The Tao of Gaming

Boardgames and lesser pursuits

Games with unknown time delays?

Continuing my research into cognitive science, I’ve started reading The Logic of Failure by Dietrich Dorner. One section discusses the impact of (unknown, but consistent) time delays on human reasoning (I knew that; I took way too much control theory and time delays conspired to lower my GPA. Stupid delays).

In one experiment, researchers gave the participants a control and a goal (“Get the output to be as close to X as possible for 2 simulated hours.”) and vague instructions (“You aren’t sure exactly how it works, but raising the input should raise the output.”) Some participants adopted a scientific approach (tweak the input once, then pause and watch the output until a steady state response is achieved, then use the information), but quite a few participants got completely flummoxed and started adjusting wildly, and invented (completely wrong) “rules” for how to deal with the system.

Anyway, this got me thinking. Many games have delays, and some have random triggers, but I’m racking my brain to think of a game where you don’t even really know the underlying system. (Apart from puzzle games like Black Box). Really this is the sort of things you need a computer game for, but I suppose there may be a board game like this. Any suggestions?

I suppose Eleusis qualifies as well. In fact, I seem to recall playing a game where the rule depending not on the prior card, but on the card two or three steps back. That was a tough rule to deduce, as you’d expect.

Update — In reading more from Dorner, he calls the games with hidden systems “Intransparent” (no doubt he uses a more common word in the original German, which the translator decided to not render as “Opaque”). So a more basic requirement would be “Games that are intransparent.” And that reveals (to me) that very few exist. Games may be unpredictable (Sean’s example of Fluxx), but someone with a full knowledge of the deck (in addition to the rules) could assign probabilities to events. Mao (like Eleusis) is intransparent, in that the rules are not known. Eine Geigen Eine is also in this category.

Even complex games are, for the most part, transparent. This is simply the nature of boardgames as opposed to computer games. In fact, Dorner’s studies involve a proto-Sim City game (the book was published in ’89), where the player manages a small village for a decade (population 3,800). Interestingly, the computer would model results (economy, gov’t coffers, transportation, housing, citizen happiness, crime, etc) and provide them to the experimenter, who would then convey that information via describing complaints of various citizens.

One chilling aspect of the book is how often well-meaning (and sometimes savvy) players would not understand the various linkages between systems and force the simulation into a catastophic positive feedback. A game trying to help raise a tribe (apparently based on the Maori, though that’s never said) out of subsistence lifestyle had a number of potential catastophes, and in only twelve simulations players drove into drought, overpopulation, ecosystem destruction and economic collapse. (One of the eco-system destroyers was an environmentalist who refused to use pesticides or fertilizer or any other non-natural methods. The eco-system spun out of control for other reasons). And the model was stable … without intervention (apart from mild random fluctuations assumed for rainfall, temperature, etc) the game started in a stable steady-state.


Written by taogaming

November 4, 2009 at 8:02 pm

Posted in Open Thread

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5 Responses

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  1. The point of Eleusis is to discover the rule that the Game Master has devised for playing cards. Zendo works the same way, with Icehouse pieces. But there are still game rules for doing this and all the players know them. So I’m not sure this is what you’re talking about.

    But there’s a new game that may qualify. It’s called Eine Gegen Eine and it’s an experimental project by a bunch of German designers (including Marcel-Andre Casasola Merkle). There is no rule book. Instead, the players seek to discover how to play the game simply by examining the components and beginning to play. I haven’t seen it, so I can’t say how successful the experiment is, but others who have seem to be impressed.

    Larry Levy

    November 5, 2009 at 11:04 am

  2. I don’t suppose Flux counts? There’s still a structure to the rules, goals, and actions — but you never know when any of the three will change.

    sean tompkins

    November 5, 2009 at 2:41 pm

  3. Sounds like Mao.

    Doug Orleans

    November 5, 2009 at 5:29 pm

  4. Fluxx does not count. The rules change, but they are known.

    We often used to play Cosmic Wimpout as an Elusis game. We’d tell the player if he could stop or not, but that’s it. He’d have to infer the rules. Sometimes, we’d tell him he could not stop, because of the “you may not want to but you have to” Rule or whatever.


    November 6, 2009 at 6:33 pm

  5. Sid Sackson describes a party game in his *Gamut of Games* where the player/victim is trying to deduce an unknown rule and the only answers they can get from the others who are “in the know” are yes and no.

    In college, we played a very similar “warmer or colder” party game called Pavlov where one player has to perform an unknown action, with the others clapping more and more vigorously as they approximate the action and cutting to silence as they get further away from the goal.

    Sackson also has another party game where each player starts with a variety of trade goods and *one* of the many scoring rules which apply to those goods at endgame; the player then has to try to trade for/deduce the other scoring rules as well as swap goods advantageously.

    There was a tabletop RPG called *Psychosis* that used something like this idea. I have not seen a copy so I’m not sure how it’s implemented; I just know that the players had very incomplete information about not just the game world but also how the game worked.

    In the cognitive science vein, Antonio Damasio has some interesting studies about the influence of certain types of brain damage on games with nonobvious payouts; *Descartes’ Error* is a great read.

    Fred Bush

    November 17, 2009 at 8:17 am

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