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Are the old school classics like chess and go the ultimate?

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monodreme's picture
Joined: 07/28/2015

Hello, I'm new here and I have just introduced myself in Welcome To BGDF with a post titled "Am I deluded?" where I talk about my love for the aesthetics of the old school classic games, such as chess, backgammon, go, mah jong, etc, and my simultaneous frustration that I don't actually enjoy playing them all that much. I want to enjoy them. I want to enjoy them enough to invest in deluxe, handcrafted editions that I could while away happy hours on.

But I don't.

In my mind there exists, somewhere, a possibly mythical game balance that none of these games actually achieve, despite their massive popularity. Let me share my beef with the most obvious ones and please feel free to tell me I just won't be satisfied :)

Backgammon - probably the game I enjoy and play the most out of the old classics, so clearly I'm not too dissatisfied with it. My niggling grump about Backgammon is simply that the amount of dice rolling leaves each individual game too open to chance. For sure, if you play in a tournament using the gambling dice then over the course of a number of games between two opponents you may get a feel for which of them understands and plays the game best, but I want a game that can be won each time by the person who simply played the best in that one particular instance, not the one who was disproportionately favoured by Lady Luck.

Chess - So now I am going to contradict myself horribly, but I can't help myself. As an intermediate to low ability Chess player I find it nigh on impossible to find somebody to play with who is of a comparable ability. One player will pound me into defeat decisively every time while another player won't be able to compete with me at all. Neither is particularly enjoyable for me.

So Backgammon and Chess represent for me two ends of a spectrum: one relies too much on chance and one relies too much on skill. It's my wish to create a game with the kind of old school aesthetic that I love so much, but which sits somewhere between backgammon and Chess in terms of the amount of skill and luck one needs to win. What I'm talking about is a game where there is just enough of an element of chance to mix things up a little, while still favouring skill over blind luck. And the game should just be dynamic and plain fun. I know - I'm hard to please.

Go - Go is a game that I love the look of, but when I started to learn the rules I was so uninspired that I never even looked to find somebody to play with. I know there are people all over the world who love this game but it just doesn't feel like fun to me. I imagine it as a subtle, hard earned pleasure, and i want to enjoy myself from the beginning. I'd much rather play Othello (aka Reversi), but the simplicity of this game means I tend to get bored after not too many games. Again, I sense some undiscovered balance somewhere between Go and Reversi that would suit me well if I could find it.

Mah Jong - Am I even spelling that right? Feel free to correct me. Mah Jong is a game that I love the tactile quality of. All of those beautiful tiles clicking and clacking against each other. I find a nicely made Mah Jong set a sensual pleasure to hold and look at. But playing the game! Miserable! For some people life is to be endured rather than enjoyed. I think these are the people that Mah Jong was made for: will I make the right decisions in life and will life then reward me? That's the kind of feeling I get when playing Mah Jong, and I don't like it.

Ha hah! I hope I'm not coming across as some unpleaseable moaner - I genuinely love playing games. But the holy grail of the most well balanced game (for me) still eludes me. Anybody agree with me? Anybody think I'm being unreasonable?

radioactivemouse's picture
Joined: 07/08/2013
No such thing.

I think this is something all of us designers hope to achieve...that perfect balance. Unfortunately, this is more of an impossibility as people have different interests and preferences. Some prefer the cerebral skill-only games like Go or Chess while others prefer more random elements like the dice in Backgammon. Many people have rated each of the above games as "perfect", so in reality there is no "perfect game", only what's perfect in your eyes.

These days games that achieve popularity are themed in some way. This now adds yet another layer of preference, which makes making the perfect game even more impossible to achieve. Abstract games now that are not Go, Backgammon, Chess, etc. are drowned out by Settlers of Catan, Ticket to Ride, and Arkham Horror.

In conclusion, I disagree with you. There is no perfect game out there because we all have different preferences. In addition, we all have different needs at certain times...sometimes we want a cerebral game like chess, sometimes we want something wholly mindless and luck based like Sorry or Liar's Dice, and sometimes we want a mix of both. Our minds were made to explore.

Personally, I don't think you're unreasonable, I just don't think you're considering the human element.

RyTracer's picture
Joined: 06/11/2015
Deep Games

I replied to your other post before I read this one, so I won't say the same things again, but I like your paragraph long critiques of some of the classics, and would be curious what you think about the two I mentioned in the other post, Element and Thud.

That said, I think the prevailing theme in all of your critiques is the following, and don't take this the wrong way: an unfamiliarity with the depth of the games in question. Chess is too hard, Backgammon too random, Go too hard and uninteresting, Reversi too easy and uninteresting. All of these games are very deep, and there are people who study them their whole lives and some of those make lucrative livings off of their skill at these games. Millions or billions of dollars have gone into artificial intelligence programs and strategy books for them.

For chess and go, I submit that any game will be more enjoyable for you the better you are at it. Sure, having an evenly matched opponent is nice, but a more skilled game is better than two beginners going at it. Also, people learn. If I played someone who destroyed me, I would want to play again to get better, not put the board away and say we're incompatible. Same if I beat somebody bad. They will get better faster than I will, and one day we will be evenly matched.

As for backgammon, randomness is very minor in contribution to winning. The doubling mechanic is specifically in place to reward close games heavily, and lucky rolls minimally.

Reversi is very complex. I had no idea until someone destroyed me when I thought I understood it all. I hope the same happens to you.

What are your thoughts on checkers?

monodreme's picture
Joined: 07/28/2015
Thanks for responding

Thanks for responding Radioactivemouse. Yup, you're right of course - talking about a perfectly balanced game is kind of pointless, it being a subjective matter. That's why I qualified my spiel with "for me" in brackets at the end.

So, yes, I'm looking to create a game that feels "perfectly" balanced to the kind of player I am: somebody who is slightly lazy and slightly shallow :) I'm after maximum enjoyment with minimum effort, ha ha. As gamers go I score low on the geekometer. But this may turn out to be a strength when seeking to design a game that appeals to a broader market.

The way my own game is playing now I suspect it probably has layers of depth that could dismay me if I ever came up against an opponent who had actually made a mission of analysing it properly.

I do take on what you say about new abstract games being overshadowed these days by themed games. The marketing strategy would need to have a special and surprising ingredient to give it a chance. I've got something in mind, but it's gonna be a couple of years at least before I'm ready to implement that.

I'm extremely out of touch with modern boardgames (which should perhaps bother me, but I have an unusual mix of humility and arrogance that serves me well). The non-abstract boardgames I remember enjoying the most are Space Crusade and HeroQuest. With these games I had a sense of being able to enter into the arena of the game and express my personality through my gameplay. Of course I'm sure this can be true of most games, but less so than with something like noughts and crosses than Space Crusade.

I'm wanting my own game to give me a similar feeling: that my abstract playing pieces are moving about in a dynamic environment, engaged in a mission that can be achieved through a variety of playing styles (that reflect the personality of the player). These are the kind of considerations that inform my design decisions.

monodreme's picture
Joined: 07/28/2015
Hello, RyTracer, thanks for

Hello, RyTracer, thanks for the response.

Yes, it's true - I am intimidated by the deep games. I guess I get a feeling from them of claustrophobia and restriction (not to mention impending doom). And yes, this is more to do with me being out of my depth than the games themselves.

But ah, I do love the aesthetics. So my endeavour is to create a two player abstract that gives me a greater feeling of freedom of movement.

I haven't played Element or Thud. I'll look them up. Checkers? Again, I suffer from claustrophobia with that game, especially at the beginning. As I imply in my response to Radioactivemouse, I like the idea of my abstract pieces being able to enter the board and choose whether they want to storm about the place firing pulse rifles (metaphoically speaking) or take a more cunning and circumventive approach. And yes, of course, there is scope in Chess, etc, for a wide range of playing styles - but still, I long for more freedom of movement.

Not sure if I'm articulating myself brilliantly. Perhaps it's something to do with wishing for an abstract game that opens out, rather than narrows, my focus?

chris_mancini's picture
Joined: 05/01/2015
One such game I can always

One such game I can always enjoy is Hive, which is easy to understand and play, but for those players who enjoy thinking 3-5 moves ahead as most avid chess players do, it delivers the strategy. I prefer playing the base game without extensions like the Mosquito as I prefer the my mind it's elegant and fun enough without them.

monodreme's picture
Joined: 07/28/2015
Here's a kooky idea

Thanks, Chris. I'll look it up.

So guys, I had an interesting thought while I was thinking about this conversation. At one point I was thinking of saying, "imagine a game of Space Crusade abstractified, with the theme taken away to be replaced by a beautiful abstract design." I was thinking of saying this just as a way to express the kind of feeling I'm looking for from the game I'm working on.

But that thought in itself kind of tantalised me. Has anybody here done anything like that, even as an experiment...taken a themed game with nice movement and action mechanics, surgically removed the theme and then refined it into a two player abstract?

I know it's a counter intuitive thing to do, as themed games are the market rulers, but still, I can't help but be fascinated by the idea of what kind of game one might eventually end up with. It could at least be a stimulating starting point for the development of a game.

wombat929's picture
Joined: 04/17/2015
Why would you do this?

Good thematic games have mechanisms that make sense given the theme. I'm not sure why you'd want to extract the mechanism from the theme to make a game out of it by itself. I suppose you COULD do so, but I'm not sure why you would.

I think for many people, playing games is not just about competition, but about shared experience, and the story that themes provide to gameplay are a big part of what makes that fun. I suspect this is why abstract games are less popular than thematic ones (not counting the classics).

But I think many designers work from a mechanism they like and expand out from there, hence categories like "deck builder."

monodreme's picture
Joined: 07/28/2015
Ah, I may just be a little

Ah, I may just be a little odd, Wombat. I like the idea of stripping away the theme and having a good look at the skeleton of the game and then asking myself what might be made of that. Are there elements of the skeleton that have been contorted to fit the theme that could be moved back to a more natural position for a more satisfying gameplay? I could have fun running an experiment like that.

If I was into designing themed games it still might be something I might consider - strip away the theme, just for a while, so I can focus without distraction on the pure mechanics, see if I can identify what they are asking of me, the designer, just see what happens, and then, if I made any progress that way, then bring the theme back and see how well it fitted.

Could well be a waste of time. I'm just thinking out loud.

I liked the movement of the miniatures in Space Crusade. You don't really get movement like that in abstract games. To me that's all the more reason to find out what it might be like.

Joined: 07/29/2008
The Balance

As for me, the "balance" is practically all skill with no overt chance (ie rolling dice, picking a card out of a stack, etc.). If we're talking gaming philosophy, you could say that no game presents a player with "perfect information" because you do not know of your opponent's moves and, therefore, that is a form of "hidden information" (aka 'chance').

As I have gotten older, I increasingly do not play board games where there is a significant amount of overt chance. I will make exceptions when playing with family and relatives if only to be sociable. I have found that, over the years, my game creations have gone to being completely skill with little to no overt chance.

Being an abstract board game designer, I tend to avoid theming (aka "You're a tumbleweed avoiding the cactii and the vultures!") although anytime that I can fit my games aesthetically into a retro-futuristic visual style is a plus (Classic EPCOT Center was very influential to me).

In the end, if I can make it work, my games are all skill with no overt chance but, when making a game, anything goes in the pursuit of the player's enjoyment. One of my board games, for instance, has a social variant that has a lot of overt chance.

monodreme's picture
Joined: 07/28/2015
Yeah, I'm almost on the same

Yeah, I'm almost on the same page as you, Steve. I have included one randomised aspect to the game I'm developing, which effects one aspect of the start up conditions. These startup conditions are clearly visible to both players, so it wouldn't count as hidden information, but for sure, one startup condition may be said to favour one player over the other. So it's certainly not a perfectly balanced game in a philosophical sense.

But I like this single instance of randomisation because it minimises or mitigates the whole concept of "learning the strongest opening move". I like to think of it as the single flaw added to the work of art to accentuate its perfection. Ha ha ha - of course I like to think of it like that :)

Zedrex's picture
Joined: 12/29/2015
Interesting topic.

Interesting topic.

Personally I lean more towards the strategic side of things, would rather believe I am playing a game where talent of skill can be developed and is visible in the outcome. Playing Snakes & Ladders or anything too dice-based is like watching people play scratch lottery tickets with no prize. I wouldn't feel like I was playing the game but rather that I was performing the required actions as a proxy for another player who doesn't exist.

But yes, take a purely strategic game like Chess and you have some issues. For starters, skilled players always play the same games. There are limited sensible openings and everything is quite predictable at that expert level, with only a couple of subtle variances towards the end of a game ever being different. The better you get at that game the more limited and narrow it gets.

And either end of the spectrum - the improbability of chance or the reductive rationality of maximally optimal strategy - can be performed effectively by a computer or calculating machine. And do we call that "playing"?

Here's an alternative way of looking at it - the human factor. I studied a little game theory and one thing that became obvious really quickly is that people are *not* rational calculators and they don't all progress Vulcan-like to their optimal outcome in the most efficient and expedient manner. Games like Chess demand we be like that but most of us don't enjoy being calculator robots even if we were good at it.

Most people have other factors (such as preference, superstition, instinct, spite, the desire to communicate something or express themselves, or complete separate agendas) that complicate and usually over-rule the maximally optimal decision.

Example 1 - there's an experiment in game theory called "the ultimatum game" where player one is given ten dollars and offers a split to the second player. The second player accepts the split and both players get the proposed shares, or rejects it and both players get nothing.

The smart thing for player one is to offer a really unfair split like keeping 9 and offering 1, right? And the smart thing for player two is to take the dollar and quit while she's ahead, right?

Nope. If player 1 makes an unfair offer, player two usually decides they both get nothing out of spite and because it violates their sense of justice. There is an unpredictable - not random - factor based around how vindictive or spiteful player 2 is, or how strongly they hold their sense of fairness. And Player 1's intuition or boldness or own sense of fairness will be something that their interlocutor can't take for granted either.

In this case you have a rich and deep game that rewards skill and strategy without being predictable or something a computer could beat you at. And is done with complex rules, as with Chess? Nope - simplest game rules possible (creating the illusion of depth with complexity, as with Chess, only waits for computer processing power to evolve sufficiently to 'break' that type of game)

Example 2 - I play a superhero arcade fighting style game on my ipad. Do I play Superman or whoever has the biggest numbers? No. I use my personal preference to choose a character who's ideals and aesthetic reflect my own, one who's moves/combos I prefer using, etc. If I were a rational calculator I'd be choosing the big cheesy strong guy, but that's not the story I want to write with my playing.

I've spent a bit of time thinking about this myself - trying to get the balance right between skill and chance - because what I want to create and play myself is something that rewards skill etc, but doesn't create an unfair and boring situation when one of the players knows the game contents better or has worked out the single optimal strategy... Like life - the race doesn't always go to the fastest nor the fight to the strongest, but it would still be the smart way to bet. Outcomes shouldn't be totally predictable but hopefully they won't be random either. Human caprice is probably a better element to add that unpredictable factor than dice is

unhandyandy's picture
Joined: 01/07/2016
Runaway Leaders

It occurred to me recently that in classic games the runaway leader issue is considered a feature rather than a bug. These games are so finely balanced, hoving been honed over centuries, that the great interest in playing them is creating the narrative arc of nursing a small advantage into one progressively larger.

I'd propose that as the essential distinction between classic games and contemporary ones. Many of the latter are fun only while you're learning them, they're considered deep if you can get 50 plays out of them. I've played 1000s of games chess, I'm still not bored.

You're quite right about the difficulty of finding appropriate opponents for classic games. For chess the only solutions seem to be (1) clubs, (2) online play, or (3) versus a computer.

Contemporary games are generally designed from the ground up for casual play. Even serious gamers don't (or shouldn't) care about winning.

henry flower
henry flower's picture
Joined: 06/12/2015
As a daily chess player, I

As a daily chess player, I can say that I have always held chess up as the ideal to aspire to; and all of my early game designs were abstract, perfect information games. But I had a bit of an epiphany when one of my friends, who was never very enthusiastic about play-testing my designs, explained the problem with them from his perspective: they were too much work. He called them “IQ tests”. And I realized that he had a valid point. Not everybody wants to play a game that requires intense concentration. And fewer still will want to play a game that makes them look stupid.

I have also played a lot of backgammon in my time – and a lot of poker. And one day I reflected on what made those games fun and engaging, and I realized that the element of chance -- which I had always avoided as a point pride and principle – was, in fact, an enormous draw -- and – more importantly -- that such games were tests of skill despite the role of chance. Indeed, they were games of skill *because* of the role of chance, which is to say, they were skill games because they made chance into something that players needed to understand and master. At the same time, the uncertainty of fortune added drama and excitement to such games (even the frustration from a run of bad luck has a certain perverse attraction). It also gave weaker players a chance to win, and even made them feel more competent than they might really have been, which encouraged them to play.

And that was a real turning point for me. And you can see it in the game I recently posted in the design forum ("Championship Kickboxing"), which uses both cards and dice: I make a special effort in the instructions to point out that it is in fact a game of skill.

As an old-school gamer, I fear I will never fully embrace the notion that games should require a theme and a narrative arc. I know I’m in the minority on this, but I don’t think a game needs be an interactive “story”; and I don’t think it needs to be a vector for “art”.

I can understand monodreme perfectly well when he talks about stripping away the theme and getting to the nuts and bolts of a game. I think of a game as a sort of virtual machine. In my view, the best game is a like a performance engine: a product engineered to achieve results with maximal efficiency. And If unhandyandy is right, and that today “even serious gamers don’t (or shouldn’t) care about winning” then I will avoid those games and those gamers as much as possible. For me, a game is closer to a sport; it is inherently competitive (even a cooperative game should be competitive, if that makes any sense). In my world, the joy of a game is derived from the opportunity it gives players to compete without real risk.

Joined: 07/03/2013

I think that you took it a little bit too far in your analysis: I don't think that there's a right or wrong way to play/make games. However, each player comes to the table seeking something different. For you, it may be all about competition and a cerebral challenge, while for others, they want to play for thematic reason. In general, I find that there are three camps:

Light - These gamers want only a few choices and games that don't last too long (90 minutes is too long). Elimination in these games is limited to games that are very short. Overall, these players generally like to play games as a means of socializing. Modern examples of games these players like include Love letter, Forbidden Island, and Ticket to Ride.

Medium - These gamers like games that are engaging, offer a variety of choices, and can handle games that last a little bit longer. Co-operative games often fit with gamers in this category, since the co-operative aspect helps them to enjoy the game better without worrying about competing with the other players present (although competitive games also exist at this level). Gamers at this level can handle a bit of complexity, and enjoy a mild challenge, but also want the game to have a theme that drives their play. They play for the experience. Modern games that fit this category include 7 Wonders, Pandemic, Acquire, and 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons (previous editions might have gone in the heavy camp).

Heavy - These gamers are the ones who game for a hobby and enjoy games that are mentally challenging. They like number crunching and aren't afraid of a somewhat abstract theme. Power Grid, Tzolk'in, Trajan, and other cerebral challenges are generally enjoyed by this group.

From your comments, it sounds like you're someone who enjoys heavy games, and that's fine. However, I encourage you to stretch yourself as a game designer, and try playing games outside of what you usually like so that you can understand what it is about those games that other people understand. You might discover that you enjoy those games yourself, given the right mood, or you might discover that lighter games can make it onto the table more often, allowing you to expand your group of friends that you play with, hopefully driving their interest in games such that they'll move up to heavy games too.

Be careful of statements like, "I will avoid those games and those gamers as much as possible. For me, a game is closer to a sport; it is inherently competitive (even a cooperative game should be competitive, if that makes any sense). In my world, the joy of a game is derived from the opportunity it gives players to compete without real risk." Why should you be careful of that? Because your perceptions are based on "your world". If that's all the exposure that you've had to board games, your ability to design them will be reduced because you haven't experienced other games. The best designs incorporate elements from other games, allowing you to take the best from everything you've played and combine it in new, challenging ways.

TL;DR: Don't EVER think that you know enough, and that others' way of thinking is inherently wrong. Try things out, and see if you can understand what it is about games that they enjoy. Perhaps you'll learn something that you can incorporate into a new creation, and perhaps you'll discover that you're not so different.

henry flower
henry flower's picture
Joined: 06/12/2015
ruy343 wrote: Be careful of

ruy343 wrote:

Be careful of statements like, "I will avoid those games and those gamers as much as possible. For me, a game is closer to a sport; it is inherently competitive (even a cooperative game should be competitive, if that makes any sense). In my world, the joy of a game is derived from the opportunity it gives players to compete without real risk." Why should you be careful of that? Because your perceptions are based on "your world". If that's all the exposure that you've had to board games, your ability to design them will be reduced because you haven't experienced other games. The best designs incorporate elements from other games, allowing you to take the best from everything you've played and combine it in new, challenging ways.

Why should I be careful of statements like that? I explained my preference and was careful to frame it as a preference. Your claim about the best designs has a certain plausibility, but I doubt it has any basis in empirical fact. In any case, my "world" is more than big enough to provide the ideas I need to produce the kinds of games that interest me. And life is too short to waste on people and activities I don't like!

Joined: 05/05/2014
Im changing my perception of

Im changing my perception of games. I feel, many years ago, that competitive games arent the path.

But I know now why. For me competitive games offer the opportunity for mutual puzzle to every player, mutual challenging... but these games get morally broken to me when they become violence in some level.

To me a perfect game must have discovery inside him and surprise more than simple solving-puzzle and violence. Then recently I find what I was searching for: social games that are related to universal human activities.

By example some games about language as Taboo, Scattergories, etc... Many party games are what I was searching for... maybe not ANY party game, there are party games more challenging or surprising than others.

And after all I feel that there is no intelligence behind supposed "strategic" games as chess, go, wargames and so on. I want to say that if you like these games, as me many years ago for some reason or other, you surely like the puzzle that is inside them... but these puzzle are not a very good way to explore intelligence or mind behavior, to feel good and be happy... they just want some kind of retribution as self-worth, what is very fine (Im not criticizing this) but is not THE BEST.

And because I want the best of the best I cant just stop in this level of games based on rational-puzzling and violence. I love go, a lot... but I cant play it anymore, it is just so much violence to me and I know now that are better games.

I hope you dont read this post as a kind of critic or something like this. This post is just the need to share my feelings and experience with other people, to show my actual mind about games.

Of course all that I write here doesn't mean that I will stop of play, in some moment, old rational-competitive-scheme games... just that I see new lands! And now I put my mind in this direction to explore and develop :)

P.S.: yes, I know, sorry for my terrible english. I hope my english is not as bad to stop you understanding what I want to say.

DraconicParagon's picture
Joined: 06/14/2018
I feel very intimidated

I feel very intimidated replying to this thread because I read all the responses and want to reply to each one but don't quite have the time. I also feel a little intimidated because I like playing Chess but I'm not very good at it, so I don't know if what I have to say will contribute much. I also tried playing GO in high school but was also terrible. I feel like I'm pretty decent with checkers.

I am more of a tactician, not a strategist; meaning, I prefer games that allow me to focus on what I have in my hand right now, what's the best I can do with what I have been given this turn specifically.

On the other hand, I like playing games like Chess because I'm not good at it and I want to get better. I play Chess with Friends, DraconicParagon. I'm looking for some new players, add me.

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