I can’t name all the times I played Piledriver, but I can tell you when I first knew I was playing Piledriver. I had just bought Settlers of Catan and rather than any one of us sitting down and thoroughly reading the rules, we blew through the instructions, thought we understood, and began to play. We randomly placed our numbers down, built settlements without a care for roads, and committed all sorts of unforgiveable sins that butchered every attempt at elegant and balanced game design, but most of all we had fun. During the evening of play, a friend read the rules and said that we had basically played a completely made up game bearing only slight resemblance to Settlers of Catan. I don’t know why, but when it was revealed we had been playing wrong someone said, “Pileeeeeeedriver!”
And thus, Piledriver was born.
Piledriver is the term we use for every time an unintentional rules mistake is made during play and not corrected. Catching someone going out of order is not piledriver. Small Piledrivers are mostly ignored, such as messing up a single timing issue during a Magic Draft during the first round of play. Other games are so finicky we end up Piledriving them into oblivion. I daresay I’ve never played a game of Twilight Imperium that did not end up as a massive Piledriver. For games that we play infrequently, it’s a common occurrence to midway through the game to have someone rifle through the rule book and cry out, “PILEDRIVER!”
Piledriver is not to be confused with hacking, house rules, or other conscientious deviation from the rules. In Dave’s D&D Game, characters received custom epic abilities; this was a choice. On the other hand, almost one-half the campaign was played with the party fighter adding his Wisdom bonus to attacks provoked by his fighter mark and to his attacks of opportunity. The trigger for that bonus seems pretty similar, and no one thought about it, until for one reason or another it clicked with the table that they weren’t the same thing. It certainly wasn’t an overpowering mistake, but it was a clear long-lasting Piledriver, albeit benign in a cooperative setting.
Embarrassingly enough, I am guilty of one the most pervasive and (in hindsight and for others) frustrating Piledrivers in our game group’s history. During our Warhammer 40k play era, my favored tactic was to load highly specialized Eldar forces into Wave Serpent troop transports, deck them out with holo fields that made damaging them more difficult, fly across the battlefield at breakneck and dump off each set of specialists in the place they were needed most. It worked wonders! Heavy weapons fire rolled off my fast and tough transports and sheltered my lightly armored specialists. There was one problem: the defensive cornerstone of my tactic, the holo field, could not be equipped on Wave Serpents. This mistake over nearly a dozen games certainly taints the resulting victories and rightfully frustrates the vanquished victims. Piledriver is not always so benign.
The frequency in which we get games wrong makes me wonder how often we get games right. Many of you out there are RPG Gamemasters and fans, designers and those aspiring to be, and a host of other gameheads and geeks. For all the toil and labor that goes into the craft of game design, how much of it actually gets through to the player? When creating new rules or games, I am guilty of thinking of each game as it is intended to played, without any consideration to the innumerable ways it will be played wrongly, poorly, or ignorantly. Does this make me short-sighted?
I think the answer is: not necessarily. Writing rules clearly, demonstrating play, and giving players the tools to the play the right way is the best you can do. Keeping in mind that turning a game into Piledriver is easier than you’d ever expect makes you work harder to make rules clear, but make no mistake, your game will be Piledrivered. There is no avoiding it. Instead of thinking of your game as a masterpiece to be played one way, consider its intended means of play and as a toolbox ready and able to be Piledrivered into a beautiful disaster. Maybe one day players will realize they’ve screwed up, or maybe they’ll love the game anyway.
Embrace the Piledriver, as a player, as a designer, and as a person. Try to get it right, but just realize it’s an unobtainable goal. When you do inevitably discover that you’ve been playing yet another game of Piledriver, just take a deep breath and ask yourself: what has this Piledriver taught me? Was the game so hopelessly complex and unintuitive that Piledriver was inevitable, or was it poorly explained? One would hope that better games end up with fewer Piledrivers, so examine the games that you played flawlessly from day one and find the commonalities for why they were played correctly.
Chances are if you think about it you’ll realize that Piledriver can teach you just as much as playing the right way.