The World Cup teams of the US and Germany are in an odd position for their upcoming match on Thursday. If the game is a draw, then both teams advance to the round of 16, which means that the ideal strategy – as pointed out by Mark Heggen on Twitter – is for the two teams to agree to just sit on the ground and let the clock run out. Considering that the US coach Jürgen Klinsmann is from Germany and that West Germany infamously took part in the fixed Anschluss game, it’s hard not to wonder if there will be a little funny business during the match. At the very least, the match threatens to be a defensive snoozefest.
As a game designer, of course, this situation is appalling. Anytime a game’s rules rewards players for boring themselves (not to mention us, the viewers), the problem is with the game designer, not with the players. A similar match-throwing problem haunted the round-robin badminton tournament at the last Olympics, and game designer David Sirlin wrote a great article which placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of the tournament organizers. In the case of the US-Germany game, the problem is not quite so egregious – especially since the loser will have to play Belgium in the next round – but obviously the system could be improved.
I am a game designer, after all, so what would I do? The core of the problem is that whenever a game has more than two teams (and the World Cup is basically a game with 32 teams), diplomacy automatically becomes an important tool, regardless of the intentions of the game designer. Therefore, if winning is not required to advance, diplomacy can override the usual incentive for victory. The problem is that diplomacy is considered totally verboten (and a little unmanly) in competitive sports, even though it is considered totally normal in tabletop gaming. (As they love to play in Germany, of course!)
The solution is to focus the two teams on the one incentive left for them in the tournament – the seeding for the next round. The tournament’s rules should dictate that if two teams can advance with a draw, then the group’s other two teams are eliminated immediately. (The phenomenal card game Battle Line – by the German Reiner Knizia! – has a similar rule that allows capturing a flag early if a player can prove that no cards left in the deck could beat the ones on his or her own side.) However, instead of just cancelling the match between the US and Germany, which is problematic for many reasons, the tournament should let them play the game solely to determine who gets the top seed out of the group. Therefore, the two teams are rewarded for playing the game at full effort and have no incentive to make a mockery of the competition.
Now, context is important here as every rule always has a complexity cost. Adding this type of special casing to a video game or, especially, to a tabletop game might not be worth the extra overhead for the player to keep track of it. However, because the stakes for the World Cup are so high and because avoiding diplomacy is a design aesthetic for the tournament, this rule could be useful. Indeed, after the Anschluss game, FIFA changed the World Cup rules so that the final games of the round-robin phase would be played simultaneously to reduce the incentive for diplomacy. The situation the US and Germany face may not but common, but it’s also likely to happen again – all that is required is for a final game to be played between teams which both have one win and one draw. Better game design always beats the alternative.