Playing the Player: What Does Meta-Gaming Actually Mean?
Meta-Gaming has become a well known term within the gaming world over the past few years. On one side, we’ve heard it crop up more and more around the championship scene, with the notion being whispered in game stores like some dirty word. On the other hand, games like Mysterium have been drawn closer to the spotlight, using meta as a core selling tool as to why people should play. Upon that scale, there are a thousand different definitions of what meta-gaming means to a thousand different people. To some it is something to boast about and be proud of, to others it is something scary that can wreck a collectable game because everyone ends up playing the same hand. In this article, I wanted to explore a few different definitions of Meta-Gaming, but before we go there I thought I would explore what Meta-Gaming means to me:
One of the reasons I got defeated in my last game of Stone Age
The reason the UK Star Wars: Destiny scene had little variation after the Kylo/FN combo was found
The reason certain characters can’t communicate in Dungeon and Dragons
Why games like Mysterium have grown so popular
Each one of those breaks down into a form of meta-gaming and each one I’ll be looking at in this article as I think they are all interesting in their own ways. Each one can make or break a game, without the game even being involved (in a weird way) and that is really cool – so, with that in mind, let’s break down what meta-gaming can mean.
#1: What’s Meta-Gaming Between Friends?
Every gaming group, every set of friends, every family who games together, has their own meta-game. One of the players gets known for following a specific strategy, or plays aggressively, or is known for not really playing ball, or loves a specific way of playing, and they get known for something. This can be as simple as not wanting to trade with someone in a game of Catan just because they won the last game, to knowing your friends inside and out, so much so you know how they are going to play.
I recently fell victim to this whilst playing a game of Stone Age. You see, tools are the easiest way to go for points in Stone Age, if you can manage to get the multiplier cards when they come out. You see, you can get a maximum of 12 tool levels in the game, with 8 multipliers, which is more than with any other level of any other measure. Unfortunately, a guy I have now been gaming regularly with for three years noticed this, and made it his goal (not to win) to ensure I lost. That was his sole goal.
It was actually a great game, and great fun as well, as it took the competition to a whole new level.
Meta-Gaming between friends can force us to take things further, and is, I think I can add, healthy to the gaming experience. We have a friend who, when playing Ticket to Ride, always gathers as many carriages at the start of the game as possible. This means he has a really strong mid to end game, and so we have had to develop strategies to beat him. Meta-Gaming between friends forces everyone to develop and get better.
#2. Playing to Win
Around the tournament scene in particular there is a meta which involves people playing to win. Where, in tournaments, there is nothing overly wrong with that, there is something inherently dull about it from a spectator sport perspective. Star Wars: Destiny is a prime example of this.
During the UK Star Wars: Destiny championships there was an abundance of Kylo/FN combinations because, it so happened, they were an incredibly powerful pair. Rather than having people play what they wanted to play, encouraging randomness within the tournament and meaning there were a large number of decks out there, there were a large number who played a combination they knew was supremely difficult to beat.
Of course, Star Wars: Destiny is an exceedingly well balanced game, and so there was still a fair amount of people playing other decks (noticeably few eLando/ePadme, which is my chosen deck to do battle with – because it sucks) but the point is that there is a meta that can exist around simply playing cards that are designed to win.
This is so much so that one of my local stores holds “no meta” evenings to let people try new decks without having them completely ground into the dirt by the meta-bosses (it’s a new term – I’m trying it out) in the game.
Of course, this also goes a step further. The whole mentality of playing to win can be adapted across all games, however, it becomes something more when science is applied. Statistically speaking, for instance, you need more grain than wood to win in Catan and so it makes sense to start on a grain spot. The concept of playing, not for the game but to win, is not a new one – but it is interesting how this has evolved into the tournament scene we see today.
#3. “But You Don’t Know Elvish!”
So far we have looked at specific metas that develop around games, whether due to friends or due to certain parts being statistically better than others. Next we move into the realm of RPGs and the meta that is created during an actual game.
It is a real struggle when playing an RPG (like Dungeons and Dragons for instance) separating what one character should know compared to what the other players are allowed to know. How, for instance, do you make allowances for one character being able to deduce something in one location because he is incredibly intelligent, only for an incredibly unintelligent character to deduce the same thing later on? Simply because, within the meta, he was in the same room when the other character was told he deduced it the first time around. That is a very long and complicated way of putting it, but I am sure you get what I mean.
DMs have come up with numerous ways of combatting this, but it is an issue. Like, if one or two characters within a room don’t speak Elvish, but two or three do. How do you have some having a conversation and others not understand?
The right players will play along, however, no matter what they are like there is always the risk that a meta will form. It is up to a good DM to decide how he wants to deal with that, or even if he wants to, without having to send others outside the room.
#4. A Kind of Built-In Meta
The final kind of meta, that we’re going to talk about in this article, is the kind of meta that exists because the game relies on it.
Granted, this is a very niche section of games, however it is an important one to talk about – games like Mysterium for instance, that fall into this “meta helps” category. These are games where there doesn’t have to be a meta to play, but it does help and it feels good to play knowing that you are getting to know your fellow gamers a little bit better each time.
Games like Mysterium offer players a choice. They can either play the game naked (mataphorically, not literally – behave yourselves) and how it was meant to be played out of the box, or they can play the game with a far deeper understanding of their interpersonal relationships, using clues and inside jokes to make the game something more. This is, in my opinion, a subsection of the very first form of Meta-Game, yet which takes it to a far deeper level. Rather than talking about a competitive relationship based on competition (wow, tautology much?), we are talking about a deeper connectivity through gaming. We are talking about truly knowing each other through the games we play. It’s kind of beautiful really.
Meta-Gaming is such an interesting concept that stretches far and wide. It is also somewhat subjective, as the term can mean different things to different people. In this article I just wanted to give an overview of how I see it.
So, what about you? What have I missed out? What do you think of the matter and are you a fan of Meta-Gaming? Do you believe the gaming table should be kept separate from the meta or do they belong together? Let me know in the comments below.