Monthly Archives: January 2013

Let’s Play a Game

I like to play games. Who doesn’t? But not just any game, I’m actually kind of particular about what games I like. I happen not to like zero-sum games; my favorite games are those where, by careful maneuvering, the players can achieve a win for everyone. I also like games where there’s complexity, because that tends to mean there are multiple ways to win. In this group are such games as Fluxx and Civilization. The complexity is fascinating in its own right, though, and I have spent more time than I can calculate just watching kinetic sculptures. I suspect that the complexity is why I even like trade games like Tradewinds and Escape Velocity, and even Pirates! had my attention for a few years at the end of the eighties.

I’ve always found, though, that whatever game I’m playing is interesting but it emphasizes the wrong thing, or glosses over some aspect of the scenario that I would like to explore. For instance, most games give the player instantaneous access to all available information at the same time. Think of Risk: imagine you’re in control of North America and you manage to send troops across from Alaska into Siberia. Your armies march onward, but get mired in conflict in Ukraine. But in the same turn that Ukraine stops your westward advance, you manage to break into South America and someone else comes across to invade Nova Scotia. You know all these results at the same time. Similarly, in Civilization, your warrior in 300 BC makes contact with another player and you know right away, even though it will take that warrior 15 turns to get back into territory you actually control. Information doesn’t have a speed of propagation in these games, and I have been thinking about that for a while, now, trying to come up with some game that would be interesting to play and that would involve a variable speed of information.

Another thing that has bugged me about Civilization (and other games with lots of units, whether turn-based or RTS) is that the player who is the autocratic despot of a large civilization nonetheless gets to micromanage every factory, every platoon, and every diplomatic meeting, as well as running the treasury and performing a lot of civil planning and engineering. Golly! Back in, oh, 1996 or 1997, a friend and I talked about what a game might look like wherein the player could give any instructions he chose, but each instruction cost some number of points and there were a limited pool of instruction points per turn. Go ahead, micromanage all you want, but you’ll never be more effective than just one or two guys. Delegate intelligently, though, and you can achieve great things.

Personally, I’m not so good at delegating. I’ve always been most comfortable as an individual contributor rather than as a manager. I feel like I would delegate more to the AI in video games, if I had any faith that the AI would be at all smart about what to do and when to do it. It’s really hard to write a good AI, though, and I think it’s really unreasonable to expect that from a video game.

So I keep thinking about games, and what I like, and what I don’t like. I keep trying out, in my mind, different scenarios and different types of games, trying to see what might be interesting when you play with information propagation speed, or limiting the amount of control you can exercise in a given turn. And all the time wondering, “How could this be set up so that everyone can win?”