Today, let’s talk about competition within puzzle events and other games.  How does it fit in?  How does it enhance the game?  Can it be frustrating for non-competitive players?  First, let’s look at a few different examples of competition in games and events.

Post Hunt – Part one just requires each team to solve all five puzzles within the time limit, no competing with other teams (except maybe when it’s too crowded to see the puzzle).  Part two is a race, in every sense of the word, against all the other teams.  Whoever finds all the locations, solves all the puzzles, and completes the final action first wins the big prize.  No points, just a finish line.  Cash prizes presented on stage.

DASH – A point-based game of solving speed where teams get bonus points for solving quickly and forfeit those points for taking hints.  A time-management challenge for the rest of us who can barely solve them all within the 7-hour time limit.  Incentives are simply personal achievement, bragging rights, and leaderboard status a few weeks later.

Ravenchase – Varies by event, but often point-based with finish time as a tie-breaker, or strictly time-based where all puzzles must be solved to win, and hints cost time.  Fabulously tacky prizes.

Black Letter Game – Points for each solve, leaderboard based on points and overall solve time.  Bragging rights only.

The Mole – Collaborative games with potential cash prize for show winner.  Players sometimes split into teams, competing for exemptions.  Players sometimes given incentive to sabotage and misdirect teammates.  Coalitions are common.

Liar Game – Complex nature of game brings about wide range of situations including teamwork, coalitions, free-for-all, manipulation, team vs team, and so on.  Very high potential risk, devastating potential losses (these losses are primary driving factor in player motivations).

Space Alert – Pure collaboration and teamwork between 3-5 players.  Only competition is against the game and the clock.

I’m having a hard time thinking of an event or game where there are multiple teams, but they are not competing.  Competition seems to be the natural way to go with team-based events, but what about an event where teams were all working together toward a common goal somehow?  Maybe something like the collaboration puzzle in DASH.  How about a game where each team has a unique location they must find and then complete a certain action there?  What are other ways to design a non-competitive event?  While I’ve seen teams be super pumped about competing against their co-workers, I’ve seen others who seem kind of crestfallen when they hear the event will be competitive, and then watched them barely limp across the finish line, frustrated with their performance.  Is there a way to design an event that better accommodates people who don’t enjoy competing?

I used to hate doing anything competitive (especially anything where a team would have to rely on me), though I think for me it stemmed from a lack of self-confidence.  These days, I tend to enjoy competing and it’s easier for me to get into that competitive mindset because I like to try and do my best.  Although I’m interested in how a multiple team collaborative event might work, media like Liar Game and The Mole have me thinking about ways that competition can be made more robust and interesting.  Most games and events need some sort of time limit in place for logistical purposes, and I think the competition aspect most events use is just a by-product of the time limit element.  If teams are racing against the clock, you may as well see who comes in first.  In games like The Amazing Race and Liar Game, however, competition is a core feature of the game.  Competitive elements like blocking other teams and winning some kind of advantage are woven into the gameplay itself.  And you know I am all about sabotage elements.

Still, I think one has to be careful when deciding to make competition a core feature of a game or event.  This changes the nature of the event, maybe to something different from the player’s expectations.  If you suddenly added a U-Turn obstacle option (force the team behind you to back-track) to DASH, you would probably get a lot of angry players.  DASH is an event about puzzles and one’s ability to solve them quickly, and I can’t imagine that adding in a new layer of competitive strategy which completely disregards that core element would be very welcome.

How do you feel about competing?  Do you get really into it?  Do you try to just take it easy?  Would a game with no competition be boring, or more interesting?  Do you think you have what it takes to play in game where competition is a core feature?

13 comments on Competition

  • Steve

    The recent WarTron Game had a GC that explicitly avoids ranking teams, tracking their finish times, etc. There is a lot of skipping over puzzles, so even though you see another team at a puzzle site with you, you don’t actually know if you are ahead or behind them at all (they may have solved more or fewer puzzles than your team). There were puzzles that involved interacting with other teams. At many sites teams chose to work together, since it was non-competitive, or were forced (for logistical reasons) to work together on a puzzle. And to solve the final puzzle, all teams had to work together.

    That’s not quite a case of all teams collaborating, in all cases. In general is there any difference between “teams collaborating together” and one giant team?

  • clavicarius (author)

    “In general is there any difference between “teams collaborating together” and one giant team?”

    Nope, I think for the purposes of what I was exploring, this is definitely an example of a non-competitive game. And it’s awesome that it allowed and sometimes required collaboration! I suppose in the same way you can design competition as a core function of your game, you can design collaboration in as well, and that’s what first came to mind when I was trying to think of a non-competitive game.

    Did you play in WarTron? Did it feel different not being competitive, and in any good or bad ways? Do you think this format would work as well in a game where players are less invested overall to begin with (in terms of time and money spent) and maybe need that extra incentive of competition to get into it?

  • Larry Hosken

    I’m not competitive, thank goodness. Otherwise, I’d be pretty frustrated at the local San Francisco games. It’s not like _everyone_ but me’s a US Crossword Puzzle Champion or a World Puzzle Champion or a Sudoku Champion or what-have-you champion… But there are enough of those folks around such that my team’s probably not coming in first.

    I play in plenty of events that keep careful records so you can figure out which team was the fastest. And I’m happy that the competitive folks can use that info to figure out their precise levels of awesomeness. But I don’t pay that much attention to that stuff.

  • Dan Egnor

    “West Coast” hunts (including Wartron) may not be explicitly competitive, but they’re definitely not cooperative, not the way Space Alert or Pandemic are. And I believe collaborating with other teams was explicitly forbidden in Wartron except where sanctioned by GC. It’s not uncommon for GC to occasionally combine a few teams for an activity.

    In some hunts, most notably Hogwarts and Dr. When, teams were bucketed into groups (Hogwarts houses, organization types) and certain (ancillary) challenges would score points for your group. “2 points for Slytherin”, etc. So in theory that’s team cooperation (within a larger competitive framework) — but I don’t think it ever worked especially well.

    One problem with lumping teams together in a larger competitive framework is you no longer choose your effective teammates, which can be frustrating.

    In many games (especially Snout’s), notionally all the teams are cooperating in the end to avoid the end of the world or defeat some fictional villain. There’s commonly some final event where everyone “pitches in” to trigger some climax. This always feels to me like a staged plot device and not an actual game mechanic.

    ARGs are generally mass-cooperative. They expose a problem with large scale cooperation, which is that any individual’s contribution may be minor, so it almost becomes a spectator sport.

    If you had teams cooperating, what would team boundaries even mean? People required to travel together?

    • clavicarius (author)

      I can see how collaboration within a larger competitive framework can be frustrating. Seems like it should really just be all one or the other. Between this and the Narrative discussion from yesterday, I’m noticing a trend here… “Don’t half-ass two things, whole-ass one thing,” haha. (Not that any designers have been half-assing anything, but that commitment to one format or design pillar definitely has its merits)

      In-person events might have an advantage over ARGs when it comes to collaboration since the scale is naturally much smaller. (Though it seems like “spectator syndrome” can be a problem even for the smallest of teams if one member is new and the rest are veterans.)

      I think my problem is that I love the idea of collaboration, but I have no real concept of how it would actually work! Here are some disjointed thoughts:

      – I love the idea of a collaborative reality show like The Mole, but where the players are truly all working toward a common goal and incentivized to work together, maybe against a common enemy (perhaps a monster house that devours poorly-performing contestants each week!)

      – Even competitive games are collaborative if you stay within the scope of each team and its members working together. It seems like the problem pops up, like you said, when multiple teams are involved and you’re trying to replace the competitive element with collaboration. Where are the boundaries? How do they even collaborate? One idea I’ve been kicking around is to have each team assigned to a different room or set of puzzles. Maybe a certain number of tracks need to be completed to advance, or maybe the cumulative time of all the teams needs to be below a certain time. (But not getting to advance in the game is a pretty sucky punishment, would have to be something different.) Although… I think this format still includes the performance anxiety element that a lot of the competition-averse players I’ve encountered seem to dislike, and is maybe even more of a high-pressure environment than a competitive event. Maybe I need to just forget about catering to that type of player, except to make sure that the experience is still enjoyable if players choose to play at their own pace (and maybe remind them that yes, this is always an option).

      – Anyway, I like the idea of each team having its own set of responsibilities to fulfill, though this would mean a lot of extra work for the designer and maybe all of the teams wouldn’t get to see all of the puzzles/challenges.

      – Why does it feel like most of my ideas wouldn’t work outside of a reality TV show format? Too custom-tailored… Ah, and there’s the problem with highly robust, interactive experiences: the more interesting they get, the harder it is to distribute them to a large audience. How to get around this? Many run-throughs of the same game?

      – Are there real-life instances of many teams collaborating that we can look to for inspiration and format? The only things that come to mind right away are the military and MMORPG raids (husband was just showing me some 40-man raids split up into 5-6 person teams).

      Sorry these thoughts couldn’t be more organized =)

  • Dan Egnor

    Oh and also: I think it’s worth distinguishing _competitive_ players and _ambitious_ players — the two are easily confused. Competitive players want to be judged well relative to their peers. Ambitious players want to push themselves to do something impressive.

    I would say I’m moderately ambitious and not very competitive.

    For example in your hypothetical DASH U-turn roadblock thing, I would be totally uninterested in using it, even if it costs me the win. Unless somehow using it in a clever way were part of some impressive gambit.

    • clavicarius (author)

      This is a great point to bring up. I think I’ve confused the two myself. While I do enjoy being the best, I think trying my best is the more important quality for me and the things I do. I don’t necessarily care to compete with others in a regular game (except maybe with a rival team of friends playing the same game, as kind of an extra motivator).

      But in a game or activity where competition is THE core function, don’t competition and ambition basically become the same thing (competing being the main thing you must strive to do)? Take The Amazing Race or Survivor, where enjoying the experience comes second to staying in the game. (This reminds me of the saddest Mole player, who wanted to forfeit team money to spend a night out in Paris. The team rejected the plan, and the guy happened to get eliminated the next night, the very first player cut.)

      There is a lot of drama and novelty that comes with competition (mostly the strategy that it requires), which is what makes it so interesting to me, but is also why it should probably be carefully considered before being tacked onto any event where it isn’t a core feature.

  • Scott Royer

    The SF Leisurely Mini-Game ( was explicitly non-competitive. I think this was a side-effect having to use public transportation to visit the puzzle sites… which put a random factor into travel times.

    The running joke for the competitive teams became which team could be the MOST non-competitive.

    • clavicarius (author)

      Wow, this game looks fantastic and so enjoyable! I think “leisurely” was one of the words I used when describing my impression of my first DASH to my potential teammates (mind, this was in comparison to the Richmond Adventure Race that had just happened and apparently involved much running), which turned out NOT to be the case for our team, hah. I also love that this game has two difficulty tracks, something I wondered about in a different post. I think the East Coast might need itself a leisurely mini-game!

  • Jen

    I’m somewhat competitive (I used to be more so, I think, but have gotten more laidback), so I do like some sort of competition against other teams because it pushes you. And it doesn’t necessarily have to disheartening – like with Post Hunt, there’s this hope you’ll win, but you know it’d be hard, and if you don’t have all the answers, you know you won’t win, haha, but it doesn’t keep me from trying or make me feel sad about it. I just want to try the puzzles, and at the end it’s just like oh man, I wonder if someone will actually win this/how they did it/what the answers are!! So maybe that’s the ‘ambitious’ category?

    My coworker told me of this Korean game/variety show called “Running Man”, and I checked it out this past weekend. It’s not too ‘puzzle-y’ and it’s competitive, but the teams do a lot of interacting with each other. The base is that two teams are locked in a facility, and have the night to figure out how to get out (e.g. finding numbers for a code that will unlock the doors, or finding/winning the most money throughout the night), and the team that is stuck in the facility has some sort of ‘punishment’ when the facility is open again to the public. It’s also interesting because you can also work to put the other teams at a disadvantage (saw this in the first episode, but not in the 2nd) – everyone wears jumpsuits with their name tag on the back, and if you rip off the name tag, then they are ‘out’ for that round, so they cannot help their team anymore. And some ‘games’ they have to do, even though they’re competing against each other, they just end up cheering and encouraging everyone. It’s also an interesting show because you don’t know who ‘won’ until the very end (e.g. the teams both put in what they think the code to the door is at the same time, and see which one opens the door; their money was totaled in the end (they had no idea how much money was in each piggy bank they found)).

    Anyway, I like the competitive aspect unless it’s totally speed-based, like Diamond Dash (but I like at least that you can’t tell who’s ‘won’ until the end so you still keep trying the whole time.)

    • clavicarius (author)

      I’ve heard of Running Man!! SNSD are apparently on it all the time! I never really knew what it was, but it sounds awesome! (And thanks to the huge K-pop fanbase, I’m pretty sure a bunch of episodes are online and subbed!) I’ll definitely have to check it out now =) Sounds super interesting!

      Diamond Dash was the worst competition….hahaha.. It was like.. a puzzle hunt for athletes! The random-location format did help though, you’re right. Nick and I felt pretty good til we heard you guys’ scores. And then I remember we all thought Jeremy and Philip were going to win right up until the end! That was a fun element I had forgotten about.

  • Rich

    Ah, competition in puzzle hunts, a topic near and dear to my heart, and a subject of many discussions and debates over the years. I’ve definitely gotten far less competitive as time has gone on, but I still really appreciate a hunt that is well designed for a fair competition. IMHO, there is no perfect system, but when it comes to competition, the best system I’ve seen is the time-released hint system used by Shinteki and others. Others may like other systems, like the personal touch you get with custom tailored hints, but I would argue that when those systems come into play, it is when GC is optimizing for something other than the fairest competition, which is certainly their prerogative by all means, and it is awesome that we’ve got such a variety of approaches that different GCs take.

    That said, I don’t like that some people think competition is inherently evil, as I think that as long as sportsmanship and competitiveness are present in appropriate relative quantities it can make for an enjoyable experience for all involved. Learning to win and lose with class is an important skill in life. The less inherently competitive I’ve gotten, the more I’ve been able to enjoy hunts that are non-competitive and to play accordingly, but all things considered, I do really like hunts where it is at least an option to “go for the win”.

    • clavicarius (author)

      I don’t think I’ve encountered anyone who thinks competition is necessarily *evil* (though I don’t doubt that you have!). The competition-averse players I’ve seen have usually been in corporate team-building event settings, where the players aren’t necessarily there by choice and are maybe a bit nervous about the game ahead. Competition seems like another source of anxiety for them in this kind of environment, especially if they aren’t competitive by nature. I think as a GC, I need to learn this and keep in mind that while it’s fun to kind of egg them on to beat their coworkers, my number one job is to make sure everyone has a good time, and that might include emphasizing that it’s okay for players to go at their own pace.

      I think having a competitive option is just the most natural way for a team-based event to go, and it’s a great element to include. But I’m definitely also interested in exploring game design that uses larger-scale, cross-team collaboration as a core gameplay feature.

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