Optimal Play, Gambler's Fallacy, and Complaining About Randomness: 3 Personal Irritants
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By my microbadge and several of my geeklists, it is easy to see that I am a huge fan of statistics. In fact, developing new statistical methodology is how I earn my keep (however, sometimes I think being a professor at a major research university is not really "work" in the true sense of the word--maybe that is because I enjoy it so much). In any event, I think that the BGG database is marvelous and there is a wealth of information to be discovered; however, I become irritated when some types of statistical arguments arise during games. Lately, these three have been occurring with some sort of frequency at my local gaming group--please feel free to add your own.

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1. Board Game: Best in Show [Average Rating:5.00 Unranked]
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#1 Irritant: Optimal Play

In fact, this behavior irritates me so much that it could hold the place markers 1-5. This is the behavior during a game where there is one player that either:

(a) Tells everyone the best way to play every turn (lecturer)
(b) Bitches because someone else did something sub-optimal (whiner)
(c) Or some combination of (a) and (b)

Oh let me count the ways that I find this irritating:

1. It is just annoying. The game is supposed to be a fun time for everyone, not a training session for the lecturer to expound their wealth of knowledge on others. This just sucks the fun out of everything. I knew a guy like this in college and we called him the "Black Hole of Fun" because a shred of fun couldn't escape from about a 10' radius around the guy. Maybe I just want to have fun and I don't have to decide on the #1 option and execute it. Hell, maybe I just want to piss someone off for a couple of turns via suboptimal plays to make them play suboptimally down the line.

2. When people talk about optimal play, it is usually (although not always) a misuse of the terminology. First, what people really mean is that it is the optimal play for this particular turn; however, it may not be the play that results in the optimal result over the whole course of a game. Usually, a complaint by "the whiner" about someone doing something "suboptimal" is levied when the action of the player does not dovetail with the "optimal" course of action they have already decided upon. This happens a lot when there is an established turn order. For instance, in blackjack people get pissed when they think that the player to their right might have made the wrong decision (usually hit), busted, and took the card that rightfully should have been theirs. I say to that: horseshit. If you are so concerned about optimal play, recompute the probability of you busting or not busting and play accordingly--if anything, you are better off because more information is available and the variance of the outcome is decreased.

Second, both "the lecturer" and "the whiner" are assuming a level of arrogance and condescendence in that they think they know what my goals are, and therefore, they know how to execute them. Most games are played over a series of turns and my particular play on turn 1 might be suboptimal given the state of events; however, it might be the optimal play in terms of what I want to do on turn 5. As an example, consider chess. Defined in terms of how many people talk about optimal play, the 1st move in chess should be moving the pawn in front of the king to set up checkmate in 4 moves on your opponent--this is the optimal move because it leads to the quickest victory; however, only an idiot would do this every game. Sometimes optimal overall play requires suboptimal turn by turn play.

3. Assuming one knows the optimal play every turn just turns a game into an 1 - 2 hour exercise of running through the mechanics of the game itself. The beauty of boardgames is that they are variable. Different decision sets by your opponents result in different consideration that you have to make. The only way to know the optimal play of all players involved is to insure that the decisons by different players do not influence each other (either directly or indirectly)--a true game of multiplayer solitaire, and this my friends is not a game I am interested in.

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2. Board Game: Gambler [Average Rating:5.53 Overall Rank:9026]
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Missouri
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#2 Irritant: Gambler's Fallacy

Not nearly as irritating as the prior post; however, somewhat irritating. The gambler's fallacy seems to occur a lot in games with dice. Fellow gamers discuss how they should roll a 6 because they haven't rolled one all game, etc.

Me: Once and for all, each die roll is independent. Previous die rolls have nothing to do with what you will roll now. The gods of the dice are not playing a mean trick on you....

Other Gamer: But the law of averages say that I am due to roll a six.

Me: THERE IS NO LAW OF AVERAGES*

If it didn't happen so frequently, I wouldn't even bring it up.

*There is something called the law of large numbers and the central limit theorem, but this is not what they mean.
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3. Board Game: Chess 960 [Average Rating:7.57 Overall Rank:4139]
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#3 Irritant: Randomness = Bad Game

As a caveat, I will say sometimes (although more rarely than people think), this is true. Chutes and ladders is a good example. Die rolls govern every outcome. So, for the naysayers, I will give you this one.

I think that: Randomness (to a certain degree) = Good. In fact, I would argue that the randomness mechanism has done more for the hobby than any other mechanism.

1. Complexity Thinking randomness is bad is really an overall misunderstanding of how a probability distribution works and how the probability distribution adds layers of complexity to a game. Often, the likelihood of events happening are balanced by risk/reward of possible outcomes. Making decisions based on this dichotomy, in my opinion, is what makes for some of the best games. For instance, in Twilight Stuggle, every coup or reallignment is--to some degree--random. However, interesting decisions arise that make one have to decide between more bold, riskier actions and more sure, safer actions. Should you make a coup attempt in Thailand to gain control over Asia, or should you spend the Ops Points to shore up your influence in Europe? There is no right answer. Every game, the answer will depend on your opponents style of play, the lateness of the game, greater board position, etc. At the end of the day, this is not a computable decision.

2. Replayability As in the example above, randomness implies some degree of variability in the possible outcomes of an event. Whether the randomness is achieved through card/tile rolling, dice rolling, or whatever, the variance achieved through the
random mechanism enhances replayability in the sense that the outcomes of the game (and oftent times the whole landscape of the game) will be different.

3. Story-telling As complexity led into replayability, replayability leads into a nice storetelling component. If the landscape of the game is variable, then the game is better able to weave an ever changing story around the events. This is why many of the so-called ameritrash games have such a beautiful matrimony of randomness and theme ---> randomness lends itself naturally to a thematic environment. Every time the game is played, the story will be different (everything from the specific events that led to the defeat of Cthulu in Arkham Horror to how the Free People achieved a military victory in War of the Ring).

4. Game Designer's Goal: A bad game does randomness not make; however, the implementation of the randomness mechanism can be so clunky and horrible that the game is ruined. The success of the random mechanism has to be goverened by a game's theme and goals. Here are two games (by no means exclusive) where that works really well. They were chosen to represent the different types of randomness that is successful.

(a) Twilight Struggle: A very tight game play system. All cards are known in advance; however, you never know what you will get or what your opponent will get--this aspect of randomness introduces the intrigue of the cold war. The coup/reallignment attempt relying on die rolls makes success critical as you have to "pay" for them with Operations Points. The die roll is more random than the card play, but in this game, it works nicely. The die rolls reflect the whims of governemnts that the 2 puppetmasters were trying to manipulate throughout the cold war---this aspect of randomness introduces a level of anxiety and tension for the player when they are trying to make decisiosn. This adds up to a superb game.

(b) Last Night on Earth, The Zombie Game: Here this is a die rolling free for all. Uusally, I would even frown upon this amount of randomness; however, the theme of the game delivers in spades. The goal of the game is to create a thematic zombie game that is exciting and a little bit ridiculous, just like a good B horror movie. The randomness really enhances this by catching the players off guard even though they are playing the game. Perhaps Johnny will run out of ammo or Sara will trip when she is trying to get back to the truck. Well-done I have to say.

Now, if the random mechanisms between these two games were switched, then we would have a veritable pile of crap on our hands.

5. Randomness made me lose the game: My response, "Only if you played the game stupidly". Of course, this may be true for some games or some instances. However, if this is the fifth time that you blaming a loss on the fact that your opponent's human killed your Rubium dragon, then you likely do not have a good strategy developed for the game. Almost all games that incorporate randomness (especially those ranked highly) have an overall meta-game that requires strategic planning. If you are consistently losing, it probably means that you are not too good at the game.

This is like the classic three lines I get from graduate students when the get a bad grade:

(1) The textbook was horrible and I couldn't understand it.
(2) I didn't have time to study and go over the sample problems.
(3) You really aren't that good of a professor.

What you won't hear, except for maybe 2% of the time is: "You know, I didn't try that hard. If I would have applied myself I might have done better".

The same is true for games with random components. Except for extreme cases, you are likely dismissing your poor play as bad game design. Unfortunately, this type of reaction precludes you from improving---so now you think we just have a bad game on our hands, when really we have a good game and a jerk.

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4. Board Game: Carcassonne [Average Rating:7.44 Overall Rank:107] [Average Rating:7.44 Unranked]
ErikPeter Walker
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Rochester
Minnesota
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I know this is an older geeklist, but there's a couple behavior patterns I find pretty irritating among some of my fellow gamers, one in particular, and I thought I'd add them since I feel they fit the spirit of the list.

Irritant: Overplayed = Bad Game
This happens all the time. A game we have played a hundred times all of a sudden starts getting trash-talked and criticized as being a bad game, simply because we've played it so much that it has gotten tiresome.

If it was such a bad game in the first place, why did we play it every day for two months?

There are some cases where rules ambiguities (Betrayal at House on the Hill) or dominant strategies (The Princes of Florence) only become realized after many plays, which then warrant some harsh criticism; however, when we get tired of a game we're probably just burnt out on it. That's a fine reason to play something else for a change, but players often need to justify their lessened interest by saying the game is bad.

In fact, it almost seems like the more play a game gets, the harsher the backlash is once players become burnt out on it. A few of my friends will never again play some of these games that they were crazy about just a few months ago.

Obviously my friends aren't wrong about their feelings--no amount of arguing will make them like the game more--but it does seem like some of the dislike (or even hatred) they express is misguided.

As presented in item #3, chance is usually the scapegoat for these games; or perhaps the game is found to be "too simple" when the player has reached their theoretical skill level. (I must admit I am biased toward Puerto Rico partly because I'm not very good at it.) And then there is the more reasonable claim that the game is essentially solvable--which might happen faster if you've played it 50 times in the last month. Sometimes these are valid criticisms, often they are hollow justifications.

One over-arching element of being irritating is not being able to notice when your behavior is making the game less fun for others, either by dictating their actions (as in item #1) or just complaining too much about the game or some aspect of it (the rest of the list).
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5. Board Game: War of the Ring (first edition) [Average Rating:7.85 Overall Rank:34]
ErikPeter Walker
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Rochester
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Irritant: Hypocrisy

The one thing my fellow gamers do that just plain bugs me the most is loudly bellyaching about an aspect of a game that they recently, obviously were simply tickled by.

Having a double standard of "It's a good game when I win, it's bad when I lose" can end up causing major drama, even if the player in question is good at/familiar with the game.

A prime example, involving a gamer friend of mine, that factors in many of the irritating behaviors listed in previous list entries:

I used to play War of the Ring (first edition) with him and his girlfriend. During one game, my army of 10 failed to take Lorien, which was defended by two elves and a leader; On 30 dice (5 attack, 5 leader rerolls, for three rounds) I did not roll a single 6 (of the two I needed). It was an epic, exciting victory. I was decimated. He went on to happily win the game.
The next time we played, though, my friend had a streak of bad luck involving the ring-bearer becoming exposed. He got frustrated, threw his dice across the room, and basically acted like a big baby about the whole thing. Even though the game was far from decided, he wasn't having fun, his girlfriend was upset (therefore not having fun), and we ended up awkwardly quitting the game then and there. To my knowledge they never played the game together after that. And he has said he won't ever play it again.

A common thread that binds all of this together is simply sporting a bad attitude. Games can be frustrating, it's true. Bad luck happens. But that doesn't mean one should justify their bad behavior on the outcome of the game, i.e. throwing dice or deciding the game is at fault. Taking a deep breath and realizing, after all, that it's just a game can make all the difference between a bad experience and a great one.
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