Screw heroism—these board games let you play the villain against your friends

Screw heroism—these board games let you play the villain against your friends

In Gameological Unplugged, Samantha Nelson looks at trends and new developments in the vast world of tabletop games.

There are plenty of kids’ games designed to teach teamwork and promote harmony. But there’s another class of playground pastimes where a little ostracization is built right in—games like tag, keep away and Marco Polo that pit one or two kids against their friends and classmates. These lopsided games might be cruel if it weren’t fun to be the odd one out, but luckily, there’s a nervous joy in being the kid who the others must flee or catch or otherwise thwart. It’s the thrill of having everyone else’s focus for a moment.

That thrill is also found in board games that pit one player against the rest of the table, though individual games take different approaches to this dynamic. Fantasy Flight’s Descent: Journeys In The Dark puts one player in the role of the Overlord while the rest of the players are adventurers. It’s reminiscent of old-school Dungeons & Dragons, where the Dungeon Master was expected to be highly antagonistic to their players, throwing brutal challenges at them while being indifferent to their survival. Early D&D modules were filled with horrific monsters and traps, and the DM’s job was to bring those dungeons alive for players, much in the way the Overlord does in Descent. 

One big difference is that Descent gives the Overlord victory conditions other than just killing all the players, such as having a certain number of minions escape. This wrinkle makes competitors stay on their toes and keeps the game moving quickly. While there’s no real role-playing involved aside from reading some scripted intros and epilogues, taking a turn as the Overlord provides a good primer for the D&D Dungeon Master role, as you balance the fun of being an antagonist with the need to entertain your players. The Overlord can certainly win, but you have to be willing to accept defeat along the way.

That’s not the case in other one-vs.-many games. The Lord Of The Rings board game, also by Fantasy Flight, is brutal. I’ve played this cooperative game (with players banding together to conquer the game) plenty of times, and on all but one occasion, our hobbits fell before having their chance to chuck the One Ring into the fires of Mt. Doom. The forces of evil don’t need any help here, but they get it in the Sauron expansion, which puts one player in control of the menace of Middle Earth. It strips away almost all of the game’s randomness—typically generated by drawing cards—and replaces it with an antagonistic player to further devastate your band of hobbits. This add-on even provides the villain with an alternate win condition in the form of a ring-stealing Black Rider. 

In a game that’s already one-sided, having a player kick everyone else while they’re down—which they always are—just seems mean. In one playthrough with the Sauron expansion, as we desperately sought a way to keep Pippin and Frodo alive, the player controlling Sauron started offering tips to try to help us. It was shameful charity, like we were playing monkey-in-the-middle and our older sibling had pity on us with a “bad throw.” You might get a win that way, but if feels more patronizing than satisfying.

The most enjoyable one-vs.-many add-ons are the ones that shift the balance of the rules only slightly, much in the way that covertly turning one player against their teammates can inject an undercurrent of suspicion into an otherwise civil affair. In both cases, having someone work against the rest of the group has the effect of quieting table talk. You can’t plot strategies without running the risk of the opposing player foiling your plans. In a one-vs.-many scenario, however, there’s no thrill in deceiving your friends, since everyone knows what side you’re on, but the player taking on the role of villain at least signed on for that job and presumably enjoys it.

Like the Sauron expansion, the Black Secret add-on for Repos Production’s Ghost Stories has one player assume the role of the evil adversary. In this case, you’re the powerful ghost Wu-Feng, and it’s your job to make the opponents’ task of exorcising you as difficult as possible. On each turn, you can follow the normal rules of the game—drawing and playing a ghostly minion—or try new elements, like cursing the opposing monks or summoning demons. It’s a tough role to master because there are so many fronts to fight on. The strategy comes in picking your battles carefully and mixing up the ways you press the righteous monks to keep them from growing complacent. You can easily spend the entirety of the monks’ turn plotting out your next move, but at one big board gaming event, I found Wu-Feng’s player wandering off to socialize while the exorcists made their decisions. He took great pleasure in walking back, seeing what they’d done, and filling them with despair through his next move, like a true malevolent spirit. 

Z-Man Games’ On the Brink adds a bioterrorist to Pandemic, the studio’s popular cooperative game. While everyone else is running around the globe trying to cure the four diseases found in the base game, one player is spreading a fifth plague and impeding the CDC agents by blowing up their research stations. The players can try to find and capture the terrorist, but capture is a small setback, as the villain can easily escape. It’s a smart way to keep the chaos-inducing player from being eliminated from the game. 

Considering how busy we were trying to keep the world from ending, players in my group rarely paused to figure out where the bioterrorist was, even when his movements could have been easily traced. He did have considerable impact, though, and put extra pressure on us, especially when he decided it would be fun to repeatedly destroy our facilities. The bioterrorist has a limited influence on the game, but it was enough to keep us from devoting our full focus to beating the board, and we eventually lost.

The best part of On The Brink’s rulebook is a section on etiquette. It explains that players can’t walk away from the table to make their plans out of earshot, reminds both sides to be conscientious about how long their turns are taking, and encourages the bioterrorist to taunt his or her opponents. These things probably don’t need to be said, but they plainly state the delightful self-contradiction of one-vs.-many games: Even as someone takes on the role of the villain, you’re still playing together.

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