What does meanness in board games mean?

As with all of my reviews, I post them over on Board Game Geek. With Arboretum, a comment came about meanness, what is it? A great question. One I was not prepared to answer at the time.

Now with the fullness of time, I’m ready.

I found it both interesting, and challenging to settle on an answer. And in all honesty, it requires someone smarter than myself to make it correct. But I’ll do my best.

My immediate response to the question ‘what is meanness?’ Was dividing actions into positive and destructive actions, i.e. you’re creating points for yourself, or you’re taking points away from your opponents. Doing too many destructive actions makes the game feel mean.

The follow up question to this then was what about Chess. Is it a mean game?

All of your actions are negative.

My next stab at an answer resolved around the feeling of the actions themselves. A mean action makes me feel bad. But at the time, I didn’t have the mental space to answer why it made me feel bad, and bowed out of the conversation.

Since then I’ve been on a mental vision quest, trying to understand why I thought Arboretum was mean, and I don’t consider games like Santorini, or Chess to be mean.

I want you to join me on this quest, and for that, it needs to start with three little words.

The three words


Competitiveness is the act of there being a winner and a loser associated with an action. For example, in a running race, two people compete to come first. They’re not directly interacting with each other, but they are trying to beat each other in the activity.


Is a subset of competitiveness where in order for one player to win something, they must directly interact and take from the loser. Think of a game of Chess, where a good move for me, means taking one of your pieces off the board.


Is an emotional layer above these two concepts.

My thinking is threefold:

  • Everyone’s tolerance to meanness is different. What effects me, may not affect you, or vice versa.
  • Games can be competitive or combative without being mean.
  • Actions within games can be mean, without the game itself being mean.
  • Meanness is contextual to the state of the current game.

Therefore, I define meanness as the feeling emerging from the ratio of how unnecessary a competitive action is compared to the destruction it causes.

I’m going to go over some examples which I hope will help illuminate what I mean.

Example 1: -20 points card

In this example, imagine there’s four players playing a game where the winner is whomever gets the most points. It takes some effort to generate the points, and players can expect to generate around 5 per turn.

The four players are currently on the following scores:

Player 1: 55

You: 40

Player 3: 35

Player 4: 10

You have a card giving someone -20 points. Using it on either Player 1 or Player 3, to either gain the lead, or to defend your position as number 2. I would argue is not mean because it enhances your chances of winning, or get as close to winning as possible.

However, using the -20 points card on Player 4 is definitely mean, and a good way to make a gaming enemy for life.

So what’s the difference?

In this example, it’s an unnecessary move. It has no effect on your chances of winning, or doing well. However, it lessens the chances of Player 4 winning.

Example 2: -40 points card

Same game. This time you’re playing two players, and you have a -40 points card. Here are the scores:

You: 350

Player 2: 40

Is using the -40 point card on Player 2 mean?

It’s a move which is competitive, and theoretically it puts you in a better position to win. However, I would argue that it is mean because it’s excessive, it doesn’t put you in a better position to win because you’re already so far in front.

It’s also not good sportsmanship, as you’re piling onto a player who’s clearly going to lose.

But in the same example, if Player 2 had 330 points. Then the move wouldn’t be mean, because it is necessary to give yourself distance.

Bringing it back to Arboretum

In Arboretum, you’re forced to decide which cards to keep, and which cards to discard. The cards you keep impact which suites of cards you and your opponent will be able to score. Often you’re choosing between holding cards to increase your score, or to stop your opponent from scoring.

If playing two players, this sounds like the second example where for the most part it should be competitive. However, because points aren’t tallied up until the end of the game. You can’t comprehend the destructive impact of your move and or how excessive it is – is the game close? Or is it a blow out? Instead, you’re hoping and wishing for the maximum amount of destruction, with no idea how necessary it may be.

It’s this wishing for destruction, without any validity to it, which makes Arboretum feel mean.

With more plays and more expertise, I could see it becoming less mean. Eventually hitting the point where you consider these actions to be competitive or combative, rather than being mean. But for some of us, it’s an emotional journey to get there, and one I’m not ready to take just yet.

I hope this provides some illumination around meanness in board games, or at least my interpretation of meanness. If you enjoyed this article, be sure to hit the ‘Join Now’ button and read more of my thoughts and reviews.

Definitely not mean!
David Norris

Lover of dogs, books, comics, movies, anime, television, video games and most importantly board games. My site is all about the latter, and my journey through the glorious hobby.

2 thoughts on “What does meanness in board games mean?

  1. You mentioned this on BGG when you posted the link to this entry, but I have to say I agree with you.

    I think in a 2-player game of Arboretum, it’s a lot more possible to feel the “mean” aspect of it then if you are playing with 3-5 players.

    In 3-5 players, you are doing things that either safeguard your own position or you are keeping stuff that *may* affect another player (it may not).

    It’s a lot more personal in a 2-player game, and in a game where it isn’t an outright battle with the other player (7 Wonders Duel, any 2-player wargame, etc), it can make Arboretum feel a lot more personal than it really should be.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, I also think in the 3-5 player version it’s more likely you’ll be carving out a pile of points for yourself and a lot of what you’re doing is protective.

      Though I haven’t played it like that, I’m just speculating. Haha

      Absolutely agree with your points though!

      Liked by 1 person

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