Be Ye Friend Or Be Ye Foe? Part 1

Two of the designers in my group recently became entranced by the friend or foe mechanism.  John and Luther have attempted to throw this mechanism into exploration games, war games, and economic games.  In their own words, they have been “throwing it at every wall, hoping it will eventually stick.”

There’s something to be said for that kind of devotion.

With their campaign underway, there have naturally been a number of conversations abound the veritable water cooler.  What are its features?  Its weaknesses?  Where does it succeed?  Where does it fail?  This is of course exactly the kind of thing this blog exists to share.

What is Friend or Foe?

KennedyThe eponymous game show was played in rounds.  Three teams of two players each competed to amass prize money.  The best overall team went into a culminating final showdown.

In the showdown, these two teammates secretly voted “Friend” or “Foe.”

A) If both choose friend, they split the contest money evenly.

B) If both choose foe, they each get nothing.

C) If one chooses friend and the other chooses foe, the foe gets all the money and the friend gets nothing.


What if you were an amoral decision-making machine?

If you are amoral, you should always choose foe:

(A) If your partner chooses friend, you get everything.

(B) If your partner chooses foe, you get nothing but succeed in preventing him from taking everything.


Most of us are not amoral.  Our actions are how we identify who we are.  This identification is not only how we identify who we are to the outside world.  Our actions are also how we identify who we are to ourselves.  Most of us wish to believe that we are good people and that we do good things.
What if you are absolutely trusting?

If you are absolutely trusting, you should always choose friend:

(A) If your partner chooses friend, you get an equal share.

(B) If partner chooses foe, you get nothing but know that you still did the right thing.


Most of us are not absolutely trusting either.  We want to see good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people.  We wish to be conscientious as Wikipedia defines it: “the personality trait that is defined as being thorough, careful, or vigilant;…exhibit a tendency to show self-discipline, act dutifully, and aim for achievement” as opposed to “People who score low on conscientiousness…are more likely to engage in antisocial and criminal behavior.”

Now a tricky decision has appeared.  If you are to be conscientious, your choice must be based on your assessment of your opponent:

(A) If you believe your partner will choose friend, you should also choose friend and thereby share equally.

(B) If you believe your partner will choose foe, you should also choose foe and thereby deny him from making off with all the cash.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma

tuckerThe Friend or Foe showdown is a form of the Prisoner’s Dilemma game theory concept, which was originally posed by by Merrill Flood and Melvin Dresher in 1950.  Also in 1950, Albert W. Tucker introduced the prison sentence theme.  It breaks down in the following way:

Two members of a criminal gang are arrested and imprisoned. Each prisoner is in solitary confinement with no means of speaking to or exchanging messages with the other. The police offer each prisoner a plea bargain in exchange for testifying against the other. Here’s how it goes:


A) If both remain silent, each of them will only serve 1 year in prison.

B) If both betray the other, each of them serves 2 years in prison.

C) If one betrays the other while the other remains silent, remains silent, the betrayer will be set free and the silent one serves 3 years in prison.


Notice right off that this situation is framed in terms of punishment rather than reward so the decision space has different implications.

Notice also that this unlike the Friend or Foe game show, this is not a zero-sum game.  2 total years are meted out in case (A).  The total years in case (B) are 4.  The total is 3 years in case (C).  This difference gives the original prisoner’s dilemma a rather more interesting decision space than its game show incarnation.  The Friend or Foe game show, by contrast, was closer to zero sum.  I would suggest that this staggering of the rewards/penalties makes the prisoner’s dilemma more interesting for our players.  We’ll talk more about that in our next installment.


Has Anyone Researched This?

Yes they have!  There is a great deal of research into Friend or Foe decisions.  Game theorist mathematicians have studied it from a standpoint of pure logic.  Social scientists have studied it from a standpoint of human behavior.  Both perspectives will give us insight into the kind of behavior we can expect from our players.  See you Tuesday!

Have you played a game with a Friend or Foe mechanism? What did you think of it?  Have you written one? How did your players respond to it?  Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create an account with WordPress and follow this blog.  You keep reading. I’ll keep writing.