Piledriver: The Most Popular Game Ever Played

Piledriver.  You’ve all played it, sometimes on purpose, sometimes by accident, but you play it more than you expect.

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.


  1. I think the most common one I do in D&D is falling damage. I constantly find myself doing d10 for every 5′. It is amazing how long I can go before someone notices. In one level 1 LFR adventure more than half the combatants on both sides had been thrown out a 15′ high window (some of them twice!) before one of us noticed my 3d10 should have been 1d10 (yeah, we noticed when the wizard with 4 hit points was getting pushed out). Thing is, up until that point we were having a blast. That damage made the fight awesome. We shrugged, lowered the damage for the wizard, and kept playing. Part of designing has to be the knowledge that it will be butchered by others, which may be a fine thing.

  2. Good article. The fighter mark is perhaps one of the biggest targets for piledriver in my opinion. I was in a campaign where we all thought the fighter’s attack on a marked enemy that shifted stopped the movement as well. In the case of the fighter, I think its just a bit of overcomplication of the rules (my opinion), but the overall point here is a good one.

    I completely agree with the idea that piledriver is inevitable. Some games (RPGs in particular) just have so many rules out there that nobody can keep track of them all. At the end of the day though, as long as everyone is having fun, then does it really matter if its piledriver?

  3. Possibly the worst case of Piledriver I remember lately is when we played (or, tried to play) the card game Nanuk at Sean’s house and ended up playing it so wrong that the main mechanics of the game weren’t present. It was interesting for sure. The original Settlers piledriver is also pretty clear in my mind because I remember hearing about it and I’ve played in a few games of Settlers piledrivered as well, like when the thief doesn’t move (which may have been part of the original piledriver game also).

    As for D&D and RPGs, I don’t think we piledriver them that much anymore in the games I’ve played.

  4. Oh also, I never knew that your Eldar tactic was in fact illegal. Now I hate you.


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