I've always held some contempt for games with antagonistic qualities. I'm the kind of person who feels bad about playing a card that harms an opponent, but it took me a very long time to figure out why.
First, let me explain what I mean by "antagonistic" games. I'm talking about games where you attack the other players to hinder their progress. Think Killer Bunnies or Munchkin. In those games (and many others) you can choose to play cards to attack other players–cause them to lose progress or money or something. Most importantly, however, that's not how you win those games. That's an important distinction I'll cover in a minute.
At first I was pretty sure I didn't like these types of games simply because I don't like to hurt other people's feelings. I realize that I'm in the gaming minority here (winky face). I soon realized though that hurting feelings is not my main problem. There's a very objective reason why this style of attacking makes for a bogus game: attacking others doesn't move you toward your objective. So? Isn't it fun to just destroy other people? Sure, I suppose it can be. But this is a balancing issue. Think of your path to victory as a straight path from start to finish. In these types of games, attacking other players is not a step forward, it's at best a step sideways–often a step backwards. That means if you're in the business of winning you'll never actually attack anyone at all. The struggle with a game that centers itself on antagonism is that the best players won't even explore that entire piece of the game. Making lateral or backwards moves just for the thrill of upsetting your gaming guests isn't going to win you any games. And if all you want to do is bother each other you could just talk about politics.
There's a second problem with antagonism, and that's the bowling effect (which I've blogged about before). Some games do contain options to attack others that aren't lateral moves. However, the problem with this scenario is typically that the person doing the attacking earns some advancement toward victory and simultaneously moves his/her opponent backwards. That's double-dipping, folks. The reward for making a good move should be the advancement alone. You never want to doubly reward players or you'll end up with a huge gap between the winner and loser–and that results in someone not wanting to ever play again. Read more about why games should be more like Mario Kart and less like bowling for more details on that topic.
So, is there a time when antagonism works? Yes, absolutely. There are a few scenarios that make total sense. There are many games that have some degree of antagonism that happens as you make your own progress. Yes, there's a way to do it where it doesn't end up in double rewards and doesn't result in a lateral or backwards move. But it's not common. We're working on a game right now with just such a mechanic. It's a team game where the entire objective is to either a) earn a certain number of reputation points, or b) reduce your opponents' reputation to zero. Intrinsically, attacking the other player and advancing your own progress are the same thing. Because of that alignment you can get as antagonistic as you want and still be on the road to a quick victory. You will also not be double-dipping because any rewards in the game with either move you forward, or your opponent backwards...never both.
I'm reminded of some other games that have some built-in antagonism. In Gosu you can play cards that attack others. But the attack is somewhat ancillary to the main goal of adding to your own army. While it could be viewed as double-dipping, the effects aren't so dramatic that they make the game unbalanced. They've definitely found a way to incorporate attacks without throwing everything off. If you haven't tried it, I recommend Gosu for sure.
For all you lovers of antagonism out there, think twice as you're making your next game!