Gaming is, at its heart, a social thing. It’s a chance for friends to get together and enjoy each other’s company. Yes, you’re playing a game, and there’s going to be a winner, but it’s more about having fun with people.
Except for the times when it’s your mission to make those people as miserable as possible.
There’s an entire swath of games where what you do hurts what someone else was planning to do. No matter how nice you try to be, you’re going to deny someone the chance to do something. Gamers call them backstabbers, screw your buddy games, and much more vulgar variations. Now nobody does this to be deliberately mean; the mechanics of the game put you at odds with the other players. We try not revel too much in the pain we cause, but I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t some amount of sadistic thrill in knowing you did the very thing your buddy was planning to do.
Steam is technically a game about building train routes and shipping goods. But it’s actually dooming your friends to a turn full of failure and futility. And then someone doing the same thing to you. Practically every moment in the game puts you into conflict with everyone else. You bid for turn order. You select benefits you’ll use for that turn, some of which can let you act ahead of the person who paid through the nose for the privilege of going first. You build sections of train track across a shared map that inevitably gets more and more crowded as the prime routes get fought over. And finally you take turns shipping goods, hoping that someone doesn’t decide to ship the good you were going to, thus depriving you of the income you needed to make sure you go first next turn and avoid that problem. Until someone takes the bonus that lets them ship first. And then you want to punch that someone…
Okay, I’m exaggerating, because nobody would ever play the game if things were that bad. But the exquisite design of Steam makes it so that you simply cannot turtle up and do your own thing. You’ve got to pay attention to what everyone else is doing. You’ve got to be aware of where they might be going with their track, what routes they can move goods along, how much money they have for the next auction. Because if you don’t, every plan of yours will go up in smoke.
And the strength of Steam is that all of this is fun. Of course, it helps to have players who are in the right mindset. There are some people who take too much pleasure in the pain they cause. And some who take things way too personally. But with a good mix of grown-up, sane players, it’s a great time. Even as you’re cursing every last human being at the table.