Saturday, July 7, 2012

Of Games and Rules

This post comes as something of a confession. I am a gaming fanatic. I was a gamer before it was cool. Some of my earliest memories are of our family game night. The game we most often played was a homemade game called "marbles." This game is basically a simplified version of "Sorry" and involved moving four marbles along a linear path to get them all "home." How did you move them? By rolling one six-sided die (henceforth known as a "d6") every turn. In other words, the only thing in the game that wasn't decided entirely by luck was which of your four marbles to move with your die roll. When I lost this game, I would stay awake at night for hours trying to figure out what I did wrong. I often cried when I lost. I told you this post is something of a confession. Before laughing at me, please take into account that the number of my years was in the single digits at the time. Then you can laugh at me. I realize that the vast majority of people are not like me. Precisely because of that, I believe I have something to offer that the vast majority of the world can't because they were busy not caring about winning stupid games.

I remember games and even positions better than I remember people. I still remember the time I should have beaten my Grandpa at chess. I'm sure I was less than ten years old, and I remember clearly his worried face, knowing that I had a one move mate. I spent a long time on that move, mostly because I could tell he was worried but couldn't figure out exactly why. I didn't see it, made a different move, and ended up losing. Years later I remembered the position and realized the move I should have made, which was an immediate checkmate, and realized why my Grandpa had looked so worried. I still hate myself for missing it. (Okay that was an exaggeration.) I had spent the entire game pushing a pawn up the center of the board, trying to turn it into a queen. I was so successful that I had it on the sixth rank, with only his King blocking me from getting a second queen. I had completely cleared the center, and I was so intent on my goal I didn't realize the checkmate move. A simple Queen move right in front of his King and covered by my pawn would have checkmated him. Unfortunately I had put my Queen in that position to protect the pawn's advance, not to threaten his King. I lost sight of my primary goal by focusing too narrowly on a secondary goal. It was a lesson I never forgot.

I was interested in chess until I started beating my dad somewhere in my pre-teen years. I remember clearly the first time I beat him. It was in a ski-lodge during a ski trip in the Colorado Rockies, and it was an endgame back row checkmate with two Rooks. My dad is an M.D., a pretty smart guy, and also extremely competitive. Recently during another vacation we played again, and I absolutely crushed him. He had stopped playing me shortly after I started beating him literally decades ago, so the simple fact that he agreed to play me was something of a personal breakthrough for him. He doesn't like losing, and I thought it was boring winning all the time. 

In high school I spent a lot of time playing a Word War II simulation board game called Axis and Allies. Again, one of my earliest memories was a time my father and I went to a building belonging to a Christian campus group affiliated with my church, a group I later joined while attending my hometown university. They couldn't keep the building for financial reasons. At the time the group was dying, so they were selling the building and giving away unclaimed contents of the building to friends and family. I remember I got a pretty cool book there called The Cross and the Switchblade and of course all the King James Gideon pocket Bibles one could want.

(I used to have a collection of these. I had an orange one and even a red one from a Gideon group that handed them out for free at my private Christian high school where every student was required to have a Bible for mandatory Bible class every day. The irony was not lost on the students.)

I also got my very first copy of the original Axis and Allies board game, after observing a couple of the remaining members of the group playing it. Little did I know what I was getting into. Looking back on it, that was something of a turning point in my life. Pretty sad I suppose.

In high school a friend showed me an underground expansion of it called World at War that was world's better than the official game, mostly because the Axis actually had a chance to win, and I ended up buying it. I currently own two versions of it as well as two versions of the original game, and two different Axis and Allies games for the European and Pacific theaters from the same company. (If anyone wants to play the computer version they claim they are developing, don't get your hopes up and definitely do not attempt to "pre-order" it. They've been working on it for well over five years now.) I love playing the Axis because the Axis are always at a disadvantage because of the Allies superior production. That makes it the particular sort of challenge that true gamers love. I used to play it quite a lot with another friend from high school, but I won most of the time. I remember him lying face-down on the couch in our basement with his face in his hands after failing to see what I was planning and paying for it. We were a lot alike. I still have spreadsheet files of saved positions in the game that we apparently believed we would finish someday.

I still remember two games I played with him in college. There was this Christian music festival we both went to a few times called Cornerstone Music Festival in Bushnell Illinois. I just received the sad news that this year, 2012, will be the last one. Apparently they are not doing nearly as well as they were back in the day. 20,000 people was an average showing in the years I went. But the decline of the Christian music industry will await a future treatment here. I only bring it up because the last time I went to the festival, I spent most of it playing Axis and Allies: Europe in a tent in the sweltering heat of the Illinois summer on a former pig farm. I loved my music, but I loved my games more. This time my friend and I were on the same side and playing the Axis, because it was generally recognized that we were the superior players and the Axis were significant underdogs. Of course we won. There was another time I played the game with the same group of friends and my friend led the entire other team against me. He failed to notice a certain move I was making, and I was able to take Great Britain early in the game. It was far from over. The Axis are so disadvantaged that even conquering Great Britain (undefeated since 1066!) barely evens the odds, but my opponents lost heart and surrendered. I was disappointed. I was looking forward to an epic struggle. I love the game. I don't like it when it's over prematurely, especially with the outcome still in doubt. But I guess I had a bit of a reputation in the group of friends. They love their games, but I would estimate that I end up winning far more than my fair share of them.

After college I was living at my parent's house looking for a job. I was unemployed for six months after graduating, and spent the lion's share of that time obsessing over a new game called Axis and Allies: Miniatures. This was a hex-based collectible miniatures game and had nothing in common with the original except the name, the World War II theme and the use of d6s. A friend from this group of my gamer friends introduced me to it, and I still remember the first and second times I played him. I lost the first game, and spent hours upon hours obsessing over why I lost and coming up with a strategy to win. I won the second game, but shortly afterwards we both realized my team was illegal due to a dumb rule. I spent the next year or so mercilessly attacking this rule on the game's official forum. It was not obvious to most people, but I'm a gaming fanatic and it was obvious to me after a few weeks of familiarity with the game. Basically the rule kept an entire class of units from being competitive, and it was totally arbitrary. Removing it would at one stroke make a large number of units playable by anyone who was interested in winning, and also create a Rock, Paper, Scissors dynamic that all game developers are trying to create in their games.

The Rock, Paper, Scissors dynamic prevents one ultimate strategy from defeating all other strategies. This ultimate strategy is the holy grail for serious gamers like me. When I obsess over a game, it's because I'm searching for the holy grail, the strategy that will account for all variables, plan for every possible situation and defeat all comers. If such an ultimate strategy exists, and a gamer finds it and utilizes it, he has "broken" the game. Game developers are trying to prevent this, because if the holy grail exists and a gamer figures it out, the game is no longer fun. Everyone will simply copy the strategy and you will soon have a one dimensional game where everyone is playing the same exact way. Imagine for a minute if whoever designed the rules for Rock, Paper, Scissors had made using the Rock illegal. The only options are now Paper and Scissors. If these are the rules, it would be positively idiotic to ever play Paper, because you could tie with Paper vs Paper but you could never win. The smart strategy is to always play Scissors because that guarantees you will either tie or win. In more complicated games it is not usually this obvious, but the dynamic still exists. In order to make games interesting, game developers try to make sure that every potential strategy has a counter strategy that can defeat it. This is called "game balance." I am simplifying the concept of game balance with the Rock, Paper, Scissors analogy, but you get the idea. (The best games have more than three possible strategies and make sure that excellent tactics also play a factor. For instance in a good game, I could play Paper so skillfully that I could beat Scissors if played by a less skilled player. This is like playing the Axis so well that the Axis win even though they are at a disadvantage. It also illustrates the difference between strategy and tactics.)

I realized that this dumb rule I mentioned earlier meant that the holy grail of gaming, the ultimate strategy, existed in Axis and Allies: Miniatures, and I was hooked. I had been beaten by Scissors and had constructed a Rock team to beat Scissors, but Rock was illegal. Obviously the only choice was to perfect the Scissors strategy and I would have found the holy grail. (I am strenuously trying to avoid delving into the far more complicated and far more interesting ins and outs of this game so as not to bore you. You can thank me later.) I spent the next several months perfecting the Scissors strategy and came up with a team I thought could dominate competitive tournaments. It was not unbeatable, but in a round robin style tournament the only teams that could beat it were so lopsided they would be heavily disadvantaged against other types of competitive teams that a serious tournament was sure to have. So I started to think about playing this game competitively. My motivations were simple: I saw that the game was broken by a stupid rule that could be easily fixed, but nobody would listen to me. So I decided to prove it, and kick some ass along the way.

I ended up traveling to GenCon, a gaming convention where Axis and Allies: Miniatures had been introduced the previous year. The first and second place finishers the year before both played Paper, but this was understandable because the year before the game had been released at the convention and no one had seen it before. (Understand that in this game it's entirely possible to play teams with no coherent strategy at all, which is why a well played but poorly constructed Paper team could win it all.) However because of this most players were blind to the Scissors strategy I had developed. I knew this from the game's official forum, having spent months trying to explain why Scissors was superior because Rock was illegal. I didn't, and couldn't, pay for a hotel, so I purchased a week long bus pass, researched the routes on the Internet, and found a bus route that went directly to the convention center from a residential area. I simply parked my car on the side of a different residential street every night and slept in it, taking the bus to the convention center every morning. Not only did I avoid paying for a hotel, but I avoided all the downtown exorbitant parking fees too. Yay! Don't ask if I showered.

The format I was interested in was the basic one: 100 point constructed. All this meant was that teams must consist of 100 points worth of miniatures and you could make your team from whatever miniatures the game had released, as long as you owned them. There were other formats, but this was the one where you could come with your prefigured strategy. The night before the official tournaments I played at a local gaming store in a rated tournament I had hooked up with online. I completely dominated them and won all sorts of prizes for the game. The best team I beat there was one I expected to see a lot, as it was a mathematically obvious combination of the strongest units in the game, which any fool could have figured out. The problem was he had no coherent strategy, because that team was a combination of Paper and Scissors. It was easy to beat with a fully committed Scissors strategy simply by attacking the Paper portion of it. The guy who played it was the owner of the shop. He clearly expected to win the prizes he was offering to all the kids he played with. I imagine the purpose of the tournament was to host a bunch of rated games with kids to enhance his rating. I walked away with the prizes but when I checked my rating later that tournament hadn't been reported. The dude was a jerk picking on kids for his own benefit over a stupid game. Oh well.

The next day at the convention I dominated the official 100 point constructed tournament and even beat a different but very strong Paper/Scissors combo team I had personally constructed and posted on the forums. I won with a great roll early on that decided the issue (shots are fired with d6s), but it was a great roll because I had stacked my team to maximize just the type of roll I needed to beat teams like his. Scissors beats Paper after all. After the game, my opponent shook my hand and told me he had gotten the idea for his team from some forum poster named "tragicmishap." I sheepishly told him it was me. For many people this would have been an embarrassment, but my opponent was a class act who took it all in stride, and I became good friends with him and his group.

After winning the same tournament the second day, they asked me if I would play a different team in the third one (there were four). I smiled and said I'd play a different team if my team lost. Taking up the challenge, the three of them stayed up half the night trying to make teams which would beat me. Keep in mind that I made no secret of my strategy. I told everyone who was interested exactly why I was beating them, just as I had been doing on the forums for months. Anyway during the third tournament one of them came very close to beating me with another strong team that could have been better than it was. It was essentially a weaker version of my Scissors strategy. Another one had constructed a team entirely to beat me, but we never played because he lost too many games to other teams, just as I had predicted.

Finally on the fourth day one of them constructed a very strong Paper team designed specifically to beat mine that was also strong enough to make it through the crowd undefeated and earn the right to play me. Out of the corner of my eye I watched him play most of the day and formulated a tactic to beat him. Since my games at that point were not very challenging I could multitask. By the time the final game rolled around I was ready. I was undefeated after four games and he had lost one, but unfortunately the statistical system, the Swiss system, used to determine the winner showed that I would win the tournament even if I lost the game to him. So it was already over. I was so disappointed I asked the people running it if we could play the extra game anyway, and to the victor goes the spoils. There were prizes, and even though I had already won I agreed to put them on the line over a game I didn't need to play. They agreed, and we sat down to play the game. Since the tournament was officially over, there were no other games going on at the same time and so all the other players were watching our game. I spent most of the game stalling, as I often did, but this time I had to maneuver around some obstacles he had created just for me. What's a little barbed wire between friends? At any rate my opponent rolled fairly well, better than me in fact, but I still won because Scissors beats Paper.

At the end of all this, including the local tournament, I had gone 20-0 in internationally rated play, won five tournaments in five days and an estimated $400 worth of merchandise for the game. After just one weekend of rated play I was ranked #6 in the world and #4 in the United States. I drove home and never played another rated game again.

Within six months my team was made illegal twice over by two new rules. I was furious. Still on the forums, I screamed and cried to the developers that the proper reaction was to remove the dumb rule that made Rock illegal, not to make more dumb rules making Scissors illegal. What would happen to the game if you couldn't play anything but Paper? If Rock was a legal team, I said, then my Scissors could be beaten and Paper would have a real purpose: beating Rock. I soon lost interest in the game and stopped posting. I had broken their game, I had told them why it was broken and how they could fix it, but they didn't listen. They responded not by listening to me but by taking the shortcut and making my team illegal. For those of you wondering why I am posting about this on a blog about progressivism, wonder no longer. I have since learned that most authority figures when faced with similar situations have the exact same reaction as those game developers did.


People in authority have a hard time admitting error, because admitting error undermines their authority. The near automatic response to error is to believe it wasn't really an error and proceed to make another one to hide the first one. It is just like lying to hide a previous lie. This is a basic lesson about both strategy and about human nature. It is one of the more subtle differences between progressives and conservatives, if only that conservatives either understand this or at least act as if they understand it and progressives don't. There are many, many lessons I have learned gaming that contribute to my political views, but most of them surround the interplay between a system of rules designed by people to make a level field of play and other people exploring that field. As a result of my experiences, my sympathies are with the players. Players usually know the game better than the game designers do. The correlations to economics, government and the rule of law should be obvious. I may expound on this some other time, but for now I'll leave you with that.

Suffice to say, it is now about five or six years since all of this happened, and maybe a year ago I checked in on the game again. I found out that my team was now illegal or made less effective by no less than five new rules, counting the first two. However, I also found that someone had finally found the guts not only to remove the dumb rule which was my original goal, but they even extended the idea in ways that greatly benefited the game. So all is not lost. But now we have an added layer of complexity in a game that didn't need it. It only needed one simple rule to be removed and everything would have been fine. Instead there are five new rules, most of which are over-corrections making Scissors extremely difficult to play resulting in another game imbalance, and the offensive rule was removed anyway. And I'll be damned if it didn't take new people coming in to make the required change who had made no error to admit.

Now that's whack.