September 13, 2012

Gaming with Kids: The Runaway

War, conquest, and strategy games often suffer from a characteristic that puts off many gamers:  the runaway leader.  This is basically similar to the concept "the rich get richer."  As you expand and conquer, you get more money, men, and resources with which you further expand and conquer, thus receiving even more money, men, and resources, etc.  Conversely, if you fall behind, you receive less which makes it very difficult to stop, and/or catch-up to, the leader.  Risk is the ultimate, poster child for this often negative side-effect.  The more territories you own, the more armies you receive, thus the greater ability you have to steamroll opponents.  Meanwhile, falling behind early can translate into a death sentence as you receive too few armies to both conquer new lands (gain more troops) and adequately defend your empire (keep what little you already have).  Now, obviously, there are ways to deal with the runaway leader, else Risk would not have survived in popularity for 55 years.

I suppose one could argue that the runaway leader concept thematically portrays the real life cycles of historical civilizations and empires.  Empires garnered numbers and resources through their conquests of lands - indeed that, and its resultant power, was generally their motivation to expand in the first place.  And as they grew, they gained more strength for further expansion.  That was one of the benefits of large empires.  However, what war games rarely thematically abstract are the problems with large growth: waste, corruption, regional discontent and revolts, cumbersome administration, and over-extension of resources.

Adult gamers can lose interest in a game when it becomes obvious that they have very little chance of winning because the leader is so far ahead.  Children can downright lose heart and become completely demotivated to continue playing.  So, what to do?  The most obvious solution is the alliance.  Those currently not in the lead will ally against the clear leader.  It is certainly an effective strategy and often leads to another fun aspect of war gaming - diplomacy and all of its inherent psychological and brinkmanship glory.  However, not all gamers like the concept of alliances, in principle, instead seeing it as a cheap "gang up on the leader" gambit, whereby sheer numbers overtakes sophisticated savvy.  Another means of combating the runaway leader is to "turtle," a tactic whereby you take all your meager resources and pile them up in one place to create such a formidable fortress that the leader cannot complete the victory, but yet you are not able to win yourself.  This just delays the end, sometimes inevitably, and isn't any fun.

The always under-rated
Samurai Swords.
I still enjoy games with the runaway leader characteristic, but we also own some titles which have built-in mechanics to deal with or mitigate this sometimes sour issue.  Magnifico and Dust are interesting games in that they limit the number of times you may conquer territories each turn.  Other titles like Attack! and Warlords of Europe employ card play which can give significant bonuses to those falling behind.  A favorite mechanic to ease the pain and suffering of the runaway leader is a set victory condition, namely to shorten the game.  Axis & Allies 1942 (city points) and Risk 2210 (ten rounds) employ this kind of component.  And some games offer opportunities to make really, meaningful, one-time strikes against a leader that go a long way into evening the odds.  For example, in Samurai Swords, your three armies are almost more important than the number of territories you own.  Knock-out one or two of the leader's armies between you and the other "losers," and soon you're back on equal footing - or better!  Conquest of the Empire is similar in its use of generals.

Now most of the above titles possess one or more of those elements to check a runaway leader.  However, not to be misleading, a player can still runaway with a victory despite those built-in mechanics, so there is no guarantee to anything.  Nonetheless, these design points can ease game play, teach kids how to roll and react to less than ideal circumstances, and can always be counted on to add interesting dynamics.


  1. Nice essay. The runaway leader is definitely a problem when trying to engage kids in games. If they don't feel like they're in it, they don't want to play.

    Funny you should bring this topic up. I was just considering what may be a runaway leader problem in Alexandros in my last blog post. And last year I cited this problem among my criticisms of Monopoly.

  2. Thanks - yeah, I do remember reading your post, Paul. I'm not too familiar with Alexandros. This post was ironically inspired by me overcoming the runaway leader. My son, Brendon, was running away with the lead in a game of Samurai Swords, while my other son Cory and I beat away at each other on the other end of Japan (both of us down to 1 army). However, before Brendon could get over to me for the finishing blow, I went all out with 12 Ronin to go after Cory's last army in a fortified castle and won - I got all his territories which, combined with mine, got me the 35 needed for the victory!