Games of Betrayal
on Mar 15, 2018
In Act I, Scene II of Julius Caesar, Shakespeare's titular character is warned about the Ides of March. As we all know, March 15th didn't turn out so well for him as he fell victim to betrayal and backstabbing -and all kinds of other stabbing. One of my favorite elements of board games is that they enable us to gather friends and family together, and then they let us act like a totally amoral dirt bag to them. Some folks don't care for games where double-dealing, treachery, and outright lying are the done thing, but if you play in the kinds of groups I like to play in, those elements are shoehorned into every game from Carcassonne to Ticket to Ride. So in honor of this most backstab-y month, I asked a couple of our Review Corner writers to tell us about some of their favorite moments of outstanding Caesarian intrigue in their favorite games.
Review Corner Editor-in-Chief
In one of my groups, I have a longstanding and hard-won reputation for being completely untrustworthy and opportunistic. One of our longest running jokes hails back to an early play of the Starcraft board game where I offered to be "Starcraft Buddies" with my friend, shortly before Zerg rushing him into oblivion while his guard was down. However, my all-time favorite slimeball act has to be when I took a HUGE bribe in the very first turn of a game of Stefan Dorra's classic Intrigue (a "fight in a box" that is sadly out of print and unavailable as of this publication) and promptly proceeded to honor absolutely none of my promises to this player. He was penniless and powerless for the rest of the game, and I had all of his money. It was hilarious, and fortunately he was a good sport about it.
There's really nothing else like Intrigue out there. The whole idea is that people pay you to give their relatives jobs in your manor, but you have multiple applicants and players are all trying to grease their way in with money. When it comes time to fill the roles, only one can take the position. Everyone else is exiled to the island. I love that this game is so purely focused on looking another player in the eyes and lying to them. The only other game I can think of that so perfectly and smoothly enables treachery and betrayal without much rules friction to stop you is the great Cosmic Encounter - a game that sometimes forces you to attack the player that helped you the most on the previous turn.
Some games seem born to backstabbing. Game of Thrones, Diplomacy, Munchkin. But the bitterest betrayals sometimes come when you don't expect them. It's about trains and stock prices. How cutthroat can Chicago Express be? The answer, my friends, is very. In one game, an opponent and I had equal shares of a particular railroad. We were marching hand in hand toward Chicago. Fast friends, like brothers really. We would share in the payout that comes from completing that destination and then lord it over the remaining competitors.
Just as we were about to reach our destination, he ends up buying another share. So now he'll benefit more than me. We both worked hard to make it happen, but now he was going to get the lion's share of the benefit. Well, screw that. My next turn involved building track to nowhere, using up the company's resources and making it impossible to reach Chicago. I cackled as his dreams turned to ash. Luckily, my portfolio was such that I could withstand the loss. His was not. The great railroad revenge is still whispered around my table whenever stocks go up for sale in Chicago Express.
Not every betrayal involves backstabbing; sometimes it's the heart you're after.
In one recent play of John Company, my family was steadily growing its investments and prestige. We had officers within the East India Company, their income supplemented by freebooting captains of our own. In order to buy the ships they would be sailing to India, we struck a bargain with another family of well-to-dos: they would underwrite the cost of a pair of oceangoing vessels, and we would join with them in holy matrimony as soon as one of our executives retired from the company. No need for messy contracts or the like. Just one hand joined with another and victory points earned for both parties. Beautiful.
Then our man retired from his posting earlier than anticipated. Our wallet was fat with the money we'd earned from our newly-outfitted captains, so the patriarch of our partnered family beamed proudly as he awaited news of the wedding. And we agreed to the union — provided he paid every last farthing of the cost.
The patriarch of the family we'd spurned was livid. Unfortunately for him, without any collateral, he had no recourse. We'd functionally embezzled half of his treasury, and would only reward him if he let us embezzle the other half. From that moment onward, it was a blood feud between us. If only he'd had the money to make good on his bluster.
This was a rough one. In a game of Fief: France 1429, I had been schmoozing up to another with much platitudes and regular concessions. I was grooming him and his noble Francois for courtship, ready to marry off the bold Lady Abelone and forge an alliance that was meant to be broken (although only to me). Of course he fell for it - they always do.
We battled together across the French countryside, ousting the Pope his cushy stronghold and seizing fields of grain to fuel the war-machine. Fiefdoms were conquered and victory was close. Then it happened. When the night was at its darkest, the assassin struck. Lord Francois had his throat cut and lasted mere moments while Lady Abelone looked on in feigned horror. As our conjoined families dissolved in an instant, I qualified for individual victory and took the game.
The wounds were rife with salt when it's realized that we would have won as a team on the following turn with Francois being elected King. Anger from across the table was matched by devious satisfaction. Blood boiled and a lasting memory was forged. I have not found a suitor in Fief since.
In Carcassonne, we have seen cities rise and fall, we have seen roads wither and fade into the weeds and dust. Once-great monasteries fall into ruin. But the most devastating thing in Carcassonne is not the passage of time as the game moves on, but the betrayal of a friend.
We had two players building a city side by side in an unspoken alliance. Whenever one of them drew a fitting city piece, they'd slap it down growing the city into one of the most valuable I'd ever seen in a game of Carc. Towards the end of the game, one of them put a meeple down close by on an open-ended city piece. No big deal, just building a separate city. Nothing to see here. Then, in a final stroke of deviousness, he connected the two, overpowering the friend's lone meeple and stealing all 60+ points for himself. Brutal! Never trust anyone in love or Carcassonne.
My clan of Spike the Murderer, Johan the Ill-Equipped and Bob the Poorly Used floundered through Arcadia Quest while a rival clan, led by Hobspawn, whose Boots of Brokenness allowed his player to seemingly activate his whole clan while the rest of us went one at a time, racked up a seemingly insurmountable lead heading into the finale.
Spike got to Lord Fang first, which is almost always a bad idea, but he did a lot of damage before dying. Hobspawn the Weasely then moved in for the kill, whittling down Lord Fang to near death, or whatever you call it for an undead creature. Enter Johan, replete with bows despite his ability because Spike the Melee God needed as many swords as he could get his hands on, and my loot hauls were poor. Johan entered the room, calmly took aim, and fired, drilling Hobspawn squarely in the back and killing him.
Oh, and the next turn Johan killed Fang. So my clan, despite not having won a single quest up to this point, won the game, because them’s the rules. And I didn't even get any reward for PvP in that dungeon. The book says it was a minor victory, but my sweet backstab right before the game-winning shot made it a major coup, reinforced by the angry glares of my fellow players.