Stealing as a Game Mechanism

Game prototype Gameguythinks
Don’t jack my cubes, Yellow.

Taking things that don’t belong to you is generally frowned upon in polite society, but stealing from others does find its way into the rules of quite a few board games. I’ve been thinking about this for the past couple of days, because I’m trying to decide if I want to include it as a possible player action in one of my designs.

The concept of one player stealing resources from another player in the theme of this design makes perfect sense, but what concerns me is that it can be extremely frustrating when one player puts a great deal of effort into collecting resources in order to complete a task, only to have another player swoop in and steal them. I know a number of casual gamers that refuse to even play games with that kind of high level player interaction.

While not very common, there are still quite a few games where players can steal resources from their opponents. The robber in Settlers of Catan allows one player to steal a resource from another. There’s nothing that player can do to stop it. We actually created a house rule just to deal with the robber so we didn’t have any arguments with certain players. citadels by Bruno FaiduttiCitadels and Witch’s Brew have role choices that involve stealing resources as well. Unfortunately, my design demands a certain amount of in-your-face interaction. Players will be scoring victory points by collecting resources from a common pool, and I think it’s important that players can also steal those resources from other players. The trick is to manage how that happens so that players feel like they have some control, which is what I think is really frustrating about some of the other games where stealing resources is common.

One possibility is to give the defending player the ability to block a theft, so if one player tries to steal a resource, the other player could counter the attack. I have also considered the option of a bank or stash where players would temporarily store their resources. This bank would have a storage capacity that was inversely proportional to its ability to defend against attacks, so the fewer resources that a player has in their bank, the more difficult they are for other players to steal. The second option seems more elegant to me, but the first idea might be a little more exciting in terms of player interaction.

What are your thoughts about games where other players can steal from you? Do you care? Do you prefer games that are almost group solitaire, face-to-face action, or something in-between? I like stealing as part of a game as long as I have at least some ability to avoid it. If not stopping the theft directly, then by making sure that I have enough options to avoid putting myself in a situation where the theft can happen.

On Thursday of this week, I will post a review of another of the Spiel des Jahres winners, and that game does include stealing resources from other players. Can you guess which one it is? First clue: Kids love it. I will give you another clue on Wednesday in the comments. Guess correctly in the comments and I will put you in a drawing to win 15 geekgold on BBG. One guess per person!

Finally, don’t forget to join my FaceBook page. It’s an easy way to stay connected.

20 thoughts on “Stealing as a Game Mechanism”

  1. Jeff,

    I happen to like the stealing mechanic in games. It promotes more interaction and a bit of rivalry at the table. It also allows the players not involved in the thievery the chance to slowly sneak their way to victory. On more than one occasion, I have watched as battles of “take that” have erupted at the Settlers table while the uninvolved party has plodded (and plotted) to victory.

    One way to mitigate it would be to introduce a die rolling mechanic to the thievery. The success rate could be a function of player’s relative strengths (making it easier for a player who is behind to catch up through the use of the “five finger discount”). That way, it takes some of the sting out of it because there is always a chance that the would be thief could fail. It would also give a way for the other players to temporarily stop the target of the crime by stealing away an essential resource/cube/$$ at a crucial moment.

    True, stealing is frowned upon in Polite Society. The truth of the matter is that there ain’t much Polite Society left. The US banks have stolen a fair amount from us over the years and I am pretty sure that I let the cable company over charge me on a regular basis.

    In closing, I think that a stealing mechanic is fun. My kids use it on me when we play all the time. It leads to a lot of laughs (with the right group) and it makes you think carefully about making “perfect” plans.


    1. Jason,

      I do like the idea of adding a die roll to the stealing mechanism. There is already a little bit of die rolling in the game, so it’s not like I would be adding components. Also, you make a good point that stealing can be used to stop or at least hinder a runaway leader. I like that as long as players have a way to protect their resources or decrease the chances that someone can successfully steal from them.

      Thanks for your feedback!

  2. One of my favorite stealing mechanisms is in another old Faidutti game, Dragon’s Gold. It’s a game about adventurers trying to divvy up the spoils after victory. If I remember correctly, there was a card that allowed you to actually steal from the pile when no one was looking and keep anything you got away with. You’d be amazed at how brazen you could be and still not get caught.

    Your idea about the vault is interesting, but it seems to work the opposite of real life. Those with fewer resources can’t afford to protect them, and those with more will make more effort to ensure they keep it.

    I don’t mind a stealing mechanism when the item stolen was earned by random chance (like a card drawn or a resource rolled). It bothers me more when something I had to make an effort to gain can just be taken away.

    1. My idea with the vault was that there would be an inverse relationship between storage capacity and security, so if you create a vault that is extremely secure then you won’t have as much storage space.

      I’ve never played Dragon’s Gold, but that sounds fun. I like that you had to have a card in order to steal.

  3. The vault does seem a little opposite reality, but only because it’s called a vault. It’s can be easier to pick pocket/embezzle/whatever $1000 from a rich person than a poor person. Simply because the rich person is less likely to notice. It’s can be easier to steal lumber from a lumber yard with tons of the stuff then from the DYI guy with some in his garage.

    It’s easier to hide a small number of things than a large number, and easier to see that some are missing.

    As for the game kids love that has stealing as a mechanic. Niagara?

    1. I guess vault is a bad name for the idea. In the game theme, it’s really data storage, and I was thinking that if a player has allocated space for data protection then there would be less space for new data.

      1. Jeff,

        In data storage, there does seem to be a finite amount of space. however, since the space is actually defined only by what it contains, maybe the amount of data should limit the space left.

        Creating a data vault with room enough for security, would require more space, then one just housing a simple lock and the data.

  4. I’m glad Greg mentioned Dragon’s Gold, because we were just talking about that in our game group last week. We didn’t play it (I sold my copy long ago, and now kind of wish I still had it), but were introducing Cosmic Encounter to some new players. That game has direct confrontation galore, and there are times when random cards are “stolen” from other players. However, that’s considered compensation for brutal aggression (when the losing side had wanted to negotiate), so it doesn’t feel quite like stealing.

    However, the Filch power DOES permit the sort of rule-breaking stealing that Dragon’s Gold had. I have to admit, I really like that. It’s unexpected and funny. But I suppose it’s also because it’s so unusual that I enjoy it. If every other game I played had that kind of chaos going on, I wouldn’t enjoy it.

    I think the kind of stealing that takes place in Catan is the right level. Just a bit to add interaction, but not enough to undo the concerted effort someone has made for much of the game.

    1. I think the kind of stealing that takes place in Catan is the right level. Just a bit to add interaction, but not enough to undo the concerted effort someone has made for much of the game.

      This is exactly what I’m looking for, a level of player interaction that makes things interesting without being frustrating.

      1. I thought that the Catan robber was moved by a particular roll of the die. It seems that his stealing ability was also negated by someone who had soldiers.

        Stealing as premise for a game is generally a rough concept for people to accept. A delicate balance in play would have to exist in order to allow “theiving” to occur regularly.

        Do you equate stealing and lieing to be the same thing? Thinking about the game of Pit and passing the Bull to another player. Essentially being dishonest is the only way to get rid of the Bull card from your hand. If you have a game built around dishonesty, then you have to figure that the parameters for accepted behavior are going to be quite broad.

        How many gun fights in the Old West were the result of someone being accused of cheating?

  5. One aspect of stealing I don’t like, but is unavoidable, is the feeling that the thief is deliberately picking you for some reason. Maybe he thinks you’re the leader, or maybe he’s a smelly jerk that doesn’t like you. Mystery of the Abbey has a great way of mitigating this. At the start of the game, a random player is selected to be vulnerable to theft. The person who steals from them MUST become the new player vulnerable to theft. So stealing isn’t as painful because you know the thief is going to get his turn as victim in a turn or 2.

    1. Yeah, I hate that feeling. It’s one of the issues that can come up when you are playing with close friends or couples too. They will tend to always steal or pick on each other or never steal from or pick on each other.

  6. Problem of stealing in a game like Citadels is that it’s quite random and you may be successively robbed, assassinated, wrecked by the Condotierre. Rinse and repeat. And most of the time, the luck was involved.

    In my opinion, if you could be stolen but get a compensation of it, this would lead to make it a mechanism to be purposely choosen as of the balance it implies instead of just a pure beneficial move.
    Say your game comes with victory points. A stolen man could be granted some kind of recognition for being a victim. Or could win a sort of court where the thief could be discovered and lose turns in jail.

    1. I like it when there is some type of compensation for bad luck or for being eliminated early from a round. That’s a neat idea about the thief being placed in jail and losing turns.

  7. I usually dislike stealing in games – it is usually necessary to prevent a runaway leader, but it can easily add too much of a ‘take that’ element.
    But if you’re going to use it, I do like the vault idea. It allows you to protect one key resource, or provide some protection to everything.

  8. Sam was correct with his guess for tomorrow’s post and has been sent 15 geekgold for having the correct answer and for being the only person that participated.

    Maybe I’m not ready for contests quite yet.

  9. Jeff,

    If you are considering a cyber game of sorts, consider a few things.

    A data thief (corporate espionage or hacker) is after information that is secured in some fashion. This makes corporations primary targets for thieves, because they have lots of information, often classified, and lots of resources to defend or protect them.

    You would not find your Grade A Hacker hacking into your mother’s bank account, the payoff would not be worth the time.

    So in a game dealing with data and data vaults, consider who can afford it and how much value the information is worth.

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