From the archives: Board games

Or, if you'd prefer, return to the most recent posts.

Raging bishop

Friday, 16 September 2011 — 12:26am | Adventures, Board games

On Saturday I attended the London Chessboxing Championship, which was more or less what it said on the tin. For those unfamiliar with the emergent hybrid sport, there is chess, and there is boxing. Every bout alternates between successive rounds of speed chess and boxing until one of the contenders secures a checkmate on the board or a knockout in the ring (along with the usual victory conditions for resignation or time).

It should be no surprise that chessboxing’s promoters sell it as a perfect biathlon of mind and body. Chess has an ancient mystique of intellect about it even among those who barely know the game, and boxing is far and away the most story-rich of sports. Both activities stand as cultural paragons of some indefinite struggle of individual mastery. And the combination is hardly arbitrary: the boxing forces the chess to be played under conditions of high adrenaline and extreme physical fatigue, imposing a test of mental stamina quite unlike any other.

Not so clear is whether the chess takes a toll on the boxing. Andrea Kuszewski has argued that the most cognitively taxing part of the game is the rapid task-switching, which demands superb emotional control; indeed, chessboxing may prove to be exceptionally well suited to training one’s aggression management. In theory, a good chessboxer has to box with the ability to play chess very shortly in mind. (In practice, as we will see, this is not necessarily the case.)

The London event at the Scala was reportedly the world’s biggest night of chessboxing to date, with five bouts on the card drawing a capacity crowd of 1000. Before the first match, my own estimate was 400-500 spectators on the floor with many more in the balcony and VIP lounge, but the audience swelled as the night wore on and the official count became more plausible. One of the organizers called it the largest live audience on record for a game of chess, though I believe Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky drew similar numbers in the Piatigorsky Cup (Santa Monica, 1966), and that’s only the record in the United States.

Nevertheless, the sport shows signs of rapid expansion, filling a former cinema palace kitty-corner to King’s Cross that doubled the capacity of its previous venue in Tufnell Park. There are rumblings that talks have begun to bring chessboxing to Royal Albert Hall next year, presumably to catch some of the Olympic spillover, but I’ll believe it when I see it.

Continued »

Annotations (5)

The greedy strategeme, pt. 1

Thursday, 15 April 2010 — 1:37pm | Board games, Science, Video games

Civilization veteran Soren Johnson, one of the foremost designers of strategy games and AI today and certainly one of the best writers on the subject, often remarks that the theme of a game is not to be confused with its meaning (slides here). Diplomacy may cast its players as the great powers of pre-1914 Europe, but it’s about simultaneity. StarCraft may put you in charge of Heinlein-esque space marines and alien civilizations, but it’s about asymmetry. If the theme and mechanics harmoniously cohere, then the mechanics can shed light on the theme in the way that art sheds light on the world. Pre-war Europe is an intriguing setting for Diplomacy because in all their backroom double-dealing, the empires didn’t take turns. Aliens are a good fit for StarCraft because you can map anything onto aliens, be it the collectivist swarm-by-numbers ethos of the Zerg or the judicious high-tech investment of the Protoss.

I am partial to this view, predominantly for reasons of aesthetics. If we are to conceive of game design as an art form, it does not suffice to decompose games into the artistry of constituent parts—the music, the models and sprites, the cinematic sequences, on rare occasion the writing. The aesthetics have to come from the specific properties that make something a game, whether it is played with a board and dice, a deck of cards, or a mouse and keyboard—and those properties come from the mechanics.

But that’s neither here nor there; I won’t elaborate today. Instead I want to turn to my favourite of Johnson’s examples: the evolution game. For your fill of Darwinian game mechanics, look not to Spore (which Johnson worked on), a game that is nominally about evolution from microbe to intergalactic juggernaut, but is actually about special creation. Back when I first played it, I wrote, perhaps a tad generously:

Let’s not bury our heads in the sand: by placing creature design into the player’s hands instead of leaving it up to random mutation, Spore inherently owes a lot to intelligent design. There’s still room for a real game about evolution in the Darwinian sense, where you set certain environmental constraints and preconditions, let a species run loose, and see if it survives in an ecosystem full of other models—kind of like how some engineers pit robots in mortal battle, but with adaptation.

Spore is a lot more creationistic than I gave it credit for; consider that the functional components of your custom-made species—the mouths, the horns, the flagella—are interchangeable parts from a specified, modular set, which is precisely what we would expect from a designing agent but not at all what we would expect from natural selection. But never mind all that. The evolution game exists, says Johnson, and it’s called World of Warcraft.

I would contend, however, that the Darwinian features Johnson ascribes to WoW are equally prevalent in most games with competitive and highly interactive player populations, provided there is sufficient strategic depth worth talking about. WoW is an evolution game because its core mechanic is community. Where there is a community of players and a developed metagame of optimal practices, strategic decisions are memes that compete for survival. Let’s call them strategemes.

Strategemes include everything from chess openings to Scrabble vocabulary: they are transmissible units of knowledge that players learn, study, and adopt—and crucially, copy. Copying them is not seen as unfair, but as an advantageous and often essential behaviour. They leave room for mutation, and we can perceive a frequency distribution of variations over a population of players and games.

But where does natural selection come into play? Let’s look at the exemplar we get from Johnson: the WoW talent tree.

Continued »

Annotations (8)

Wednesday Book Club: The Immortal Game

Wednesday, 20 May 2009 — 4:41pm | Board games, Book Club, Literature

This week’s selection: The Immortal Game: A History of Chess (2006) by David Shenk.

In brief: The book’s alternate subtitle—”How 32 Carved Pieces on a Board Illuminated Our Understanding of War, Art, Science, and the Human Brain”—offers a hint of Shenk’s scope of thought. Full of colourful stories and painstaking research, this thoroughly accessible work probes into the mystery of how chess has endured for 1400 years and why it delights us still. Shenk guides us on a tour through everything from the intrigue of warring nations to the play-by-play thrill of a historic game, and muses as much about how chess has shaped humanity as how humanity has shaped chess. A must-read for hobbyists and serious players alike.

(The Wednesday Book Club is an ongoing initiative of mine to write a book review every week. I invite you to peruse the index. For more on The Immortal Game, keep reading below.)

Continued »

Annotations (0)

The spreadsheets of Catan

Tuesday, 31 March 2009 — 8:11am | Board games, Mathematics

From Andrew Curry and Wired comes this comprehensive article on Settlers of Catan, a superb piece of board game journalism if I’ve ever seen one, and a must-read for players of all levels. It’s got a bit of everything: a look at why Settlers fit the market like a glove, a little about designer Klaus Teuber, an overview of the “German style” of board game design of which Settlers is the most prominent ambassador, and a peek into the complexity underlying the game’s infamously balanced mechanics.

This caught my attention:

In 2006, Brian Reynolds, a founder of Maryland software company Big Huge Games and the programmer who developed the AI behind the addictive computer classic Sid Meier’s Civilization II, set out to make an Xbox 360 version of Settlers. To help programmers develop the game’s AI, Teuber spent months exploring the mathematics of his most famous creation, charting the probability of every event in the game. The odds of a six or eight being rolled are almost 1 in 3 for example, while the chance of a four being rolled is 1 in 12. There is a 2-in-25 chance of drawing a Year of Plenty development card. Teuber created elaborate logic chains and probability matrices in a complex Excel spreadsheet so the videogame developers could see how every possible move and roll of the dice—from the impact of the Robber to the odds of getting wheat in a given scenario—compared. The end result was a sort of blueprint for the game that gave Big Huge Games a head start and showed just how complex the underlying math was. “It was the biggest, gnarliest spreadsheet I had ever seen,” Reynolds says.

I want to see this.

One of the best things that happened to the Civilization series was how in Civilization IV, lead designer Soren Johnson laid the mathematics and AI bare for everyone to see, expanding on a series tradition in the Sid Meier games to make all the data easily accessible (and therefore modifiable).

Settlers is elegant enough that I’m sure people have already figured out the math through a spot of reverse engineering; it’s really not that hard. But I’d love to see Teuber’s spreadsheet for its immense historical value as a design document alone. Surely there was a calculated rationale to everything from the fifteen-road limit to the assignment of three ore/brick hexes instead of four—and I often wonder if the perpetual endgame glut of sheep is here as an intentional crimp.

Annotations (1)

A checkmate in Casablanca

Tuesday, 12 February 2008 — 3:36am | Board games, Casablanca, Film

With the anniversary of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre on the horizon, it seems highly appropriate to invoke Blaine’s Theorem and in doing so, say a few words about love, chess, and the greatest motion picture of all time and all time yet to come.

Casablanca is one of those films that nobody really falls in love with the first time through, even if they think otherwise. Most of its enduring power emanates from multiple viewings, when the film truly demonstrates its uncanny ability to resonate with almost every conceivable romantic trauma, especially those of a triangular geometry (which is to say, practically all of them). You go through life-as-such and every time, there’s always a handful of scenes that you’ll never look at in the same way again.

I haven’t watched the film in months—I only pull it out once a year as a routine, emergencies notwithstanding—but I already expect to encounter these transformative moments with respect to two scenes in particular: a) when Victor Laszlo leads Rick’s Café in a stirring rendition of “La Marseillaise” (for reasons I’m not even going to bother explaining), and b) the first time we see Rick, brooding over a chessboard by himself.

So here’s the mystery du jour: why is Rick playing chess?

Continued »

Annotations (0)

A Link to the Past (older posts) »