The Alpha Player Problem (+How to Solve It)


alpha player problem- modern board gaming

I was rehashing a cooperative game that I had just played, and when bringing up a downside of our experience, my husband said, “That’s because you were being an alpha player”. 

I had never heard that term before, so after our conversation, I did further research to find out more about this alpha player problem, and how to solve it. 

So, what is the alpha player problem? The alpha player problem is when someone takes over or dominates the play of a cooperative game. This usually involves giving orders, as opposed to actually playing cooperatively with other players, making it less fun for other players. 

In this post, I’m going to share a few things that can cause the alpha player problem, as well as tips on how to solve it (both for the alpha player themselves, and those who are playing with one). 

Causes of the Alpha Player Problem

The first step to solving the alpha player problem is to properly understand it. So, I’m going to share a few potential causes or origins of the alpha player problem.

1. Being New to Cooperative Games

I’m a recovering alpha player myself, so I know exactly how being new to cooperative games can bring out the alpha player syndrome.

All my life, I had played competitive games. For a long time, I had no idea that cooperative board games existed. And for the most part, while playing board games, I cared more about winning and my own experience then I did about the collective experience of the players.

I was so used to being competitive that one of the reasons I struggled with being an alpha player was because I had never played a board game cooperatively.

Playing cooperative games comes with a learning curve, so if someone is only used to playing competitive games, it can take them a little while before they figure out how to be a team player.

2. Experience With and Understanding of the Game at Hand 

Experience with, the number of times someone has played a certain game, and understanding of the game at hand can cause the alpha player problem to come out more.

For example, if someone has played a game six times, they probably have a pretty good understanding of the mechanics and strategy of the game. And in reality, they most likely know how to play the game better than others who are playing it for the first time.

If they’re playing with someone who has never played the game before, they might try to “help” just a little bit too much. 

Let’s say for example that someone on their team makes a decision they made last time, and they know that it’s a bad move. So, they begin “ordering” another player to do something else. I think you see where this is going. Experience with and understanding of the board game at hand can definitely cause this alpha player problem to come out more. 

3. The Players’ Level of Comfort

The various players’ levels of comfort can also have an effect on whether or not the alpha player problem rears its ugly head.

Let’s say for example there’s one player who knows all of the players and the game really well. And the other players are shy, or less comfortable with each other, and with playing the game. 

The comfortable player is more likely to dominate the cooperative game. And the shy players may not take the initiative themselves to decide what to do on their turn, or may not speak up when the alpha player is giving them a “suggestion”.

How to Solve the Alpha Player Problem 

Now that we know a few of the most common causes of the alpha player problem, how do we solve it? I’m first going to share a few tips for the other players in the game who might be playing with an alpha player. Then, I’ll dive into tips for the alpha player themselves. 

If You’re Playing With an Alpha Player

If you’re dealing (or will be dealing) with a dominant or alpha player, there are several things you can do to help remedy the situation and make game night more fun for everyone. 

1. Select the right game

Know who you’re playing with, and the tendencies that they might have. If you know someone is more likely to dominate cooperative games, it might be a good idea to pick a game that they are new to, so they are less likely to offer their opinion. Selecting the right game can go a long way to help solve the alpha player problem.

2. Explain how cooperative games work

If someone is new to cooperative games, but you think that they may end up being an alpha player (if they have a strong or competitive personality), explain to them how cooperative games work. It might be best to do this before the game night and just the two of you.

If he or she knows that while everyone is working together as a team, it’s still important for each individual to have a turn and share their thoughts, they’ll go into the game with a better mindset.

3. Select the right character for each player

It might be easier to let each player chose their character, but if you know the game and the players well, and think there may be an alpha player problem, I recommend selecting the players’ characters. This might only be relevant for some of the cooperative games that you’ll play, but this is an important point nonetheless.

This allows you to give easier characters to novice (or shy) players, and harder characters to the players who are more likely to dominate play. The players with the harder characters will be more focused on learning and understanding their character, keeping their mind off of what everyone else should be doing, and more focused on what they can contribute. 

4. Give less information than the game allows

Most cooperative games allow all of the players to share their cards and information with each other since players are working together. However, if there’s an alpha player in the group, when explaining the rules, ask everyone to keep their cards to themselves.

This makes it much harder for an alpha player to interject their thoughts on a different players turn. I realize that this can take away from some of the fun of cooperative games, but from experience, this can actually make the game more fun for everyone if there’s an alpha player in the mix. 

This still also allows players to ask for help if they want to, but it helps to prevent them from receiving unsolicited advice.

If You Struggle With the Alpha Player Syndrome

Now that we covered a few tips/best practices for those playing with an alpha player, I’m going to share a few things that will help alpha players overcome their problem. And, if you follow these steps, I promise that you will have more fun as a team player than you had as an alpha player.

1. Admit that you have a problem 

Admitting to yourself that you struggle with being an alpha player is so beneficial. I didn’t even know what an alpha player was until my husband explained it to me (and I’m so thankful that he did!).  

Understanding what an alpha player is so that you can learn to be a team player (even when your instincts might tell you otherwise) is huge. 

2. Don’t offer your opinion first

When I was playing as an alpha player, I almost always gave my opinion first. You know that moment in a cooperative game when someone asks, “What should we do now?” That’s your chance to stay silent. 

Even if you think you know the best strategy and next move, let everyone else offer their opinions first. Then, once you’ve listened to the other players, then share what you think will be the best move and why. 

3. Understand that there’s more than one way to do things

Sometimes it’s so hard for me to understand why players want to make a certain decision. But, even if you think your way is “right”, know that there’s more than one way to play the game. 

Before letting another player know that the decision they’re making is “wrong”, ask them why they want to make that decision and listen. Maybe they have another strategy or plan in mind. 

Even if you disagree with the decision, or think there’s a better way, it doesn’t necessarily make the other player’s way wrong, as there are usually several ways in which you can win in a cooperative game. 

 4. The experience of everyone collectively as a whole is more important than yours individually

Ouch. I know that this might be a hard tip to swallow, but this is important to learn if you truly want to have the most fun you can with cooperative games. 

The experience of everyone collectively as a whole is more important than yours. 

Let that sink in a bit, and next time when playing a cooperative game, keep that in mind.

Helping to focus on everyone’s experience, not just yours, will result in every single person having more fun with a cooperative game—even you. 

Conclusion

Cooperative games have quickly become my favorite. Whether you struggle with the alpha player syndrome yourself, or if you’re used to playing with dominant players, I hope the information I shared allows you to have more fun the next time you play a cooperative game!

And alpha player, I see you. I know what it’s like to be in your shoes, and I promise that if you follow the tips I shared for overcoming this, you will end up having more fun playing cooperative games too. 

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