowed to avoid this person for the second half of the game. But it kept bothering me. I had to try and fix this.

So I spoke up. I apologized and said that what he expressed was not true, I was not deliberately targeting him. His anger would not subside immediately and he then moved on to explaining that I could not tell him his feelings were wrong because they were his and his alone.

I shut down. I believe I still won the game but there was no sense of joy or warm sensation at the pit of my stomach. It was awful and it still bothers me to this day, years later. This is not why I game and I don’t want that type of emotional baggage.

As I sat there nauseated, I made a decision. That behavior, what I had inflicted upon him, forced a choice of weighing the importance of people versus that of the game. It wasn’t a choice at all. We have a responsibility of compassion, regardless of activity.

But it’s never easy.

If a player is routinely visibly upset playing high conflict games, then what do I do? If that’s what everyone else wants to play, do we exclude them? Do we handle them with kid gloves? What if this affects the integrity of balance and threatens to collapse the experience?

I have many more questions than answers here. Certainly players must own their own adverse behavior, which includes how we respond to external pressure. We must control our emotions and act appropriately. Trying to adjudicate right or wrong in this instance though is foolish. We all have a responsibility to ourselves and the other souls sitting across from us. It’s only a game.

It’s only a game.



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  10 comments for “Responsibility and Empathy in Times of War

  1. Ian Allen
    April 1, 2019 at 7:15 am

    I agree. The point is to get together with people you don’t hate and do something that everyone enjoys. If even 1 person at the table is not having fun, it degrades (if not ruins) the experience for everyone else.

    Sometimes there are people you invite to play that are not going to be happy no matter how things turn out. They are either too aggressive and/or rude OR they might be a whiner – OR you bring a staunch euro gamer into a group of American style gamers or vice versa. People that cause problems end up not getting invited back.

    I had a woman show up to the group one night that cussed like a sailor with her leg in a bear trap. She proceed to dress me down for attacking her … I think the game was Cyclades. I physically wanted to punch her in the face by the end of the night, but I took the high ground and ignored her Turret’s-like performance and made SURE everyone knew that she was not to be invited back again.

    Another time a perfectly nice person showed up but brought their 13 year old. Now I am not anti-kid, but I am anti-kid on adult game night. We tried to play something like Eldritch Horror and the kid was bored and playing with their phone and not paying attention and so forth and really drug the game down for everybody.
    I found some super polite way to let that person know that I felt the age limit for adult game night needed to be about 15 or so. They never came back again despite how tactfully I tried to phrase it.

    I used to play to win many years back. That left me angry and frustrated when I got picked on by 1 or more people at the table. I finally learned that everyone having fun is much more important and just … like the song says … “let it go … let it go ….” Now I “try” to win but if there is a FNG at the table I ease up on them and if everyone picks on me I just take it like a badge of honor and think – “hey – I’m so good that 3 out of these 6 people need to f@ck with me just to keep me from winning – that’s not so bad.”

    I also try to give new players advice as they play these days, even against my best interests in the game, in order to help them have fun. It has been years since I left a session fuming about losing.

    I do have 1 player in my group that targets me above all others on nearly every single game we play. I’ll admit that tested me – stretched the limit of my goodwill – to the point where I wondered if I had accidentally run over that person’s dog or something – but I just weathered the storm and now that person only mostly targets me instead of exclusively targets me – so we are making progress I guess.


    • April 1, 2019 at 7:32 am

      Wow, that’s a lot of terrible stuff to unpack Ian.

      One thing that stuck out to me is your comment about helping new players. I definitely do this too. I often give strategy tips when teaching a game and offer reminders throughout.

      I think I’d have a hard time dealing with someone always targeting me. It really bothers me when people play illogically.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ian Allen
        April 1, 2019 at 10:35 am

        All I want these days is for everyone to have a good time and hopefully to have some good stories come out of the game.

        Like last week I lost BADLY as a Cylon Leader in BSG, but we all laughed for about 5 minutes when we lost so many admirals that dopey old Hot Dog ended up being the Admiral.
        “Admiral Hot Dog chooses to sacrifice fuel in this case …. etc. etc.”

        I have a fun story about how badly my Cylon Leader got ping ponged around the game, being executed, sent to sick bay, hand zapped, etc. – AND out of 85 plays of BSG or so I finally got to see an Admiral Hot Dog!

        Liked by 1 person

        • April 1, 2019 at 1:34 pm

          I think I’d defect if Hot Dog was Starfleet’s greatest hope.


  2. Michael Nagel
    April 2, 2019 at 9:43 am

    If you wanna play grown-up games you need to have grown-up emotional control.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Jason Nachtrab
    April 4, 2019 at 1:40 pm

    This is a really interesting article Charlie. I have pretty much the same approach, mostly because (in other game groups) I am usually the one who teaches games. I feel a particular obligation to try to help everyone enjoy the game in those situations, to the point that I usually focus more on that than on winning. I’ll even occasionally feel *bad* about winning a game I’m more familiar with, it seems like cheating somehow – as ridiculous as that is.

    This is also really prevalent when gaming with my sons. My two oldest are 13 and 17 and they are more than capable of holding their own from a strategy/gameplay standpoint. However, they’re very much still learning about “grown-up emotional control.” I’ve played my 13-year-old to a dead heat in a 3-hour game of Rebellion, only to have the game come down to a completely random die roll or a single choice made with imperfect information. If that die roll meant I won, he got upset (while understanding he did well) and I felt bad. The only other option is to skew things his way, which feels like doing him a disservice. I’m fine letting my 9-year-old win, it’s more important that he just learns social interaction. It’s harder to draw that line with my older boys.

    I think more than anything, this responsibility can actually make board games less appealing at times. I have a pretty decent collection at home and the time and opportunity to play a lot. However, there are an awful lot of nights where I don’t have the mental bandwidth to take on that responsibility and get a game going, make sure everyone is having fun, etc., no matter how much I might want to. It’s a weird dichotomy.

    Also – Aaron doesn’t like Tigris & Euphrates??!! I’m going to have to reassess some things…

    Liked by 1 person

    • April 4, 2019 at 1:53 pm

      That’s a very good point that there’s a burden on the teacher/facilitator. I find running a game to be a very rewarding experience (kind of like showing someone a movie they’ve never seen and living vicariously through them), but there’s certainly some weight when you’re the one facilitating.

      Along those same lines I can get really bummed when there’s a game I absolutely love but I know the majority of people I play with won’t want to play it. I feel guilty sometimes for convincing them to try it and then they’re let down or whatever.

      That’s also some good thought on gaming with your children. When playing with my daughter I’ve definitely taken it easy at times, as my main priority when gaming with a five year old is focused on teaching and encouraging behavior. There’s a lot of opportunity there to be a gracious loser. I’ve also definitely felt the fatigue there and at times turned down playing a game with her and we’ve settled on doing something else.

      I’m having a bunch of other thoughts and realizing this would make a good article as well.

      Aaron last night said he would give T&E another shot. Maybe I can bring Yellow & Yangtze to Geekway/Gen Con since you likely haven’t tried that yet. I think he may enjoy it more as well.


  4. April 4, 2019 at 3:32 pm

    BGG user qwertymartin posted a link to this article over on the comment section of an article I wrote about something tangetially related to this topic. Although I’m coming at it from a different direction. (My thoughts are here:

    I agree with most of what’s written here, except for the last paragraph. The part where it’s argued that we need to control our emotions and act appropriately. I wonder, if we ask the same of people who laugh loudly at the cinema; scream at the scary parts or cry at the sad ones? They affect other people’s experience after all. Negatively, too, if we don’t find the same moments funny, scary or very sad.

    If another player feels picked on, even though I had no intention of picking on them, maybe it’s not only their fault for getting mad? Just because I didn’t mean to offend somebody, doesn’t mean my words or actions weren’t hurtful. Shouldn’t we assume that other people’s experiences and perspectives are true? Or rather, regardless of whether we share them, shouldn’t we use their response to understand them, ourselves and our interactions better? To learn from those moments and find ways to make sure they don’t happen again?

    We are often so quick to assume that when players are agitated or strongly frustrated by the events of a game, it’s because they have somehow regressed to the mental state of a child. But it probably more like the co-worker who snaps at their boss or the partner who walks off in a huff for suffering one indignity too many.

    It’s been my experience that you can usually tell who is actually immature or has trouble keeping their emotions in check, long before you sit down to play a game with them. If these moments only happen in certain games, even, it’s most likely not they who are behaving inappropiately.

    Maybe instead of demanding people bottle up their emotions, so we’re not inconvenienced in our joyful experience of playing what is “just a game”… why not offer some emotional support and understanding to those who are having a bad time?

    Liked by 1 person

    • April 4, 2019 at 6:45 pm

      He shared your article with me on twitter and it’s a great read!

      I was unsure whether to include those comments in the final paragraph but I felt it was necessary as it eludes to the fact this is very much a grey issue and not black and white.

      Particularly, there is a person I often play with who very much enjoys conflict games but often is negative and very vocally a complainer. Afterwards he’s completely fine but his behavior and pouting during play will often degrade the experience for other players.

      I don’t think pointing out that we in some instances, we are responsible for controlling our reactions as well. I think that’s more than fair given I spent nearly a thousand words grappling with my own fault in the situation.

      Every person, interaction, and experience is a unique situation. We all need to do our best to help each other out and elevate the play for our fellow participants.

      Liked by 1 person

      • April 5, 2019 at 4:49 am

        Thanks for the kind words.

        I think the dominant position in board gaming, at least as far as I have seen it, has been that the fault lies with the person expressing their displeasure and never with the person causing it.

        It makes me uncomfortable because it echoes so many problematic social dynamics in society, that lay the responsibility of a conflict at the feet of those who speak up. As opposed to those who are pushing it.

        I agree that every interaction and experience is unique. But when it comes to conflict like that, our baseline should be that both perspectives are legitimate and it’s a question of negotiating some middle ground. Not of seeking ways to invalidate one side or another.

        I think what we forget about competitive play, is that it actually involves a lot of social negotiation to be enjoyed by all. Not just those who are winning.

        Liked by 1 person

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