Sunday, September 05, 2010

Observations about puzzles and games

A friend is designing a post-apocalyptic game. After a game club session (there are references to games played during that session) I sent him this advice:

Something to recognize as a big difference between some games and other games, is the fundamental nature of the game, is it a game or is it a puzzle? A puzzle is something that you can solve, and once you’ve solved it then there is not much point in continuing to play. That’s obvious with formal puzzles, but it’s also the case with many Eurostyle games, especially the ones that are more or less multiplayer solitaire. Theoretically, chess is solvable but it’s just too complicated for humans or even at this point computers to figure out. Computers often play well because they use brute force to check all the possibilities and pick the one that’s most likely to come out well in the long run. Brute force is not really solving the puzzle, it’s just trying all the possibilities, it’s trial and error. But if, once you have solved the problem through trial and error, you can reproduce that solution again and again without further trial, then you have effectively solved the puzzle.

Ascension appears to be a game that may be solvable. [Ascension is a new Dominion-style game that claims to have all the fun of a CCG in one box. But it looked pretty dull to me, because there was almost no player interaction.]

In a game as opposed to a puzzle, there is no set solution and much of that is because you have human opposition. Even the best video games, which rely on the computer to provide an equivalent of human opposition, more or less fail to achieve that goal. People play against the computer, and then they go online and play against other people and find out that the people are much tougher opponents. But the traditional video game is actually a solvable puzzle rather than an attempt to provide a computer opponent. There are exceptions like WarCraft III and Civilization, which are essentially designed to be multiplayer games, and that’s multiplayer in the sense of multiple sides, not just lots of people on two different sides.

Defenders of the Realm is a kind of puzzle but in this case you have players collectively trying to solve the puzzle, which “collectivity” is something that’s very attractive to the Millennial generation. Instead of a computer providing the opposition, the draw of the cards provides the opposition. In effect the cards take the place of the computer program.

Many Eurostyle games are actually puzzles. And that is probably one reason why people don’t play them very many times (with exceptions, of course) before they move on to something else, they’ve figured out the puzzle and they are done. A game that cannot be solved by people, such as chess, or Britannia, is one that people can play 500 times and still enjoy, because the major interest in the game is figuring out the other players and how to outdo the other players. In a Euro game the purpose is rarely to figure out the other players and outdo the other players.

Another way to put this is, in puzzle-style Euro and video games players “play the system”; in “real” games the players “play the other players,” though they have to be good at the system as well.

So for your post-apocalyptic game, do you want it to be a puzzle or do you want it to be a game? What you described to me was a form of puzzle, not a game, because there was so little interaction with the other players. And I’d say that’s the key to the differentiation between a puzzle and a game, how much interaction is there with other human beings? Or with something that’s attempting to mimic a human being (a computer).

Lew

11 comments:

Russ Williams said...

I'm disappointed that your characterization of Eurogames honestly sounds more like a dismissive caricatured negative stereotype I see from some Euro-bashing posters at BGG than a realistic assessment of them.

Yes, it is often necessary to learn things about the system itself in order to play well, just as a chess player or wargamer or whatever needs to recognize various tactics and patterns. But of course you have to also take into account what the other players are doing and plan against them. There's no magic "puzzle solution" to playing a typical eurogame.

Even euros that get dismissed as "multiplayer solitaire", e.g. Agricola, usually aren't really - I believe the term is a pejorative label often applied by players who don't perceive the importance of the other players' actions, or who think the only kind of interaction is destroying other players' pieces.

Maybe I am missing your point. Do you think e.g. that Puerto Rico, Power Grid, Caylus, El Grande, etc are "solved" in some puzzle-like sense? Generally when a puzzle is solved, the solution is clear and verifiable - yet strong players in eurogames continue to debate and discuss about different strategies. When a really puzzle-like game (e.g. tic-tac-toe) is "solved", players don't debate about the best strategies.

Concretely, what are some specific euros that you feel have been "solved" like a puzzle?

And what happens when 2 different players both apply the "solved" solution strategy to win? The universe explodes in a puff of logic? :)

Brett said...

Lewis,

I, like Russ, am bewildered by your curiously off-hand and dismissive attitude to Eurogames.

I totally agree with you that there *is* a distinction to be drawn between games and puzzles, but it's simply not true to label Eurogames as puzzles.

There are, of course, relatively simplistic, deterministic games that might conceivably be more puzzle-like than game-like out there, but they are not 'Eurogames' in the sense in which that term is usually understood. Which perhaps suggests you are either mis-using that term, or have simply never played that many Eurogames.

I'll be watching out to see if you expand, support or possibly revise your thesis.

Cheers, Brett

Eric Hanuise said...

Russ and Brett, Of course there's some player interaction and consequences to player actions affecting the whole game state in most euros.
However, the point seems to be that many euro's boil down to an optimisation exercise. Get more/better resources than the other players, make better use of your options, game the system/players to get better options available, and so forth.
While there's richness and lots of decisions in this, it's still an exercise in optimisation.
Once a player has explored enough avenues of optimisation, he'll eventually reach a point of diminushing returns between the effort/time invested in mastering the game and the overall improvement in his score from game to game.
The other player's actions and mastery level of the game do matter, but this 'metagame' is only a factor.
It eventually boils down to a puzzle of optimisation that either gets solved or that the player tires of.
Games that make you play not only the game engine but also the other player's psychology and actions do have a longer lifetime, because they lend themselves less to such optimisation, and therefore are of a less 'puzzle-y' nature.
Some euros manage that very well, such as traders of genoa, but many games from the 'ameritrash' (I can hear Lewis' teeth cringe from here ^^) school offer engines and game objectives that make them more game than puzzle.
At least that's how I understand it :)

Peer said...

Lew clearly said that puzzles are solvable. Euros are not (at least not the designer ones). So they shouldnt be puzzles. The difference between a Euro and Britannia seems to be the dice, causing Britannia not to be a puzzle game? Sorry thats just not true Lew said in the past, that he doesnt like Euros, so I gather, he doesnt know much about them- and that shows in this post.

Lewis said...

The games Russ mentions are not close to typical Euro games, are they? For example, Power Grid certainly appears to be a game where the other players matter a lot to what you're doing. It's impossible to characterize any genre, especially one as large as Euros, without finding exceptions to the characterization. Especially because many people believe Euros to be whatever games they like/want to call Euros. I even saw someone call Britannia a Euro--not even close, in my opinion.

Formal puzzles often have no chance element (and this applies to many video games, as well), hence when you have a solution to the puzzle, there is nothing more. Where there is a chance element, as in most Euro games and some other puzzles, you can know exactly what you should do, but there will be much more variation in what happens because of the chance element(s). But this variation comes largely from chance, not from the deliberate efforts of other players. In Dominion a top player knows what to do, but what he can actually do at a given time depends on what cards come into his hand from his deck at that particular time. Nonetheless, if you're a good game player you know what to do, and that has little to do with what the other players do. Eric's term "optimization" fits here perfectly. Again, your primary concern is the system, not the other players.

Many Euros limit interaction to a form of "I'd better do that before my opponent does (so that he cannot), even though it might not be the best way to optimize my own resources/position". This is not direct interaction, not even what I'd call indirect interaction, it's something even less--"anticipatory interaction?"

There are outstanding game players who tell me that, in Catan, amongst really good players it's all a matter of how the dice fall. The game has been optimized by th eplayers, again according to these folks. Yet it is less puzzle-like than many Euros, because there is a fair of interaction among the players. Nonetheless, the robber is a kind of design kludge added to increase interaction.

Others discuss the "rhythm" and timing of Puerto Rico (recognition of which is, in considerable part, the solution), and how that is broken when an inexperienced player plays: I have read that usually whoever is just after (? I don't recall for sure whether it is before or after) that inexperienced player will usually win the game. As Eric says, "optimization".

According to what I've read, if you don't get the necessary long-distance ticket(s) in Ticket to Ride, you're quite unlikely to win. I know one player who (in part to mess with the other players' heads) just collects trains for the first half of the game, then hopes to complete long distance tickets to win. (He fairly obviously plays the game only to accommodate others who want to play, not because he likes it.) But the average player of TtR never sees, or does not care about, the vital role of long-distance tickets. (No, I have not played the game and cannot imagine why I would; I have to go by what I read and what players tell me, which will tell me more than playing it once or twice ever could.)

I confess, I bought a copy of Catan years ago to try to understand what was so unusual, read the rules, and said, "that's nice, but why would I play it?" I've watched it played many times since, and still have no desire to play. But Catan is not very typical of Euros, though it is the most well-known.

(Continued next, too long for the comment facility.)

Lewis said...

No, I am not at all a fan of Euro-style games. I recently read an entire doctoral dissertation discussing Euro games, with a major thesis that people do not play Euro games to win as much as for quite a few other reasons. It was quite convincing, but I'm still not entirely sure what a Euro game is or why people like to play them. Many if not most are designed to take competition (and emotion) out of the game, so that it is easy to play civilly, so that there won't be arguments or anything else to disrupt the social occasion. (The abstract nature of most of the games contributes strongly to this--there's not really a story of some sort to get excited about, or the story is awfully mundane.) They are genteel, a little like a wine-tasting. You're most unlikely to see someone at a Euro game pump his fist or yell aloud. They are designed, in large part, for people for whom winning is not particularly important, for whom competition is not particularly important (which doesn't mean there aren't competitive people who play Euros, of course). Was it Knizia who said something like, it's not important to win, but it's important to play to win?
(Continued next, too long for the comment facility.)

Given that I used to say long ago, "I hate dice games", and most of the games I design do not use dice (but my wargames tend to because of the vast uncertainties of combat), I should have a leaning toward Euro games. Also given that I more or less gave up playing games competitively--I could get nasty--when I was 25 (my favorite game is cooperative: first edition D&D), Euros ought to appeal to me. But they leave me cold in most cases. I also find that I'm leaning heavily toward simpler rather than more complex games, lately, yet so many of the newer Euros have a huge number of cards and pieces, which puts me off. And my interest in military history is quite unserved by Euros. In the end I lean toward RPGs rather than Euros.

I am reminded of the characterization of Euros as "family games on steroids." I don't play party games or family games, so the Euros that do tend to fit that characterization inevitably don't appeal to me.

Many people like this kind of game; the question is, why? In some ways they seem to fit the times, to fit with Political Correctness, with taking competition out of our schools, both of which I despise; on the other hand, Eurogames are a bastion of "reasonableness", something that is unfortunately going away in the United States, to our great detriment. And they certainly provide great variety and serve "the cult of the new".

I've not heard of a survey that investigates which kinds of video games are liked by frequent Euro players, that would be very interesting. My video game students are the opposite of Euro players, they love competition and trash-talking and blood and gore and violence. Maybe they'll change as they get older; except for the party-family strain of Euros, which appeals to quite young people, most Euro players seem to be rather older than my video game students.

Yes, I have on occasion read "Fortress Ameritrash" (I despise that name for games), but rarely go there; much of what they say, when they're not being hotheads, makes good sense. And I have seen the interminable wrangles between extremists in both camps, rather like religious arguments, with next to no chance that anyone will change their minds. Which is why, in the end, I won't participate in an interminable wrangle about Euro games. There quickly comes a point of "why bother", and that point has probably arrived. I have no obligation to convince or prove to anyone my views about ANYthing, certainly not about Euro games.

(And I am not surprised that "peer" hid his identity behind a handle, as he has no clue what he's talking about.)

Lew

Russ Williams said...

"The games Russ mentions are not close to typical Euro games, are they?" That question confirms that you are indeed not very familiar with eurogames. :) AFAIK the games I mentioned (Puerto Rico, Power Grid, Caylus, El Grande) are all considered eurogames by most folks (fans and detractors of eurogames alike), at least at BGG.

All your talk about removing competition makes me think you're confusing "family games" with "euro games". Many eurogames happen to be family games. So do many other types of games.

But most eurogames I've played are certainly competitive. I invite you to try Power Grid or Caylus sometime, or for that matter even simpler more mainstream/popular eurogames like Carcassonne and Settlers with serious players. You will find plenty of competition and moves made that hurt you.

And yes, people can get excited, laugh, taunt, groan, etc. Many times I have played a tile to make someone's huge city in Carcassonne impossible to complete, resulting in a groan or cry of outrage or threat of retaliation. I can speak from the receiving end of the shock at getting the last coal bought in the final round of Power Grid before my turn to buy, knocking me from winning to last place. The whole "genteel wine-tasting" caricature is just more cliched euro-bashing like one reads at Fortess Ameritrash, and is about as silly as saying that everyone who plays Ameritrash games is a beer-swilling slob continually distracted by watching football on TV or whatever. :)

You say you like player interaction and not just figuring out how to optimize the system, yet you dismiss Settlers of Catan, which has negotiation and trading at its core, without even having tried it.

It honestly sounds to me like you've been very influenced by a lot of bogus myths (that euros are "PC" and have no competition or tension or excitement; that players don't interact within the game or in conversation; that they are simply solved puzzles in optimization; etc.).

A funny thing about euro-bashing is that the myths are often self-contradictory. E.g. on the one hand you dismiss them as PC family games with all competition removed, but on the other hand you dismiss them as optimization exercises (so that those who know the systems best will win). I often see this contradictory dichotomy of "euros are for wimps who can't handle competition and just want to play for friendly fun" vs "euros are for hypercompetitive calculation fun-killing optimizers". (A related pair applies those contradictory myths to randomness: "Since Euros are PC and uncompetitive they have lots of randomness so everyone has an equal chance to win" vs "Euros have no randomness since they are for chess-brain egomaniacs who want to glory in their well-earned victory".) It's quite silly.

About the only common cliche about eurogames which is true is that they usually don't involve direct targeting and attacking and destruction of opponent's units. If that's necessary for you in a game, then fair enough, most euros are not for you. But if your tastes are not that narrow, I sincerely believe you would enjoy quite a lot of euros (and that they are not weird atypical euros) if give some an honest try.

PS: Your argument about Puerto Rico applies to every interactive multiplayer game - a newbie or otherwise incompetent or "bull in a china shop" player can of course alter the balance and cause a player to win or lose "unfairly". E.g. the famous "boyfriend always helps his girlfriend problem", or a multiplayer wargame where one player is a pacifist wimp, so his neighbors are lucky and know they don't have to waste resources protecting against an invasion from him, etc etc.

PPS: the point of the Knizia quote is that you SHOULD try to play well and compete to win, but NOT be an angry jackass or poor sport if you don't win. Pretty good advice for playing strategy games of ANY genre!

Russ Williams said...

"The games Russ mentions are not close to typical Euro games, are they?" That question confirms that you are indeed not very familiar with eurogames. :) AFAIK the games I mentioned (Puerto Rico, Power Grid, Caylus, El Grande) are all considered eurogames by most folks (fans and detractors of eurogames alike), at least at BGG.

All your talk about removing competition makes me think you're confusing "family games" with "euro games". Many eurogames happen to be family games. So do many other types of games.

But most eurogames I've played are certainly competitive. I invite you to try Power Grid or Caylus sometime, or for that matter even simpler more mainstream/popular eurogames like Carcassonne and Settlers with serious players. You will find plenty of competition and moves made that hurt you.


And yes, people can get excited, laugh, taunt, groan, etc. Many times I have played a tile to make someone's huge city in Carcassonne impossible to complete, resulting in a groan or cry of outrage or threat of retaliation. The whole "genteel wine-tasting" caricature is just more cliched euro-bashing like one reads at Fortess Ameritrash, and is about as silly as saying that everyone who plays Ameritrash games is a beer-swilling slob continually distracted by watching football on TV or whatever. :)

You say you like player interaction and not just figuring out how to optimize the system, yet you dismiss Settlers of Catan, which has negotiation and trading at its core, without even having tried it.

[Sigh, I also have to split the comment. Stupid blogger.com...]

Russ Williams said...

[Continued from previous comment...]

It honestly sounds to me like you've been very influenced by a lot of bogus myths (that euros are "PC" and have no competition or tension or excitement; that players don't interact within the game or in conversation; that they are simply solved puzzles in optimization; etc.).

A funny thing about euro-bashing is that the myths are often self-contradictory. E.g. on the one hand you dismiss them as PC family games with all competition removed, but on the other hand you dismiss them as optimization exercises (so that those who know the systems best will win). I often see this contradictory dichotomy of "euros are for wimps who can't handle competition and just want to play for friendly fun" vs "euros are for hypercompetitive calculators who don't know how to have fun".

About the only common cliche about eurogames which is true is that they usually don't involve direct targeting and attacking and destruction of opponent's units. If that's necessary for you in a game, then fair enough, most euros are not for you. But if your tastes are not that narrow, I sincerely believe you would enjoy quite a lot of euros (and that they are not weird atypical euros) if give some an honest try.

PS: Your argument about Puerto Rico applies to every interactive multiplayer game - a newbie or otherwise incompetent or "bull in a china shop" player can of course alter the balance and cause a player to win or lose "unfairly". E.g. the famous "boyfriend always helps his girlfriend problem", or a multiplayer wargame where one player is a pacifist wimp, so his neighbors are lucky and know they don't have to waste resources protecting against an invasion from him, etc etc.

PPS: the point of the Knizia quote is that you SHOULD try to play competitively and win, but not be an angry jackass or poor sport if you don't win. Pretty good advice for playing strategy games of any genre. :)

Ben said...

Lew, Your comments are great as always and I think its great that you have this relationship with games. I recently had the experience of playing Agricola for the first time and hated it. I couldn't put my finger on why though. I think the reason was that it was very much not a game of solitaire. There were fist pumps and cursing, it was much like the old games of Risk we used to play with my family. But it wasn't fun. The element that wasn't fun was the "its a simulation" put it wasn't an accurate one. You can't have a child 1 year and the next year put that child to work. I could see if it was 6-10 years old having it work, but not at 1 year old. That makes no bloody sense. To add to that, you have to feed your people but not your animals? Strange. I assume they would feed off the vegetation in their pastures, but what about the winter? Well, there is no winter, bub. I had to ask the question, "so we start in spring and end in the fall?" this was met with a yes. I nodded and ended the game with a semi-heated discussion of why the game was awful and was met with resistance at every turn. I believe this is why we have so many different board games in the world. Some people like certain games, other people like other games. Its all about choices. As for Euros as puzzles, a great example is Dungeon Lords. Its a puzzle from beginning to end. Galaxy Trucker is also that way. Thank you, Vlaada for those great games. Saves me playing the awful ones that try to hard to be something and then cop out halfway through.

Lewis said...

The many games of Agricola I've seen have always been staid and quiet, very far from fist-pumping and cursing. When I heard someone say "I'll take the bake bread action" I would have known the game wasn't for me, if I hadn't already decided! (Though I love baking fresh bread, just not in a game. I prefer to do things in a game that I cannot do in real life.)