The only game worth playing

Photo by Riho Kroll on Unsplash.
Each dice is random, but some rolls are much more likely than others.

The most boring game in the world

Imagine a game with two identical tracks of squares stretching off into the distance.

The most boring game in the world.
How likely you are to land on each square on your first roll of two 6-sided dice.
How likely you are to land on each square in a 2-dice, 28-space game, playing a billion times.
The probabilities of landing on each square.

Randomness is the opposite of agency

This is why random games, that don’t afford agency to the players, aren’t very popular. If we don’t get to make choices, we wonder why we bother playing. We could instead flip a coin.

Snakes and ladders just delay the inevitable randomness. There’s no real choice.

Games with a known stalemate

By contrast, some games aren’t random. You can know every game state and how to respond. In these games, the fun actually comes from trying to take advantage of the opponent’s lack of knowledge.

Tic-tac-toe is actually a game of knowing whether your opponent knows the trick.
  • Unenlightened: Competitive placement of circles and squares, when you don’t know the trick;
  • Enlightened: Discovering whether your opponent also knows how to always tie a game, when you know the trick.

Unknowable games

So there are purely random games (like dice rolling.) And there knowable games (like tic-tac-toe) which, if you understand them, can always deliver a predictable outcome (such as a stalemate; or worse, they have a design flaw in which a particular player will always win or lose by going first.) It’s either random walks or tic-tac-toe: A game of chance or a game of stalemates.

  1. Every game between two perfect players would end in a tie, like tic tac toe does; or
  2. A certain player (the one who went first, or the one who went last) would always lose (in other words, there is a series of moves that, once known, can never be countered.)
Photo of Claude Shannon in front of computer equipment. —, CC BY-SA 2.0 de, https://c
Claude Shannon, by Konrad Jacobs

Combining randomness and complexity

Many games — backgammon, Bridge, and so on — include both randomness, and unthinkably complex variations. They are more about how you respond to random, transient advantages or disadvantages—good or bad dice rolls; a terrible hand—than about testing your relative enlightenment against that of another.

The Royal Game of Ur

I watched a British Museum piece on the Royal Game of Ur recently. The game was invented around 2500 BC, and for whatever reason modern civilization has lost the game; historians had to decipher the rules from cuneiform tablets to be able to play it. But back then, this thing was common, like poker or checkers.

(Go watch it. It’s amazing.)
I never understood the appeal of Backgammon. Some folks do, apparently. Photo by Josh Pepper on Unsplash

Make of your life true games

I’m not really sure why I felt compelled to write this, other than that I watched a cool video and went down a mental rabbit-hole of stats and game theory. But on reflection, there’s a deep lesson about fairness and play here, which probably matters to everything from negotiation to profiteering to politics to social safety nets to late-stage capitalism to communal resource sharing:

  • A fun battle of wits.
  • A rigged game preying upon those who don’t know the trick.
  • Or a complete waste of time for which you may as well flip a coin.
John Conway, the mathematician who devised the cellular automata model behind The Game Of Life, died this month from Coronavirus.



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Alistair Croll

Alistair Croll

Writer, speaker, accelerant. Intersection of tech & society. Strata, Startupfest, Bitnorth, FWD50. Lean Analytics, Tilt the Windmill, HBS, Just Evil Enough.