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Subject: What is "Degenerate Play"? rss

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Tom Russell
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Two or three times in the last month or so, I've seen passing references to "degenerate play" which "ruins" a given game. My memory's fuzzy, but I think it was always or at least often in reference to a deckbuilding game. Using the context clues, as my elementary school teacher used to call it, I was able to puzzle out that it meant one player cheating while playing by the rules, if that's actually a thing. Is my interpretation of it correct?

The way in which it was used by (I believe) different persons made me think it was less a colorful turn of phrase and more something that's been codified, that has a somewhat distinct if perhaps amorphous definition, like "eurogame" or "brain-burner".

And because the best way to find out about something is usually and simply to ask, I thought I'd make a thread to see if (1) anyone can give me an etymology, and (2) what people think of the term.
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I wouldn't say "cheating within the rules" so much as "playing in a way which ignores the point of the game" -- or otherwise acting in a way that is contrary to the basic assumptions about how players will play a game.

For example, it's reasonable to assume that players are playing a game with the intention of winning, or at least trying to win. If someone is doing something else entirely (and the game allows it), then the game may "break down". For example, in Dominion: you could do absolutely nothing on each turn (play no cards, buy nothing), in which case you are not moving the game closer to its conclusion. This will make for a very long and uninteresting game for the other players, because Dominion relies on players buying cards and get them closer to the ending condition -- and players will buy cards, if they are trying to win.

For another example, many games with economic engines assume that the players are making reasonably intelligent, self-interested decisions (see Container for an often-cited example). If players don't know what they're doing, or aren't doing things intelligently, the game can "break down" as all of the carefully-tuned rules are unable to cope with the unexpected situations.
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What about the opposite, overly destructive play:

War on Terror is all using terrorists to attack other nations but generally it is not in your interest to create too many terrorists. Occasionally however, I have played it with folk who despite not being on the terrorist team invest all of their income into funding terrorists, for their own parallel but unofficial goal - anarchy. Totally distorts the game but entertaining once in a blue moon.

Edit: Never heard of the term before, just playing along.
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Devon Harmon
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I first heard the term used in reference to Magic: the Gathering, back in the mid 90's. The game system could be broken if someone made a deck solely consisting of Black Lotuses and Wheels of Fortune (ignoring the fact that even then, it was night impossible to accumulate enough Black Lotuses to actually build the deck). The deck was a guaranteed win on first turn (unless someone brought a huge deck to the table, which seldom, if ever, happens), unless the other player went first and happened to win on their first turn (Channel Fireball anyone?). Decks that used multiple copies of effective cards were referred to as "degenerate decks." But then along came a rule limiting non-basic land to 4 copies per deck, and things got better.

In that context, I've always thought of degenerate play to be what is now referred to as "spamming," where one finds a simple thing that works and just keeps repeating it.

At first I thought the term "degenerate" was used to describe the person who would employ such a strategy, but I'm pretty sure the term refers to the fact that the gameplay degenerates when such strategies are employed. In my mind, degenerate plays remove options from the game, as other players must either do the same, or some other specific thing to counter them, which frequently can suck most of the enjoyment out of the game (at least for some).
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Andrew Snyder
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Degenerate Play means to me there is one dominate strategy, with no effective counter, in a particular game. This can make a game about as exciting as a coin flip, with more downtime.

Another related topic is cheating while playing by the rules. This happens when a player has internalized the rules incorrectly, effectively playing by unstated house rules. When another player breaks those 'house rules', it can be quite upsetting for one or more parties. See auction sniping, bundled sub prime mortgages, and political spending for real world examples.
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Chris Ferejohn
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The example I heard in magic was a deck consisting of nothing but mountains and lightning bolts (1 red mana for 3 damage to any player/creature). I always took it to mean a strategy that was both overpowered and boring.
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For me it means a strategy or technique, typically simple, that will often win by removing most of the interesting aspects of a game.

For example, I once built a Netrunner deck (runner) that only had cards to make cash, cards to draw more cards and one icebreaker. The goal was to run through the entire deck quickly, build up an enormous pile of cash and then use the one icebreaker to smash through anything the corporate player might have put up for defense (powered by mounds of cash). It never lost, but wasn't interesting other than as an example of how the runner could win

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I agree with Devon. We used the term in MtG for plays that ruins the intended flow of the game by taking advantage of certain card combo's.
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Keith Sletten
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Ah, I've got a name now for what the Dominion android app did to ruin Dominion for me.

The term has a much different meaning in poker.
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Agamon wrote:
Ah, I've got a name now for what the Dominion android app did to ruin Dominion for me.

The term has a much different meaning in poker.

Me too. So many 90 second games, so few strategies. I thought I was having fun at first, but now I find myself exiting the game as soon as I turn it on.
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I think it also helps if the combo is very simple and resistant to other players, or if it's somewhat random who actually gets to use it first if both players recognize the strategy.

Minion in Province games is a pretty good example, when it's the best strategy.
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Bryan Lane
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My definition of degenerate play is pretty close to Devon's.

In Dominion, we no longer play with Familiar because we found that we could simulate it being in the pool by splitting the curses evenly among the players and starting down 2 stacks (curses and familiars). In our group, it's clear that if someone starts buying familiars, you need to rush them too in an attempt to hit them more than they hit you before curses run out. While true that things change somewhat based on whether trashers or attack blockers are around, we found this play degenerate and common enough that we have removed Familiar from the rotation.

Recently, magic decks in tournament play all played enough blue to run Jace, the Mind Sculpter because he was powerful enough that you'd be dumb NOT to run him (well, that's a little harsh... you could just as easily claim that the dumb ones are the ones dumping 500 bucks on 4 pieces of cardboard). Jace caused the tournament scene to become stagnant and degenerate, and so he was banned.

We played UFS for a while, but while it started out that we could all play varied and competitive decks, some decks emerged in our playgroup that dominated so badly, that you could only really fight fire with fire. We eventually got tired of Victor-pick-up-everything-you-just-played decks winning every match and dropped the game.

Really dominant strategies tend to eclipse otherwise viable strategies and end up reducing a game to a lackluster subset of otherwise fun and varied play. This is what I would term "degenerate play".
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Geoff Speare
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I think it generally uses the 2nd definition from here: mathematically simpler.

Implied in the definition is that in addition to being simpler, it is also effective. ("I always pass" is technically a degenerate strategy for Settlers, but not a very good one!) If an extremely simple strategy is the most effective one, the game becomes less interesting.


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Ethan McKinney
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There's a difference between "dominant" and "dominate." Not so hard, folks.
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galfridus wrote:
If an extremely simple strategy is the most effective one, the game becomes less interesting.

Then the game was probably not playtested enough.
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Playing Settlers of Catan and refusing to ever trade cards is degenerate play to me. In this case, it might not improve your chances of winning, but it will certainly make the game longer and less fun for all involved.
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Magic the Gathering strikes a very long shadow over this hobby, it seems....

Darilian
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Darilian wrote:
Magic the Gathering strikes a very long shadow over this hobby, it seems....

Darilian

It should, as it saved it.
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MWChapel wrote:
Darilian wrote:
Magic the Gathering strikes a very long shadow over this hobby, it seems....

Darilian

It should, as it saved it.

Changed the hobby, certainly. Changed it in dramatic ways.

And certainly kicked it out of a very niche markets and dragged it, kicking and screaming, more into the mass market- and those companies not able to make the transition died.

But saved it? Having talked with a lot with guys at Steve Jackson games and former execs at Game Designer's Workshop (Loren Wiseman, Marc Miller), I'm unconvinced on that....

Darilian
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Darilian wrote:

But saved it? Having talked with a lot with guys at Steve Jackson games and former execs at Game Designer's Workshop (Loren Wiseman, Marc Miller), I'm unconvinced on that....

Darilian

Having worked with and talk with the owners of two of the largest distro's in the nation at the time both with one foot in the grave..you know the guys who were selling those guy's you mentioned above games, pre web commerce...I'm not.
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MWChapel wrote:
Darilian wrote:

But saved it? Having talked with a lot with guys at Steve Jackson games and former execs at Game Designer's Workshop (Loren Wiseman, Marc Miller), I'm unconvinced on that....

Darilian

Having worked with and talk with the owners of two of the largest distro's in the nation at the time both with one foot in the grave..you know the guys who were selling those guy's you mentioned above games, pre web commerce...I'm not.

Yah, I've talked with the distros also about that time period also, but this is, I'll admit, much later on.

When I was in the business at the height of the Magic Craze, it seemed like everything had changed. Then, all of a sudden, everyone realized that it hadn't.

Much like the Internet eCommerce craze....

The 90's were just...weird. Glad I spent of them hibernating in Grad school.

Darilian
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Darilian wrote:

Yah, I've talked with the distros also about that time period also, but this is, I'll admit, much later on.

You didn't talk to the distro's I worked with. Zocchi and Wargames West went under in the late 90's. Both of them were in business for 20 years prior, starting in the business in the D&D days. If you talked to ACD or Alliance, they barely started in the mid-90's and CGG's were the reason they started and succeeded.
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MWChapel wrote:
Darilian wrote:

Yah, I've talked with the distros also about that time period also, but this is, I'll admit, much later on.

You didn't talk to the distro's I worked with. Zocchi and Wargames West went under in the late 90's. Both of them were in business for 20 years prior, starting in the business in the D&D days. If you talked to ACD or Alliance, they barely started in the mid-90's and CGG's were the reason they started and succeeded.

Warpath and Alliance, actually. As well as a conversation with the guys at Fred.

You know, Mike- there's a book in all of this.

No one has really done a book on the 'history of boardgaming', as a business. The closest that you get is focusing on small aspects of the hobby, like wargaming, or RPG's, or just Magic.

If you're interested, let me know. We can spend 5 minutes talking about it at BGG.Con.

Darilian
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Darilian wrote:


Warpath and Alliance, actually. As well as a conversation with the guys at Fred.

You know, Mike- there's a book in all of this.

No one has really done a book on the 'history of boardgaming', as a business. The closest that you get is focusing on small aspects of the hobby, like wargaming, or RPG's, or just Magic.

If you're interested, let me know. We can spend 5 minutes talking about it at BGG.Con.

Darilian

I'm sure there is. Shoot I paid a good chunk of my college loans with the sales of MtG after I got out of "that" hobby. Of course who knows who much of those loans were spent on it. You know that Wargames West was the very first distributor of Garfield's crack brownies. I always hated MtG in comparison to the other parts of the hobby, but I was addicted as everyone else. But I still believe that MtG was that little pivotal lifeline in the few years between floundering RPG sales, and yes, Comic books....you remember the comics in early 1990's? *Shiver* ...And the Popularity of games like 40K, and I mean the time it "really" took off in the US. And even more so the internet commerce age. Fulfilling store orders in 1992-1993 was scary slow. Then BOOM, 80% of sales in 1993-1995 was MtG ALONE. I really believe Wayne Godfrey of Wargames West closed shop because he took that money and ran to retirement before he thought the bubble would burst. Probably a smart move.

But I had about all of the business end as I would ever want to deal with today. When I hear someone thinking about opening a store I feel like yelling...RUN! RUN AWAY! Open a Subway, you'll live longer.
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Devon Harmon wrote:
I first heard the term used in reference to Magic: the Gathering, back in the mid 90's. The game system could be broken if someone made a deck solely consisting of Black Lotuses and Wheels of Fortune (ignoring the fact that even then, it was night impossible to accumulate enough Black Lotuses to actually build the deck). The deck was a guaranteed win on first turn (unless someone brought a huge deck to the table, which seldom, if ever, happens), unless the other player went first and happened to win on their first turn (Channel Fireball anyone?). Decks that used multiple copies of effective cards were referred to as "degenerate decks." But then along came a rule limiting non-basic land to 4 copies per deck, and things got better.

In that context, I've always thought of degenerate play to be what is now referred to as "spamming," where one finds a simple thing that works and just keeps repeating it.

At first I thought the term "degenerate" was used to describe the person who would employ such a strategy, but I'm pretty sure the term refers to the fact that the gameplay degenerates when such strategies are employed. In my mind, degenerate plays remove options from the game, as other players must either do the same, or some other specific thing to counter them, which frequently can suck most of the enjoyment out of the game (at least for some).

Andrew Snyder wrote:
Degenerate Play means to me there is one dominate strategy, with no effective counter, in a particular game. This can make a game about as exciting as a coin flip, with more downtime.

These are what I've always understood it to mean. Not someone doing stupid stuff, but utilising the fact that the game is in some way broken (degenerate play being how you spot that its broken...).

So, in a game where the designer has made a flaw, and the playtesters have failed, one strategy will be (unintentionally) unbeatable. Someone using that strategy (repeatedly) is called degenerate play.

Another key aspect is that it gets a rules change to fix it (see the 4-of-a-card-in-a-deck limit of MTG).

For an example from current games, see the furore surrounding A Few Acres Of Snow - beware, this one has gone nova

I also recall mention of someone breaking Knizia's new Star Trek game at a convention using McCoy to build an infinite loop of actions...

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