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Month: May 2016

Good Times With Bad Games

Last week, to celebrate the conclusion of kitchen renovations, I had a dinner party featuring a game I had never played before. Seeing that the name of the game is “Top Trumps” and the theme is Marvel heroes, I came to the conclusion that it was time to make Captain America great again. As you should know by now, the Trump name means quality. So I had some people over. Smart people, who like to play card games. Nobody hosts a dinner party better than me, OK?

Top Trumps Tournament

Here is the gist of the game: you spin the wheel in the centre, and do one of three things: receive pegs, steal a peg, or play one of the “mini-games” named on the wheel. The game comes with an ambiguously worded reference sheet that provides some of the rules for each game. In general, the player whose turn it is chooses which “stat” is being played from four listed on each card, and (presumably) the highest number wins. The differences between the four mini-games are in how many players will participate and how many cards each will receive. The main game involved receiving enough pegs for the first player to fill the score board with nine, with the relative amount of pegs each player has determining how many cards they receive for the final battle (which plays out much like the “My Pack” mini-game but with more cards in play).

I said the rule sheet contains some of the rules because it does not address some common game states. Can a player keep calling the same victory condition and playing the same card, knowing it will keep on winning? The player is instructed to call the next stat from their “next card” but does not specify if cards can be played more than once in the same mini-game. Other things are also left unclear in the written rules: in a contest, does the debut year count up (newest wins), count down (oldest wins), or can it go either way at the discretion of the player calling the stat? What happens when players tie on a stat when playing with only one card left (the rules talk about how to resolve a draw with the next card). We ended up making up house rules left and right just to keep the game going. That’s not something you usually do in a finite game, but we did it because the alternative was to declare the game a failure and stop playing. That just wouldn’t do.

While it seems possible that there is a method to the madness when selecting which set of numbers will be used to determine the winner, the whole thing seems fairly arbitrary unless we completely missed something. If there is such thing as a winning strategy, it’s not clear unless one knows each deck of cards backwards and forwards and can therefore tell whether 46 is the highest possible number or if it is pathetic compared to other cards in the same deck.

Iron Fist and Galactus

There were several other design decisions that left my party baffled. For one thing, each deck has a different set of statistics that can be drawn from, such as the Avengers deck which included strength, ancient power, size, and technology. While each card featured nice artwork and neat little write-ups on each character, the numbers didn’t seem to correspond with any sort of logic based on what we know about the characters. I’m not knocking the Iron Fist, but the fact that he outclasses the devourer of worlds in every stat raises some questions such as “do these numbers actually mean anything?” If one tries to apply reasoning based on the character descriptions and/or portrayals in various media, it would be logical to assume that Galactus, whose biography reads more like that of an elder god than an ordinary person with extraordinary abilities, would be a fairly powerful adversary. Yet here he is, losing in every single category to a martial arts master. Captain America has the same strength rating as The Hulk. And then there is the Heroines deck:

Marvel Heroines

Debut year, OK. Intelligence, sure, but why does it only seem to go up to ten while the other ratings have much higher numbers? Oh, then we can explore their mysterious “dark side” of those weird and exotic creatures known as women(!) And then we have outfit. Yeah, while Marvel Knights contend with each other based on bravery and fighting skills we have contests between the heroines based on outfits. Which, as we can see, follow a distinct pattern. Squirrel Girl’s decidedly unsexy fursuit comes in at the lowest rating, far outclassed by a naked Storm whose “outfit” is entirely comprised by a conveniently placed cloud in the foreground. Sad.

Does any of this make me disappointed that I built a dinner party around this game? Absolutely not! From a game design perspective, the game was mediocre at best. It’s War with a few bells and whistles. But there is more to enjoying a game than balancing random chance with strategy. Getting a good group together, sharing good food, then playing a game we’re not the least bit shy about making fun of while we play it made all the difference. I will certainly play this game again, perhaps in the dying hours of this year’s Extra Life marathon when nobody is awake enough to take a game seriously if they tried. I had a lot of fun with this game, and what else could I have expected or asked for other than that?

By playing this game I learned that to be the Top Trumps Tournament Champion, one needs to be lucky on spins of the wheel and draws from the decks, exploit knowledge of a game that seems to defy all logic and reason, then know how to make the best judgement calls on what the heroines are wearing. Facts don’t matter, only having the winning numbers. I guess it does live up to the yuge expectations the name of the game set up for me.


There are at least two things that you could have learned from my last two posts: I spend way too much time playing Civilization, and I like cheap/free stuff. The latter of which brings me to my next post, about another book that I didn’t pay for. If you identify as a geek who likes geek stuff, there is a reasonably good chance you have a copy of Ready Player One by Ernest Cline somewhere in your home even if you have never even opened it. This is because you might have subscribed to, or like me received a Loot Crate subscription as a gift, and there was a copy of that book included back in February 2015. The cover raves that it’s a “new Harry Potter” and “revolutionary.” Well, it’s not. At least not in my opinion. I read it as a standard hero’s journey of teenage male wish fulfilment. The writing itself is executed competently, but the writing itself didn’t have any special powers for grabbing my attention. There was no point to be made or lesson to be learned in the plot. So why, then, did I enjoy the book and find it interesting enough to write about? Because I loved OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation). In the book it is the vast MMO game that seems to comprise all of video gaming and the internet in general in the novel’s dystopian near-future. It is both a game-within-the-game and a setting for much of the story. It’s a cool idea. It’s not a new or unique idea, but I think OASIS is an interesting iteration because:

  1. Culturally, it seems to flow from what we have now. The Matrix, or Star Trek’s holodecks/holosuites are virtual reality environments in science fiction, but introduce a few elements of science fantasy. A lot of the pop culture Ready Player One based on is dated, but there is a good in-universe explanation. The creator of OASIS grew up in the 80’s and 90’s and was pathologically obsessed with the pop culture of that time, not as much that of the new millennium. So despite being a near-future setting, there are more references to D&D and Rush than there are to Reddit memes or Harry Potter or anything else more solidly embraced by millennial than by GenX. It works because the reason for this is explained, and the characters are aware of how dated the pop culture references are. Still, it pushed a lot of the right buttons to entertain me as an older millennial and felt more genuine than the other fictional VR environments I mentioned.
  2. Despite having a beginning as a system, each player logging in for the first time enters a game already in progress. For most young people in the novel, OASIS didn’t really have a beginning for them.
  3. The big bad evil empire corporation pushes the boundaries of the players consenting to play, because the other players never consented to a game involving real-world violence and harassment, but it mostly holds true. Not everyone has to be an egg hunter (participate in the contest that is the centre of the whole plot), not everyone has to play OASIS (which is perhaps reasonable if one is rich enough that the real world isn’t a complete nightmare all the time). As far as most players were concerned, OASIS was not played to reach an end; the end of making money was to be able to stay in OASIS longer or with better in-game advantages.
  4. It is implied that unlike the video game worlds we know where extreme slopes, waist-high bushes, or invisible barriers all provide a limit to the space, there are actually no boundaries in OASIS, as even specific locations can have hundreds of cloned copies.
  5. With the possible exception of the egg hunters, nobody else seems to be playing the game with a particular win condition in mind. Some people do it for work, some for escape from the awful corporate dystopia outside, but very few to “win” because for most people there is no specific victory condition.
  6. There is no end. The game-within-the-game, finding the easter egg and winning the prize, provides an end to the novel, but not to the game-within-the-book of OASIS. All of the surviving main characters still have OASIS accounts at the end of the book.
  7. The rules of the game can be changed within the game to ensure that play continues. This is where huge games like EVE are still finite in many ways. While space may be vast, somewhere outside of the game itself, there is a CCP employee working on new content at a computer. Even The Matrix appeared to require externally defined boundaries as long as you’re not Jesus The One. OASIS appears to be programmable from within OASIS.

Points 2-7 on my list all make OASIS look more like an infinite game than a finite game. And, while Carse (the philosopher who defined the terms I am using) asserts that only real life can be an infinite game, I am not sure something as robust and believable as OASIS would have crossed his mind back in 1987 when Tron defined what most people thought of when imagining a virtual world inside a computer.

As much as my praise for the novel overall is equivocal, I have to admit that it was entertaining and has been well received. I was at a book store on Sunday and saw that it was still a “staff pick” which tells me that there are a significant amount of fans if it gets pride of place and a sticker instead of being buried in the discount bin. Although it’s hardly a life-changing experience, I enjoyed the book and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it as long as the expectations are correctly set. It was yet another stroke of the ego for the stereotypical gamer and didn’t push our social boundaries in ways that were not entirely predictable, though OASIS pushed those boundaries within the society of the setting. The book was also good entertainment and explained a neat idea without being boring. So when I think of my decision to keep reading this book through to the end I won’t look back in anger, at least not today.

One More Turn

Fourty-thousand nine hundred and twenty minutes, that’s how you measure my life playing Civ.

Although I have been able to stay off many of the hard drugs in the world of video games (WoW, Everquest, LoL, EVE), one game I have invested a ludicrous number of hours into is Civilization. The sixth instalment in the series was announced three days ago, so I will take a few moments to explain why this is significant to me. I don’t have a tally for Civilization 2, 3, or 4, but I currently have 682 hours and counting in Civ 5 (that is since October 2012). There is a reason for this, and it’s not just too much time on my hands. It’s because the game does such a wonderful job of keeping its boundaries just out of sight while providing new experience each time.

The core rules never change: there are movement rules for each unit, building costs, cultural and economic points to collect, victory conditions, a defined beginning and end to the game, all those characteristics of finite games I talked about last week. Unlike many games, Civ 5 allows a great deal of customization during game setup to tweak those rules, while others are fixed unless you are playing an explicitly modified game (for which there are many, many, options too). There is nothing infinite about it, as the number of permutations and combinations is vast but limited. Throw in a randomly generated world map, and the possibilities seem endless (even though they’re not). There are just too many possibilities for a human to be able to “solve” the game.

That is what distinguishes Civilization from the games where I can clearly see the boundaries. Another game I picked up recently is called Antenna. I was casually browsing Steam’s free-to-play section for something that isn’t a pay-to-win online multiplayer grindfest. Antenna was really good. I have 41 minutes logged in that game, and that is all I will ever have. Even that is a little bit longer than it needed to be, since I had to quit and restart the game in the middle due to a technical glitch (the sound cut out, and if you go play this game, you will find that is a fatal error). I had to start out from the beginning. But hey, I’m not going to complain about a single hiccup when the game was made available to me for the same price as a typical Canadian is willing to pay to watch HBO’s Game of Thrones.

Antenna has very clear boundaries, and one way to win. Each puzzle is solved by matching sounds and pressing the right buttons at the right time. You solve the puzzles, you win the game. I had a fair amount of fun playing it, and loved the feel of the atmosphere, but I won’t be playing it again because there is nothing more I can get from it. It’s perhaps a better example of a finite game than a game like Skyrim, which is every bit as limited, but is big enough that it’s harder to see from inside the game. Civ, on the other hand, always offers a new possibility: even with the same game settings and intended strategy, what kind of world am I going to explore? Am I on a huge continent or an island? Will my neighbors be Mahatma Ghandi and Haile Selassie, or will they be Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun? Will I be able to finish my world wonder before some undiscovered nation on the opposite side of the world builds it first, causing my fine workers to bust the whole thing up for scrap? (No hint of familiar frustration in my voice on that last point.)

+2 faith, +5 gold, +25% gold from city connections... Machu Picchu is a pretty good deal if you have a city close enough to a mountain.
+2 faith, +5 gold, +25% gold from city connections… Machu Picchu is a pretty good deal in Civ 5 if you have a city close enough to a mountain; especially if you’ve got Gustave Eiffel on standby to rush it.

So it’s that measured uncertainty that keeps the game fresh and replayable. The rules are limited, but with so many possible ways to play and win the game, the boundaries seem obscured by the same fog that covers unexplored tiles. That is what keeps me coming back to Civ 5 over newer games. As big as Skyrim is, I find it really easy to fall back into doing the same things in the same places on each playthrough, and it starts to feel the same. That just isn’t the case with Civilization, where the game is always just a little bit different. Beyond Earth, the “in space!” offshoot of the franchise missed the mark because despite the beautiful terrain and similar mechanics, it just did not have the same feel. Each game I played seemed to become routine more quickly (explore, run from aliens, develop tech, build improvements, choose affinity, kill aliens, never worry about other players), so I lost interest in it and went back to Civ 5. I just can’t seem to leave that game alone.

While I was writing this post, I had a friend ask me if I wanted to play a multiplayer game. Given that it is often hard to find people to commit to getting very far in a game of Civ 5, I accepted. We started a game. And then it was 4:00 AM. It was then I was reminded that across all of its iterations, Civilization is still the game built to stand the test of time.


Thesis Statement

“There are at least two kinds of games. Once could be called finite, the other infinite. A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.” – James Carse

I want to write about games and philosophy, but before I really get into it, I want to try and explain the rationale. Let’s start by looking at how Mr. Carse distinguishes between finite games and infinite games:

Finite Games Infinite Games
Have a precise beginning, which is important to finite players. Have no clear beginning, and infinite players don’t care about this fact.
Requires players to consent to play within pre-defined rules which should not change during play. Requires players to consent to play, but the rules must change during play to prevent anyone from “winning” and therefore ending the game.
Rules are externally defined and available to all players before play begins. Rules are internally defined as the game is played.
Played within boundaries and with limitations (such as temporal, spatial, and numerical limits). Have horizons rather than boundaries. Play is not bounded by limited by things such as time, space, etc. Boundaries are eliminated through play, and it runs on its own time.
The purpose of playing the game is to win. The purpose of playing the game is to continue play.
The game ends when someone wins (this may include a ranking system). The game doesn’t have a defined end.
Table 1: Characteristics of games, as defined in an obscure philosophy text I found in my house and decided to use as a philosophical basis for writing about my ideas related to games. It’s worth reading if you are a strange enough person to be into this sort of thing.

So, why do I want to create a body of writing about games? The idea to do this was conceived when I was looking for one of my books about writing (if there is one thing writers enjoy writing about, it’s writing) and stumbled upon an old philosophy text. I don’t know how or why this book made it into my collection, as the edition I have is about one year younger than myself. Perhaps the title caught my eye several years ago when I was moving out of my parents’ house. Finite and Infinite Games by James Carse: it must be a book about games, right? Hey, I like games, why not give this a try? It took me by surprise how broadly it defined games because we usually don’t think of World War II as a game, but that’s because it was my first introduction to taking a philosophical look at game theory (the academic and philosophical kind, not the silly hat and sexual frustration kind).

As I read and reread the book, I found that looking at games in this way actually helps to explain a lot about why I like the (finite) games that I do, and how to understand things that are happening in the world, like the Trump candidacy.

This is my central idea: games, as we understand the term in plain language, can be used for social good and to understand ourselves. Games can also be used to reinforce injustice and as a glorified form of mental and emotional masturbation. This is true whether we are talking something serious, like an election, or recreational, like a card game. Infinite games, including finite phases that support infinite play, are bigger and worthier pursuits than finite games. For example, the infinite game of life itself (which Carse asserts is the only infinite game) is much greater and more rewarding than a game of chess. It doesn’t mean chess is necessarily bad or useless, it just needs to be kept in its place alongside other finite endeavours.

Although there are more game states of chess than there are particles in the observable universe, chess is a finite game.

The outcome of a single chess match is unimportant, but a person teaching that game to a child who is gaining knowledge about fair play and logic does matter a little bit. And when you look at the game of chess as a whole, it becomes more and more relevant to the larger picture. My goal, in writing about other games or designing my own, is to see finite games used to promote a mindset of infinite play.

Infinite play, being an infinite player, why do I speak of these as being “good” things? Well, as I said above, it is not necessarily a good vs. bad distinction, but I think there are distinct virtues in infinite play. Who doesn’t aspire to be the kind of person whose view of life embraces horizons rather than boundaries, continuation of play over competing to win, and trying to keep as many people in play as possible? There are people who are obsessively finite, but most of us tend to think they’re jerks (or at least acting like one out of ignorance and/or immaturity). The guys in The Big Short who brag about scamming immigrants because it makes them a lot of money, the egotistical football player who pushes the boundaries of showboating upon scoring a goal, the six year old who just flipped over the checkers board because it became clear he is losing. These are not people I would want to be identified with. I may play football, or checkers, or financial investment, but in all of those I hope I can be the kind of person who supports infinite play.

This post allowed me to get a lot of heavy stuff out of the way so that my reader(s) can understand where I am coming from. I promise more levity and snark in upcoming weeks, but rest assured there is a point in all of it. If this sounds like a good deal to you, come back Saturdays at noon, mountain time. Follow me on Twitter or like my Facebook page to receive regular updates.