What is quarterbacking in co-op games? (and how to not do it)
Recently, we reviewed Pandemic, a game that’s beloved by plenty of date night gamers but also hated by a few who have succumbed to “quarterbacking.”
What is quarterbacking?
Quarterbacking in a co-op game is essentially when one person turns into a dictator for the whole game. It’s when one person tries to tell everyone else what to do in a game.
For some games, you might think that’s sort of an acceptable thing – like the role of the Dungeon Master in a game of Dungeons & Dragons. Or on the first play-through of a new board game, one person knowing the game and explaining it to others during the first few rounds is usually a-okay.
It’s natural to have leaders pop up in games. Some people prefer to lead, some people prefer to follow. But quarterbacking is when one person just tends to take over and the other players don’t have much say in what’s happening. They keep people from having input in the game and it can be a miserable experience.
It’s usually a player problem, not a game problem. But due to the nature of co-op games, quarterbacking is typically rewarded in most co-op games if the participants are focused on winning. It’s a human nature sort of thing.
Quarterbacking has also been referred to as having a pack leader, an alpha player or a dictator.
How to prevent quarterbackers
A post specifically on Pandemic on a Board Game Geek thread sums up one option better than I ever could,
“Here is how I handle this type of situation: ask, why? Put the dictator on the spot to give a thorough explanation of why their approach is the best. If they get huffy about you “questioning” them, explain that you want to understand the thought process to improve your game.
As they explain the plan, look for opportunities to poke holes in it. Present some what ifs and highlight the risk in a given approach. Look for opportunities to flesh out alternative paths, if-then branches, and techniques for dealing with catastrophic success and failure. Insist that the plan be updated after any turn that has a significant event (epidemic card, outbreak, or special card in Pandemic for example). After you have worked through this, you’ll find that you have executed collaborative planning and have come up with a better plan than the “dictator” started with. You will have all benefited from the discussion and you path to victory should be cleaner.
If the “dictator” is unwilling to indulge you and the rest of the players with an explanation, politely explain that you aren’t going to do what they say if they can’t even explain why you should do it. You could even accuse them of not knowing what they’re talking about if you want to get confrontational.
By bringing the discussion into the open, you make the game collaborative again. You can easily ask these questions without being confrontational. You just have to ask them in the context of learning about the game.”
So some things to keep in mind if your significant other or a primary player in your board game group is prone to quarterbacking:
- Introduce a game they don’t have experience with/literally can’t quarterback, at least not at the start.
- Speak up.It’s up to you and your teammates to keep them from steamrolling the game.
- You can speak up and try to talk through it or, if this is something they always do despite being confronted, choose to not play co-op games with them.
- Implement talking rules. One great solution:
- “Our rule is that the person whose turn it is tells what they plan, then others may provide input of why they believe something else is important, but it is the active players choice which route to take.
- This allows the players to take their turn, explain how they see the situation, as well as be given alternatives. It works for me (prone to QB’ing), and it works for our group.
More drastic means are different silence options.
- Totem: Only those with it may speak. Starts at active player, and they may solicit aid if they choose.
- Assistance Tokens: Everyone is given one, but when they provide help they give the token, and cannot give advice again until their token is returned at the start of their turn.”
- Or, per another suggestion – “You can still speak. You just can’t give your strategy before the person whose turn it is. We implemented this rule after a couple of frustrating moments where a person excitedly shouted out what should happen next when the player was going to do that anyway. It took away that player’s feeling of contribution and triumph.”
Things can get tricky if the quarterbacker is your significant other and you want to keep playing co-op games, though. Other tactics, if you’re more desperate:
- Introduce another quarterbacker to game to help them realize their own quarterbacking tendencies.
- Play games where you are similar in skill levels. Quarterbacking tends to happen when one player has a lot more experience than the other players. Consider playing the game the quarterbacker is..quarterbacking..with other people a few times to understand it better.
- Switch to competitive games. Some people can’t help but quarterback games – a good example here.
- Send them this freaking article.
Also, remember to cut yourself some slack. Some people will never be good leaders or good quarterbacks, even though they want to be or try very hard to be within games.
You can’t change other people; you can only change yourself.
How to stop yourself from quarterbacking
There’s a big difference between guiding and basically running an entire game by yourself. If you’re experienced with a game and introducing others to it, it’s on you to not only a) introduce them to the concepts of the game in a way that makes sense but also b) do it in a way that clearly worked on you too, as you’ve apparently had positive experiences and may be over-eager to impress those on others.
It can be really easy to fall into quarterbacking if you’re an assertive type of person or if you’re playing with new people in a gaming group.
What helps is empathy and communication. If you know you enjoy teaching and experiencing the game with other people, you have to remember that part of the joy of learning games is figuring things out for yourself and the novelty of solving puzzles.
More importantly, it’s okay to lose. This gets lost a lot in video games, board games, any sort of games – it can cause a lot of friction in gaming couples. A satirical but good example:
Things to keep in mind if you’re guiding a game and want to not fall into the quarterbacking mode:
- Encourage your significant other or the other players to make their own decisions.
- Explain game mechanics but don’t actually take turns for other players. Use your own turn to model the examples, don’t commandeer their turns.
- Suggest outcomes, not actions. More on this here.
- Recognize that you’re being forceful. Or recognize if the people you’re playing with are non-confrontational and having a bad time. If people keep looking at their phones, if they’re not asking questions, if they’re not talking at all – you’re probably quarterbacking a game.
- Shut up. Intentionally hang back. If you did a good job explaining the concepts to the other players, they’ll start to get it. If not, wait for them to ask questions.
- Remember that you don’t know everything. People blame games like Pandemic for being more susceptible for quarterbacking because they think there’s a “right” move every turn and usually, there isn’t. You can tell people what to do in any game and it’s bad form in any game, why do it here? Reach decisions with consensus.
- Consider giving your players examples in the levels of a “safe” option, a “risky” option, and a “here’s what I do” option (hat tip here)
- Remember: it’s okay to lose. Can’t stress that enough.
It’s worth it to know if you’re prone to quarterbacking. A good insight from one couple on reddit,
“My husband and I basically quarterback each other in co-op games, and it works really well. He’s good at finding the generally mathematically optimal strategy, and I’m good at pointing out “Hail Mary” win conditions or weirder strategies he’d overlooked. But! This combination only works when it’s the two of us. We’re pretty careful to not QB if we’re playing with anyone else (especially someone new), even though it drastically lowers our win percentage lol.”