Sunday, March 12, 2006

When you play a game, can you predict what's going to happen? I think being able to predict everything makes the game boring. Being able to predict nothing makes winning unrewarding. It becomes a game of chance rather than a game of skill. It's games in between that I'm interested in.

I want skill to be important, so that winning is rewarding, but make each instance of the game different, so that you can play repeatedly. How can you make the game somewhat unpredictable?

  • Multiplayer. If you add other humans, and humans are hard to predict, then we can't predict the outcome of the game. I think however that this isn't sufficient. If the opponent is good and the game predictable, you can predict what the opponent should do. Tic-Tac-Toe is an example of a game that's multiplayer but boring.
  • Complexity. In some games, the game world is so complex that a human cannot accurately predict what will happen, even if everything were known. Chess is an example of a multiplayer game in which the entire game board is known, but it is not possible for a human to determine the best move.
  • Randomness. If some aspects of the game are random (for example, the roll of the dice), the game will be different each time. If there's too much randomness, then the winner is essentially random. If there's too little, then each game will essentially be the same. But if you get it just right, then the player's skill demonstrates how he reacts to the game. There's also randomness in physical games. For example, when playing golf there's some randomness in where the ball goes, just from unpredictable variation in the stroke, and factors like air density and wind.
  • Information Hiding. Some information about the game world can be hidden from the player, and the player's skill can be used to infer aspects of the hidden information. You can hide the initial game world (for example, the cards initially dealt to each player), the opponent's moves (for example, the cards discarded by an opponent), or the result of randomness (for example, the cards drawn from a shuffled deck during the game).

Many games combine more than one of these. For example, Chess combines complexity and multiplayer. Poker combines information hiding, multiplayer, and randomness. Civilization combines all four.

When playing a game that involves randomness, it is important to note that skill is not the only factor; “luck” matters as well. In the NCAA tournaments starting this week, as with all sports games, you cannot conclude that the winner is a better player. You can only conclude that the winner is likely to be a better player. That's why rematches are useful—they let you be more confident in who's better.

My transportation game involves randomness and complexity, and I am undecided about information hiding. It's a single player game, and I am not planning multiplayer. After all, I will be the only player.

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