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Quarterbacking in Board Games (and How to Avoid It)

Quarterbacking in board games is unfortunately common. Quarterbacks can ruin the game for players so it’s important to know how to deal with them and to avoid being one yourself.

What is quarterbacking? Quarterbacking happens in co-operative board games when one player takes over the group and tells the other players what to do. Quarterbacks may also be called alphas or pack leaders. The term comes from American football where the quarterback leads the offensive players on the team.

dreadbowl orc
An orc from Dread Bowl (maybe playing quarterback?)

I love co-operative games. I like that everyone works together and gets to play as a team rather than compete with each other. But not everyone gets to enjoy co-operative games.

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Quarterbacks, dictators, pack leaders, or alphas can dominate a co-operative game and make it no fun for anyone but themselves.

I want everyone to be able to enjoy co-operative games so I’ve put together this little guide on how to deal with quarterbacking.

How can you tell if someone is quarterbacking?

Quarterbacking in board games is where one person in the group takes over the game and makes all the strategic decisions. Because everyone’s turn is directed by the quarterback, no-one else really gets to have a go, and the quarterback ends up being the only person actually playing the game.

The quarterback is usually the person who has the most experience with the game or someone who is used to taking the lead in group situations.

There are some common behavior traits to help you spot the quarterback amongst you. A player who is quarterbacking in board games may:

  • Tell everyone how to take their turn without being asked for suggestions
  • Talk about how their way to take your turn is the only best way
  • Be defensive when you ask them to explain their strategy
  • Get offended if you make a move different to the one they told you to do
  • Not encourage discussion amongst the group about what to do
  • Pressurize players into doing what they say

The group of alphas

Sometimes a group of experienced players play a co-operative game with other people who haven’t played it before. In this case, you can have a group of dominant players who overrule the new players. This is still quarterbacking, it’s just in group form.

Unless every player is getting to have a go themselves, they aren’t really playing the game.

What quarterbacking is not

Quarterbacking in board games is not the same as participating in a discussion about what the group could do next. That’s just part of playing a co-operative game.

It’s also not the same as coaching and helping a new player. If someone is stuck on what to do because they haven’t played the game before and someone is offering help and suggestions, it’s not the same thing as quarterbacking.

Game design or person at fault?

Some people argue that quarterbacking in board games happens because of flaws in a game’s design. Others argue that the player is at fault. I can see both sides of the argument.

Some co-operative games can be played solo. So the game design itself actually encourages one person to think about the moves of every pawn.

However, my experience of playing all co-operative games is very positive, so the players do have a part to play in this too.

Someone who is quarterbacking in board games is not necessarily a bad person.

Most people don’t want to make other people feel bad. I’ve experienced games where people who are quarterbacking aren’t even aware they are doing it.

How to handle being quarterbacked by someone else

gigasaur king of tokyo
Gigazaur from King of Tokyo

It is no fun to be on the receiving end of quarterbacking in board games. But there are things you can do if it happens to you.

Ask the quarterback to explain their suggestions

Ask them to explain why you should make that move for the benefit of the group and learning the game. Suddenly, you’ve opened up a group discussion. The pressure is no longer on you to do exactly what the quarterback says.

Don’t do what they tell you

Do the opposite of what the quarterback tells you to and smirk when you do. It will drive them crazy.

Do this a few times and they will realize that the group will do better if they let you make a decision yourself. Because they want the group to win, they will just let you make your move your way rather than taking poor moves to spite them, potentially causing the group to lose the game.

Explain what you want to do instead

Chances are that you had some thoughts of your own before the quarterback started talking over your inner monologue. Voice them. Explain to the group what you are thinking. They will then be part of the conversation, and as a group, you can all decide what to do.

Ask other people for input

If you’re struggling to know what to do because you’re feeling pressurized by the quarterback, then ask other players what they would do. This way, you’re not ignoring the quarterback’s suggestions (which might make them annoyed), you’re just allowing other people to show that there are other ways you could take your turn.

How to handle a quarterback in your group

It is awful to watch quarterbacking during a board game. You want to help the poor person being pressurized into doing what they say. Here’s what to do.

Ask the player what they are thinking

If the player isn’t feeling very confident in their thinking they may not want to offer up their thoughts to the group. Just by asking them, you are showing that you value their opinion and you create space for them to talk.

Tell the quarterback to back off

The direct approach (while it can take some guts) does work. A quarterback may not realize that they are overbearing. If you just say, “Can you give them a second to think?” They will realize that they have been jumping in with their thoughts before the player has had a chance to think for themselves.

Talk to them about it

We aren’t usually playing games with small children, so we should all be able to have a conversation. The quarterback may not even realize they are doing it.

How to avoid quarterbacking happening in the first place

So how can you avoid quarterbacking happening in board games in the first place? Well, I have a few ideas.

Play co-op games only with friends

Play co-op games with your friends, not casual game groups. It’s much easier to raise an issue with friends than a total stranger.

Play games that are new to everyone

If everyone is new to the game, then no one is the expert. Everyone will be learning, so there shouldn’t be anyone taking on the quarterback role. At least not for the first game!

Don’t allow anyone to discuss strategy

Change the rules and make it so that you aren’t allowed to discuss moves with each other. You just take actions as you would in any other game based on your own understanding of what would be best.

This may lead to less optimal moves sometimes, but it makes the game more challenging and everyone gets to participate equally.

The player taking the turn talks first

This is a great strategy to make sure that everyone is engaged with the game and gets a fair chance of thinking for themselves and taking their own turn. It’s ok for the group to offer up suggestions after they have explained what they are going to do but only if they haven’t already taken their turn while talking.

Play games that discourage quarterbacking

Smart design can be great at discouraging quarterbacking in board games.

Games that have a traitor, or games with hidden information are good at discouraging quarterbacking because no player has all the information. It means that no one can say with absolute certainty what is the best decision for the whole group.

Other games where players all take their turn simultaneously also don’t provide quarterbacking opportunities. As do games that are quite complex and each player has their own specific traits to bring to the game. There are even some games where you aren’t allowed to talk at all.

Games with a traitor

In co-operative games with traitors mixed in, the game encourages players to keep some information hidden. Saboteur is one example. The mechanics mean that no one player ever has all the information so a quarterback cannot say with absolute certainty what the best move is.

Personal goals

Games like Gloomhaven are co-operative but characters also have their own objectives to complete. Because of this, you don’t want other players to know everything about what you have available in your hand or what you are planning.

You need to balance co-operating with your group so that you all succeed, while also taking the best actions for yourself. It makes for an interesting co-operative dynamic and means that even if someone is quarterbacking you, you’re still going to do what’s best for yourself sometimes.

Hidden information

When hidden information is key to the success of the game, the quarterback cannot take charge because they don’t know everything.

Hanabi is a good example. Each player has five different colors of cards numbered 1 to 5. Players must work together to create a row of each color in sequential order. But, players hold their cards facing away from them so the other players need to provide hints as to which cards to play.

Complex gameplay

When there is a lot going on in a game it’s difficult for anyone to keep track of everyone’s individual turns. Each player is too busy thinking about what they are going to do themselves and what the overall strategy is to give much attention to each individual player.

Arkham Horror and Spirit Island are both good examples of these types of games. Each player takes on a role with individual skills and traits different to the other players. Their abilities and skills also change during the course of the game and in each game they pick up different ones.

Because each game is unique it makes it difficult for someone to keep track of everything and quarterback.

Simultaneous gameplay

If everyone is taking their turn at the same time or within a certain time limit there isn’t any time for someone to quarterback. Captain Sonar has simultaneous turn-taking as an option, although it can also be played the usual way with everyone around the table taking a turn.

No talking allowed

Magic Maze board game
Magic Maze co-op board game

In Magic Maze, the players need to work together to move four pawns around the board to collect magic items and then get to the exit. Each player can move all the pawns but they can only move in certain directions as they are told on their card or take certain actions like using portals or escalators.

The one key rule in Magic Maze is that no one is allowed to talk. So it makes it impossible for anyone to quarterback!

See my post: What are co-operative board games? for more co-operative game examples.

How to avoid being a quarterback yourself

It is easy to fall into quarterbacking in board games if you tend to take the lead in group situations or if you know the game better than the rest of the group.

You want to share that knowledge with the group and help them to make the best moves so that you stand the best chance of winning.

But don’t fret. There are ways you can do this without being overbearing. Then your friends will still want to invite you to play co-operative games with them.

Give suggestions to other people only if they ask for it

Realize that if you give unsolicited advice, then you put the player in a tricky position. They are now most likely in one of four situations.

  1. Your move is better than what they were going to do. So they do it. Now people think they only took that move because you said so and they had no ideas of their own.
  2. Your move is better than what they were going to do. They don’t do it and do what they were going to do instead. The group judges them as being a bad player for not taking your advice and making a poor move for the group.
  3. Your move is worse than what they were going to do. They now need to stand up for their own thoughts and go for it. Not so easy for some players who doubt their own abilities or are feeling pressurized to do what you said.
  4. Your move is worse than what they were going to do. They do what you say because they don’t want to stand up for their own thoughts, or view you as a more experienced player who must know what they are doing. The group is affected by a sub-standard turn but doesn’t know it because the player didn’t explain their alternative. The player loses confidence in themselves.

Provide more than one option

If you are asked to provide help in a game, then offer multiple solutions instead of just one. Then it’s still up to the player to decide for themselves what they want to do.

Accept that it’s ok to lose

This is a chance you take playing a co-operative game.

You win or lose as a team.

Yes, it can be frustrating to lose a game when you’ve taken ‘the best’ move every time and other people haven’t. But so what? They are playing, learning, and having fun. It’s only a game.

Who knows, you may end up winning anyway.

Let people make mistakes and learn

People are allowed to play their move the way they want to. Even if you want to jump in with strategy advice – don’t. Part of the fun of playing a game comes from figuring things out for yourself.

The player will realize for themselves how to take better turns when they become more familiar with the game. If they are never allowed to have a go and think for themselves, they will never learn how to be better at it.

Be patient and hold your tongue

You may feel the need to jump in with some game suggestions if a person is taking a long time with their turn. Don’t say anything. Just let them have their go. Not everyone is going to be as experienced as you so it may take them a bit longer to weigh up the different options.

Ask questions instead of giving directions

Ask questions, don’t give directions all the time. Instead of, “We should do this.” Say, “What do you think we should do?” Even if you already have some ideas!

Don’t dominate every strategy discussion

Try to not dominate discussions about strategy, and open up a dialogue about how people think you can work better as a team. If you’re the only one talking, stop and ask a question.

You don’t have to share every single idea.

Recognize if the group is not having fun

If people aren’t discussing different options and throwing ideas back and forth then something isn’t working. If they are quiet, don’t seem to care about taking their go, and are on their phones, ask yourself, ‘Have you been dominating the game?’

Remember that there isn’t one ‘right’ move

You might think that your strategy is the best. But you don’t really know.

You don’t know what card is next in the draw deck. You don’t know what another player will choose to do on their turn. You can’t see the future. So just let people make a call for themselves on what they want to do.

Ask your group to tell you if you’re quarterbacking

If you know that you can slip into quarterbacking in board games then ask your group to call you out on it. They will feel much more comfortable raising it if you’ve said that you want to be told.

There is no ‘I’ in team, but there is a ‘me’

Quarterbacking in board games is often done with good intentions. The quarterback wants to win the game and help the other players. But there is something more important than winning in co-op game – that everyone has fun. Everyone should be able to co-operate and feel valued.

Hopefully, the tips in this article help you to manage the quarterbacks among you and enjoy co-operative games as much as I do!

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Hi, I’m Emily, the tabletop gamer behind My Kind of Meeple. If this article helped you, I’d be honoured if you’d say, “Thanks!” with a £3 coffee on Ko-fi.

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