The Rookery

Madeline's thoughts on social deduction games, forum/community meta, and any other philosophical musings

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Sum-Of-Its-Parts-Ness

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Emergence is a social deduction game with a post-singularity theme. The "good" team is the AI who have taken over the world, and the "evil" team is the rogue humans who are trying to topple them. The name is fitting, because the word "emergence" can refer to the phenomenon of self-aware consciousness like ours, or potentially, super-powerful AI. Somehow, from a bunch of brain neurons, or maybe microchips, something much more complex and powerful than the sum of its parts takes form.

I think the name is also very appropriate, because that kind of emergence is a property I value highly in social deduction games. The "parts" are players each trying to play their role to help their team win, to the best of their ability. The "whole" is a game experience with a narrative, sometimes with many twists and turns before the finale. Part of the reason I enjoy rereading old games, on the forum or from my notes, is because I really value that story-like experience. I do believe it's somehow "more" than the sum of its parts, but also, that it can't be aimed at directly. I don't sit down to play Werewolf or Resistance with the goal that "I'm going to help my team tell a really fun story this game," and I think that if I did, both my individual play and the emergent whole would be worse off.

The appropriateness of the game's name is something I've been batting around for a while, as a discussion topic, but I really didn't have much beyond that. I see games this way. Some people don't. That's okay, and that's life.

If I sit down to play a game of Kingdom Builder with several others, but A insists on having the red pieces or else, B is always fidgeting with the houses and building them into little stacks, C takes forever to play, and D whines the whole way through about how terrible life is in general, I probably will have a below-average time as I'm playing. But when I look back on the game, if I remember it, it'll probably be "that was the game when A got all the castle bonuses and won by a hair." Or maybe I won't remember, because the details fail quickly. This is what I mean when I say "werewolf has a high ceiling but a low floor"--it has the potential to be a very memorable experience, compared to other genres of games, but it can also be memorable for the wrong reasons.

A frequent player has often made an analogy comparing werewolf to improv comedy. Improv requires a lot of fast, rapid-fire repartee, and comedy has an "edgy" that sometimes pushes people's limits. For him, some deliberately cryptic style and/or pushing edges is a big part of what makes for interesting interactions. I believe him when he uses that metaphor to describe his playstyle, but it's also very far from mine.

And then, I'm not sure how I got there--maybe thinking about "parts"?--but it occurred to me, "band practice." And the farther I push this metaphor, the more I like it.

-Pieces of music have different "keys." A song may be in major, with a "happy" ending chord, or minor, with a "sad" finish, and maybe on rare occasions others. Additionally, a piece can be made up of different sections, some more fast-paced or mellow than others.
-Every instrument has a different part, and the only thing you have control over is your own. But the effect created when they come together (or when you listen to a recording after the fact) is something different than any given person can hear from their own seat.
-Over time, you can find trends in what different instruments do. Flutes or trumpets might be more likely to have the melody than French horns or saxophones. But given enough pieces, there are certainly some where the French horns do have the melody. (In order for this metaphor to work, you kind of have to imagine that everyone is randomly handed a different instrument at each practice, and even if you know how to play the saxophone, you can't help other people do so if you're on the timpani that day. I didn't say this was a perfect metaphor.)
-Some people may have more or less skill than others on certain instruments. I'm decent at instruments like saxophone that require a lot of dexterous button-pressing, but I struggle on something like the baritone that requires me to change my mouth embouchure to change the pitch. As long as I'm genuinely putting forth my best effort, I think most of my band-mates won't mind if it's not very good, and it makes it all the more sweet when I am able to do it well.
-There can be minor differences in taking a piece that was originally written for an orchestra and arranging it for a band that has saxophones but not strings, and vice versa. Every ensemble has a slightly different "house style" of what instruments harmonize well or poorly together.

And I think this sheds light on where my philosophy may differ from other players. I don't have any right to tell the xylophonist, "your rhythm is terrible." That would be rude. But what happens if one trombonist thinks she's so great that she doesn't need to come to practice? Or the clarinetist breaks down in hysterics if the director makes the slightest suggestion towards his section? Or a French hornist thinks "my part's boring, I'm just going to copy the trumpet's melody?" My response is, "what if everyone thought that way? Then we would all be copying the trumpets and that would be bad." But the French hornist replies, "well, not everyone thinks that way, so I'm fine."

Again, I can't really tell people, "stop doing the thing that you like and makes the music enjoyable for you," and they can't do the same to me. But if I don't feel like their behavior is contributing towards an emergent, greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts whole, then I'm not going to go to a jam session with them, because we're probably not interested in the same genre.

There are lots of other places where different kinds of music are made! Someone else might prefer a small jazz ensemble with a lot of improvisation and freedom, or a studio recording a pop song. At the other extreme, if you can't stand any kind of variation from the norm, you might just want to play a specific recording over and over again.

And me? Maybe I'm like Vetinari from Discworld:

Quote:
...the kind of music he really liked was the kind that never got played. It ruined music, in his opinion, to torment it by involving it on dried skin, bits of dead cat, and lumps of metal hammered into wires and tubes. It ought to stay written down, on the page, in rows of little dots and crotchets all neatly caught between lines. Only there was it pure.
I'm very interested in this hypothetical, abstract philosophy of games, but not that great at converting theory into practice and actually sitting down with people whose philosophies might be different from mine. To some extent, I laugh at myself for this tendency, but I think this analogy helps me come to terms with it a little more. We're always going to have some jealous French horn players; it's okay if we have theorists, too.
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Fri Nov 19, 2021 12:35 am
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No News Is Good News

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In psychology, the "fundamental attribution error" refers to people's tendency to attribute other people's decisions to what kind of person they are more so than situational factors. The example Wikipedia gives is that when A cuts off B in traffic, A is probably thinking "I'm late for work," "I have an important meeting to get to," but B is thinking "A is a bad driver" or "A is a jerk."

One cause of this is obvious: we can observe our own mental states, but we can't observe other peoples'! (There's also an article about "actor-observer symmetry" which is probably relevant, but seems kind of wordy/beyond the scope here.) All we know about other people is what they do. B can't observe the context that might cause A to be distracted, only the end result.

It's also difficult for B to observe the other nonevents happening around them. C, D, E, and a bunch of other people are also on the road, and are not cutting B off! But B probably isn't thinking "wow, what a bunch of good drivers and nice people there are here."

Only I am conscious of all the times I could have acted out and made a scene, but managed to refrain. Because of this, I'm inclined to pat myself on the back: "wow, I'm such a great person, unlike all those jerks." Even if I wanted to not talk about myself, and instead celebrate someone else who did a good job at taking the high road, there's a good chance I'm simply not aware of it, by definition.

(There are lots of cases where people do say "look at me, I did such a good job of not acting out, aren't I great?" This is kind of like saying "I didn't steal the cookies from the cookie jar, do I get a cookie for being good?")

You could also argue that individual degree of difficulty is highly variable here. If last year, X and Y cut people off in traffic 20 and 5 times respectively, but this year, they cut people off in traffic 10 and 4 times respectively, X has made a much more dramatic "improvement" than Y has. But there are still more than twice as many people cussing at X under their breath than there are for Y. And taken too far, this attitude incentivizes never putting forth an effort to start with, so everyone's expectations are calibrated low.

But even without that point, I'm probably guilty of cognitive bias in this regard. I can name and identify the incidents that erode my faith in humanity; I can't pinpoint the non-incidents that restore it, but that doesn't mean they don't exist!
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Thu Oct 21, 2021 12:30 am
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Polynomial Proportionality

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There are lots of games in which the amount of some resource determined in setup depends on the number of players. For instance, in Suburbia, you start by setting up three stacks of location tiles. Each stack has size 15 for two players, 18 for three players, or 21 for four players. Then you add in several more tiles to the last pile to randomize the end of the game: 6, 9, or 12 for two, three, or four players respectively.

Helpfully, the game board has some iconography to remind you of this, so you don't have to memorize it. But if you did, you could note that the number of tiles in a stack is 9+3n, where n represents the number of players, and the number of extra tiles is just 3n. In math, this is an example of "linear proportionality;" the output value depends on the number of players, but it increases in a consistent way. The jump from two to three is the same size as the jump from three to four.

I've mentioned before that I suspect one reason why some players find the mechanics of Spirit Island appealing is the way it uses scale. Setup requires 4 Fear Markers and one island board per player. Sometimes you have to add X amount of Blight per player. Sometimes there are bonus powers that trigger on each board, so its effect is linearly proportional to the number of players. So if someone is looking for a co-op that has a similar balance or rhythm with four players as it does as a solo game, this might be of interest. (In comparison to games like Forbidden Island where the "game" takes "turns" between each player's turn, and that can create some swinginess based on how long an individual player goes between actions that they can synergize.)

There are some games where the printed "estimated time" on the box depends on the number of players: like, "30 minutes plus 15 minutes per player." I can't think of any off the top of my head, but I feel like I've seen them around, maybe just on BGG discussions. All of these are "linear" in the sense that the jump from two to three is about the same as the jump from three to four. You don't need to have any scary n^2 values in your computations. But what about social games like werewolf?

Compare a game with 9 players to a game with 19. The latter will probably have more wolves, and this increase might be sort of linear--2 maxes in 9 players is about proportional to 4 maxes in 19. The number of players also influences the number of game days: because there are more wolves, it will take more kills to either eliminate all the max evils or have the wolves reach parity. So we can guess that the number of days in a werewolf game, on average, is linearly proportional to player count. Mathematically, we can write D ~ aN, where D is the number of days, N is the number of players, a is some constant, and ~ means "about proportional to."

What about the total number of posts in the game? Well, a longer game will have more days with players alive and arguing compared to a shorter one. But also, say we only compare D1 to D1: if there are more players in a bigger game, there will be more people posting. So the total post count is probably something like P ~ b*N*D, where b is some other constant. Substituting in our formula from above, we have P ~ b*N*a*N, or P ~ (ab)*N^2. This is a nonlinear relationship!

Again, consider a D1 scenario. If we imagine that every player makes, on average, 20 posts per day (this is an arbitrary figure), then that would give a total of 180 posts on D1 of a 9-player game versus 380 in a 19-player game. Once people start to die, these numbers will decrease, but linearly, so the overall total will still be a quadratic function.

But is this even a realistic assumption to make? Even looking at one player, the chances are higher that they will have more to comment on in the larger game, because there has been more content--or because your buddy posted a cute gif you want to quote, or someone said something rude you want to get vengeance for, etc. Posts beget posts. Interactions beget interactions. The total possibility for social interaction, for better or for worse, is probably nonlinear itself.

The number of pairs of players is quadratic. I suspect that matters when monitoring for conflict: even if player A is normally fine on their own, they might cause problems by antagonizing (or egging on) player B. So the number of potential problems is proportional to N^2. (Alternatively, the probability that nothing goes wrong is proportional to 1/N^2.)

Hypothetically, if there were only Nice People and Jerks, and only the Jerks created problems, and Nice People never caused problems among themselves, then a mod could just be like "I need N Nice People to fill this game, and the time it will take to fill is proportional to N." Of course, that would require that the mod could reliably distinguish between Nice People and Jerks, and that the Jerks wouldn't react poorly to being called Jerks, both of which are preposterous. But I think it's worth remembering both the good news: that in fact, the vast majority of people are not going to be jerks for the sake of it. And the bad news: that even if the vast majority of people have good intent, there are many people who can still create conflict in specific contexts.
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Thu Sep 2, 2021 12:21 am
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The Liberty Behind Deliberation

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Name the game (and no fair cheating if you clicked through from "blog posts this game appears in"): a co-op in which multiple players have numeric-valued objects in their hands they are trying to legally play, and have to deduce their teammates' intentions from the way they play their objects.

*

The other day I was relaxing while other people played a socially-stimulating game, and I asked myself, "why is it that I sometimes have energy to do X and not Y?" This sounds like it could be an unanswerable question: sometimes you have enough energy to do X, but not enough energy to do thing Y, because Y is more draining than X, and because the amount of energy you have available varies on a day-to-day basis, and the amount of energy you have remaining after doing other things also varies, and that's just the way it is, the end. However, this wasn't a satisfying answer, because I felt as if I had a decent amount of energy available to me; if someone had asked whether I wanted to play a "brain burner" game, I might have said yes. (Then again, it depends, I'm not in the mood for every game of equal complexity.)

But later, an astute comment that BGGer doctorbirdbirdster had made some time ago reoccurred to me. He'd said something like "Madeline, I can see why games such as PBF werewolf appeal to you, because you can post asynchronously in thoughtful, argumentative paragraphs, and that plays to your strengths really well. Whereas I [birdster] tend to prefer more real-time, fluid social games, because that's a better fit for my skill set." It wasn't a super surprising observation--different people have different strengths, and that can lead them to develop different interests!--yet I obviously found it deep, because it stuck with me.

I think for me, games or activities that might seem "light" or "unstructured" or "more social" drain a different "energy reservoir" than my main, "structured," "deliberate" system. If I'm asking myself "there's no win condition written down, when does it end? am I going to be here all night? what if my contribution is worthless? what if I'm not doing anything in the game?," then I know I'm going to get stressed out, and that's going to take a toll on me pretty quickly, because that energy pool doesn't have much in it to start. Whereas with something where I know the rules and I know what I can do (or try) on my turn, and that the other players have similar constraints, I'm better able to put forth energy--sometimes a lot, over a long time.

What activities fall into the "main pool" versus "alternate pool" isn't always predictable. I was thinking later that something like karaoke, which I've done at a few conventions, is obviously not a game with winning conditions. But it does have a sense of structure and turn-taking--"X is going now, but then it will be my turn." And sometimes it has weird "unwritten rules" that are stressful to deduce--"Y might be fine if other people sing along with him, but Z wants to sing her parody lyrics, so don't drown her out." So it probably draws upon both of those energies, for me.

The good news is now that I see these trends, I can hopefully know when to take a break and relax so I don't get halfway into an unfun game before I realize I hate it. I don't need other people to pause what they're doing and choose something more to my tastes, I'm able to take responsibility for my own enjoyment. But it's nice for me to be able to note this so I'm not busy asking "but why am I tired."

*

To answer the trivia question: that high-level description was supposed to apply both to The Shipwreck Arcana and The Mind. Because of their similarities, I can see for how some people, they would occupy similar mental niches or drain the same types of energies. For me, though, they're at two drastically different ends of a spectrum--Shipwreck Arcana is very, very much "my kind of thing, will almost always have energy to play it," and The Mind is very much "this sounds terrible, why would anyone want to do this, you guys go play it and have fun but I'm going to be eating snacks, bye!"
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Sat Jul 24, 2021 2:17 am
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First Impressions of a Verified Math Nerd

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"Mathematicians like to pretend that they can't even add, but most of them can when they have to." - Calculus, Michael Spivak

It's true. Many mathematicians are not that much better or worse at arithmetic than anyone else. And I include myself among them. If I'm playing something like Ticket to Ride or Sheriff of Nottingham with a bunch of point-tallying at the end, I have no shame in reaching for my phone calculator because I'm too lazy to do it in my head.

And a lot of board games I enjoy, I discovered through other math friends! To the extent that all of us might be shaky at arithmetic, it doesn't matter, because it affects all of us. On the other hand, to the extent that all of us might be good at logical thinking/strategizing ahead to reach a goal, it doesn't matter, because we all have that skill, so it doesn't give any of us an advantage!

Board game conventions, or meetups, or websites, are not particularly representative of the population at large. There are societal reasons: people who have the leisure time and money to attend will skew richer-than-average. And there are also individual ones: not everyone enjoys manipulating cards or rolling dice or moving tokens on a map for hours. Those of us who do sometimes tend to have other personality traits in common. For another example, with the caveat that this isn't a scientifically-valid theory, consider the extremely non-uniform distribution of Myers-Briggs types in the microbadge world.

What this means is that attributes which may make someone relatively "unique" in the "real world" (whatever that means!) might not in a geeky context, and vice versa. If I'm briefly interacting with strangers, I probably don't need to mention my occupation or academic credentials, and that also holds in a gaming context. However, if the people I'm talking to are a truly random sample of the population, I can be somewhat confident that, for instance, I have more academic credentials than most people. This may be important if I need to "pull rank" on something that requires a lot of expertise.

If I'm playing a traditional one-on-one, winner-take-all, game with fellow nerds, it doesn't really matter whether I slowly analyze every possible game tree or just estimate things and go with my gut. (I mean, it matters in terms of whether everyone else gets bored.) But everyone understands that everyone else is trying to maximize their outcomes, whether that's formalized or otherwise. (However, there can only be one winner, which means all but one players are going to be losers. See below.)

What if I'm playing a hidden team game like werewolf? Now, part of my goal is to convince people that my viewpoint is correct and they should vote along with me, or at least not vote for me, whether I'm honest or a werewolf. Part of this, for me, involves using logic; "I think that the way A voted for B means that A is probably not wolves with B." But part of this can sometimes be bolstering one's own believability: "please trust me! I know what I'm talking about!"

This means that mountain-type personalities have an incentive to mention their RL circumstances, when relevant. "I do math for a living, you can be sure my logic is ironclad!" "We all need to trust X here, she is smarter than us mere mortals!" "Don't worry if you don't understand, it might be too much brainpower than your adorably diminutive brain can handle!" (In the last case, this can sometimes be the result of someone trying to be kind and display empathy for others, even though that does more harm than good.)

In the short term, this might help someone's argument carry the day. What are the long term effects? It might lead to an arms race where people cite more and more reasons (which might not necessarily be true!) why they're just smarter than others. Or it might sharply disincentivize other players from talking about their background: if Y mentioned that he does math for a living, but Y is also a jerk, I'd better not say anything about my math skills because people will assume I'm a jerk.

*

I think first impressions matter a lot. They can be hard to overcome! If my first impression of someone else is "they bragged about their abilities in a way that felt condescending, and/or not considering the fact that other people with the same interest might also have those same abilities," that's going to color how I see them for a long time, even if they don't repeat the behavior all the time.

I hope that the impression you've formed of me is not a bad one. (If this blog post is your first impression of me, hello! I'm Madeline and I ramble a lot about board games, especially social games like werewolf.) I say "not bad" as distinguished from "good." Maybe we crossed paths in a game where I followed the rules and made an effort, but didn't succeed. Or maybe we were both in a thread where another person shared a difficult and upsetting experience. I probably didn't say anything helpful or reassuring, but I'd like to think I didn't make matters worse, either. Sometimes mediocrity is just fine!

In the "real world" [citation needed], over the years, I often found myself earning recognition based on my academic-type/abstract thinking skills. But I shouldn't expect that those will be distinctive in a self-selected group full of nerds. Often, my best won't be good enough, and I shouldn't get angry or upset about that. (I say "shouldn't," but I recognize I probably have not always lived up to this standard. It's a learning curve.)

Now say my first encounter with person Z is in a hard-fought competition, and I don't do very well, and feel belittled or patronized by someone who was more successful. (Could be Z, could also be some other X or Y). My instinctive reaction is, "Z probably thinks I'm a loser and an idiot."

This may not actually be true! But I tend to universalize and assume my experience is standard. I judge by first impressions, so obviously Z also judges by first impressions! I think Madeline did a terrible job, so obviously Z thinks Madeline did a terrible job! You might protest that "you're obviously a crazy person and you can't assume that everyone is like you." But remember, if I were to say "I have a PhD in math, the rest of you guys probably don't, I'm weird and different that way," that would also be very bad. (See above.) Especially as an autistic person, I feel like this is a damned if I do, damned if I don't, assume my worldview is typical.

So what am I going to do in the future? Grovel and scrape like "oh, Z, it's me, Madeline, remember? The loser who made a total fool of herself?" No. Even I understand that this would be whiney and attention-seeking valley behavior, and that would put Z in a really uncomfortable position. But it does mean that I will tread very lightly and coolly around Z in the future. I can't really recommend this psychological outlook, but for me, it's the last bad option.
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Wed Jun 16, 2021 3:19 am
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Sacred Cows, or, The Cake is a Lie

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A: Well, here we are, another exciting day at the Kitchen Appliance store. Last week I had an idiot customer lock themselves in the freezer. The week before that someone set a fire with the toasters and destroyed a bunch of my receipts. Let's see what madness lies in store today.

B: Good morning, kind proprietor! I wish to purchase a refrigerator.

A: Well, you've come to the right place, because this is the kitchen appliance store.

B: To be specific, I would like the kind of refrigerator that stores cake.

A: I think any of these would fit your purposes.

B: To be clear, I am not looking for the kind of refrigerator where you put a slice of cake inside, the next day you take it out and eat it, and there's nothing left. I would like a device that allows me to put a slice of cake inside, retrieve it the next day to consume, and still have the same amount I started with remaining.

A: I...I don't think we carry those.

B: Hmm. Perhaps I'm not explaining this well. Let me assure you that I do not only wish to live on cake alone, I take care of my health and try to eat a well-rounded diet of fruits and vegetables. So you don't need to worry about my nutrition.

A: Did I say that I was?

B: Well, I don't think I've made myself clear, and it's natural of you to worry. But all I require is an ordinary refrigerator that allows me to store cake indefinitely, while at the same time removing some to enjoy.

A: I think you might want the magic department.

B: Oh, let me think about it from your perspective! You must be worried that I'm going to sell the extra cake at a profit, therefore undercutting your natural business. Let me give you my word that I have no intention of doing that, my cake is only for my own consumption.

A: I'm not worried about your business plans, I'm worried that you're losing your mind.

B: You have idiot customers who lock themselves in the freezer and set fires, and I'm losing my mind? Really, I merely request a humble refrigerator, with the caveat that the total volume of cake remain unaltered by savoring some leftovers--

A: YOU CANNOT! YOU CAN'T! YOU CAN'T HAVE YOUR CAKE AND EAT IT TOO! NOW GET OUT OF MY STORE!

B: ...That's not very nice. ):

*

C: Hello, what's going on here?

D: We're playing some soccer. Who's your friend?

C: This? Oh, this is my sacred cow, I just converted to a new religion! It's important for me to walk around with the cow, as a sign of my respect and care for all living beings.

D: Wow, good for you! I'm not religious myself but I recognize that's an important commitment.

C: Can I play soccer?

D: Um, I don't see why not? It might be a little awkward if the cow is also on the field chewing up some grass, but I assume your religion doesn't prohibit playing ball games.

C: No, it doesn't!

(C joins in the game of soccer. The cow does take up some space on the field nearby, but a lot of soccer involves looking for empty space and avoiding collisions with others anyway, so it's not really a big deal. It also can't really commit a handball, because it doesn't have any hands.)

D: Glad you could join us!

C: Yeah, thanks for the game!

(The next day)

C: What's going on today?

D: We were just playing some basketball.

C: Neat, can I play?

D: Sure, but if the cow charges, that's a foul.

(C joins in the game of basketball. The cow does take up some space on the court, but a lot of basketball involves long passes and bouncing it accurately to your teammates anyway, so it's not really a big deal. The cow can't travel. It's a cow.)

(The next day)

C: This looks like an interesting sport.

D: We're playing team-versus-team bullfighting. Our team needs to defeat all the bulls on their team before they do the same to us.

C: Can I play?

D: Well, I'm not sure. Because if you were to join our team, and your cow came with us, we would have uneven numbers and that's a little unfair.

C: Well, it would just be me. I mean, the cow isn't going to fight my opponents or be part of any coordinated effort. It's a cow.

D: In that case, sounds fine.

(C joins in the game of team-versus-team bullfighting. Player E starts slashing and hacking at the sacred cow. C immediately retaliates and starts slashing and hacking at player E.)

D: Whoa! Take it easy. We don't have to defeat the humans. Just the bulls.

C: I can't just sit back and let this slide. You come for my cows, you come for me!

D: Well...uh...we may need to reconsider these teams.

C: Man. Maybe I'm just not an athlete. ):
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Wed Mar 24, 2021 3:31 am
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Tags of Jupiter

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To the tune of "Drops of Jupiter," a tribute to Terraforming Mars and its extremely alluring victory points.

Now she's forging an atmosphere
With tags of Jupiter valued dear
She doesn't fall because gravity's low
But filling an ocean is deep and slow.
Since her return from the Phobos Space Haven
She sabotages and hacks--how craven!

So tell me, did you harness solar mirrors?
Did you make it to the Noctis maze
To build a giant city
Where inhaling makes you giddy?

Tell me, did you call down an asteroid?
Make all your rivals annoyed?
And did you miss the fact
That you cannot steal the plants from there?

She's dreaming a world that's not yet real
Mining titanium and steel
She hums some Holst cause it makes her jolly
Then builds an intercity trolley
Now she's heating the atmosphere
I'm afraid she might target me,
An earthbound merchant with bets to hedge
While she's taking flight from the planet's edge.

So tell me, did you win or confront defeat?
Did you finally get the chance
To fish for the card you need
And terraform Ganymede?

Tell me, did you clean up Venus' air?
Did you bolster your TR over there?
And did you miss the fact
That the planets' laws are cruel but fair?

Can you imagine a hard pass, huge gas giant
Your fly-bys bringing Earth back into view
Even when the journey's long?
Can you imagine the milestones, far from home
Eleven-minute phone delays
Space-dried food? It's not a world for me.

And tell me, is there soil beneath your feet?
Did you finally get the chance
To drink from Europa's lakes,
To endure, whatever it takes?

And tell me, did you climb Olympus' peak?
Is it everything you ever could seek
To watch, in distant skies
The brilliance of Earthrise?

And tell me, were you there for the comet's fall?
Are there more distant horizons that call
And will you listen
As you look down upon the world?

And did you finally get the chance
To relish the right to play?
And did you fall for a shooting star?
It's not heaven but the galaxy's full out there.
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Tue Feb 23, 2021 3:04 am
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Chains and Pistolwhipping

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For a long time, the popular webcomic xkcd used to have a disclaimer that read:

Quote:
Warning: this comic occasionally contains strong language (which may be unsuitable for children), unusual humor (which may be unsuitable for adults), and advanced mathematics (which may be unsuitable for liberal-arts majors).
This blog post contains some NSFW humor, as well as the crude humor that comes with Secret Hitler, as well as advanced mathematics. Caveat lector.
--
My math buddies and I have been good friends for many years, and quarantine brought about the opportunity to resume our gaming via Discord voice chat and Tabletop Simulator. (Some of these guys I've posted session reports about from games of six-plus years ago!) Last night we played Secret Hitler and Codenames, both of which produced some entertaining moments.

I'd played Secret Hitler before, but only at five players, which is what we had. Unlike Resistance, Secret Hitler does not have "teams" of various sizes; you only vote for a pair of president and chancellor every round. What if two people become semi-cleared, can't you just vote them in every time? No; the rule is that someone who was part of the last "team" of two can't be pat of the next one. But wait, in a five-player game, there are only three good guys. So the previous chancellor can't be chancellor again, but the previous president can fill either role (but only at five players). This creates an interesting back-and-forth.

When the third fascist policy is passed, the current president (DL) had the opportunity to immediately look at the top three cards of the policy deck, then replace them. He reported seeing two liberal and one fascist card. I'm the next president, and I propose myself and JK, this is voted through. The game does not end, which means JK is confirmed not Hitler (but he could still be the other fascist). I draw three cards and learn that, indeed, DL was telling the truth; there are two liberal and one fascist cards. So me being a good liberal, obviously I'm going to discard the fascist one and force JK to pass a liberal policy whether he wants to or not. Right? devil

On that cliffhanger, pause for a digression. In Resistance, the corresponding phase would be the "everyone play your mission card, put the card you want to play here, the card you want to discard over there" phase. In a face-to-face game, this is pretty much instantaneous. Talking out loud ("I'm going to put my pass card here, wink wink!") is, if anything, slightly pro-spy--the spies are the ones who occasionally stand to benefit if they can coordinate a two-spy mission with only one fail, by table talk of that variety. So people who are resistance, or are pretending to be resistance, have an incentive to keep their mouths shut for the thirty seconds it takes to play cards.

In a forum game, the time delay means this can obviously take hours or days (even a rebel has to tell the mod "of course I am passing it," to prevent meta-ing of "well Madeline didn't log in yesterday so she must have auto-passed"). So it's less natural to just be quiet and wait for the results. Because it's pro-Resistance to do so, though, the forum culture evolved to have people go "RADIO SILENCE!" as soon as the mission is voted up. So that's where that comes from!

In the corresponding part of Secret Hitler, though, it's not the same dynamic. You might want to blurt "wow, I have no choice at all, three reds!" "he's lying, he gave me a blue!" That kind of table talk might be pro-liberal (in that it can expose "genuineness" or create claimwars). So it needs to be forbidden by the rules, so all the claims/counterclaims can wait until the policy is passed. And it turns out that even in a real-time voice chat game, this can be difficult! So I was the grumpy stickler being like "guys...please shut up...no talking now."

Anyway. I promptly discarded a liberal policy and gave JK the option to choose. He played the liberal one, yay! "Okay, Madeline, so why did you do that?" "Well, DL was truthful, it was two and one. But, if there's a fourth fascist policy, the president immediately gets to execute someone. That's dangerous...so the best time for it to happen is when I know a confirmed fascist to kill!" "So the president was holding a gun to the chancellor's head while he passed the law. Wow." "Yeah, you know. Just like in the real Weimar Republic."

So now JK is president. And he liked my strategy, so he returns the favor by nominating me. It's voted through, I'm confirmed not Hitler, he gives me a choice of a liberal and fascist policy, I pass the liberal one. Great! Now we both can trust each other, so one or both of us should be on the mission every time, right?

Danny is next leader and is like, "how about me and DL." JK explains why this is a bad idea, and Danny is talked into himself and JK instead. JK is like, "Madeline, what do you think," "of these next three leaders I think SC is the most trustworthy" "okay, let's wait for him then."

SC proposes himself and JK, it's voted through. Oh no, a fascist policy! Now there's a gun in SC's hands, what will he do? "I don't know, what do you guys think?"

"Well, JK and myself are good, if you're good--which I assume you are because you're thinking about this and asking our opinion--then it's just DL and Danny in some order. But of the two, I'd say it's more likely Danny as fascist and DL as Hitler, because Danny tried to propose DL for chancellor at a point when electing Hitler as chancellor would be a fascist win. So I'd kill DL." "Okay sounds good." DL is not Hitler, the game continues.

JK: "so there's just four of us left, yeah? We can afford to vote down missions until Madeline and I are president and we can be president/chancellor every time?" "Yep." People go along with this, JK and I nominate each other every time, and pass liberal policies. Liberals win! Congratulations to me, JK, and...Danny?

SC: "yeah, I was Hitler, DL was the normal fascist, I figured I'd just kill him to gain trust."

"Okay, but...if you kill Danny there, then it's 2-2. You guys can go outed then, downvote everything and enact random policies. The deck is mostly fascist, so you probably win."

"Oh. Oops. Yeah. I should have done that."

Now, you could say that it's okay that a game like this can end abruptly; 2-2 is parity. But the fact that the fascists' probably-best strategy is going outed and then trusting to luck is part of my gripe with the design of the game. Like, depending on the deck distribution, it's possible (if unlikely) that liberals could steal a win in that scenario and. Again, I think Resistance's pass/fail mechanic is more elegant than the fiddly policy deck. But you know me.

Danny stepped out, so we had four for Codenames. It's worth pointing out that, while we are all math people, SC is not a native English speaker. DL is, but his approach to word games can be somewhat...unconventional. Also, they are all trolls in the sense that when they're a guesser on the team that's not taking its turn, they will add their "helpful" advice on how the given clue could relate to any of the 25 words on the board.

First game is DL and me against JK and SC. I start with the clue "Join 3," intending on LINK, BOND, and something else that could work as a verb in that sense. DL gets LINK and then, after carefully analyzing the board, guesses CENTAUR. Well, okay, a centaur has to join its human and horse parts, sure.

SC clues "Covert 2." JK guesses THIEF, and then BOND (as in James), so actually now we're up 2-0. We take a big lead, and I start easing off to go one at a time; they have BELT still on the board, so I can't clue "clothing" to relate SOCK and BUTTON yet.

We're 1 away from winning, and then SC comes up with "Capacitor 3" to connect COPPER, FIELD, and some other science-y word. Fortunately JK doesn't circle back to BELT, and we eke out the win.

New game, swapped roles. JK starts out with "Country 3." SC looks around, points to AUSTRALIA, CHINA, and CANADA. Easy start for them.

DL tries "Music 2." SC, being a troll, points out "well an ANGEL makes music..." This isn't bad, but I like SCALE and BEAT. SC is like "what does 'Scale' mean in a music context?" so I explain the meaning of a musical scale. I guess that. It's the other team's word.

So now it's 4-0 and JK can (probably) afford to take it slow. I don't remember the exact order of all the clues, but at some point, he tries "Delta 1." SC: "Delta...Airlines? HELICOPTER is a possibility but I don't think they make helicopters...um..." and after scanning the board a couple times he finally comes up with CHANGE, because delta is the symbol for change. This is an advanced calculus joke that we are the exact target audience for so it was a little amusing that SC took so long!

5-0 and DL has to clue. He tries for a long time, gets nowhere. JK is finally like "I think I have a good clue for you guys, if you want." They confer and DL is like "fine, I will swallow my pride." Clue is "Poker 4." Okay, poker FACE...a CLUB is a SUIT in poker, and...you could CHECK someone instead of raising or passing. Sure enough, this is all correct, and we're back in the game. Pause again to explain to SC what these mean in a poker context.

JK clues "Wings 2" (again, I'm not sure on the order). SC gets ANGEL right away, isn't confident on anything else. HELICOPTER still isn't quite right. "Madeline? What do you think?" At this point I feel like the game ceased to be a competitive venture when JK gave DL a four-word clue to give to me, so I say something reasonably non-trolly; "when I picture an angel's wings, they're attached via the BACK, not the legs or somewhere else." "...Okay that's the best I have, sure, BACK." Is neutral.

DL: "what are the rules on cluing?" "Has to relate to the meaning of the word, one word only, but multiple-word proper nouns are generally okay." JK: "oh hmm, multiple-word proper nouns are okay? That's good to know." SC: "What about hyphens?" "Can you give an example?" "Not really, just curious." DL (eventually): "okay, Chains 3."

SC (trolling): "You could chain up a HELICOPTER so it doesn't go anywhere...I chain up my LION on occasion...I also chain up my DATE..." "Thanks SC, but I think if DL was thinking along those lines he'd be intending SUB and BED." "What?" "Never mind." Unfortunately, none of these seem to have anything to do with chains. If you were a pirate you might have a PLOT involving a treasure CHEST and hauling anchors via chains, but...that's really as good an answer as anywhere. I don't know what I do that turn, maybe try to pick up old clues, but I don't get anywhere.

So then on the next turn, DL clarifies with "Dominatrix 2." !!! It actually was SUB and BED??? I did not expect DL to go there. And then, of course, we have to pause to explain this for SC. "English has a word for that??? Is there a male equivalent?"

Eventually, JK clues "New Zealander" and SC comes up with "KIWI"--the missing "Wings" word and also why JK wanted proper nouns, because it's hard to clue kiwi (the fruit) with OLIVE and DATE also on the board. (If he'd known he could use proper nouns earlier, he might have started with "New Zealand 4" or something.) Those two win. And after the game it turns out that "dominatrix" was another clue from JK he passed along, and "chains" was intending to refer to chain stores; SUBway, BED Bath and Beyond, and OLIVE Garden. Obviously.

I am very lucky to have such weird math friends.
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Mon Feb 1, 2021 8:17 pm
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Bootstraps, or the Helical Learning Curve

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The metaphor of "pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps" has been applied in many different situations. At first it meant "to do the impossible," but came to mean "to proceed step by step without help from the outside." As in, "first I use my straps to lift my left boot, then I use my left boot to lift my right boot, then I use the right boot to lift my hips," and so on. One step builds on the next, until eventually, you're all the way up in the sky.

In many real-world examples, this metaphor has been criticized because some systems generally need more interdependence. Just because person A achieved financial success by starting with a little money and investing it prudently to make more money, and then building on those gains, and so on, does not mean that people B and C will be positioned to do the same--so maybe we need to have some kind of social safety net so that no one is left completely destitute. So some of the pushback against this image or phrasing is due to these.

But I'm not here to talk about the real world, I'm here to talk about gaming. Perhaps this fits well as a description of engine-building games; at first I have only a limited number of weak actions I can take, but then I leverage them into more powerful ways of gaining resources, and those grow exponentially. But to me, the bootstraps metaphor fits even better as a description of learning and mastering games--on a group level, rather than an individual one.

Why do I love The Resistance so much? The snap answer is "because it's a well-designed game that abstracts the puzzle-solving features of social deduction into a format where there's no player elimination," etc. But I also realize that I was fortunate enough to learn it with an amazing group of friends, who were also learning it, from roughly the same starting point as me. One of my math buddies, BW, must have played the game at some point before, because he owned it and taught us. But the rest of us were all learning together. When we talk about "meta" and "levels" shifting, it's in the ability to recognize recurring situations and go "last time they did X, but that didn't work, so maybe I should do Y. But knowing they will expect me to do Y for that reason, perhaps Z?" Instead of a one-dimensional line, I think of it as a rising helix, like a spiral staircase; we circle around, find ourselves in a similar situation, but one "level" higher than before. Or: I pull on BW's bootstraps, and DL pulls on mine, and JK pulls on DL's...and by the time BW needs to pull himself up again, he can reach higher because now he'll be standing on all of our shoulders. I recognize that I am torturing these mixed metaphors, but hopefully something in there made sense.

So when I say Resistance is the best thing since sliced bread, I should admit that I'm biased because this experience was superlative. And if it winds up slipping in my rankings whenever I get around to doing a new ranking list, that's not because the design has lost elegance or I've lost my ability to appreciate it, but rather that that group environment is hard to replicate.

This raises the question of: how can we teach games in general so that they'll be good experiences? Abstract games like Chess can often be lopsided when you have an experienced player versus a newbie, and it's not really fun to throw a bunch of opening theory at the newbie and be like "okay, read all this before you start, then you'll have a chance." Chess clubs try to address this by giving lots of newbies the chance to play each other. What if you don't have that many people?

There's the Keyforge approach, where imbalance among decks can be used as a balancer: "since you're new, try this deck, we think it's strong." But that requires the teacher/owner to acquire multiple decks, and not everyone will want to make that investment.

Full-discussion cooperative games are their own kettle of fish.

However, pretty much every board game is such that "before you play your first game, we're going to have a long rules explanation and talk about every possible move anyone can make." Often this is long and/or boring! But in chess, there are only six types of pieces plus the "weird" moves (castling, promotion, en passant). In Keyforge, there's "actions, creatures, items, upgrades--and then just literally read the card." (I guess there might be more basic types in new sets.) So by the time you understand every possible move you can make, you also have a sense of everything your teammates and/or opponents can do. They might be vastly more skillful than you, but nothing should come as a complete surprise.

Maybe you're thinking "well, duh." But compare this to competitive multi-player video games. Specifically, something like "Among Us," the video game responsible for making snobs like me be like "nah nah, I was into social deduction before social deduction was cool." I find the interface overwhelming. The touchpad is very bad, the mouse and keyboard aren't great, the geography of navigating around is like "I don't know where anything is so I'll just wander until I find something useful." From the informed minority perspective, it's way too easy to "report" your own murders by mistake, or not realize that you're in some good guy's line of sight. And then there are "cameras" and "visual tasks" that can monitor you depending on the settings. These are not remotely well-documented or taught, because there is no multiplayer "learning mode"--you can practice solo by walking the ship and doing tasks on your own, but that doesn't really simulate having human opponents. What happens if you try to jump into an existing group? Unlike card games where there's a more "discrete" range of "you can do X or Y, those are your two options, and everyone can see that," there isn't a good way to be like "I don't know what you guys are capable of doing, I don't know what's going to screw me over, and there isn't a good way to learn." And so I sulk in hipster-dom.
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Thu Dec 17, 2020 1:55 pm
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Mistakes Will Be Made (and other stuff)

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Again, lots of different conversations bouncing around and playing into each other.

This came up in a social/political context, but it's relevant here too:

madelineb wrote:
This applies to many situations in general, but: having emotions is an inevitable part of being human, and I think we are all humans and experience emotions. (Probably.) However, the extent to which I let my emotions influence my responses is not completely automatic, there is some level of choice and self-reflection there.

"But Madeline, if I tell a stupid joke and you start laughing, or if I say something provocative and you look upset, your emotions dictate your reactions and you didn't have free will."

Yeah, that's an effect of talking face-to-face in real life and real time, and I'm probably below-average at hiding my instinctive expressions even when I would like to. But a lot of my socializing (especially now but even before) is on the internet where I don't have to make snap judgments about body language, and I also have the ability to think before I post. So my default philosophy is "I have the ability to disclose my emotions, but I can also choose not to, I can ask myself 'what if everyone did that' and 'when someone else did X I felt Y, is it a good idea for me to do X right now given that context'?"

I have also very much learned from experience that my brain might not be typical this way.

*

Hypothetical conversation.

A: Here's the game I have in signup, look at these cool themes and mechanics!
B: Oh wow, that looks great!
A: By the way, dusk is at 1 AM BGG, and dawn is at 2!

Hypothetical response 1:
B: Oh...well...I'm never going to be around any time close to then, and I feel like I wouldn't be much help to my team, so I'm going to pass. Too bad, because it looks fun. Good luck modding!

Hypothetical response 2:
B: But I live in Bolivia, and those deadlines are at 2 and 3 AM when I'm sound asleep. This means I can't play, that's not fair
A: Well, maybe I'll catch you in another game.
B: Bolivia is a developing country and our economy is relatively mediocre. Clearly a New Zealand conspiracy picking on helpless Western Hemisphere nations D:

The reason response 1 is "nicer" than response 2 is not only because it's somehow more "polite," but also because in the second case, user B is clearly not taking into account the existing distribution of players and games. For a user in New Zealand, those dawn/dusk times translate into 6/7 PM local. Those are times that are probably convenient for a lot of people (say, people who are catching up after work)--but because they're difficult for a lot of North American users, there are very few games scheduled with those deadlines. User B is right to say that this isn't an ideal situation for them. But most of the games that already exist are not an ideal situation for the New Zealand players! Again, you can tie everything back to selection bias; maybe the reason the New Zealanders don't scream and complain about conspiracy theories is because they've given up on finding convenient games.

*

Vanderscamp wrote:
I think it's a pretty crazy notion that it is morally wrong to lie about your perspective as an alignment in a game that requires lying about your perspective.
MD1616 wrote:
AAYOWMtBM (always assume your opponent will make the best move)
The conversations that prompted this (in a couple different places) were on the subject of: Sometimes in known rolesets, "good" (uninformed majority) players say things that almost certainly mean they're not evil, or don't have a specific evil role. Like "oh, the cub doesn't know the wolves? I thought they were informed of the wolves" is very likely not something that the cub would say, because the cub would have that information. This unbalances games and makes it easier for good, who already have it pretty good.

One possibility to prevent this is to normalize faking this kind of play ("angleshooting") as evil. For instance, if you draw the cub, maybe you deliberately make a post like the above one so everyone says "oh, X is definitely not the cub."

Question: is this an ethical strategy?

On the one hand, I'm sympathetic to Vanderscamp's viewpoint above. Evils can, and do, lie about all kinds of things ("I'm not the seer, I was just a villager trying something weird!" "I wouldn't have nightkilled X, it was her first game back after a long hiatus." "Pleeeeeeease don't kill me it will hurt me in my feeeeeeeelings.") in ways that might seem distasteful. It would be very difficult to draw a line that excludes angleshooting but allows everything else.

However, I also think that MD's point on gaming philosophy in general is profound. In order for games to be played "well," we should incentivize playing "well," not playing "poorly." If we reward fake angleshooting, we incentivize a "race to the bottom" where everyone competes to outdo each other in helplessness, and the actual challenge/fun/puzzle of the game is lost.

In the same way, if you regard the best measure of your skill as the better of your good and evil win percentages, often the good one will be higher. You can try to up your evil percentage (and hence "base skill") by posting less as every alignment so people find you inscrutable and let you sneak by as evil, but this doesn't improve the game as a whole.

So I think The Right Thing (TM) is not to draw specific rules but to find a way to punish angleshooting/accidental clears whether genuine or not. One game in progress has the idea of "modkill players who make these kinds of slips, at mods' discretion." I think that's an idea worth experimenting with, it might not be a cure-all, but it's worth a try.

The caveat is, that's only an incentive if you consider the results of the game to be an incentive! Some people are going to say "of course I don't want to be modkilled, because that will hurt my team's chances of winning." But others are going to say "nah nah, journey not destination, it shouldn't matter one whit whether my team wins or not, so if I get modkilled then, oh well." How do you incentivize those people to follow the rules? Winning isn't everything, but trying to win is--as long as the game is "robust" enough that people trying to reach their win condition will cause fun to emerge naturally. If you have to tell people "the spirit of the game is X, play to that," even though it's not defined in the rules, that's a sign that your game is fragile. And if people decide for themselves that the incentives are boring, well...

*

Thanks to brianmccue for encouraging me to monologue about this
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Sat Sep 19, 2020 1:57 am
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