Creating a multiplayer strategy game that doesn't socially stratify


Staff member
This is semi-related to something Faun was talking about on the discord, but also morphed into my own direction and something I've been curious about.

I don't like that competitive games socially stratify, i.e., after the match, you are the winner, I am the loser, you are better. That sort of thing. In the right situation the "cost" here can be pretty low, but it's always there. Sportsmanship helps to deal with the second order effects of these bad feelings, but doesn't address the cause, which is the social stratification.

We could debate that, for sure. But for now let's just take it as a given that this is something that I want, and look at how it maybe could be achieved.

Question 1, I guess, is, could it be achieved? My default answer is "no", but it might be interesting to explore. Eurogames/"multiplayer solitaire" seems to at least nod in that direction - it feels way less socially stratifying if you were doing your own thing over there and I did my own thing here and my points were higher. Maybe this could be pushed even further somehow?

Here's a possibility: what if it was like an asymmetric game, and each character did like a different mathematical operation on their points whenever they scored points? Like so Character 1 gains 1 point when they score a point. But character 2 multiplies some value (like 1553 or something) by an increasing number for each new point, or something like that? I guess they could have some kind of "table" on the back that shows the scale of how good or bad the number is, which is ALSO expressed differently maybe. Like Character 1, it's just left as numbers. But all the other characters with their weird 0.135613666 numbers, convert to other different things, so Character 2 has a conversion chart that converts to 5 different fruits from best to worst. Character 3 has 7 letter grades that their weird-ass numbers convert to. Character 4 gives, I don't know, 10 different "cars", like starting from a Kia up to a Ferrari or something.

I guess technically it is still possible to see, okay, you got the Kia (worst car) and I got the strawberry (best fruit), so I beat you, but maybe these extra layers of abstraction help?

I don't know. It's mostly just a thought experiment probably, but maybe others have some ideas on how this could be achieved?
My tweet storm of random thoughts for consideration in no particular order:
  • Does competition require scoring? Does it require a winner and a loser?
  • People play 'hot potato' games of Dwarf Fortress and Rim World. They pass the same game around between many people.
  • Kentucky Route Zero sometimes asks the player to make dialog choices for *every* party in the conversation, not just the protagonist.
  • Solium Infernum has a "kingmaker" victory condition, where you win the game if you come in second place to a specific player.
  • Many cooperative games also socially stratify players by giving each one a score, which encourages some people to play for points even if it means neglecting important activities that do not contribute to their score.
  • Some games, like Overwatch, give players "minor" victories like "most healing done" which can mitigate feelings of loss (or victory...). A player may say 'well, we lost but I still did a good job of supporting my teammates'. (Or 'we won but I definitely didn't help...')
  • Part of the attraction to games is that you can take risks in a safe environment. Games can let you compete without losing anything (except pride). In the right circumstances they challenge you to get better. I think I see that attitude a lot in the fighting game community.
  • In Eco, players are competing against... competition itself? (Tragedy of the commons.)
And how could I forget this one? In Skyward Collapse, an experimental solitaire strategy game, the goal is to compete without winning. If you win, you actually lose. (If you don't compete, you also lose. But I don't think there is any winning to be had.)
Some friends of mine who enjoy tabletop Warhammer also don't see the game as a competition. For many Warhammer players--and perhaps many tabletop strategy gamers in general--the primary purpose of play is just to see what happens, and to turn that into a fun and interesting narrative. This might be the closest I've seen to a competition which doesn't stratify players. For it to be enjoyable, both players do need to play to win, but there is wiggle room here for good roleplaying. People might take a bigger risk than strictly necessary not because it's the optimal decision, but because it produces the optimal narrative. As Russell Crowe learned as a Gladiator, it's not only about winning. It's about entertaining. (And surviving.)

I think this might be among the best solutions to the problem. I can see the relationship here to some of the other stuff I mentioned above, like sharing responsibility, having a true goal other than just winning, enjoying the act of play by itself, the need for your opponent to have fun and want to play again, and being interested in the outcome whether it is counted as a win or a loss.


Staff member
>Does competition require scoring? Does it require a winner and a loser?

Scoring, no, unless you consider some binary conditions a form of "score". It doesn't require a winner AND a loser but it does require the ability for a player to either lose or win (so, you could have a 1 player game).

I think a lot of the stuff you're mentioning is all good and effective, but they're all basically kinds of "rewards". To me, winning and losing is, I guess, a reward, but it's a pretty special one. It is "the goal" as prescribed by whoever proposed this system in the first place. I do think it's great for some systems to have all kinds of rewards all over the place, like in an MMO or something. But I also think it's great to have systems that are like LASER focused around one single clear goal. And in those systems, having other rewards (like "did the most healing!") can be negative and damaging to the system in terms of its balance and how people are playing the thing.
Mousehold more or less voices my initial thoughts on the problem. If competition is held face-to-face, the chances of winning and losing creating "bad blood" between players is pretty minimal, especially if you're playing with friends. So in theory (oh how we love theories!) we could solve the problem by making only games that are played on the table top, over LAN or on a single machine.

Obviously, though, this doesn't help us much; there should always be room for online competitive games between strangers. So the question then becomes: how can a designer restrain our natural human urges to infer that we are "better" (or "worse") than someone else because we won (or lost) against them in a game?

I can see Keith's point that having "side rewards" in competitive games can be a disadvantage to a coherent design. But coming off of Mousehold's idea from Overwatch, can't competitive team games provide a buffer against this problem? When I play a team game, the main way I evaluate my personal performance is not whether or not our team won. That would be daft - I can play perfectly and the team still lose, or play atrociously and my team still win. Likewise, I can't judge others based on their team's performance.


Staff member
I really think putting people face to face like that only stops the second order effects - the bad behavior, which is the symptom of a deeper problem of bad feelings and ideas (the feeling that I am inferior or superior to this person). It's similar to sportsmanship in that yeah it stops the worst visible effects, but it doesn't actually address the core issue.
I guess an important part is how (much) the game presents the domination and how much communication is possible.

Explicit highlighting like "you defeated/killed x", at best with a dying or obeying opponents avatar, enforces it. So shooters are more worse then most strategy games because of the avatar needed as explicit part of the game (Overwatch vs Gwent). But even a non avatar game like Gwent would be better than LoL.
Combined with a ladder system and achievements which speaks the same language and emphasize the domination of other players. When players get rewarded with more than a won match.
Maybe it would be best to hide all ranks, so nobody can really know how much better he is then others. The system knows that for the matching and that's enough, the players should player as long as they enjoy the matches and follow not a extrinsic carrot of level up's.
Nachtfischer wrote about that : The Philosophy of Competitive Games

If direct commination is allowed, frustrationcan can and will break it's way. If people can offend each other, they mostly will. Especial in a game which highlight domination like I explained above.
So no explicit communication directly connected to the match (during and afterwards). Just a selection of messages from a predefined set like "good game".

In addition I think that different games will attract different people.
A game with a very explicit presentation of domination will be played by more people who like to dominate. If they win, they will try to express the domination. If they loose they will try to express their frustration about being dominated, they will be satisfied if they can.
This attracts people who are having a bad life, lack of trust, respect, affection, self-determination. For example: if you are dominated at work, the try to dominate others can be an attractive valve. At least you can offend them and won't get fired like at your job.

How about that?
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My first thought was pretty much the one Keith suggests in OP: heve a very asymmetric game where the scores can't be compared. Like let's say one player plays as the trees of a forest and another as an animal eating fruits of the trees. The tree player is scored by the number of trees at end of game, while the animal has a binary goal of not starving. The two players' actions will affect each other, but they are not directly aligned or opposed. Here it's clear that playing as the trees is a different game from playing as the animal.

Ideally, people could just play some euroish multiplayer solitaire and decide not to compare the scores, but probably it wouldn't work in practice because the expectation for games is competition. If instead of a score the game had a binary goal, that might make it easier to only focus on your own win/loss.

Generally I would like to see more games with a variable number of winners instead of the usual one. Some variants of mafia/werewolf social deduction games can have more than one 'team' as winners, but I can't think of many other examples. In the games where there is a variable number of players I have also found that people tend to value shared victory less than single victory. For example one of the Eclipse (the space themed boardgame) expansions has a mechanic where players can form an alliance during the game and then win jointly. It's often beneficial for the two leading players to ally to ensure their victory, but often if the first leader has a big enough advantage that they think they can win even without the alliance they will try to do that for 'glory'.

All my suggestions here can of course at most reduce the social stratification to the level of single player games, where people still compare scores and rankings.
I think the framing, visually and systemically, is very important.
Keith, basically I agree with you: Competition causes toxicity.
I'm practising martial arts for 20 years, always with self defense as purpose, never for competition. And even there i have observerd both.
Toxicity in an 'competitive' system on one side. The grand master safed his leading positions by physical domination.
And fairness and friendship in an cooperative system on the other side.
The later was not about your position in a system, but about freeing everybody's potential. Helping others to get better was reinforced.
Yes, this was fighting. For training it's necessary to 'fighting' someone. But is this competitive? I guess not.
Even fighting isn't always fighting.

Speaking more generell and about games:
Why do we want people to be in competition? Shouldn't they play a game 'for fun' (getting better and enjoying competence and self determination) ? Is competition a good way for that?
I would say actually no and that an singleplayer elo is the better way. At least as long as we don't find a system where fighting is not about domination but about learning and helping others.
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