'Posthuman' Examines the Tension Between Competition and Co-operation

by G. Christopher Williams

12 October 2016

Posthuman suggests that if a player can't win, then they can damn well make sure that everyone (not no one) wins.
cover art


US: 2015

The board game Posthuman offers its players two potential win-states, the first, a fairly common one, the victory of the individual, the second, an extremely unusual one in a competitive game, a communal victory. This is a really strange tension in a competitive game, and one that seems at odds with our expectations about the principles of competition. Essentially, Posthuman suggests that if a player can’t win, then they can damn well make sure that everyone wins.

This idea seems at odds with competitive play, perhaps even more so, since more often than not when folks do compete knowing that they can’t win, then it’s our expectation, perhaps, that they will choose a scorched earth strategy: if I can’t win, then no one should win. In both instances, the ideas that a single player should win a game or that “if you can’t win, then no one should win” both seem like ones that lean heavily on the central importance of individualism to the competitive experience.
We play for one person: ourselves. What’s good for me is bad for you and what’s bad for you is good for me. Posthuman‘s collectivist solution at once suggests a fascinating nod to a possible egalitarian solution to competition altogether, while also creating a tension with that solution given its initial context as a competitive experience. After all, if everyone wins, does that mean that no one does?

In Posthuman, the player takes on the role of a human wanderer in a postapocalyptic wasteland populated by hostile humans and mutants. Each player’s goal is to reach a safe house, the tenth space on a main, shared board, and to avoid death and dismemberment along the way.

This is a game about survival and scarcity, in which players, as individuals, fight off threats from NPCs, while managing to keep enough food and ammo around to last the length of their journey. The first player to reach the safe house wins.

Posthuman is a game that most board game devotees would likely associate with American game design, since it’s a game that is most interested in representing its theme, rather than in perfectly balancing its game systems. While some effort at game balance clearly exists, nevertheless, since the game introduces random elements, like dice rolls to resolve combat and event card draws that change players’ circumstances each turn, it’s unlikely to be seen as a highly strategic experience because it is less about fairness than it is about supporting the idea of the journey that underlies its premise.

One problem encountered in the game space carved out by such design philosophy is the fact that very often in games of this sort, one player will end up gaining his or her advantage as a result of good card draws and favorable dice rolls and pull out way, way ahead. Players that lag behind the leader then often, especially those that lag far, far behind the leader, end up left in a position in which their play can only effect the ultimate outcome of the game by “king making”. Since such players often cannot likely win, they only end up playing against players in the first or second position, rather than in really playing to win at all themselves.

Playing against other players, of course, has an effect on the game, but not one that so much improves their situation as it adds an additional unbalancing element to those in contention for the win. If you end up being the guy who gets picked on the most, despite your lead, you will probably end up among the losers.

The problem of king making in American game design is multi-fold and can create strategically strange options, but it also often creates emotional strain around a board gaming table. On the one hand, what happens in games in which players can lag behind the other players and become aware that they no longer have a chance to win is that the optimal strategy for those that are doing well often becomes simply trying not to do exceptionally well. In other words, remaining in second place is often more beneficial in cases in which those in the third or fourth positions will inevitably attack the perceived eventual winner, the leader.

However, not everyone necessarily assumes that this is the optimal reason to continue playing the game. On the other hand, often players lagging behind the leaders simply tend to favor players for one reason or another and play against their opponents for reasons unrelated to the actual game session. Maybe you want your wife to win, simply because she is your wife, for instance. Or maybe you want to prevent that guy who wins all the time to have any kind of fighting chance this time out. These more arbitrary reasons for effecting the outcome of a game, as noted, can simply lead to hard feelings about a game (and one’s fellow players) altogether.

In some sense, Posthuman‘s alternative win-condition seems an effort to stave off king making and possibly some of these hard feeling, though it creates its own strange conundrums and maybe reveals a weird element of competitive gameplay and our expectations about its outcomes.

Players who are struggling in the game have likely acquired “scars” over the course of the game due to their encounters with (and losses to) enemy mutants. Any time a player has amassed five mutation scars, they are forced to become a mutant and their goal for winning changes. Additionally, if a player has received three or four mutation scars during the game, they can choose to become a mutant. In either case, that player is now a mutant and their win-condition changes. That player’s new goal is to make sure that all of the other players become mutants before anyone reaches the safe house. If they do manage to do so, then everyone wins. 

As noted before, this is a very weird solution to the problem of play introduced by players that obviously lag behind in a game. It certainly gives them something to continue to do, and it certainly also dissuades them from arbitrarily playing king maker. The goal is now to stop anyone that is close to winning. Thus, an optimal strategy emerges for this player and his or her eventual teammates: hit the leader, for sure, and slowly assimilate all of the other players.

This has a profound effect on the basic genre of the game, since the better that these players do, the more that the game transforms into a co-operative style game, punishing the individualism valorized more often than not by the very act of competitive play. This neatly solves a problem while reinforcing the central theme of the game, individuals trying to outpace a collectivist, but ultimately co-operative horde that then become that horde and play as a unified front against “winners”.

Frankly, this gameplay outcome leads to interesting questions in and of itself. It’s hard to be certain which horror in this postapocalytic nightmare is worse: the horror of the individual privileging their own safety over all others or the loss of individualism and personal goals and identity that occurs as a result of being assimilated into a hive mind. Perhaps, what Posthuman suggests in its all or nothing approach to competition and co-operation is one extreme or the other is no solution at all. If one individual ends up winning, it’s a form of loss, that of everyone else. If all players win, it’s also a form of loss, since one’s humanity, defined here as being different from the mutants by possessing an individual identity and an individual goal, is lost when everyone wins.

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