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Interview: Robert Abbott Clears the Air about Confusion

W. Eric Martin
United States
North Carolina
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Board Game: Confusion:  Espionage and Deception in the Cold War
As I discovered by chance on May 2, BGG is holding a contest in which you can win a copy of Robert Abbott's Confusion. I had already sent Abbott questions about how the game came to be and what's happened with the design over the years, so if you want to know more about Confusion, read on...

W. Eric Martin: How did Confusion originate? In a history of Confusion on your website, you mention a few other games with hidden information – Kriegspiel, Stratego and your own Eleusis. Did Confusion come about from your experience (whether good or bad) with these games or some other form of inspiration?

Robert Abbott: Actually it started with an off-hand comment by a guy I worked with at Bank of New York. He said, "In your game Eleusis, you don't know what cards can be played. Why don't you make a board game where you don't know how pieces move?" I thought, "Of course!" and I immediately started thinking about Confusion. The guy at Bank of New York was George Brancaccio, and I mention him in the original acknowledgements.

Another guy mentioned in the original acknowledgements is Jimmy Ginocchio. He saw my wife and me playing the game, and he said, "Are you going to call that Confusion?" He meant that as a joke, but I thought, "Yes, of course, that should be the name."

WEM: How did the game evolve from that first inspiration? How many iterations did the design go through, and how did you determine that you had hit upon the right configuration with 12 pieces per side, an 11x11 board, and the particular movement values of each piece? After all, the number of possible combinations of elements for Confusion is vast!

RA: I had 12 pieces from the beginning, and they were in their current configuration. The 11x11 board came about because I added extra spaces on the sides so there could be battles on the sides. And I needed a central square where I could put something that could be picked up.

The majority of the work on Confusion was in getting the right powers of movement for the 12 pieces. This involved a year of intense play and it was the most fun I ever had with games.

WEM: Have you made changes to Confusion since 1980, which is the date you give on your site for having the design in its "final format"?

RA: No, I haven't.

WEM: In general, how do you know when a game design is finished? Is any game design ever complete?

RA: I pretty much know when a game of mine is finished. Oh, wait – I did change my game Crossings after it was published. The size of the board was originally 8x8, and I changed that to 12x14. I also changed the name to Epaminondas, which was a really dumb idea. I'm not even sure that increasing the board size added all that much.

WEM: In your history of Confusion, you write: "By 1980 I had the game in a final format, and I started looking for a publisher. By 2005 I was still looking." The German publisher Franjos released Confusion in 1992, so I'm wondering whether the "still looking" phrase refers to the search for a U.S./North American publisher, or whether something went wrong with the Franjos publication.

RA: I never liked the Franjos edition, and I thought it was no fun to play. It also had the problem of having the diagram of a piece's movement permanently affixed to a wooden block. The wood, of course, had a grain pattern and a player couldn't help but remember which pattern went with which piece. So, at the beginning you already knew how some pieces could move.

Board Game: Confusion:  Espionage and Deception in the Cold War

The guys at Franjos are true game fans, and they publish a lot of brilliant strategy games, games that no one else had ever heard of. The only problem is their publication of Confusion left a lot to be desired.

WEM: How did the Stronghold Games version of Confusion come about?

Board Game: Code 777
RA: Stronghold and I (along with others) were involved with the re-publication of Code 777. At one point, I mentioned to Stronghold that they might also be interested in my game Confusion. And they were.

WEM: Were you involved with the new theming of the game, with players now involved in espionage during the cold war? Looking over your design history, your designs seem devoid of theme (other than the "Epaminondas" name) with all the focus being on the game play. From your point of view as a design, what is the purpose of a game having a theme?

RA: Yeah, I hate themes, but game companies sometimes worry that no one will buy a game if it doesn't have a theme. Stronghold came up with cold war espionage theme and added in the Double Agent rule. I could understand that something was needed, and this seemed to work well.

WEM: How does your concept of "clarity" that you wrote about in relation to Epaminondas come into play in Confusion, or does it? Can clarity be judged in every game? Is clarity always a positive value for which a designer should strive? Why or why not? (To give readers a summary of Abbott's concept of clarity, I've excerpted from his article below.)

Clarity is essentially the ease with which a player can see what is going on in a game. It is a useful idea for a game inventor to keep in mind during the development of a game, and it is useful in the criticism of games. Most important, it explains what makes a game "deep"...

What then gives one game more seeming "depth" than another? It is not the comparative sizes of the strategy trees or the number of choices available. Depth depends simply on how far ahead, or how many choices, a human can see. And how far a human can see depends simply an the clarity of the game...

A game can be simple yet lack clarity, and conversely a game can be complicated but still clear. Playing a game soon reveals its degree of clarity. The greater the clarity of a game, the farther you can see into it, and therefore the greater its depth for you.
RA: Yes, clarity was important in Confusion. I had "deduction sheets" that showed how all the pieces could move. When a player discovered that a piece could not make a particular movement, then he could cross out the square with that movement. Thus, the player always had a clear picture of what he knows about his pieces. He also has a clear picture of what the opponent knows about the opponent's pieces.

Stronghold changed the "deduction sheets" to a tablet that could be erased and re-used. I haven't seen it in action yet. I would think the next step would be to put the deduction sheets on iPads.

Board Game: Confusion:  Espionage and Deception in the Cold War

I'm glad you read my piece about "clarity". A lot of people didn't understand what I was saying there. I do think clarity is something all game inventors should be concerned about. Clarity was also important in my work with logic mazes. A maze should be complex and confusing, but the rules to the maze should be as clear as possible. My no-left-turn mazes are extremely clear, since it's almost impossible to misunderstand the rule that you can't make a left turn.

WEM: What advice would you give to players trying Confusion for the first time? What mistakes does a new player always make? What opportunities does he overlook?

RA: I'd advise the player that he doesn't have to know everything about his pieces before he launches an attack. Conversely, he shouldn't launch an attack if he knows nothing about his pieces. But finding a middle ground here is very hard. The basic strategy is figuring out when an attack is possible and knowing how to attack with limited information.

Thanks to Mr. Abbott for taking the time to answer my questions, and if you've never checked out his logic mazes website – and have a few spare hours – head over and take a look. Here's an easy example of a no-left-turn maze, and his overview of Theseus and the Minotaur, a maze in which you must escape before the minotaur catches and eats you. He moves faster than you, so you have to play smart. I bought the iPhone app for Theseus and the Minotaur recently and have been amazed by how good these puzzles are.
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