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Appraising the Art of Combat pt.4

Everything changes in a free-for-all (FFA), where back stabs and impromptu alliances are normal. At any given moment, all other players in a FFA can be against you. The only thing that keeps these games manageable is that these players are also against everyone else. Many competitive gamers stay far away from FFA games. Understanding why is not as simple as it may seem. 



As difficult as it is to work in a team of players with independent hearts, minds, and egos, a FFA is just as complicated, except each player vies for an independent goal. Recall the article I wrote in which I explain how multiple goals complicate the value scale with which we evaluate our actions. To recap, it's hard to compare two strategies that aim for two different goals. Since all goals achieve a win absolutely, a bad strategy for achieving one goal may be great to achieve a second goal. Likewise, the rules of a FFA game land somewhere between singular and multiple goals.

Think about it this way, in match of 2 counter forces (whether 1v1 or team v team) everything that one side does to win directly works against the other side. Every mistake one side makes directly helps the other. But in a FFA, this simple, linear value scale gets complicated. In a 4-for-all (a FFA between 4 players) there isn't a winning side and a losing side. Instead, there's the leading player, the last player, and the rest of the players who are somewhere in between. If you're last and you attack the leader, you may improve your standing, lower their score, and possibly help 2nd place rise to the top. As much as you're helping yourself in this situation, you may be helping (or hurting) another player (higher or lower than you) much more. It's all very complicated and situational. And the more players there are in a match the more complicated this evaluation process becomes.

Fully understanding the far reaching effects your actions may have on all players' success is immensely complex. So many FFA gamers keep things simple. If they're losing, they'll do whatever it takes to gain advantages including teaming up. The making and breaking of alliances in a free-for-all (whether announced or secretive) is referred to as politics

A FFA is a game type where all players are in it to win it for themselves. But without even being fully aware of it, players in a FFA never work against each other equally. Revenge, spite, fear, and many other emotions can influence a player to play to or away from another player. Maybe one player is really good, so naturally you avoid him/her to avoid dying. Maybe one player is really bad, so you gravitate toward them for easy points.

What's important to understand is that there's an inherent freedom of choice in a free-for-all game that allows for the human dynamics to work in a dramatic way. If you can only use your DKART skills to win and other players can team up to use their DKART and team skills to win, you're at a significant disadvantage. When the control a player has using their DKART is much less than than the control of the FFA-human-dynamic system, the game system breaks down. In these cases, victors are often determined by factors outside of any one player's skill whether  by chance or the mob consciousness.


  • FFAs work smoothly when all players make all decisions independently in order to gain individual advantages and eventually achieve victory. If players cannot easily communicate and if players have a hard time identifying each other, the smooth play is more easily maintained.
  • FFA systems are greatly stressed when players use their freedom to play politics. Those who don't team up can suffer great disadvantages. 
  • And FFAs can utterly fail when one or more players work against a single player regardless if it gives them any kind of advantage. In other words, playing just to make a specific player lose. Take this idea to an extreme level, and you have another form of griefing.


This is supposed to be a FFA.


At the end of the day, the same freedom that all gamers have to play to win, play to lose, or express themselves becomes a complex and potentially powerful force in a FFA game because of the human dynamic. This force is strong enough to sporadically shift the balance of the skill spectrum as well as virtually remove agency from a player. Though some gamers like to play with "honor," if honor isn't a gameplay mechanic/feature/dynamic then all is fair on the battle field.

« Appraising the Art of Combat pt.5 | Main | Appraising the Art of Combat pt.3 »

Reader Comments (3)

Found myself nodding and smiling in agreement with all of this. You also made me think of all the "house rules" we had to play FFA StarCraft games back in 'the day'. This worked because we all knew each other well and were all on a LAN. Even with people I know quite well online in StarCraft II, I've not been able to recreate it. Someone online, even if you know them a bit, is not quite the same as someone who comes and sits in your room and watches you play when they're knocked out of the game!

January 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRik Newman (Remy77077)

@ Rik Newman

Oh man. I love "house rules." I could go on and on about all the special modes and ways I used to play with my friends because we were all very competitive and crazy.

Though I don't play many board/card games (or write about them) I love games of all kinds. There's nothing like being in the same room and playing together. There's so much more you can feed off of than just gameplay moves. I've played a FFA card game with a married couple before, and there was some hilarious arm twisting and backstabbing going on there.

Being in person still means something to me. It's the reason why the DS and the Wii are my favorite gaming devices of all time. They not only have the gaming library that extends way back, but they sort of specialize in "in-person-multiplayer" (because of the lacking online. lol).

I remember going well out of my way to throw lan parties on huge projection screens for Halo. Some guys suggested just going home and playing on xbox live. That defeats the whole point of a lan party!

January 18, 2011 | Registered CommenterRichard Terrell (KirbyKid)

Hehe, "me too" to most of that. I think I was around 16 when one of my friends exclaimed to me "You just LOVE games don't you!" :-) I used to play a ton of board games and card games, and tabletop wargaming etc. And always videogames alongside it. These days most of the face to face games I used to play have fallen by the wayside for various reasons though, including Wii's and DS's! Because I have no-one to play with locally really anymore as most friends have moved away. I can do local XBox co-op though a lot, thanks to two TVs and two 360s - PLUS friends online. Same thing on PCs, so Wiis seem really limited to me. It's especially important for competitive games to have great online to me, otherwise there's just not enough people to actually compete with.

However I love to get together (tournaments and for fun) whenever I get the chance, it's just a rare thing.

The need for house rules to make certain games "work" competitively is partly why some games have fallen out of favour with me though, especially tabletop wargaming. House rules are fine when you have an existing group of friends who are all into the same thing. When you want to enter a new group, or a wider field of competition, it's a lot more difficult.

Our Starcraft house rules were specifically to calm the "madness" of the FFA by doing a lot of things you note here - banning most forms of communication (no private messages), no alliances allowed, and of course, as we all new each other and would play repeatedly, politics were downgraded - partly due to the potential retribution!

January 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRik Newman (Remy77077)

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