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Subject: Theme and narrative rss

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David Ploog
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This is another of the topics I'm trying to elaborate. The creation of this thread was prompted by a discussion about win conditions. The two topics are related but I hope it makes sense to try and divide them.

First, an obvious observation: we always speak of abstract games. To most people, "abstract" means "not concrete"; for games, it ought to mean something like "no theme present" (most games, including the vast majority of commercial games are themed, even if only for mercantilistic reasons). The irony is that many "abstract games" carry a theme. Classical examples are the chesses (Chess, Shogi, Xiangqi) where the names of the pieces alone suggest medieval Western/Eastern warfare. But other examples abound, and I guess everyone in this forum knows that. So I think that "abstract game" is really a misnomer for "a board game where no thematic recourse is necessary to play the game". Usually, "abstract" is also used to signify other qualities such as "perfect information" and "no chance" (but people sometimes disagree on that, and it's not important for what follows).

Second, another obvious observation: every game is at heart a collection of "abstract" rules. This includes games like Monopoly and Hearts. Combining these observations, we can say that "theme" is really just a design choice, hopefully for making rules more palatable or mnemonic.

With that out of the way, let me get to my topic: I will be talking about standard fare for this forum, games played on grids with black and white pieces (or perhaps some more colours). I assume that the game is "abstract" in the sense that people like us want to play it for the intellectual experience, rather than the theme or social experience. Games like Chess, Go, Hex, Dameo, Slither, Tak etc. I claim that such games may be conducive to one (or both) of the following properties:

1. Theme: The rules suggest or further out-of-game references.
2. Narrative: A match may unfold and be retold like a story.


Rules and theme

I already spoke about "theme" for Chess and variants. Similar clear themes exist for Tablut (asymmetric game between capturing or rescuing the white king) and Go (large-scale territorial struggle). It is interesting to note that peaceful players have found other metaphors for Go (including cooking) but I will not delve into that; I am happy with at least one theme.

It stands to reason that all traditional games have a thematic underpinning. Some outliers might be Fanorona (<1700), with its cool, unique and not very thematic capturing rule, and Halma (1883), a racing game without captures. Hex (1942) is an archetypical designer's game, and I would say that it is highly abstract. Of course, this is a subjective notion: does Hex invoke a theme in you?

My second claim is that an abstract game has a better chance to survive and become a minor classic (i.e. is still played after twenty years, say) if it has some thematic potential. I am treading on thin ice here, because I am shackled both by my limited experience and my taste. Objections are very welcome! Here are the examples I have in mind [it really sucks that BGG forums have no list structures]:
Lines of Action is a unification game with quite abstract (complicated) movement rules. However, the goal of unifying two separated groups is very natural.
Epaminondas is built around the concept of phalanx (line) movement and capture. I find it very easy to mentally connect that to (what I think to be) Greek-style warfare. The terminology ("Epaminondas" and "phalanx") clearly helps.
Amazons is about two groups of four queens each, shooting "poison" arrows at empty spaces which are then blocked for both sides. This has been criticised as unthematic and praised as nicely thematic by different people. I am on the thematic side: to me the amazons are actual agents of a territorial battle.

I claim that these games have an easier time to survive because people can, if they want to, make use of what little thematic underpinning there is. I also believe that any semblance of theme makes it easier for many people to get into a game: at first, you'll have little clue what's going on with any new game. A theme can (a) guide you by providing naive heuristics, and (b) mentally support you by playing thematically rather than tactically for a start.

Games as stories

This is something I observed in myself and in fellow players. Sometimes, Go players get very excited: a large group may be chased and fight for its life. A large-scale ko may dominate the middle game for an extended period, leading to massive exchanges. Now my point is that the language used by players to talk about these situations is not just technical. Of course, words like "miai", "tesuji", "furikawari" (Go terms) will come up. But players will also use real-world language to describe the situation, such as "chase", "kill", "peaceful", "intimidating" and so on.

The effect is even stronger when players talk about games after they have finished; this is a common thing at tournaments. For them, the game is a story they can recap in a few words, or at length. The same applies to Chess.

For me, a game (as a set of rules) is a lot more attractive if it has the property that games are not just sequences of moves but potentially a story. I believe that's doubly subjective: (1) some players may not care at all. (2) Different people may see different story-telling potential for different games.

I am very much interested in your assessments, both for the games I mentioned as "narratic" but also for games which don't work me in this regard -- this includes all pattern games, e.g. n-in-a-row goals. If you are an avid player of Renju, Connect6, Gomuku etc.: do you look at games as stories? Note that this is not a quality of "good" or "bad" games. Fun can be derived from all kinds of sources; narrative happens to be one for me, but it doesn't need to do so for you.

I believe that being able to describe a match or a move in out-of-game terms is good because it allows the brain to access the game (position) in verbal ways, rather than the purely combinatorial ones we always employ. As such, this is a great preparation for developing strategies (which I consider to be high-level, i.e. large-scale and/or long-term, heuristics).

Here is another interpretation of this property: if players can talk about their games in various manners, then it is likely that they can also play with different styles. You probably know Plato's adage ("You discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation") -- he might have meant chance or social games, but Chess and Go players clearly have characteristics such as bold, defensive, sharp, solid etc.

There are some characteristics which support story-telling: one is swinginess (Thompson's drama) because it provides excitement and focal points for stories. Another is size and differentiated pieces, because these lead to more opportunities to talk about something. But most crucial are patterns (i.e. human-recognisable shapes, often with dedicated terminology) which players can learn/define and later re-use. This is another link between heuristics (this time low-level) and narrative.

In my opinion, the worst kind of games with respect to story-telling are extremely combinatorial games of the Nim type.

Actors in abstract games

If we think of a match as a narrative, then the story needs to have actors we (as humans) can relate to. It is interesting to observe how actors emerge for various games; generally through their rules and not by nomination (this is part of the meaning of abstract game).

Games with moving pieces have a headstart, especially if these are few and/or differentiated pieces. It is much easier to attach mental labels to Chess pieces, say, than to the uniform stones of a placement game. Differentiated pieces introduce a hierarchy, which is also helpful for establishing cognitive connections. Note that the king in Chess is an extremely powerful actor (story-wise, not as a piece).
In Amazons, each player has four pieces of the same type; however, these will acquire different, and changing, roles throughout a game: a particular amazon may be tragically early crippled (isolated) as a sacrifice; another may defend an important territory; yet another may first chase an opposing piece and later raid a corner etc. Together with emerging territories, the roles of these eight pieces provide ample sources for intriguing stories.
Go is a placement game with a particularly large board. Naturally, the story of a game does not unfold through individual stones (there are famous exceptions, such as Shusaku's ear-reddening move or Seedol's machine-defying tesuji). Rather, players will talk about a higher structure: groups (which is less rigid than mere chains of stones). A typical game of Go is about weak and strong groups, and about the building, tearing down and exchanging of territories.
In each of the games mentioned, a lot of excitement comes from killing and survival. In Chess, these are unequal captures (material advantage). In Amazons, this is about isolating pieces. In Go, it is chasing and killing groups.

Do players of Hex, Havannah, Connect6, Dameo/Draughts, Reversi, Breakthrough (and any other game you might like!) think of their games in similar terms? If so, what language do you use? Is it universal? If not, is there something else you attach to particular matches?


Like I said, part of this came up in a previous thread. Apologies to Chris, Phil and Cody for the jump!

kunkasaurus wrote:
intrinsic/extrinsic stories
I am very interested in hearing whether and how your concepts fit into the above framework.

christianF wrote:
Storisende
Naturally, I am also interested in how your games fit, in your opinion!
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christian freeling
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dpeggie wrote:
I already spoke about "theme" for Chess and variants. Similar clear themes exist for Tablut (asymmetric game between capturing or rescuing the white king) and Go (large-scale territorial struggle). It is interesting to note that peace-minded players have found other metaphors to apply to go (including cooking) but I will not delve into that; I am happy with at least one theme.

It stands to reason that all traditional games have a thematic underpinning. Some outliers might be Fanorona (<1700), with its cool, unique and not very thematic capturing rule, and Halma (1883), a racing game without captures. Hex (1942) is as an archetypical designer's game, and I would say that it is highly abstract. Of course, this is a subjective notion: does Hex invoke a theme in you?
I've often referred to the object as a game's theme and I used a hierarchy:

* Elimination/annihilation
* Territory
* Connection - blockade/breakthrough - race
* Configuration

Stricktly personal and incomplete but with a simple rationale behind it. In conflict you're well advised to not being eliminated in the first place. To me the highest priority also seems the highest theme. We have Chess and Draughts as traditional representatives.
Existence being guaranteed, a natural source of conflict is territory. It's almost self explanatory.
The rest is not. Connexion already needs something of a context: you build a bridge to connect opposite sides. It's not a goal in itself like life or territory. Blockade, breakthrough, race and configuration need similar contexts. So their narratives are not about life or territory but about increasingly narrow sub-problems.
And no, Hex doesn't invoke a story in me, only academic interest. I fear it is because I can't get myself to 'listen' to it.

dpeggie wrote:
My second claim is that an abstract game has a better chance to survive and become a minor classic (i.e. is still played after twenty years, say) if it has some thematic potential. I am treading on thin ice here, because I am shackled both by my limited experience and my taste. ...
A theme can (a) guide you by providing naive heuristics, and (b) mentally support you by playing thematically rather than tactically for a start.
What would have happened if I had agreed to a 'Chinese Wall' theme for Havannah, as suggested by Ravenburger forty years ago? Who knows? Who cares, really?
In an Ironic Universe it might have disappeared completely!

dpeggie wrote:
In each of the games mentioned, a lot of excitement comes from killing and survival. In Chess, these are unequal captures (material advantage). In Amazons, this is about isolating pieces. In Go, it is chasing and killing groups.
I wouldn't exclude Draughts as a 'story supportive' game.

dpeggie wrote:
Do players of Hex, Havannah, Connect6, Dameo/Draughts, Reversi, Breakthrough (and any other game you might like!) think of their games in similar terms? If so, what language do you use? Is it universal? If not, is there something else you attach to particular matches?
I'm not enough of a player, let alone Draughts player, to know how real players remember and communicate about their games but there's quite a Draughts specific idiom to draw upon. Such an idiom has the actual narratives as its source!

dpeggie wrote:
christianF wrote:
Storisende
Naturally, I am also interested in how your games fit, in your opinion!
I became increasingly drawn to existential or territorial concepts because there's more 'narrative' there. But in terms of an unfolding storyline, Storisende is the most interesting I think, and not only of my games.
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Jim Cote
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In my personal semantics:

Subject Matter is what the game is about: the setting, location, time, people, scale, scope, etc.

Mechanics are what you do when you play the game to win.

Theme is where these 2 overlap. No game can force theme on you. You either feel it, or you don't.


Star Wars Chess has a Star Wars subject matter, but still no theme (to me).
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Les Marshall
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David,

These are not "new" concepts with which you are seeking to grapple. If you'll forgive me, I'd suggest that pretty much all the games to which you refer are abstract and so the framed discussion may suffer from lack of contrast. Opening the examples to a much wider world of games would, I think provide greater clarity to your terms.

I would agree that the terms Theme and Narrative are very important to game design and experience. To those, I would add Mechanics in agreement with Jim Kotes comment above.

THEME VERUS ABSTRACTION

I would argue that theme should no be viewed as dichotomous (either present or not) but rather something that exists on a scale. Some games are dripping with theme to the extent that it drives the design of the "mechanics" to a high degree. Other games are dominated by mechanics with theme being little more than a pretense.

You observed, correctly, that ALL games have some level of abstraction which is correct, though this does not render ALL games as "abstract" which is a category in an of itself. I think we need to look at examples of very different types of games in order to flesh this out.

You use the example of Chess which is a fair starting point. One of the endlessly debated topics here in BGG is whether certain games, including chess, are wargames. My usual refrain is to ask what is the intended theme of the game. Is chess meant to be a battlefield in which soldiers maneuver to control terrain and perhaps capture or kill the king or is it an iteration of Medieval or even ancient court politics?

What battlefield has Queens and Bishops running around controlling space and killing soldiers? How do we interpret castles moving about as a corollary to warfare? What does a square, uniform and virtually featureless battleground teach us about maneuver and terrain? It seem much more likely to me that Chess is an abstract political exercise with these pieces demonstrating their relative power in the King's court.

Here's the real question though. Do the rules require or suggest as they are constructed, the traditional chess pieces? Could we not replace the king with a CEO, flanked by Lawyers, Accountants, Advertisers and mid level managers exerting power over an undifferentiated landscape of squares? Maybe the King could be a Pope with his Swiss Guard, Cardinals, Bishops and counsellors. There is nothing in the nature of the rules of chess that suggests the pieces need to be represented by those that exist.

I've often made this observation about Dominion, a fantastically successful deck building card game with a "Feudal/Medieval" theme. If you were to strip the pictures and names off the cards and just leave the numerical values, the game could easily be re skinned to support the development and expansion of the solar system or a modern urban development theme.

In my view some games are unabashedly abstract like go or draughts while others have a very thin theme. The obvious question for me then is what games have real theme.

So, let's examine some "War Games". One of the classics is Risk. This game is very light on theme. We have an abstracted representation or the world, without reference to a time period and no real terrain features apart from "pinch points" created by the drawn borders and "straits(?)". It's clearly meant to be a game of conflict via area control. The game is won by area control with "victory points" VP's awarded for consolidation of those areas. This game, especially with it's generic armies could be re skinned to just about any war in the pre modern age.

Also very popular, though slightly less well known in the modern gaming population is Diplomacy. Like Risk, the board is a map, this, time of Europe which is still somewhat abstract and still lacking in many terrain features though it does have meaningful bodies of water, semi historical boundaries, resource centers which give purpose to area control beyond simple or abstract "victory points" as they represent not only the goal of the game (possession) but also the resource by which military units are built and supported. Those units are again abstract but they do represent land armies and now navies. The "mechanics" of the game call for simultaneous writing and then execution of movement orders to reflect the tensions and distrust of turn of the century alliances leading to WWI. Conflict resolution is deterministic, as in chess, but the hidden orders now introduces a fog of war mechanic as the outcome of ones planned attacks are dependent upon others behavior. Diplomacy is abstract enough that it could be reskinned as another European conflict but the armies and navies maneuvering on a map of Europe has a far more suggestive theme.

Now, I'll take a big leap. One of the games in my stable is Nato: Next War in Europe. Once again we have a European map and conflict. This time, however, the rules and components call out ground and air assets including infantry, para troopers, armored units, headquarters and so on. The map is now a much more detailed representation of the ground including mountains, forests, rivers, roads, towns/cities, coastlines and the depots in which NATO had forward supplied American equipment in the eventuality of aggression by the Soviets. The conflict imagined presupposed a massive Soviet thrust into and through Poland, largely because the areas which bordered Poland were not inviting to large scale armored thrusts. The game has detailed and granular rules for how these units activate, remain in supply, support each other and how to resolve individual fights via die rolls with situational modifiers. The assumed narrative is a massive push by the Soviets with a delaying action fought in large measure by West Germans until US airlift could bring troops over to bring to life the equipment stored in their depots. And this is generally how the game plays out with bumps along the way.

It would be very hard indeed, with the rulebook and graphic representations on the map and unit counters, to re theme this game. The "mechanics", while containing some necessary abstractions, are highly tailored to the theme.

NARRATIVE

In my view, narrative is an important quality in a game. Though I'm sure people will disagree, I find that narrative dissipates in games that are more abstract. I would also suggest, especially on the topic of game design, that narrative is best evaluated by considering the role of the player. This is also a useful way to choose mechanics.

What does this mean?

First, for me personally, I could play a hundred games of chess and they each will merely be 100 iterations of making a min/max determination of moving the same pieces on the same abstract space which is an interesting puzzle but doesn't inspire much in the way of specific recall of a particular game. I'm more likely to remember a specific player as pleasant or not, interesting or not, and capable or not. I enjoy being challenged by good players but the individual game doesn't suggest a "story" to me.

Second, I have to question who am I in the context of the chess board? The King is right there. Am I him or some abstract greater power that gets to move him around? By what means can I have supreme knowledge about the willingness of the pieces to obey my whim and the precise outcome of each conflict.

With regard to other more detailed games, especially historical games, it is a little easier to consider such questions. Perhaps I'm a nations political leader or highest general officer. Maybe I'm a battlefield general or company commander or even platoon commander. In thinking about a game in that framework, I can begin to ask questions about what I know or should know and about how much control I have over the resources at my disposal. As you have pointed out, all games have some abstraction and even complicated wargames suffer from that fact. No battlefield commander in history has had total awareness of the positions of all troops at all times let alone their intentions, supply state, morale state or even whether they will comply with or even receive issued orders.

Modern game design has grappled with these abstractions via a variety of mechanics to impose a "fog of war". This can be with die rolls, card draws, hidden unit information and so on. If you to re design chess to be less abstract and more thematic you'd have to change the board to reflect an uncertain and dynamic battlefield, make conflict outcome subject to factors not exclusively in the players control and perhaps insert the possibility less than reliable minions.

There is an old quote to "Keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer" Many a feudal fortress fell to betrayal and many a king lost his head to an assassin. For, me the path to victory (or loss) in a game is often far more memorable for the unexpected twists along the way.
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dpeggie wrote:
First, an obvious observation: we always speak of abstract games. To most people, "abstract" means "not concrete"; for games, it ought to mean something like "no theme present" (most games, including the vast majority of commercial games are themed, even if only for mercantilistic reasons). The irony is that many "abstract games" carry a theme.
Right out of the gate, I have to disagree. The word "abstract" has nothing whatsoever to do with lack of theme. And there's nothing ironic about an abstract game having a theme. Abstract art often has a "theme" or subject as well. Perhaps the word you're looking for is "non-representational".

But when a person says, "I really like abstract games," he doesn't mean, "I like games with no theme," or "I like non-representational games, games that aren't about anything."

Quote:
So I think that "abstract game" is really a misnomer for "a board game where no thematic recourse is necessary to play the game".
No. That would include pretty much all games in the category. Almost all games can be played without recourse to any representation of a theme. All Eurogames, wargames, etc. I'm having a hard time thinking of examples where thematic recourse *is* necessary. One of the most common things people say about many Eurogames is that the theme is "pasted on". Clearly, the theme is not necessary to these games.

And when a person says, "I really like abstract games," he doesn't mean, "I really like games where I don't have to resort to thinking about a theme."

Quote:
Usually, "abstract" is also used to signify other qualities such as "perfect information" and "no chance" (but people sometimes disagree on that, and it's not important for what follows).
Perfect information and no luck are features of many traditional abstract games (such as chess and go), and therefore, there is a strong correlation, but it still isn't what "abstract" means. When a game has two players, no luck, no hidden information, and discrete turns (no simultaneous turns), it's called "combinatorial". Many abstract games are combinatorial, perhaps even the majority. But there are many combinatorial games that are not what we mean when we talk about abstract games.

[q]Second, another obvious observation: every game is at heart a collection of "abstract" rules. This includes games like Monopoly and Hearts. Combining these obvservations, we can say that "theme" is really just a design choice, hopefully for making rules more palatable or mnemonic.
Right!

Quote:
With that out of the way, let me get to my topic: I will be talking about standard fare for this forum, games played on grids with black and white pieces (or perhaps some more colours). I assume that the game is "abstract" in the sense that people like us want to play it for the intellectual experience, rather than the theme. Games like Chess, Go, Hex, Dameo, Slither, Tak etc.
Yes. On more than one previous occasion, I listed what I believe are the essential qualities are of a game we call "abstract".

1. Self-Contained - Everything about the game state is contained within the arrangement of the components. There is nothing outside of the components that has an impact on the game. This cuts out trivia games, where the players' knowledge is a factor. And it cuts out word games, where the players' vocabularies are a factor. And it cuts out sports and dexterity games, where the players' physical abilities are a factor.

2. Simple Rules - Yes, this one is somewhat subjective, and that's OK. The rules of chess can be printed on a half sheet of paper. And the rules of go are even simpler. One of the great appeals of these games is that very complex strategies can grow out of very simple rules.

3. Not a Simulation - This is where the "thematic" consideration comes in. The game is not offered or intended to be a simulation of anything, even if it has a theme. Chess has a theme of ancient or medieval battle, but it certainly doesn't simulate such a battle. Hive has a theme of insects, but it doesn't simulate the behavior of insects. Wargames, on the other hand, are specifically intended to simulate an actual military conflict - either a real, historical one, or a hypothetical one, or a speculation of one that might happen in the future, or in an alternate fantasy world, etc. Agricola contains a lot of simulation (highly abstracted, of course) of farming: you plant crops and get more of them, animals breed, people must be fed, building materials are required for building things. Even Monopoly is sort of offered as a simulation - albeit not a very good one.

4. Geometric - IMO, this is really the main part of what makes an abstract game. The game is a geometric pattern of pieces, usually on some type of grid. The grid might be on a board as in chess, or only implied as in Hive. A grid of squares, hexagons, triangles, or even something less regular than that, such as Nine Men's Morris.

I have found that when a person says, "I really like abstract games," he means he likes a game with those four characteristics. Such a person may further specify his preferences by saying "I like no-luck abstract games," or "I like combinatorial abstract games."
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David Ploog
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Phil Fleischmann wrote:
The word "abstract" has nothing whatsoever to do with lack of theme.
I guess this means that for the book, I should compile a bunch of previous "definitions" from various sources. I don't want to argue about words here, and I've only been using "abstract = absence of theme" as an entry point for my ideas about (emergent) theme and narrative. However, I am really very sure to have seen "abstract = no theme" (among other points) somewhere. This wouldn't be my definition, but whatever.

To me, as a mathematician, abstraction has a very simple and basic meaning: stripping off superflous context, i.e. going for the core content. Axiomatisation is one typical way of doing that.

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I'm having a hard time thinking of examples where thematic recourse *is* necessary.
"Necessary" is a strong word but good luck playing 1830, Arkham Horror or Twilight Struggle without their themes.

Quote:
On more than one previous occasion, I listed what I believe are the essential qualities are of a game we call "abstract".
I only have two comments to make on this: I'm on BGG only since last fall, and so I am not familiar with everything you wrote. Nonetheless, many thanks for spelling it out again, this is very useful for me. I have to point out that there couldn't be a *correct* definition (I do like the gist of yours, except that I disagree with "simple rules".)

Quote:
Not a Simulation - This is where the "thematic" consideration comes in. The game is not offered or intended to be a simulation of anything, even if it has a theme.
I completely agree with where you are coming from. As stated, it is not correct, of course. This isn't your fault, but an unavoidable feature if you're trying to categorise something as vast as "abstract board games". My counterexample is Command and Maneuver, a 100% pure (combinatorial) rule set by Joe Joyce, invented to generate conflict simulations. That page has a bunch of historical scenarios. Here, the point is not how accurate the simulation goes (looks like it does a good job), but that it is designed to be such.
 
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David Ploog
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Rulesjd wrote:
These are not "new" concepts with which you are seeking to grapple.
I had no pretensions!

This time I've skipped the preamble: I am writing a manuscript about abstract games. This consists of two main parts. The first part deals with a variety of games (Hex, Go, Fanorona, Tablut, Slither, Amazons, Lines of Action, Symple etc.). The number is quite small (<20) for a project such as this, but I compensate by going beyond the rules: for every game there will be some analysis (patterns, tactics, and also strategy if I can). Moreover, there will be problems. My goal is to give interested readers a chance to climb one or two skill levels in a game. You can see what I mean in this thread which contains links to guides for four games and explains a bit of the background. I put a restriction on the games in the book: they're all "purely" abstract/combinatorial and they play with simple material (only standard square or hex boards/grids, with one exception for Fanorona; only standard black/white pieces/stones).

The other part will deal with theoretical aspects. This could be seen as idle occupation, and probably is, but I like writing this, and I have the hope that some concepts are not totally worn out yet. You can see what I'm talking about in the threads about win conditions and deployment function (comments on terminology wanted -- best in that thread itself).

This very thread is part of that second section. It is true that many of these theoretical aspects (such as clarity, interaction, depth, patterns, tactics, strategies) make sense for a much broader class of games, and could/should be discussed as such. I will be more lofty in my reasoning, but all examples will be from the "purely abstract" domain.

Quote:
If you'll forgive me, I'd suggest that pretty much all the games to which you refer are abstract and so the framed discussion may suffer from lack of contrast. Opening the examples to a much wider world of games would, I think provide greater clarity to your terms.
The above preamble is the reply to this: yes, I intentionally restrict to abstract games. I do like and play other games (to throw a few names into the round: Tichu, Innovation, Mage Knight work for me anytime; I'd rather abstain from Settlers, Le Havre, Agricola and would prefer Evolution, El Grande, Civilisation (Tresham) over them).

Here, I am only talking about games which can, in principle, be played without theme. And my observation is that, nonetheless, these games can acquire or produce a theme. And, independently, they may give rise to emergent story-telling. I understand that these themes and stories are much weaker than for less abstract games! I still find it interesting how this happens in the first place.

Quote:
THEME VERUS ABSTRACTION

I would argue that theme should no be viewed as dichotomous (either present or not) but rather something that exists on a scale. Some games are dripping with theme to the extent that it drives the design of the "mechanics" to a high degree. Other games are dominated by mechanics with theme being little more than a pretense.
Yes, theme is a slider also for abstracts. I should point that out more clearly.

Quote:
You use the example of Chess which is a fair starting point. One of the endlessly debated topics here in BGG is whether certain games, including chess, are wargames. My usual refrain is to ask what is the intended theme of the game. Is chess meant to be a battlefield in which soldiers maneuver to control terrain and perhaps capture or kill the king or is it an iteration of Medieval or even ancient court politics?
I've been a club Chess player, and I'd say the theme is largely non-existing. Here, I agree with you. However, what little theme there is may make it easier for someone to get into Chess. After all, it is easier to remember "knight", "bishop" etc. than "piece A", "piece B" etc. So I see Chess' theme as a mnemonic, a player aid.

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Here's the real question though. Do the rules require or suggest as they are constructed, the traditional chess pieces? Could we not replace the king with a CEO, flanked by Lawyers, Accountants, Advertisers and mid level managers exerting power over an undifferentiated landscape of squares?
I believe that re-theming is always possible. With an ancient game like Chess it is impossible to say for me how natural a differently themed Chess might feel. I am more of a Go player, and I know that some people use non-combat metaphors for Go.

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I've often made this observation about Dominion, a fantastically successful deck building card game with a "Feudal/Medieval" theme. If you were to strip the pictures and names off the cards and just leave the numerical values, the game could easily be re skinned to support the development and expansion of the solar system or a modern urban development theme.
A game I love to play with my children is the Dominion-descendant (you can say clone if you like) Heart of Crown. It is princess & manga themed (and more strongly themed than Dominion, I'd say).

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In my view some games are unabashedly abstract like go or draughts while others have a very thin theme. The obvious question for me then is what games have real theme.
(Emphasis mine.) Yes, that's a good question! It is also beyond my abilities, and (thankfully for me) outside the scope of the book. A proper answer needs to take a lot of context into account, I believe: the place and time of the game's generation, and of the actual player. It is interesting to observe how some simple games (of the Draugths or Tablut kind but also Monopoly or Risk) have been re-issued and re-themed time and again.

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NARRATIVE

In my view, narrative is an important quality in a game. Though I'm sure people will disagree, I find that narrative dissipates in games that are more abstract.
I agree! My point in this thread is that some abstract games have narrative potential even so. This is surprising, I find. In fact, I've been writing this because some classes of abstracts have absolutely no such potential for me (e.g. the "form a row of five stones" games), and this makes them much less appealing to me. I wanted to discuss this a bit, and get feedback as it is obviously a very subjective effect. For example, I am sure that some players look for something completely different in their games than narratives...

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I would also suggest, especially on the topic of game design, that narrative is best evaluated by considering the role of the player. This is also a useful way to choose mechanics.

What does this mean?

First, for me personally, I could play a hundred games of chess and they each will merely be 100 iterations of making a min/max determination of moving the same pieces on the same abstract space which is an interesting puzzle but doesn't inspire much in the way of specific recall of a particular game.
I see what you mean. You might say exactly the same about Go. But I am a moderately advanced Go player (1 dan), and sometimes, Go games are stories for me (if I want to).

I could imagine that the narrative aspect of abstract requires some skill whereas box games often try to achieve that feeling right out of the gate. That might be worth mentioning...

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Second, I have to question who am I in the context of the chess board?
Can't answer for you, but in such games I've always seen myself as the puppet master, pulling strings from behind the scenes.

Sorry for skipping the preamble this time, thus obfuscating my intentions, and many thanks for your input!
 
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To me a game with a strong theme is a game where the real life theme can give you indications of how to play well.

War games generally have a strong theme. If you play a WW2 wargame that you have never played before then you have a reasonable idea what to do if you use the same sort of tactics and strategies that were used in the real WW2.

A business game can have a strong theme if you can play reasonably well using good business practices from the real world.

A fantasy game can have a strong theme if you know roughly what each monster will do and how to deal with it just by its name.

The first time I played Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island I used my knowledge of what is important to survival to guide my play. So it has a strong theme. After a few plays I would ignore real life and just outplay the game using the mechanics.

Chess does not have a strong theme. Bishops, knights, queens, rooks don't behave in any way like they do in real life. About the only realistic thing in chess is that if you destroy the enemy army and kill their king then you will win.

To me a well implemented theme allows me to bring in knowledge from real life to guide my play in the first few games. Beyond the first few games, I focus on the specific mechanics of the game rather than real life.
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Phil Fleischmann wrote:


4. Geometric - IMO, this is really the main part of what makes an abstract game. The game is a geometric pattern of pieces, usually on some type of grid. The grid might be on a board as in chess, or only implied as in Hive. A grid of squares, hexagons, triangles, or even something less regular than that, such as Nine Men's Morris.


The grid is a minor factor. I have played over a hundred games of "go" on boards that were not a regular grid. But it was still go. Basically you draw dots on a board and connect them in all sorts of ways. Then play.

I have played go on boards made to look like a cow or a car or a city map of Ottawa. But they were still abstract games.

I have played "go" on what are basically maps. You take a map of a country cover it with a large piece of paper. Put dots where the cities, towns and other points of interest are. Then you connect the dots with lines where the roads are. Sometimes you have to add some extra dots and roads in areas with not much going on. "Go" is especially good to represent guerilla war. It is said that the game of "go" influenced the strategies of the Chinese communist party during the 1930s and 1940s. But it is still an abstract game to me.
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rubberchicken wrote:
To me a well implemented theme allows me to bring in knowledge from real life to guide my play in the first few games. Beyond the first few games, I focus on the specific mechanics of the game rather than real life.
If a designer chooses an explicit theme it should be one fitting the mechanics of course. But as David noted, some abstracts are suggestive of a theme. Moreover, the word itself is ambigeous. One might argue that the usual goals - elimination, territory, connection and the like - are 'themes' on which an inventor might compose a game.

Viewed as such, mere existence and territory have a high priority as human goals, much more so than any other goal. So they may on average be more suggestive of a 'theme' than say making a loop in Loopy.
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dpeggie wrote:
The effect is even stronger when players talk about games after they have finished; this is a common thing at tournaments. For them, the game is a story they can recap in a few words, or at length. The same applies to Chess.

You've discovered something called emergent narrative. The video game theorists have a fairly lively discussion in the professional literature and have extended it to abstract games, too. A little googling ought to lead you down that rabbit-hole, and I think it would be profitable to at least have a look. I have some bookmarks to articles somewhere in my collection.

As to the definition of the abstract, I have at least a dozen bookmarks to BGG arguments over that. It comes up again and again and *always* elicits strong opinions. Goodness knows I have my own. But here's the thing: if you're writing a book, I think you shouldn't be afraid to take a stand. That's how the best philosophical books are written (and I mean actual academic philosophy): you review this position and that, giving each the respect they are due. But you don't just throw up your hands at the end and say "Idunno!" You say, Ultimately I think that blablablabla, because the fact is that blablablabla.

Anyway, more in an e-mail, which is coming.
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rubberchicken wrote:
Phil Fleischmann wrote:


4. Geometric - IMO, this is really the main part of what makes an abstract game. The game is a geometric pattern of pieces, usually on some type of grid. The grid might be on a board as in chess, or only implied as in Hive. A grid of squares, hexagons, triangles, or even something less regular than that, such as Nine Men's Morris.


The grid is a minor factor. I have played over a hundred games of "go" on boards that were not a regular grid. But it was still go. Basically you draw dots on a board and connect them in all sorts of ways. Then play.

I have played go on boards made to look like a cow or a car or a city map of Ottawa. But they were still abstract games.
Yes, that's why I said "usually", and why I mentioned boards that are less regular. Some abstract games have no "grid" at all - regular or irregular, such as Sprouts and Crossings - and yes, they're still abstract games. It's not the grid per se, it's the geometry. And the geometry is *usually* implemented by a grid.
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And I don't see how the "Games as Stories" thing applies to abstract games any more than it applies to other games. People can and do talk about games they played after they're over, regardless of the type of game. It applies to Euros, wargames, card games, word games, party games, etc.

It even applies to physical sports. Why do you think people watch sports on TV? Because they're watching the "story" unfold. Heck, even golf has that appeal for many people. I don't get it myself, but they do.

In fact, just about any human activity has a "narrative" or a "story" to it. There is drama and conflict with the various obstacles and problems that arise. Along the way there are moments of success and failure. There's a goal, a desire in the minds of the people involved.

And that is even *why* we make games with themes - because the themes have a story to them. Any activity that someone has ever or will ever make a movie, TV show, book, or game about has a story. Otherwise, it wouldn't be suitable for a movie, a TV show, a book, or a game.
 
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Phil Fleischmann wrote:
And I don't see how the "Games as Stories" thing applies to abstract games any more than it applies to other games. People can and do talk about games they played after they're over, regardless of the type of game. It applies to Euros, wargames, card games, word games, party games, etc.

Mmmm... Yes and no. The claim is that some things are less emergent-narrativistic than others. Specifically, Nim, and granted it is pretty dry. Also the claim that emergent narrative is kind of the same thing as heuristic, and this I find intriguing. And finally the claim that games encouraging emergent narrative/heuristic make for, broadly speaking, good games. This is intriguing, too. I think they tap into our sense of beauty, which has to be the reason why we, sentient humans who perceive this strange thing, must like some game over another.

Lots to think about here. For instance, Nim has a well-known heuristic. There is a guaranteed winning strategy. Does this invalidate the argument? Or is that some other kind of heuristic that doesn't count. Meaty philosophical stuff.
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I think that the powers in Santorini and Jotunheim are themed yet abstract. They are like constellations: the stars are nowhere near each other but a story groups them into a recognizable shape that allows us to find a random group of stars among all the others and navigate accordingly.

Are game mechanics chosen to tell a story or does the story help explain the game mechanics? Games that are even middling on the spectrum are often classified as abstract. The less story you have, the simpler your mechanics need to be so that they aren't perceived as a random mish-mash and half-forgotten before the game ends. Only games with simple mechanics can afford to do without a story.
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althus wrote:
The claim is that some things are less emergent-narrativistic than others. Specifically, Nim, and granted it is pretty dry.
I think the OP is mainly concerned with 'abstract games' in the narrower sense. They're supposed to operate without a theme but they may be suggestive of a theme. Trying to kill one another or chasing a particular piece to kingdom come or waging war over a piece of territory are themes, aren't they?
In that sense some games are less emergent-narrativistic. A precise dividing line doesn't exist and it's a subjective matter to begin with. But if a game complies, assuming Chess and Go do, then a high playing level is a necessary but not sufficient condition for a narrative to emerge

althus wrote:
Lots to think about here. For instance, Nim has a well-known heuristic. There is a guaranteed winning strategy. Does this invalidate the argument? Or is that some other kind of heuristic that doesn't count. Meaty philosophical stuff.
I think a broad and deep sense of a game's heuristics are needed to play a game worthy of the 'narrative' status. There's some connection to tactics too. In Draughts there are many known 'coups', part of them named after the players who discovered them. These combinations and the patterns involved may weave themselves into a narrative.
Another point is that especially elimination games may have a certain affinity with physical sports, at least to me. I feel Chess as a chase, Draughts as judo, Emergo as wrestling and contact checkes (Fanorona, Bushka) feel a bit like karate. Are there other games where players feel a similar link?
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rubberchicken wrote:
To me a game with a strong theme is a game where the real life theme can give you indications of how to play well.
I think that's a neat way of saying it. An ordinary (not necessarily strong) theme may just be good enough to keep a player engaged by providing a mental activity beyond or instead of rules and/or social experience. A strong theme allows applications on gameplay. I am not sure that I'm aware of abstracts with this property... Examples very much wanted!

christianF wrote:
One might argue that the usual goals - elimination, territory, connection and the like - are 'themes' on which an inventor might compose a game. Viewed as such, mere existence and territory have a high priority as human goals, much more so than any other goal.
I concur. That explains a lot of my preferences!

althus wrote:
You've discovered something called emergent narrative. The video game theorists have a fairly lively discussion in the professional literature and have extended it to abstract games, too.
I am aware of that effect. In fact, I've been a designer for the roguelike Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup, and I have explicitly developed gods, portal vaults and branches with emergent narrative in mind! My sole point, which I seem to have trouble getting across, was to ponder about that concept in the restricted realm of abstract board games. This is something quite different from a video game: the board game does not produce any direct feedback in text or sound form, and the actors will be more indirect, too. I will be very happy about links or further comments!
althus wrote:
As to the definition of the abstract, I have at least a dozen bookmarks to BGG arguments over that. It comes up again and again and *always* elicits strong opinions.
Goodness knows I have my own. But here's the thing: if you're writing a book, I think you shouldn't be afraid to take a stand.
Up to now, my stance was quite detached: I didn't plan on defining abstract board games. I thought, and still think, that it is futile. In the book, I make extremely clear what kind of games I am talking about, and it is a particularly "pure" class of abstract games because I restrict to regular boards and to simple pieces. From this point of view, I don't really need to characterise my preferred subclass verbally.

This is not laziness -- for example, I know that the concept of "depth" has been argued to mincemeat, but I have something to say on the matter, and I will do so.

Phil Fleischmann wrote:
Right out of the gate, I have to disagree. The word "abstract" has nothing whatsoever to do with lack of theme.
Okay, I have thought about this, and now it is my turn to disagree completely. I know as much as the next guy that the wikipedia is *not* the Holy Scripture, but the entry on "abstract strategy game"starts thus:
"An abstract strategy game is a strategy game in which the theme is not important to the experience of playing."

To be clear: this is not my own opinion. I do not think that "theme is irrelevant" should be the most important defining property of these games.
But your claim "nothing whatsoever" is clearly too strong. Some people make precisely this connection. And that's at least partly because "abstract" is a misnomer. I'm pretty sure the very word was coined with the dichotomy themed/abstract in mind.
Phil Fleischmann wrote:
And I don't see how the "Games as Stories" thing applies to abstract games any more than it applies to other games.
My point is that it should apply less. I would expect a game of Draughts or of Slither or of Hive to be less of a source for a story than a random commercial game. But some abstract games have the power to generate stories! I have observed this first hand, in myself and others. But only for some games. So it could be an interesting point of discussion which properties of an abstract game lead to narratives.
I've asked several times, in several threads, and never got a reply -- so I start believing that games like Connect6 are not in this category (which does not say they're worse games; it only says that their players are looking for something else).

mlvanbie wrote:
I think that the powers in Santorini and Jotunheim are themed yet abstract.
I agree. Not all powers in Santorini work equally well but the powers and their divine labels are -- at the very least -- powerful mental and mnemonic tools. Personally, I think that this is much better than providing the very same powers without the Greek names.
mlvanbie wrote:
Are game mechanics chosen to tell a story or does the story help explain the game mechanics?
This works in both ways. For example, Tablut has special rules regarding the throne ("konakis tile"). This is not needed for gameplay purposes; this is pure chrome, or flavour, or theme. And Tablut both has a strong theme and is very abstract.
mlvanbie wrote:
Games that are even middling on the spectrum are often classified as abstract. The less story you have, the simpler your mechanics need to be so that they aren't perceived as a random mish-mash and half-forgotten before the game ends. Only games with simple mechanics can afford to do without a story.
I agree completely. But note that this is only the rule-given theme. In my opinion, a game can pick up its own, unplanned for, theme for certain players. And, independently of that, players may (for certain games) develop a language to talk about their encounters in non-gameplay terms; this is what I call narrative. I don't think these latter two properties are really tied to simple rules.

christianF wrote:
I think a broad and deep sense of a game's heuristics are needed to play a game worthy of the 'narrative' status. There's some connection to tactics too.
I agree although I've seen kyu-players talk about their games at tournaments in the way I indicated above. Now you could say that a Go 10 kyu does have a broad and deep sense of the game already (certainly, life & death and basic strategic principles will be known to them). It is hard to say what "10 kyu" would mean for some generic abstract game.
christianF wrote:
I feel Chess as a chase, Draughts as judo, Emergo as wrestling and contact checkes (Fanorona, Bushka) feel a bit like karate. Are there other games where players feel a similar link?
A nice list!

To me, Amazons is a very physical game. I feel the two kinds of pressure (territory and im/mobility) more strongly than in Go, which is also a territorial game.

And Halma is a race, plain and simple. This is less exciting than a blood sport but it is immediately clear what you're doing, and how you are doing.

A game I absolutely love, and which is theme-free for me, is Slither. Up to now, it also has no narrative qualities for me. In fact, one reason why I started the whole book project is because everybody seems to love Slither once you show them. But this joy is matched by a general complaint about opacity. Now that I've played Slither a bit more seriously, and have thought about it, I understand it better but I still see no theme. However, since the very beginning, I have this mental image of worms slithering around on the board. If you re-play a game on LittleGolem, like a movie, you can see it, too. I believe that this property, however it should be called, is part of Slither's appeal.
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dpeggie wrote:
Phil Fleischmann wrote:
Right out of the gate, I have to disagree. The word "abstract" has nothing whatsoever to do with lack of theme.
Okay, I have thought about this, and now it is my turn to disagree completely. I know as much as the next guy that the wikipedia is *not* the Holy Scripture, but the entry on "abstract strategy game"starts thus:
"An abstract strategy game is a strategy game in which the theme is not important to the experience of playing."
If you really mean that it's not Holy Scripture, then please don't treat it as if it is. In this case, it's Wholly Wrong. Poker, Mexican Train, Mahjong, Craps, Lost Cities, and Twister are all abstract games (EDIT: ...by the above wikipedia definition). But none of those are in the category that anyone means when they say "I like abstract games."

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To be clear: this is not my own opinion. I do not think that "theme is irrelevant" should be the most important defining property of these games.
But your claim "nothing whatsoever" is clearly too strong. Some people make precisely this connection.
Yes, some people are idiots. Please let us not enable their idiocy by perpetuating it. Let us who know better, educate them.

Quote:
Phil Fleischmann wrote:
And I don't see how the "Games as Stories" thing applies to abstract games any more than it applies to other games.
My point is that it should apply less. I would expect a game of Draughts or of Slither or of Hive to be less of a source for a story than a random commercial game.
Hmmm. Well maybe I misunderstood you, and we don't disagree on this point after all.

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But some abstract games have the power to generate stories! I have observed this first hand, in myself and others.
Of course they do! So have I.

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But only for some games. So it could be an interesting point of discussion which properties of an abstract game lead to narratives.
I've asked several times, in several threads, and never got a reply -- so I start believing that games like Connect6 are not in this category (which does not say they're worse games; it only says that their players are looking for something else).
Yes. One possible measure of a "good" game is its ability to generate narratives - thought it's certainly not the only one. And it may well be that, in general, better games lead to narratives more than worse games. althus brings up Nim as an example where a narrative does not emerge, and it seems to me that the primary reason is that it's just not a good enough game.
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Lack of theme is key to the particular pleasure I take in abstract games. I've written about that here.

So for this N of 1, lack of theme definitely matters.
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milomilo122 wrote:

Lack of theme is key to the particular pleasure I take in abstract games. I've written about that here.

So for this N of 1, lack of theme definitely matters.
Maybe we should distinguish between explicitly chosen themes and inherent themes. Chess variants have an inherent theme, the hunt for a particular piece. You don't have to paste it on: a king by any other name is still a king.

For elimination games mutual aspiration to annihilate the opponent is also the inherent theme, whether you call it war or anything else.

And, repeating myself I fear, the fight for territory is inherently war-like, in fact partial annihilation where the goal is more than half rather than all.

Now take a connection game like Hex. Is it inherently war like? Was there ever an actual war where one side tried to build a north/south bridge and the other an east/west one?
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milomilo122 wrote:
Lack of theme is key to the particular pleasure I take in abstract games. I've written about that here.
Great article, many thanks!

As far as board games go, I'm in the same, purist camp. It's the very reason why I favour pure over applied mathematics. In this sense, abstract board games are a more consistent form of escapism than any other games (perhaps a fitting comparison is fugue vs opera). But then you write "short rules allow me to abandon words". I think I understand what you mean although I believe that currently short rules are over-emphasised (they're also always equated with "elegance", to my dislike). But my main gripe is something else:

We need no or few words to get going with an abstract game. That's good, I agree. But for forming heuristics, we need words, a lot of words: this starts with giving names to patterns. I believe that we need labels such as "empty triangle", "pinned piece", "straggler", "sticker" not only to talk about a position, but also to better think about it. We need even more words if we want to use patterns for forming tactical and strategic heuristics.

So words are needed in order to build a theory. Since my book is about getting good at various games, this is very important to me. And that's where the concept of narrative or story comes in. If this exists, then a posteriori we observe that at least some terminology exists for describing game states or development.

I don't care about the formal or mathematical complexity/depth of a game; I want to approach it through heuristics I can discover or understand. And for that we need a language.
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dpeggie wrote:
But for forming heuristics, we need words, a lot of words: this starts with giving names to patterns. I believe that we need labels such as "empty triangle", "pinned piece", "straggler", "sticker" not only to talk about a position, but also to better think about it. We need even more words if we want to use patterns for forming tactical and strategic heuristics.
I need words to communicate about strategy with other people, for sure (a very pleasurable activity in its own right), but at least when I'm playing, words don't really come into it. The thinking is in pictures (of board states) during play.
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milomilo122 wrote:

Lack of theme is key to the particular pleasure I take in abstract games. I've written about that here.

So for this N of 1, lack of theme definitely matters.
Excellent article! I agree on almost all points. The main areas of disagreement are semantic ones.

The six points of your definition:

2. is for 2 players
6. has no luck or hidden information
These are specific properties of combinatorial games, some of which are not abstract. And I consider the category of abstract games to be broader than that, but it's easy enough to live with this definition disagreement. It's clear what you mean: You like combinatorial abstract games in particular, as opposed to all abstract games. That's how I would put it.

1. lacks a theme
I'd like to assume that what you mean here is what I mean when I say "lacks simulation". Is chess not an abstract game to you? Because I would definitely say it has a theme. And for various regional variants, particularly Xiangqi, the theme is even stronger. But because it lacks simulation, I have no problem looking past the theme to get to that pure, meditative experience that you talk about in your article. The theme, while present, is easily ignored.

3. has short, elegant rules
4. has geometric gameplay
Yes. Agreed. These are two of my criteria.

5. has emergent, deep gameplay
This is the only characteristic that I would argue is not an inherent property of abstract games. It's not something we need to argue about, however, because all this really means is that it's a *good* abstract game. I'd call Tic-Tac-Toe an abstract game, but nothing emerges, and it's not deep. Therefore, it's just a bad abstract game.

But that's not really important. When you (or anyone else) says, "I like abstract games," it's understood that you mean *good* abstract games. Just like any other preference someone expresses. "I like music" never means "I like *all* music, regardless of quality."

So I think we're almost entirely in agreement.
 
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milomilo122 wrote:
The thinking is in pictures (of board states) during play.
I am extremely intrigued by this. With human behaviour, you can always compare against your own, but you'll never know where you sit on the normal distribution.

I've observed that I use word-less thinking (only pictures) for the games where I have no heuristics. This applied to Slither before I wrote my guide. Once I have heuristics, I'll use them. For Go, which I'm playing passionately for almost thirty years now, the thinking process meanders between very verbal (when I ponder the board, and assess strategies) and very combinatorial (when I calculate a local situation, e.g. if a cut works, or a group is alive).

So I totally rely on words. This definitely informs my writing too, but I guess that is inevitable. Where do you guys sit on this spectrum?

Advertisement section: By the way, my lack of words and skill for pattern games means that I am looking for players interested in discussing Connect6 or Manalath with me. (I picked these two, because I expect they're good and sufficiently deep.)
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christian freeling
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dpeggie wrote:
So I totally rely on words. This definitely informs my writing too, but I guess that is inevitable. Where do you guys sit on this spectrum?
In my usual state my thinking is mainly verbal, so much so that I suspect there's a lot of non-verbal thinking too, but I can't find an example just now.

Verbal thinking is so dominant that I tend to follow its flow at the cost of paying attention to my surroundings. Till now the consequences have not been fatal, but I have Carolientje

to make sure that on several occasions a day I can't afford to think and to stop paying attention.

I can see a sudden flaw in a position while shopping at the supermarket or whatever. Do I see a board with the position? No. I see a pattern interaction. It's what I am looking for while inventing a game. Starweb fell out of the blue but usually I did find core behavior between going to bed and falling asleep. It's always an interaction but its not a film. It's much more compact and instantaneous. I never understood it, actually, but it's certainly wordless.


Edit:
Maybe I should add that there's an ever present but incommunicado onlooker at my thoughts and actions, who largely prevents me from being taken over by thought induced emotions. It is following my thoughts completely (and inherently) dissociated. What directs them is very (and often weirdly) associative.
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