Fear the Penguin – the destructive psychology in competitive board games

Autor: Bene “Machkaputt”

In my old life as a management consultant we often had events with “keynote speakers” and their secrets to success. More than once I was told the BIG secret to success. People were often quite inspired by those events. The BIG secrets were usually quickly forgotten. Except for one: The destructive power of the penguin.

A former coach of the German women’s national hockey team introduced us to the penguin. In video clips he showed how (hockey and football) players threw their arms into the air in emotional situations to signal their displeasure – like a penguin. Reason for it was e.g., an alleged foul, a wrong decision of the referee, a fellow player had not passed the ball …



During these situations the players always forgot one thing:

The match continued.

And they sat on the ground and stretched their arms into the air.

But they didn’t do one thing:

Their job.

And then the opposing team scored a goal.

The coach’s lesson:

pull yourself together and keep doing your job.

And that stayed in my memory, for my work, but more for my favorite game, X-Wing, where joy and sorrow are often very close. You can argue about the physical demands compared to hockey and football. Otherwise, the penguin principle can be applied very well to X-Wing for three reasons: 

  1. The game offers a lot of moments that can make you raise your arms: stupid comments of your opponent, sloppily flown maneuvers, unfavorable critical damage, DICEBad dice raise pulses on a regular basis. Human beings have a hard time dealing with statistics in the heat of battle. And sometimes you just want to flip the table if you only look at the list your opponent brings to the table. 
  2. The game makes high demands on the endurance and concentration of the players. Effects can occur in different places in each turn. For each own ship you have to think at least two rounds ahead, also for the opponents’ ships. Actions must be performed based on probabilities. Especially in long tournaments, concentration is the key to success.
  3. The clock is ticking. With X-Wing there is usually no Time Out. If your opponent throws four crits into your face, you still have to pick up your dials and continue with the next turn. 

I would call myself a player with reasonable skill, but the part of the game, the emotional part, is one of my focus learning fields. The penguin often wins or loses my games. He lets me lose my focus, pushes me to give up. 

The common thing about the penguin:

You know it exists, but it always overcomes you again and again.

In the following situations he threw me into ruin, although I saw him coming:
  • I played in my first tournament after a German National Championship, where I made it to the semi-finals. I proudly lay out my new acrylic templates. And I lose the first game. The dice are cold, I keep making wrong decisions. I am beside myself. The shame. In the next game a spectator comments several times on my bad dice. I lose my head, the spectator almost loses his. It is remarkable and undeserved that I leave the tournament with one victory at all. 
  • Bologna, Italy System Open, 2018: After great expectations I was kicked out of the main event by losing three games on day 1. Day 2 starts with an opponent who almost makes me lose my mind. His templates and markers are wildly distributed on his half of the board. He uncovers his dials only upon my request. He flies sloppily. Although he flies one of his two ships off the field, I almost lose because I’m so unfocused that I forget several effects every round. When setting my dials, I’m more concerned with how I can lose to such a player than with finding the right maneuvers.
The poison of the penguin has cost me (almost) games in such situations. You can’t avoid it, but you can handle it:
  • In Bologna, the first game that day was my personal wake-up call. It wasn’t about the ticket to the USA anymore (because I decided to go home after the 5th game). But I wanted those shield tokens, absolutely. I was not allowed to give away a game, I had to win all five. The next time the penguin tried, I would throw him off the cliff. And I had the opportunity in game 3. I flew two Defender (Vessery with tractor beam/Ryad with an ion cannon and predator) and a Nu Boat with ion cannon against Super Dash and a generic falcon. After 20 minutes I had Ryad with 2 hull and a Nu Boat with 4 hull remaining on the board… against a full Dash (remember, this was still 1.0).
    I had made just a few mistakes, my dice were really cold. I already felt a slight itching behind my forehead. I felt the Penguin approaching. But I pulled myself together and continued playing. 45 minutes later I blocked Dash with a slam of my Nu Boat and came with Ryad into range 1 to Dash. Despite having Predator and a focus and two attacks, I couldn’t take Dashes last two hit points. I clenched my fists, a former national champion who happened to watch the game, left the table shaking his head. And I picked up the dials. In the next round I made the right decision, my opponent made the wrong one and this time the dice held. In my mind’s eye I saw the penguin limping out of the hall, crying very badly. 
Every competitive X-Wing player will be able to report frustrating moments like this. What those moments all have in common? They can’t change anything about the following:
  • As long as you have ships on the field, it takes 75 minutes for the winner to be determined, not when your pulse becomes three-digit. 
  • No matter if the opponent is nice or exhausting or needs a time out during the game to call his grandma (which totally happened to me). After 75 minutes, the points decide over victory or defeat, not the player on the other side of the table. 
  • Dice do not roll badly. The sum of your wrong decisions in the course of the game does the bad rolling. 
The core message of this article is:

Fear the penguin.

He will always lurk, but if you recognize him, you can deal with him and push him aside. Especially if you imagine him as a chubby, fluffy bird.