Eventually I’m going to come up with a pithier title for this blog, but for now “My favorite part of games is cheating” is a pretty accurate representation of what I enjoy as a game player. In this post I’m going to explore a few anecdotes about cheating, specifically focusing on the emotional responses that cheating can invoke in the player, as well as some of the game design implications.
My first memory of cheating was at the age of 6 or 7 and playing Monopoly with my grandpa. I was losing pretty sorely when he slipped me a big wad of cash under the table so I wouldn’t go broke. I was confused at first but he smiled and winked and we kept playing. I felt invincible and loved and like we had a special secret. I know now that cheating in Monopoly is ubiquitous (see Hasbro’s recently released Monopoly: Cheater’s Edition). What’s interesting about this to me as a game designer is that cheating in Monopoly really doesn’t break the game or game balance. While I had a wad of cash to keep me going, that really can’t solve the issue of too few properties and a game board covered in other people’s hotels.
On the other hand, cheating at Settlers of Catan has often drastically turned the game around in my favor. In settlers there are five types of resources you need to build and expand your settlement. These are received by rolling the dice and gathering resources when the die roll aligns with resources you have claim over. The difference between picking up two wood cards vs. one when the probability of picking up wood is low can massively change the game. Whereas my grandpa helping me in Monopoly had a kind of cooperative/competitive mix, this type of cheating is entirely intended to flip the game and beat the other players. What I really enjoy here is taking the cards right in the other person’s face. So far, unless I’ve drawn direct attention to it, no one has ever noticed me do this (of course this will probably change if anyone of my friends or family ever finds this blog). I’ve even taken cards when I have no settlements that would allow me to take that resource. I find that most people are so focused on their own game and strategy that they’re not even paying attention to what the other players are doing. As a game designer, I don’t really know a strict way around this. I believe the designers of Catan have done as much as is reasonable to prevent this kind of cheating (e.g., turn-based system, limit of 7 cards per hand, a mechanic that draws attention to hand limits), which actually does end up being game-breaking to a degree, and it ends up being the other players who have left this door wide open. But really the cheating is less fun without that social component. At the end of every game, I always tell everyone else I cheated. What’s the point of being clever if no one knows about it? And they should have known better. I do actually try to play this game less now because it’s probably unhealthy to feed this kind of unwarranted and unearned egomania.
Finally, I want to talk about cheating in digital games which is an entirely different beast. There’s a pretty big range of ways you can “cheat” in a digital game, but the ones I’ve always liked best are taking advantage of bugs in the system. An old favorite of mine was one of the infinite gold hacks in Elder Scrolls: Oblivion. If you equipped a weapon, mounted a horse, and rode up to an outdoor vendor in Kvatch, you could infinitely “sell” your equipped weapon without losing it. I imagine being the player(s) to discover this bug was extremely satisfying, but I was never an extreme enough player to uncover those things on my own. Instead my Dad shared it with me when reading an online forum about the game. We walked through the documented bug in detail and were ecstatic when it worked out. So here we enjoyed that social component of exploiting a cheat but without any form of competition. For the game designers the path forward was pretty clear and not too long after this bug was patched, much to my sadness.
I don’t think it’s the job of game designers to explicitly prevent cheating, especially when it’s known to be one of the most fun things in a game. Allowing the player to feel powerful and clever is often a goal of games and making room for cheating is just one way to achieve that. Rather, the game designer needs to ensure that by cheating, players don’t utterly destroy the balance or the magic circle of the game.