Board Game Terms: Min-Maxing

All this week we’ll be taking a look at some of the jargon used in board games. If you’re new to gaming, you might like our piece from last year explaining the terms used to describe different types of games. This week we’re concentrating on terms used by more dedicated players to describe characteristics of games and gamers, particularly ones that can be controversial or problematic.

Today’s word is min-maxing which can be controversial both for differing interpretations and whether it’s a positive or a negative. It comes from game theory in general and role playing games in particular, where it refers to players with a limited pool of ability or trait points choosing the minimum for some categories so they can apply the maximum in other categories.

In board games it is used in several contexts, but one refers to the idea of considering every possible option and calculating which offers the maximum reward (or potential reward) with the minimum risk or cost. In principle, it’s a perfectly sensible approach to take in trying to perform as well as possible in the game, and to many players it would be nonsensical to object to it.

To other players though, it can be more of a negative for several reasons:

  • It can mean players taking excessively long on a turn (see also analysis paralysis), particularly once a final round has been triggered.
  • It can be taken too far with players trying to maximise their score rather than just worry about winning. (Whether that’s a problem depends on the social group and the reasons for playing.)
  • It can turn into more of a mathematical exercise at the expense of being immersed in the theme of the game or enjoying the social interaction. Again, that comes down to why people are playing.

If you or other players are prone to problematic min-maxing, some possible approaches include:

  • Avoid games that use scores an instead are based on specific objectives. You might still have the tendency to obsessively crunch the possibilities, but not having specific numbers to work with could make this too difficult to pursue.
  • Look for games with a limited range of options at any stage. For example, when playing Scythe a player usually only has three or four main possible choices on their turn and having an overall strategy will often make one choice clearer. Another benefit of Scythe is that when the game ending is triggered it takes effect immediately, so considering too many moves in advance may be a wasted effort.
  • Try games with a lot of hidden information or simultaneous action selection: these will often make min-maxing too difficult because you won’t have enough information to work with.
  • Pick games that are extremely thematic as these may help players get more immersed in the story than the calculations.