Design Patterns: Everything You Do Is The Reason I Don’t Trust You

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Distrust is a delicious ingredient in game design! What’s so fascinating about this design pattern is that it’s about the metagame, the game above the table, rather than the game that’s on the table. In a game featuring this pattern of stoking distrust, players typically have some shared goals and some opposing goals, and play revolves around completing shared goals while also making progress towards those opposing goals. Typically, once a player’s opposing goals are discovered, they become much more difficult to achieve, so subterfuge is important. At the same time, shared goals typically require cooperation to accomplish.

Games that feature this dynamic include betrayal games like Battlestar Galactica  and Dead of Winter.

Frakkin’ Toaster!

In betrayal games, the betrayers don’t share any common goals with the other players, but the damage they are able to inflict prior to being unmasked is typically greater than after, so they have incentive to participate in achieving the other players’ shared goals to extend their own effectiveness. These games have formality around the issue of trust, in the sense that the game assigns players to specific roles, and typically both disallows players revealing themselves to one another in order to advantage their team, and disincentivizes players revealing themselves to the other team. Many decisions and actions are taken under a cloud of secrecy, so as to foment as much distrust as possible.

Other kinds of games offer a similar dynamic, but with fewer rules. Many 4X, conquest and civilization games feature negotiations and informal alliances. Sometimes there are specific rules about how these alliances can work, like in Eclipse, and other times no rules, or few rules, govern what may be traded, as in Cosmic Encounter and Diplomacy. In these games, players may agree to certain alliances, truce lines, shared operations and so forth, but ultimately, a betrayal is all but inevitable.

One way to think of this dynamic is as a version of the Ultimatum Game. In the Ultimatum Game, commonly studied in game theory, one player is given a sum of money, let’s say $10. That player makes one take-it-or-leave-it offer to the other player. If the other player accepts, the division of funds happens. If the other player rejects, nobody gets anything. Standard economics predicts that players should literally accept any division, since they walk away with more than they had when they walked in. Experimental results demonstrate that players typically reject offers when they are offered 30% or less of the money – and also, that when the game is played among people who share some kind of bond of relationship, offers are much more often 50-50. In an iterated setting, where players take turns given the ultimatum, and the amount of money to be split varies randomly, players are much more likely to stay close to 50-50 in their splits… until a big pot comes along.

In games involving temporary alliances, each test of the alliance, each moment of decision, when a player commits an action and resources towards some aim, the player is essentially proposing some kind of split of the rewards. In games without those alliances, players are typically seeking to internalize all the benefits of their moves, and not leave some bonanza for the next player to be able to take advantage of. But in temporary alliance games, this behavior is common. Players are agreeing to share the pot in different ways. When the pot is large enough though, the rewards strains the bonds of the alliance. After all, the player who times his betrayal best will typically win the contest.

The dynamic of distrust, used effectively, can create great tension, dramatic revelations, and memorable experiences. Used poorly, it suffers from kingmaking, unclear player goals, or even abandonment of the game’s rules as written (a common fate of semi-coop games).

Your turn! What are some of your favorite games that feature the pattern of “Everything you do is the reason I don’t trust you” ? What kinds of design problems do you solve with this pattern?


  1. Elizabeth Hargrave July 17, 2017 1:54 pm Reply

    For me, there’s an important distinction related to distrust in social deduction/traitor style games.

    I’m fine with the type of distrust in most non-traitor games, where you can’t really trust anyone because every person is fighting for first place. I’m going to assume when trading in Settlers of Catan, for example, that you’re not actually trying to do me a favor with whatever offer you’re making me. All fine.

    For some reason I HATE games that are all about trying to figure out who to trust and distrust. For me, LYING about whether you can trust me is deeply uncomfortable. As is having to decide whether to believe my friends. For something that fundamental, I just haven’t been able to emotionally get to the place where it’s all in the magic circle. It just feels stomach-turningly wrong to me.

    But I think for a lot of people, that’s the appeal of social deduction/traitor games — they get to do something really outside social norms, and be rewarded for it.

    • Isaac Shalev July 17, 2017 1:58 pm Reply

      Agreed, it’s a big distinction that hits people in different ways. I think for me the deception-style games don’t bother me the same way because I see them as role-playing or acting games. It’s not a lie, it’s inhabiting a different role.

  2. Larry Bogucki July 17, 2017 6:39 pm Reply

    Werewolf comes to mind, but this is really all about lying! Since it is such a big part of the game, I’m ok with it. Generally speaking though I somewhat agree with Elizabeth. It’s a little bit uncomfortable lying to friends and family through out a game of Werewolf, but at the same time just reminding myself that it is a game and that’s what its all about keeps everything in check. Kind of like Survivor on CBS

  3. Mark McGee July 17, 2017 6:43 pm Reply

    I think this is what The Resistance revolves around. There aren’t any game actions that do anything other than demonstrate your suspicions (or bluff your suspicions). The purest form of this pattern I can think of.

  4. Peter C. Hayward July 22, 2017 2:12 am Reply

    I have such a love for games that are primarily about reading your opponents. Market games, traitor games, deduction games – anything that you can’t -really- play against a computer. For me it’s one of the great strengths of a physical game.

    • Isaac Shalev July 26, 2017 4:50 pm Reply

      Interesting distinction. I see grand strategy games as being heavily dependent on reading your opponent, and I dislike playing them against the computer for that reason. Yet they are among the most popular genre of games to play against a computer opponent.

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