What is Kingmaking?

The words what is kingmaking on a red velvet background

This article was originally published at UniversityXP and is re-published in Ludogogy by permission of the author.

Sometimes you’ll play a competitive game where you realize that you can’t win anymore. It’s kind of depressing to think about. However, there are things that you can do and actions that you can take that will help someone else win. This scenario is called “kingmaking.”

This article will define and outline what a kingmaking scenario is. A history of kingmaking will be discussed as well as reasons that it may arise in different situations. Kingmaking as a spoiling tactic in game mechanics will also be covered. Kingmaking in tournament situations and table top games will be included. Finally, kingmaking can have an adverse impact on both player agency and the player experience. Both areas will be discussed in addition to how kingmaking takes effect in scenarios outside of games.

What is a kingmaking scenario?

Kingmaking is often described as a negative effect in game play. However, the definition includes someone who can still wield their own power, agency, and influence. They just cannot do so in order to win the game. Instead, the best that they can do is help (or hurt) someone else’s chances of winning and being picked as “king.”

Kingmaking in game theory surrounds the end game scenario where a player has the ability to make a winning move for another player.  This is often seen as a negative effect of game design due to limited player agency. While the player does still have the capability of making a choice; they cannot make a choice that secures their own victory.

This can also be referred to as a “lame-duck” situation where someone can take actions that doesn’t have any positive beneficial effect for themselves or their interests. This is often a terrible situation to be in because the player often realizes that they cannot win.

This gives rise to certain options that the kingmaker has. Do they keep playing to maximize their score and improve their position despite their inability to win? Should they ignore other players and make the best “sound” move?

All of these are considerations for what players can or should do in the game. However, knowing some history about kingmaking and how it has become part of the common game vocabulary is worth noting.

History of kingmaking

Kingmaking was first identified as an English term by Richard Neville who served as the 16th Earl of Warwick. In his position, Richard played an instrumental role in the deposition of Henry VI during the War of the Roses, which lead to his replacement by Edward IV. This later resulted in Warwick turning against Edward and restoring Henry to the throne.

It’s from this historical interaction that we identify kingmaking. Richard Neville was able to exact agency and power in the political affairs of the country. However, it was not enough in order to secure the throne for himself. Instead, he could only choose the next successor to the throne.

This represents the English origin of the term “kingmaker” in 1599. However, it would take some time before the term became common usage in scenarios other than the original historical one.

The more common and modern applications of the term are still used to identify specific political situations. However, it now encompasses scenarios and situations in games and game theory as well.

Reasons behind kingmaking

Sometimes kingmaking is done purposefully; sometimes it’s done out of spite; or sometimes it is done out of ignorance or lack of acknowledgement of the other players. Yes, kingmaking makes is so that players don’t have much recourse given the set of actions presented to them. However, the act of kingmaking has its biggest impact when it’s done out of spite.

That’s because spiteful activities don’t really adhere to the playfulness and magic circle of games. Spiteful activity subverts the acknowledgement of why players play to begin with. However, when in a kingmaking situation, there are a few options that players have at their disposal.

The first option is usually to make the best scoring play possible. This may leave the game open for other players to make an even bigger scoring playing; however that is not up to you. This entails making the best possible move given your circumstance to win the game (even if it is likely that you will not).

Another option for players is to play for “justice.” That is to reward players that might have had a hand in helping you through the game. This could be from another player who gave you’re a resource; a hand of cards; or didn’t select an option that would have negatively affected you.

However, these options do seem to skirt on the edge of the magic circle. By agreeing to play a game; we’ve agreed to adhere to the rules and spirit of the game. This sometimes means that more experienced players could be the target of “reductive play” that might reduce their ability to win.

This can expand into more experienced or regular players who often engage with one another. In those circumstances; players that seem to win more frequently than others may become the target of these “reductive plays” and may not benefit from positive kingmaking activities.

Kingmaking as spoiling

Kingmaking (when taking into account actions outside of the magic circle of games) can be seen as spoiling the game. Returning to the origin of kingmaking with Richard Neville, this activity can be interpreted as spoiling an experience that should rightfully be won by other players based on merit.

This is perhaps the reason why kingmaking negatively affects the player experience: because it is considered an undesirable resolution to the activity of the game. Since a player cannot win; their only options are to take actions that can only result in other players winning.

Therefore, one player’s strategy in kingmaking is when they take an action which directly benefits another player (direct action). Otherwise, the kingmaker could take an action which helps another player while also affecting their own final ranking in the game (indirect action).

These are actions that can be taken by kingmakers near the close of the game or during endgame phases. However, kingmaking could also be interpreted as a series of activities that progressively helps another player benefit unfairly – not just at the end. This can happen in poker when players “play softly” against a specific opponent in order to setup them for other hands as the game (or tournament) progresses.

This kind of player behavior skews into areas of collusion where individual players or teams fail to play at the best of their ability in pursuit of the common goal of the game. This can occur in sports when “running down the clock” or otherwise using delaying tactics that are outside the scope of more traditional play activities.

Kingmaking in game mechanics

Design of game mechanics can go a long way in mitigating these kingmaking scenarios. However, these situations cannot always be avoided in more advanced and complex games. Despite this, there are considerations that game designers can undertake that would aid them in mitigating these types of scenarios.

One of the most common design choices is to obscure victory points or progress towards victory conditions. Not possessing perfect information about the game state can help players retain agency while also preserving the feeling of the ability to win despite their current situation.

A hybrid situation can also be implemented in game design. This can take the form of a score track that is public knowledge while players hold onto a hand of cards that is private knowledge. The value of the hidden hands of cards is then revealed at the end of the game to indicate the final score. Ticket to Ride implements this practice in its design.

Ticket to Ride is available on Amazon

Kingmaking in tournaments

There is one instance in which kingmaking in gaming can have an inexorable impact on the validity of a fair contest. That’s when kingmaking scenarios occur in tournaments. This is because tournaments often provide scenarios where contestants are already guaranteed placement in the next round of play. However; they may use their future play to influence which other contestants make it to the next round.

This gives rise to tournament strategies that use kingmaking to their advantage. This is because it is often strategically important to help weaker contestants proceed to future rounds of play. This makes the playing field for the kingmaker as easy as possible.

Kingmaking in these tournament scenarios and more competitive games is where the phenomenon becomes annoying for players and tournament officials alike. While rules can be created by game makers and referees; it appears that kingmaking cannot always be totally eliminated in these circumstances. Instead, its effects can only be reduced or mitigated.

Kingmaking in tournaments is particularly harmful because contestants caught in such scenarios could be accused of cheating or collusion. Perhaps one of the applicable ways of addressing this is asking contestants to conceded tournament games in which their win has no effect on their progress within the event.

Kingmaking in table top games

Kingmaking can occur in many different types of games: especially table top games. Kingmaking has a particularly influential effect in games with high degrees of player interaction such as Diplomacy; The Godfather; or Survive: Escape from Atlantis.

Diplomacy is available on Amazon

One of the aforementioned ways of dealing with kingmaking in games is to hide the victory point track. Puerto Rico does this in order to conceal which player is in the lead. The introduction of this hidden element supports the ability for all players to believe that they have a chance of winning through the end of the game.

However, kingmaking can and does still occur in other games. Kingdomino for instance provides opportunities at the end game for players to draft tiles that may only help them a little; but hurt the winning chances for the remaining players.

Kingdomino is available on Amazon

Likewise, Viticulture players could fulfill an order during the end game to ensure that they finish second. Whereas another player could have used the space to potentially win.

Viticulture is available on Amazon

Despite this, there are instances in games where players can determine that they are not in a position to win and therefore have no more agency to affect the outcome. This can occur in Dominion when players discover that there are no longer enough VP cards left in order to stage a comeback.

Dominion is available on Amazon

No more is kingmaking more frustrating then when it is informed by metagaming experiences. This can occur when players work with each other to stop a more experienced player from winning in spite of negatively affecting their own play.

Survive: Escape from Atlantis is available on Amazon

However, kingmaking does have its place in some games: especially those games that involve much negotiation and interaction between players. Games such as Cosmic Encounter; The Sheriff of Nottingham; and Empires involve much interaction and negotiation. Thus kingmaking might even be a thematic and welcoming player interaction within the game.

Cosmic Encounter is available on Amazon

Kingmaking and player agency and experience

Perhaps one of the most negative aspects of kingmaking is removing the agency of players and thus affecting the player experience. That’s because in these scenarios players can no longer play for themselves. Instead their actions (at best) can only affect other players.

The Sheriff of Nottingham is available on Amazon

Thus, making moves that might otherwise negatively impact the game experience for other players could be seen as unsportsmanlike and not adhering to the rules of the magic circle. This could take place by players intentionally slowing the game down or otherwise taking illogical moves.

Empires is available on Amazon

Despite this, players always have the option for finishing better than their peers through the remaining actions that they take. While they might not be able to win; they could potentially still do relatively better than the rest of their competition.

Kingmaking has a potentially disastrous impact on casual games when players realize that they can no longer win and must still continue to play the game through its conclusion.  Such a position is not enviable for anyone and overall negatively impacts the player experience.

Kingmaking outside of games

Kingmaking originated outside of games. Its basis was a political move by actors who could only make the decision to decide the next king. For applications in modern democracies; kingmaking could be considered antithetical. This is again because it provides the choice to choose a leader without having the ability to nominate oneself.

Finally, kingmaking could even be seen as a benefit in certain scenarios. One of them is the TV series Survivor where the last seven to ten contestants who have been voted out form a jury that chooses a winner from the last two contestants. In this situation, kingmaking can be a dramatic addition to the reality show game.


This article addressed the kingmaking scenario in games as well as its historical origins.  Reasons behind kingmaking were discussed as well as how this effect is interpreted as a spoiling activity in game play.  Kingmaking in game mechanics were covered in addition to how kingmaking can adversely affect tournament scenarios.

Finally, kingmaking in table top games were discussed and how its effects and influences both player agency and the player experience. Kingmaking outside of games were discussed in relation to politics and reality television.

This article was about the kingmaking in games.  To learn more about gamification, check out the free course on Gamification Explained.

If you have enjoyed this article – consider getting yourself lifetime access to Dave’s Games-Based Learning Digital Library containing all of the content from the past two Games-Based Learning Virtual Conferences; past webinars and courses he’s created; as well as his complete back catalogue of articles; podcast episodes; and videos. And more content is being added all the time.

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References and further reading:

Appelcline, S. (2018, November 26). A model for decision making in games, Part THREE: ACTION RESOLUTION. Retrieved June 16, 2021, from https://www.mechanics-and-meeples.com/2018/11/26/a-model-for-decision-making-in-games-part-three-action-resolution/

Brain, J. (2021). Warwick the kingmaker. Retrieved June 16, 2021, from https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofEngland/Warwick-The-Kingmaker/

Eng, D. (2019, August 06). Meaningful Choices.  Retrieved June 16, 2021, from https://www.universityxp.com/blog/2019/8/6/meaningful-choices

Eng, D. (2019, September 10). The Player Experience.  Retrieved June 16, 2021, from https://www.universityxp.com/blog/2019/9/10/the-player-experience

Eng, D. (2020, August 20). What is Player Agency?  Retrieved June 16, 2021, from http://www.universityxp.com/blog/2020/8/20/what-is-player-agency

Eng, D. (2020, February 06). Game Mechanics.  Retrieved June 16, 2021, from https://www.universityxp.com/blog/2020/2/6/game-mechanics

Eng, D. (2020, January 16). How do I win?  Retrieved June 16, 2021, from https://www.universityxp.com/blog/2020/1/16/how-do-i-win

Eng, D. (2020, July 9). What is the Magic Circle?  Retrieved June 16, 2021, from http://www.universityxp.com/blog/2020/7/9/what-is-the-magic-circle

Fellows, J. (2009, January 22). Daniel Negreanu on Poker: SOFT playing is Cheating: Play hard or don’t play. Retrieved June 16, 2021, from https://www.fcnp.com/2009/01/22/daniel-negreanu-on-poker-soft-playing-is-cheating-play-hard-or-dont-play/

Jury. (n.d.). Retrieved June 16, 2021, from https://survivor.fandom.com/wiki/Jury

M, Kurt. (2018, February 15). What is…kingmaking? Retrieved June 16, 2021, from https://twooffthetop.com/2018/02/15/what-is-kingmaking/

Smed, J., Knuutila, T., & Hakonen, H. (2006). Can we prevent collusion in multiplayer online games. In Proceedings of the Ninth Scandinavian Conference on Artificial Intelligence (Vol. 9). https://www.researchgate.net/publication/31596956_Can_We_Prevent_Collusion_in_Multiplayer_Online_Games

Tavendale. (2021, March 23). Kingmaking in board games. Retrieved June 16, 2021, from https://norerolls.co.uk/2021/03/23/kingmaking-in-board-games/

What is a ‘kingmaker’? (2010, March 15). Retrieved June 16, 2021, from http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/8568319.stm

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Educator / Designer / Researcher at Dave Eng Design
Dr. Dave Eng is an intellectual and creative educator, designer, and researcher who focuses on games, theory, and technology.

Dave studies applied games and teaches others how to use games for education and learning. Dave serves as a faculty member at New York University’s School of Professional Studies (https://www.sps.nyu.edu/professional-pathways/faculty/20495-dave-eng.html).

Dave hosts the podcast Experience Points (https://www.buzzsprout.com/855127) and consults at University XP (https://www.universityxp.com/community) on games-based learning. He also leads the Games-Based Learning Alliance: a community of individuals who use games for teaching, training, learning, and development.

Dave is a founder of Banditos Gaming (https://www.banditosgaming.com/): a registered 501(c)(3) social and educational non-profit organization that promotes play, community development, and learning through games. His interests include learning theory, technology, and games.

Find out more at www.davengdesign.com

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