The Tao of Gaming

Boardgames and lesser pursuits

Dyson Sphere Program Redux

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My old laptop blew up, so I got a new computer. This coincided with a few weeks between jobs (I’m part of the “Great Resignation“), so I decided to revisit Dyson Sphere Program (see my earlier thoughts). According to steam (which tracks these things, and also has an annoying overlay that sometimes interferes with my game despite the fact I keep setting it to “No overlay”), I’ve played 60 hours (at roughly real time), so my current game is ~40 hours. I’m close to “the ending” (which isn’t actually building a dyson sphere, but done by solving the “Universal Matrix” (grand unifying theory of science in your Little Prince Universe, I guess). I’ve started the research, but — as happened with my first game of Factorio — I wasn’t really setup to grind out that much science, so its a slog to finish. (I need 4000 white science, which needs 4000 critical photons, which I’m generating at the rate of several per minute).

That being said, more thoughts:

  • The devs added copy/paste and blueprint functionality, which greatly enhances the gameplay experience. It isn’t perfect (by any means) but its much better than it was a year ago.
  • There are still sharp edges. Fractionators don’t use sorters but you run the belt directly through them, which is unlike anything else (etc). That threw me …. off to Reddit to look it up. Why are logistics not working? Off to reddit! (etc etc)
  • There are a few ‘fake intermediate’ products. (An intermediate product serves no intrinsic purpose but is necessary for other items, so Factorio has Green Circuits, Red Circuits, Blue Circuits, Engines, etc. Engines are used to make cars, trains, some science, and electric engines, which are used in robots. Green circuits are used in all simple electronics devices, etc). But DSP has intermediate products that are used in only one product, which creates ‘false complexity’ IMO. There are also some alternate recipes, but you typically can’t find the raw ingredients until you are well past the point of caring. And there are some intermediates you’ll need to make massive production, and often you can’t tell until you’ve played the game once or twice which is which.
  • The science timing doesn’t really work. When you unlock a science you can quickly (over an hour or so) knock out all of the upgrades/sciences that requires it. Then your science sits stagnate because the bottle neck is setting up production of the next science type (which has several intermediate steps) and also taking advantage of the new perks of the old science. To be fair, Factorio also suffers from this. (My suspicion is that upping the cost would drive off new players, but old hands and automation have ‘solved’ this). My last game of Factorio I played with 3x research costs, which made the game feel nicer. Not nothing …. nothing nothing … mad rush of all the new sciences … nothing nothing nothing….
  • The early game is too slow even on my second play through. Your construction drones are tediously slow.
  • The Dyson Swarm/Sphere editor is esoteric, to say the least and how you calculate energy received from it is complex enough that even the “pros” like Nialus need plenty of time to explain it.

DSP is still a good sandbox game. Once I finally “win” I will likely start a new game and try to build more effectively and use a Dyson Swarm (which I skipped) and finish a sphere. It’s not bad. But it could be much better.

DSP feels like it needs another “Bomb” in the game design sense (I don’t have the link to that original article anymore ….). A bomb is a sharp breakpoint, a game changer.

In Factorio, once you have construction robots, the ‘time cost’ of building stuff drops drastically! (Hurray!) So you can just double (or 10x) your smelting by copy/pasting. Of course you pay other costs of (power consumption, etc). But now the game isn’t about running around as much, you can slap down blueprints and let the bots do the tedious work. You get to design. But in DSP you start with construction bots that are horrendously slow and can improve them (both in speed and number). Your bombs are intra planetary logistics (don’t need belts), interplanetary logistics (necessary to build a multi-planet system) and finally interstellar logistics (by adding warpers).

But you are still have to layout belts and miners to collect resources (just as before) and you are still limited by your (admittedly faster and more numerous) drones. You never get a “bomb” technology something that says “Oh, your logistic towers will automatically mine an area around them if you get it.” So even after constructing a Dyson Sphere you still personally run around to slap down iron miners? (Maybe you have a blueprint to speed it up, but still).

In this game you can mine gas giants. There is literally nothing to do but go to it, fly around and place orbital stations that suck up gas. Each gas giant can have a maximum of 36 (??) they only go at the equator and have to be 10 degree apart (and they have no terrain etc). Maybe you can have 72. But I still have to fly to the gas giant and place them by hand. Why not just shoot them off at some point? After all, I can do that with the Dyson swarm/sphere. It feels like another fake interaction.

And I still sometimes miss planets when I fly. (Or run out of fuel halfway, which is basically just a restart from last save level of annoying)> Yes, you can go faster and faster (and ‘warp” between systems, but you have to aim/remember to fuel up. Where’s the “autopilot/teleporter?” bomb? Setting up the first colony is a 30s-3m flight (depending on how your solar system is set up) and then laying out miners/etc. Once you go interstellar, its the same thing, but your flight is covering light years, but sheesh, after the 10th time give me something that makes it automatic (or at least less painful).

Anyway, if this sounds like I don’t like DSP, that’s not right. It’s fun, and clever, but it just needs that polish and oomph to make it great. I don’t necessarily want to fight aliens (ala Factorio) but I want the experience to feel like it grows over time, not just “OK, grind it out.”

Rating Suggest (assuming you have a good graphics card), but I hope it gets better. I’ll probably get to 100 hours on this by the end of the year.

Update — Finished at 51 hours. A few more things that crossed my mind:

  • There are production charts (by planet or system or total) which are nice, but it would be good to have a measure of deliveries (like, this planet exported X units of Coal in the last 10 minutes). It’s tough to trace the logistics. The main reason I’m restarting is that I have no idea where anything is and too many haphazard builds. I spend ten minutes looking for my Titanium Steel setup (on the main world).
  • The ability to label the map (even with just icons) would be great. It was a huge add in Factorio.
  • Logistics bots would be nice, or even a “provider” chest where you could just drop your excess trash and it would get sorted back into the system (like a supply only intraplanetary post). But eventually stuff is so cheap you just throw away that excess steel you spent an hour setting up rather than run around to recycle it….that’s fine from a game design perspective but a bit unsatisfying in a game about efficiency.
  • Found that article on “Bombs” in game design. Man, its nearly 20 years old….

Written by taogaming

September 21, 2021 at 4:46 pm

Why licensed property (‘tie-in’) games are usually bad

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A reddit thread asked if there were any good games based on movies and noted that Aliens: Another Glorious Day in the Corp was bad. (It’s actually pretty well rated on BGG, but none of my geekbuddies have commented one way or another, so I have no real basis to judge. I’d never heard of it).

I’ve generally had (and followed!) a “don’t buy games based on licensed IP until they are proven good” meta-rule (of which movies are very common example). There are good (even great) games using licensed IP (Battlestar Galactica, Jaws, some LotR games), but I actually didn’t really have reasons for my meta-rule. I’d just noticed that most licensed games were bad a decade — or more — ago. That thread led me to ask Why?

I remember reading Tyler Cowen (of Marginal Revolution, who wrote the DC dining guide) gave guidelines for finding good restaurants. One of his rules was that a hole-in-the-wall dive in a strip center would often be good …. a small business would spend as little as possible on rent or amenities (or help) and just pour their limited resources into making good food. That certainly seems to apply. Licenses are (presumably) expensive. Now, this doesn’t mean that you have to skimp on game design (like a restaurant might have to skimp on rent) but for many games companies, why bother?

(Another rule: avoid restaurants full of beautiful people, because they would often not need to have good food. The restaurant itself had become a status symbols. This may also apply).

Another concern is that the license imposes additional constraints on the game development. If you have a great idea for a worker placement game, how does tacking on a movie theme help? Making a great game is hard, and the additional constraint may make it harder.

Counter point — sometimes constraints lead to great art. The aforementioned BSG is an excellent and fairly-early example of a social deduction game. In this case the mechanisms (social deduction) tie in beautifully with the theme (“Who is a Cylon?” and “You might be without even knowing it!”).

So one possible extension of the rule is “Does the game’s theme tie in with the license?” or more specifically “Could this game have swapped its license out for some other IP?” If you could hot-swap the Aliens from “Another Glorious Day in the Corp” with fast zombies (etc), then why license the Aliens? A cynical take (and we have plenty of those here at Casa de Tao) is that “we licensed it because our game is mediocre but people like Aliens(tm)!”)

(My most cynical answer is — “Most games are bad, why should licensed games be any different?” But in reality most games are mediocre; but licensed games are often terrible).

If the license ties in well, there’s a decent chance that the designer loves the license and/or was inspired by it. (Even in the case where a company got a license and then hired a gun to fit something to it. I’m looking at you Reiner and Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation (which was good).

Looking back on my reviews of Nemesis and Who Goes There I have a number of thoughts:

  • Nemesis (the better game) doesn’t actually license Aliens (I think). It rips it off! Why pay for the license when “a monster is loose on your spaceship” can be generic? Their are no character names (like Ripley, Dallas, etc) just generic stuff. The xenomorph’s life cycle is clearly inspired by Aliens …. but the ship is just a ship, not the Nostromo, etc. (HR Giger’s estate seems like they’d have a cause for action from the artwork if it isn’t licensed, but I’m not about to wade into IP law for my own personal edification).
  • For all I know Who Goes There licenses the short story and not the movie, which would be much cheaper (although I assume that The Thing licenses go for much less than Alien/Aliens, but the short story would be even cheaper!). (The game uses the character names, but the artwork is all original…) Still not a great game, but that would at least match the dining guide’s rules of going for the cheap license.

One final issue that licensed games have — licensing is kind of a nightmare that game developer’s don’t want to deal with. In this I’m particularly thinking of The Princess Bridge RPG where the author (and publishing company) had to jump through hoop after hoop after hoop to satisfy the license’s legal restrictions, then the license holder’s other demands, but finally got a game published …. only for the license holder to give up the gaming license, meaning that no future work could be done.

If you are a talented game designer, you’d ask yourself “Why bother?” (paying the fee, having to abide by some extra legal and corporate restrictions, etc) unless you really thought that the license was the Dude’s rug and “ties the whole thing together?” If you come up with a game and say “Man, this license makes it really shine and will elevate the whole thing” then the license gets added to an already good game (assuming you are accurate at judging the designs). But most of the time the license is an upsell with a game tacked on, so that’s why most licensed games are bad.

Written by taogaming

September 8, 2021 at 2:00 pm

Posted in Rant, TV & Media

An unlikely bridge event

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Playing with Roxie, in the second round the director is playing with a new-ish player (“Joe”) who doesn’t have a partner. As with any new-ish opponent, you hope they have to make decisions and it works out as well as we could have hoped.

  • The first board, Joe leads K from Kxx in partners suit. This gives partner a trick (that she could have technically taken herself, but would not have, on the bidding). We score a co-top. (7.5 out of a possible 8).
  • The second board Joe misbids to land in a contract he might have gotten to anyway for a poor score. He misplays to turn that into another co-top for us. 7.5/8)
  • On the third board, Joe makes a takeout double which I redouble (to show 9-11 points, as I’m a passed hand). When Joe bids again at the three level, I have an easy penalty double and don’t have to share the top with anyone this time. 8/8.

Roxie and I win N/S with 63% (one or two of our decisions don’t work out, but most of them are correct and do work out, and a near-perfect round like that certainly helps. We only have one below average round when I forget that a takeout doubler was a passed hand, and make a bad assumption based on it, and even that round was 40%…)

Winning East/West with 65% is … Joe and his partner! Their round by round percentages (remember, 50% is an average round) were 65, 81, 75, 77, 85, 04 (vs us), 81, 56, and 60! Amazing!

Written by taogaming

September 6, 2021 at 4:54 pm

Posted in Bridge, Session Reports

The Tao of Gaming Labor Day ’21 Sale

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Mayhaps there is something of interest to you. (It is past time where I admit I’m not playing these games again unless an opponent already has a copy. And — as usual — this is spurred on by the recent dramatic housecleaning which has led us to wonder “Do we really need this” and dump box after box of games / books / other stuff to the trash, library, goodwill, or sales. I got rid of ~20 games at a flea market today for a few bucks and a copy of It’s a Wonderful World, which Mrs. Tao likes).

Written by taogaming

September 4, 2021 at 9:45 pm

Posted in Administration

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Gathering of Friends ’21 recap

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I already mentioned Nemesis and Who Goes There, but here are some brief thoughts on the other games I played last week. Unless otherwise mentioned, I played each game once. Surprisingly, I liked a fair number of the games.

City of the Big Shoulders: My second play. I think this is a fine Euro intro to 18xx, but the resource track just doesn’t work. It’s too easy for someone to block a company by buying all but one resource from each box. Maybe that means you should focus on getting the improvements that get you cubes but this game really just needs a Power Grid style market. But if you play with a gentleman’s agreement to not mess with that, it kind of works. (Arguably companies that start in later turns should also get some prestige bump). And the fact that there is no train rusting makes this a bit ‘loose’ but the worker placement game feels OK. I think this is solidly indifferent, but worth a play now and again.

Dice Realms: Played a near-production copy. I mean, this is a Tom Lehmann game, so it’s an automatic buy (even at $120). This is “Dominion with dice” (where you pop off and replace die faces). My main worry is that most of the time will be spent trying to remember which die face is where and fiddling with it (although it was relatively easy to do, I still think that this will be an X-minute game where X/2 of your time is strictly mechanical …. find face to upgrade, pop off, replace … and then a few minutes to re-set the game). Still, I expect I’ll get at least a few dozen games and fifty is always a possibility, even if it is too late. Assuming it makes it to the stores in time for winter break, this will likely be the game I play with the TaoLing when he is back from college. Cautiously enthusiastic.

Finito: This is a fast little dice game. You put a numbered marker (1-12) on the space on a number line that was rolled on a d20 (OK, a bingo card). If the number is covered, you move to the next higher/lower space. Once all the numbers are placed, you move a number to the number rolled. Each player does this simultaneously (ala Take it Easy) and the first to get their numbers in order wins. Cute little filler. Indifferent.

High Frontier for All: I liked HF3, and I like the improvements to HF4. The contracts are a good jump start. Making a contract auction also tied to a political action means the politics system matters (although I don’t particularly care for it, as I think for a game this long sudden claim jumping is just annoying). But I certainly don’t care enough to buy a new version for a few changes. I think High Frontier is now in the “This is a decent once every year or two game.” Indifferent.

Oath: Chronicles of Empire and Exile: Oath is a fun experience, and I’m not at all sure it’s a good game. Great art. Great ideas. I played twice (and the set we used played a few different games between). It was fun seeing the world slowly change from game to game, but that means that a random set could be grossly imbalanced in such a way that if you played the last game on the set and other’s didn’t, it would be unfair. (“Those who do not know their history are doomed to discover that there really aren’t any nomads in the game, so maybe they shouldn’t have drafted the nomad king.” Or some such). My first concern in my two games is that I really need a flowchart to explain the victory conditions, which don’t seem that hard, but appear to be have been poorly translated from some heathen mashup of Aramaic, Esperanto and Klingon.

And I also didn’t care for the fact that I won my first game only because the game ended on the only turn I could have possibly won it (and nearly won my second game that way). I’m not particularly attached to the “games must be fair” school and Cole Wehrle certainly doesn’t seem to be, either. But it still makes me suspect that most of the fun comes from before and after the game, not during it. This might still be a total blast with a group that played a game a week (or month, etc). And it spins off stories like nobodies business. If you play 7 games of this and could write well, you might easily have the next bestselling fantasy series. I’m going to say Suggest, even though I’m not sure. Also, because of some conversations around this (and other games), I’m listening to the Revolutions podcast.

Obsession: aka Building Downton Abbey (etc). You try to build up your mansion and social status which requires various types of workers, entertaining high ranking guests, etc. There wasn’t anything wrong with this; I can’t even say that the point salad bothered me. But neither was there anything that captured my attention. Indifferent.

Scout: A cute little climbing card game. Cards are 1-10 but you can flip your hand over (each card is like a domino, two numbers, no two cards the same). But you can’t re-order it. If you can’t beat the prior meld (single card, two card runs, pairs, three card runs, trips, etc) they get a point and you steal one card from the end of the prior meld and add it to your hand. (Once a round you can steal and add). If you can beat a meld, you get one point per card you take. When someone goes out, cards in hand are negative points. I actually liked this. Suggest.

Sheep & Garden: A Japanese game in the vein of Carcassonne. The quirk is that each player has a secret goal and each neighbor around the table share a goal (so with 4 players, there are 8 goals in play, and you earn points for only three of them). Even though I don’t think I’ve played Carcassonne since the year it came out, I’d suggest this.

Sorcerer City : A deck-building game with tiles? A real time tile-laying game with purchasing? Both? I thought this was clever, but I am too slow to enjoy it. Indifferent.

War Chest: An chess-like abstract, but you pull tiles from a bag to tell you which pieces you can activate. But before that you draft to see which four out of the eight pieces you have (and there are sixteen types in the base game, so good variety). I’m not a big abstract fan (or rather, I like my abstracts to be classics like Go), but I enjoyed this. Suggest.

It’s a Wonderful World : This should really be called “It’s a Seven Wonders-ful world.” (I’m assuming the Lawyers nixed that). This is a case where one small change has huge implications — You draft all seven cards and then decide which to keep (and build) and which to discard for building material. But you can build your cards incrementally. No need to get that massive VP card built now, end of game will suffice. There are four rounds (unlike 7 Wonders 3) but all the cards are just slammed together and there are lots of extras, so my suspicion is that this is much more random than it’s predecessor (the fact that I came in second despite not really understanding the building rules until after the first round of play is some evidence in my favor). I think Oath was the hit of the Gathering (but not a run-away hit like Settlers, Puerto Rico, Caylus, etc) …. but this also seemed to get a good amount of play. I’m indifferent but intrigued.

Yellow and Yangtzee: Knizia’s re-do of Euphrat und Tigris on a hex map with a bunch of tweaks. They all work. I think this is a fine variant to a great game, so this is also Suggest.

Where do I turn in my curmudgeon card? In my defense, I’m probably not going to rush out and buy any of these games (Dice Realms excepted) although with Oath that’s mainly because I don’t think I’ll have a group play it enough.

“Nemesis” vs “Who Goes There” — The Experience Game Showdown

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I played two “new to me” experience games last week: Nemesis (basically Alien/Aliens) and Who Goes There (the “Who Goes There” short story/movie later remade as the classic The Thing). Two games based on great horror movies, trying to recreate the experience.

Who Goes There drops the players in a arctic research facility trying to gather supplies after discovering an alien shapeshifter. Sooner or later one player will get infected and then can infect others, leading to a paranoia and tension. Nemesis sees the players prematurely awakened from hibernation on their ship where an alien has boarded and set up a nest. In this one you don’t have to worry about their crew-mates being infected — they may be perfectly normal humans who murder you just because a goal card directed them to (or you were standing between them and their goal). Of course, players still don’t want to get infected (it usually means losing, is generally unpleasant, and gets you dis-invited from the best soirées),

Long story short — Nemesis is the much better experience and game. (I’ve only played each once).

Who Goes There‘s first sin? It overstays its welcome. The rescue helicopter comes on Turn 15, and nothing will speed that up or slow it down. It may take a while for all the infection cards to get dealt out (at which point you are sure that someone is infected). And (in keeping with the theme) The Thing (infected player) is incentivized by the victory conditions to play a slow game. It’s admittedly tense and the rules do a great job of keeping with the experience. Want to trade a card with someone? Great, but the Thing could choose to infect you? Bunk up with a player during the night (to avoid taking an automatic wound). Great, but the Thing could choose to infect you.

But the real kicker is the second sin. The victory conditions mean that the Thing is kind of incentivized to not infect you. The Thing needs at least one human to survive (good!) but the humans victory condition gets easier if more humans get infected. Basically the entire game comes down to if the humans can guess who to let on the helicopter. If you let on an infected player you likely lose.

So the infected player tries to never raise suspicion. Maybe infect someone on the sly (during sleep/trade), probably at the very end (to avoid letting the new player infect someone else). So while the game does recreate the experience (particularly towards the end as players get more and more hostile to each other), there’s little-to-no information to go on.

In the ~150 cards there are few cards that prove someone’s guilt/innocence. They may not show up. Almost none of the decisions reveal too much information. Humans have no reason to be fully committed to helping, and all the things they balk at are reasonable (“I don’t want to risk infection”) decisions. Since The Thing wants to appear human and basically doesn’t do much sabotage, so practically no actions provoke suspicion. One possible solution is something like my Shadows over Camelot variant, but that would just make the game harder for humans. What this game really needs is more decisions that actually have a cost for the thing to avoid or let the humans pay a cost to get more information. More micro-information, less macro-information.

As we approached the endgame I mathed out endgame options (we did get one lucky proof of innocence that was good for a double-clear, so we had two known humans). The Thing, realizing that our “mathing it out” was correct, had no choice but to reveal (basically ending his game) which let him try to randomly infect one other player.

Again, we mathed out it, leaving an innocent human behind (me) but that still gave a decent chance at victory which came down to …. die rolls. But the Thing would have won if it (randomly, again) infected the player the humans decided to trust, which (again) they had zero information on.

Ugh. So, a three hour game with a bunch of not-terribly meaningful micro-decision, maybe four meaningful macro decisions, and decided by dice.

Nemesis is also fifteen turns, but can start with a literal bang. In another game, one player died on their second turn. Ours took a few more before the first death. Brutal, but also speeds the game up. We needed only ~7 or 8 turns to finish, although it took several hours. Nemesis has clunkier rules (as various things from both movies are thrown in, including the Xenomorph life cycle, slime, a bunch of weapons and archetypes), but the “Design for effect” paradigm works as an experience.

But as a game it can suck to die because another player randomly wanted you dead and — being an efficient gamer — gave no indication before looking you in a room with an Alien, by which point the knowledge is of little use.

So both games — as games — could use a bit more work. In either you can randomly get hosed. (But horror movies don’t have a great survival rate). In a few minor ways, I think Who Goes There has the better design.

  • Who Goes There actually gets the nod on character differentiation. Both games have different decks for each character, but WGT’s seems more impactful (and also gives the characters each an improved use of one of the basic actions).
  • The Nemesis random map feels like hack design. Everyone “forgot” the layout of a ship they were on for how long?
  • The Nemesis rules have a lot more chrome, which is a point in its favor in terms of experience, but a point against it in design.

But in all the important ways and judging these games by how much fun I had — Nemesis wins hands down. (BGG’s ratings clearly agree, with Nemesis several points higher). All the minor design points for Who Goes There are killed by the terrible victory conditions and lack of meaningful decisions. Sure, Nemesis may set you up an impossible situation, but it generated a ton of little moments in its playtime.

Playing with the Alien/Aliens soundtrack (and with a fully blinged set) didn’t hurt either. “I move into this room.” <Violins shriek and screech>. “Uh, did you hear that?”

Rating Who Goes There gets an avoid. Nemesis is indifferent as a game, but as a now-and-again experience, I’d play it a few more times.

Written by taogaming

August 29, 2021 at 5:41 pm

A Response to Jorbs, regarding Poker and the Tragedy of the Commons

Last night I saw that Jorbs (the Slay the Spire Streamer and former pro-poker player) posted a video discussing tournament hold ’em and the tragedy of the commons. While Tao isn’t a huge poker player, I’m not entirely without skills. And mixing game theory, poker, and policy design? The kind of catnip topic I haven’t seen in years!

To summarize the video:

  1. In tournament poker (unlike in cash games) not all chips are equal value (the Independent Chip Model)
  2. In the final table of a tournament (for example) this model leads to optimal play often being to wait for you and him to fight. “Going to war” (with random hands) on net costs both players expected value. (I don’t really think you — the average Tao reader, gifted with math knowledge far above average — needs that link. Nor does Jorbs. But maybe I’ll catch some traffic that does).
  3. Jorbs provides the example of a 6 handed table folded to the small blind. In this situation, the SB may just shove all in much more often than optimal (in a cash game), because the clever BB — even if he knows that he SB is bullying — is stuck. Calling with more than the “correct” set of hands (whatever that may be) is just destroying his expected value.
  4. This is a tragedy of the commons, a known problem (Jorbs uses the “picking up trash in a public park” example). (It’s kind of a two player prisoner’s dilemma, with a small blind/big blind, but because it can be repeated with multiple actors, it extends. There are some assumptions buried in there, but for a 20 minute video or a blog post, I think its fine to handwave this).
  5. But — here is the crux of Jorbs’s frustration — Pro Poker players are some of the most strategic thinkers on the earth (in their domain at least) … So, why have they not come up with a solution to this problem via some enforcement strategy?
  6. More frustratingly for Jorbs is that apparently poker players do not apparently acknowledge this problem.

I have many thoughts….

Let’s You and Him Fight

First, this problem is a typical “multi-player wargame” issue. This is the reason 3+ player (non-team) Chess doesn’t work. If A and B trade pawns, C is better off. There’s a reason that Titan is a classic: If A and B fight, C may be the big loser (because fighting has gains and losses …. the fight’s winner can gain points, a recruit, an angel, possibly legion tokens).

In fact, I think Jorb’s simplified model over-stated how negative the EV was of going to war. He just assumed payouts of 6,5,4,3,2,1. But typical tournament payout would be something like 300,150,75,40,25,10 … the values would depend on entries, but winning is ~40% …. Running a full EV calculation is harder then, but my gut feeling is that it lessens the impact of going all, but it would still be a negative EV play. (The calculation is harder b/c the person who doubles up now has a 40% chance of winning the tournament, but also improved chances of 2nd, and reduced chances of 5th, etc. This calculation may be solved, but I don’t know the solution and don’t care to do it now. Perhaps one of my readers knows the answer).

As any bridge player has heard, Matchpoints isn’t real bridge. (See my review of Matchpoints by Kit Woolsey). So, Jorbs feeling that tournament poker has these annoying corner cases makes total sense. You have taken an open-ended cash game (like Bridge, originally) and turned it into a format that can take an arbitrary number of entries and produce a winner in a relatively fixed time frame. Why would you expect that to be a perfect translation?

Perhaps the TL;DR of this essay is “Given that this is a known problem in tons of domains, why would you think Poker is immune?” Again — hardly satisfying. So let’s dive into it in more detail

Enforcers != Enforcement

Jorbs brings up the idea that people should enforce it. Let’s define that. An optimal player in the Big Blind will know the range of hands to calldown with if the Small Blind is playing optimally (even if I don’t). This is likely solved. If the small blind is “stealing” (betting or shoving all in on more hands than is optimal) then the Big Blind can call more aggressively and still be playing optimally (assuming he has a good estimate of how much the small blind is cheating).

We’re still in game theory. But what if the Big Blind decides to change from “optimal” play to an enforcer? Now they will not only call when it is optimal, they will call sometimes when it is sub-optimal, just to hope to catch the small blind and punish them. Something I have said professionally (but not on this blog, apparently) is

“Security is paying a small cost to impose a large cost on your adversary.”

(Me)

So, an enforcer expands their range of plays (possibly to the point of just always calling anyone who appears to be consistently stealing). If all the seats agree to do this, then you have solved the tragedy of the commons, or so the argument goes. Because players see that you are willing to punish defectors

Let’s posit that some players at the final table are just lucky and not up to game theory.

If we go back to our park example. An optimal person will pick up some trash and keep the park clean for everyone (“cooperate” in the prisoner’s dilemma). If they see a defector (someone who walks past a piece of trash without picking it up or even worse tosses some trash on the ground), they will not do anything. But an enforcer will punish the defector. Call them out, shame them, fine them, something. The enforcer takes an additional cost to make things right.

So now our enforcer rushes over to the guy who tossed a soda cup on the ground, harangues them, and then gets their reputation destroyed on social media, gets fired from their job and the litter bug’s Go Fund Me explodes … (Now might be a good time to mention the “Central Park Karen” — I haven’t followed that particular story enough to know who is actually the bad guy here, but this is not a hypothetical).

The obviously true fact is at the poker table, there’s a lot of variance. “Punishing” the defector is probably taking away a couple percent from them in the long run, but in the short run you’ll double them up a fair amount of the time.

And what do the other players see? A way to tilt the enforcer (should they ever be sitting to his right). Because “Enforcer” is another way of saying “Not playing optimally.”

Enforcement may incentivize the behavior you are trying to stop. Particularly for an opponent who recognizes he’s outclassed. (This is another aspect of Matchpoints. When you are inferior to the field you should absolutely not use the exact same bidding system as the field. Why get to the average contract and let the result be decided by technical perfection when the other players are better at it? Better to flip a coin, even if you know the coin is slightly biased against you).

It would be one thing if when you tossed some trash on the ground, enforcers (cops or otherwise) magically appeared and gave you a $50 fine. But if they magically appear and give you a fine 52% of the time and give you a $50 gift card 48% of the time, you are “losing” EV, but it might take a while to catch on.

People play lotteries voluntarily and plenty of criminals risk decades (or life) of jail time because enforcement is haphazard at best, and that’s with paid enforcers.

A minor but related point — If your village has 100 people, the park is probably small but nice. Everyone knows everyone, and if Giselle doesn’t pick up the trash because she thinks its beneath her, people will talk. If your commons are Manhattan’s Central Park …. well, there’s a lot of anonymity in the big city (except for Karen) anyway. Even if you discount the bad incentives and knew that everyone would see what you are doing and react accordingly, it matters if you are playing against the same crowd over and over again (where they will learn you are enforcing) versus some people you’ll likely never see again. (Yes, this might very well be the definition of Tragedy of the Commons, but I wanted to make it explicitly).

The Elephant in the Card Room

One aspect that Jorbs touches on …. there is an enforcer. The Casino. As he mentions, there are rules against collusion. The Casino cares about that, because if word got out that a gang (etc) were colluding in their card room the game (and their sweet, sweet rakes) would dry up. The tournament rules (like raising stakes) also exist for the Casino’s benefit, because they don’t rake each hand (only the fees), so they have incentives to make it fast enough to be profitable, but long enough that players want to play.

And the Casino is a notoriously ruthless enforcer. If I became desperate enough to resort to stealing, I’d go for a waitresses tips before trying to steal chips from an area where all the players had went to the bathroom. Even for non-crime, rules of the game enforcements, casinos are tough to beat. I’ve been called out for string raising because I didn’t know the exact rules of that particular card room (for example), even though I’m usually careful to not string-raise. The dealer is often very sympathetic to me, while rigidly enforcing the rules.

A story I read in a poker book. In one of the early tournaments, a small stack pushed all in under-the-gun. The next person (a medium stack, with several big stacks behind him) pushed all in and flipped over his pair of aces. The logic was impeccable, he was likely to bust out the small stack, but a big stack might think he was also cheating and try to bust him out, and even if he had a hand, ICM theory said it might be right to call. The ace-holder might very well grab a bunch of chips, but it was at a risk and by advertising he was making the safe solid play.

This is another weird Matchpoint-esque situation. Playing for cash you’d be happy to have a bunch of callers.

Now casinos ban players from showing their cards.

Of course, there’s a whole bunch of reasons why Casinos don’t say “No cheating in the final table, tragedy of the commons situation.” How to tell and enforce? Casinos want a bright line rule. But from the Casino’s POV, this is a legitimate angle/shot, all part of the game, and not something that (most) players care about. If players did care, Casinos might try to enforce it, but mostly it takes care of itself. Chip stacks are rarely even and the blinds will increase fast enough that other issues come to the fore.

Part of my wonders if one reason that Pros (in general) don’t care isn’t a lack of awareness, its just that its a small minor corner cases that they get over (“Matchpoints”). And against that small benefit, if they ever decided to band and somehow not have it backfire, they are worried about the casino.

Because if you (and the rest of the Pros) stood up and loudly proclaimed “We will punish defectors” some Average Joe somewhere is going to go to the Casino and say “Aren’t they colluding?” (I don’t really think this is an issue, but its an interesting angle).

Some random other thoughts / Conclusion

I keep thinking back to Hirschman’s Exit, Voice and Loyalty. For any problem inside an organization or system some people accept it (Loyalty), some complain but try to work within the system (Voice) and some just give up and walk away (Exit). This is obviously a butchering and gross simplification of Hirschman’s book, which I doubt I remember enough to treat well …. Thankfully poker isn’t nearly as important as most tragedies of the commons.

My main response to Jorbs is that I think he’s correct, and I can see why it bother him, but … well, I play a lot of Matchpoints these days. What he’s describing is true, and has no solution that I can see. If it really bothered me, well, I’d be an exit-guy as well. I’m sympathetic. Whaddya going to do? It’s the rules of the game.

PS — For a great article discussing capitalism, evolution, and various tragedies including the prisoner’s dilemma, paperclip maximizers and the race to the bottom — with a stop in Las Vegas — I suggest Scott Alexander’s (very long) essay Meditations on Moloch.

I will now jump from boring game theory stuff to what might be the closest thing to a mystical experience I’ve ever had.

Like all good mystical experiences, it happened in Vegas. I was standing on top of one of their many tall buildings, looking down at the city below, all lit up in the dark. If you’ve never been to Vegas, it is really impressive. Skyscrapers and lights in every variety strange and beautiful all clustered together. And I had two thoughts, crystal clear:

It is glorious that we can create something like this.

It is shameful that we did.

Scott Alexander, Meditations on Moloch

Written by taogaming

August 14, 2021 at 10:07 am

Wordtwist

Yeah, it’s just an online boggle, but its an online boggle with a community that is much better than I am. (I think I’ve gotten an above average score maybe 2% of the time). So, that may be of interest. Link.

Written by taogaming

August 13, 2021 at 8:27 pm

Luau

At the Bridge Club yearly Luau I am playing with Roxie against very nice newcomers … so before the round I congratulate them for playing and generally encourage them. (New players are rare and valuable). Rather unfortunately, the first two hands against them have belonged to us, so we get to routine, average-ish contracts (although likely pick up a bit on one hand against a misdefense). In an earlier round the pair who don’t have a firm grasp of their own system have the hands, which gives us good results as they can’t bid them. I was hoping for a repeat….

Then I pick up the sort of hand that bridge players dream of, but rarely see….

S: — H:A7 D:AKJT9x C:QT762

Not many high card points, but bursting with potential. I am dealer, vulnerable vs not, and I have an easy One Diamond opening. My LHO bids One Spade and Roxie is there with Three Diamonds. We play that as pre-emptive, but red vs white it should have something of note. My right hand opponent bids Four Spades.

Roxie should have at least four diamonds for her bid, and five is more reasonable, so I’m losing at most a heart. Losing three clubs would be unlucky but possible, but it takes very little for my hand to make slam (particularly if I get a spade lead). KJ of clubs would do nicely. Red vs White its just possible partner has more (a side king, even).

Since I think slam is still in the picture (remotely) but also that I’m expecting to have a good chance to make, I bid Five Clubs. This should help Roxie know that clubs honors would be welcome offensively. LHO passes, Roxie declines to push for slam with Five Diamonds and RHO is there with Five Spades.

Is Five Spades making? Well, if Roxie doesn’t have anything in clubs, she should have a card or two in spades and hearts, and those would both work. I have two aces (although its possible the diamond ace may not cash). I think if five spades makes we’re getting a bad result, so I’ll try to protect our position. I double.

LHO passes and Roxie contemplates this and pulls to Six Diamonds. This goes to LHO, who bids Six Spades. This comes back to me, and I don’t think my logic has changed. Admittedly they are one level higher, but against that I suspect that someone is void of diamonds. And the new players may just be horribly misbidding. In any case, I’m likely only risking a matchpoint by doubling, so I double again and nobody has anything else to say.

Partner leads the eight of clubs….

Dummy: S: Kxxxx H:K8xx D:x C:Axx

Roxie: S:xx H:xxx D:Qxxxxx C:8x Me: S:– H:Ax D:AKJT9x C:QT762

Declarer: S:AQJT9x H:QJT9 D:– C:KJx

After winning the club in hand (covering my queen with the king) declarer pulled trumps in two rounds and then lead the H9 to the HK, which I won. When the diamond ace didn’t cash, I still had hopes that partner had the heart queen or jack (and that declarer misplayed), but eventually declarer took the rest for a score (for them) of 1660.

I should have simply passed five spades, I had already bid my (shapely) fourteen count to the five level opposite a pre-emptive hand (and while part of me wants to say that CHO should have perhaps bid four diamonds, that bid could easily be a disaster red vs white). The silver lining? Doubling did only cost a single matchpoint. Still, that number was a bit more encouragement than I like to give out, new pair or not.

Written by taogaming

August 8, 2021 at 11:08 pm

Posted in Bridge, Session Reports

BGG sells out … to Vidal Sassoon

BGG is still a good resource but it seems to me that whenever I go to the “new” front page, I’m confronted by an image of men (and sometimes women) who just stepped out of a hair salon. I get that this is now the trend to get clicks/likes/hearts/poobahs on social media, but wouldn’t it be nice if it were an image of a game?

Incidentally my hair is long and glorious as well, but you’ll just have to imagine it.

Written by taogaming

July 20, 2021 at 7:38 am

Posted in Misc

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