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Thoughts (pt 6) on Rules of Play – uncertainty April 16, 2007

Posted by ficial in games, Rules of Play.
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As I read more of Rules of Play I’m finding it more useful as a jumping off point rather than as a source text. The anecdotes are still useful and interesting, but I often find the points they’re trying to illustrate to be irrelevant or misleading. I do still find their ideas on the play experience interesting and useful.

This latest chapter (15, for those keeping count) is all about uncertainty. They make an interesting point that all games are about uncertainty at their core, in that the outcome of a game is uncertain. While I don’t think that’s strictly required by the definition of game, I believe it captures an important aspect of good games. If one knows before starting whether they’ll win or lose, then the act of playing becomes more of an exercise or activity than a game. If that’s fun then great, but while the designer has created something enjoyable it is perhaps not actually a game. Does that matter? Perhaps…. I appear to have gotten sidetracked. For now I’ll just keep their ideas that games have uncertainty and I’ll move on.

Games are uncertain on the large scale of the final outcome. There are a few lower levels at which it also manifests. The next level down is the uncertainty of the game state from one turn (or series of turns) to another. At the lowest level are individual actions/events which are uncertain. Rules of Play lumps the latter two into the single category of ‘micro-level uncertainty’, but I find it useful to consider them separately.

The book also touches on the idea of different kinds of uncertainty, referring to Richard Epstein‘s work ‘The Theory of Gambling and Statistical Logic’ in which he defines certainty (outcome can be predicted with complete accuracy and precision), risk (the odds are known), and uncertainty (the outcome is completely unpredictable). While that’s a mathematically useful breakdown, it doesn’t help me think about designing games because pretty much everything I care about falls in that middle category of risk.

I think of the uncertainty as a set of three triads:
* Strategically known (min-max strategy in tic-tac-toe)
* Strategically predictable (choosing a move in chess)
* Strategically unpredictable (circular advantage, a la Rock-Paper-Scissors)
* Socially known (Kim owes Tony a favor from last turn)
* Socially predictable (Jan likes to play aggressively)
* Socially unpredictable (I don’t know whether Anne thinks Bob or Carla is a greater threat)
* Mathematically known (each turn each player gets three coins)
* Mathematically predictable (the likelihood of making a draw in poker)
* Mathematically unpredictable (the odds are, so to speak, even, e.g. no one number on a die is likely to come up more often than another)

The book gets into the difference between true randomness and apparent randomness, but I don’t think it matters for game design. Whether a number cannot be predicted because the roller of a die is not sufficiently skilled to make it land on a particular number, or because the player does not know the algorithm used, or because it’s based on whether or not a particle decays in a given time does not matter at all from a game design perspective. In my thinking about design, ‘random’ is equivalent to ‘equally unpredictable to all players’.

Related to the uncertainty of outcomes is this triad of information / game state:
* Information is open/known (the points a player has won so far in cribbage)
* Information is hidden/known to a few (who has the rope in Clue) NOTE: partially known information is decomposed to open and unknown.
* Information is unknown (what’s the top card of the draw pile)

One could subdivide all of these into theoretical and actual, but I tend to operate with the idea that the theoretical should be the actual – I find it makes a cleaner board game. E.g. In Puerto Rico the points people win are technically kept hidden, but the it’s open knowledge when anyone gets any points, and how many. Since any player that knows that has a serious strategic advantage it behooves all the players to spend a lot of time memorizing or writing down who got what. The effort of making this theoretical actual bogs down the game and detracts from the [in my mind] more interesting parts. The game group that has a house rule for Puerto Rico that all players point totals are open. Unless we’re specifically designing a memory game, in the games we make we use the rule of thumb that all theoretically open information is actually open.

All these kinds of uncertainty interact on an event, game state, and over-all level. Players start a game with the outcome uncertain, and that uncertainty arises from the compounded uncertainties of the lower levels. The unpredictables give rise to mitigation and opportunism. The predictables give rise to plans / strategies, which are refined using the knowns. As the game progresses the players try to leverage the predictable and known sub-parts to manipulate the overall game state to one in which they’re the known winner.

There’s a lot more I want to talk about related to uncertainty, but this is long enough for now and it seems like a decent closing point.

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