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Abstract Strategy games: What separates logical gold from a fallacy filled flop?

I love abstract logic strategy games.  They are my weakness.  I find one haphazardly discarded at a Good Will and I must rescue it, despite having upwards of fifty others in that category. Regardless of how many new games I bring into my home, the abstract strategy games are the ones that I open like a child on Christmas morning the moment I walk in the door.  Now of course I will freely admit, some are simply better than others. But that left me pondering, what is it that makes one strategy game better than another?

Firstly, it seemed only right to actually define what an abstract logic strategy game is.  Wikipedia explains this genre of game to be one where all information is known by all players, and thus a ‘best move’ can be determined by using logic alone.  This concept of having all information needed has been dubbed ‘perfect information’.  Wikipedia then goes on to later say that some other games that actually include elements of luck are now being lumped into this category, such as Backgammon or Sequence. I flatly oppose the idea that those are abstract logic games due to their luck and bluffing elements, so games of that nature are not being discussed here, only perfect information games.

Another element mentioned in numerous on-line articles on the subject of abstract strategy games is the number of players involved.  It was repeatedly mentioned that abstract strategy games exist between two people or teams.  I sat there shaking my head at this for quite some time. No, that can’t be an accurate statement!  I have several games that I lump into my abstract strategy category that have more than two people or teams.  Inner Circle and Blockus immediately come to mind as abstract strategy games that are played with more.  But at last I read a good reasoning for this as well.  In a game with more than two people often the game succumbs to politics, with players teaming up to take out an opponent.  This taints the pure logic involved in the game.

OK, so an abstract logic game is one that requires perfect information and is between two people or teams.  But what makes one good? I personally think it all comes down to balancing two scales:  Expertise vs Common Logic and Recovery vs Decisiveness.

Expertise vs Common Logic

A game that is so complicated that the moves seem random to all but those who have dedicated their lives to it  is clearly not a good game. However, a game that a player can not gain any prowess in is not much fun either.  It’s the balance of these two elements that makes for a great strategy game.  Players should be able to get better at the game through practice.  You should be able to refine your skill.  Chess is the prime example of a game where players get better through repeated play.  A player with a higher ranking can almost always beat a player with a lower ranking. But, even a novice player can evaluate the effectiveness of one move over another.  This game is largely in balance between these two elements.

Some might argue with me, but I believe that Go is a game that is too heavily balanced in favor of experience, with the ability to weigh the benefits of one move over another being difficult.  Experienced players often declare a winner in that game long before I see that anything really significant has even occurred on the board.  The difficulty of weighing the advantage of one move over another also makes it very difficult to teach this game to new comers (“But why would I want to put my piece there?” “Because it will allow you to close in that area leaving multiple eyes five to ten turns down the road.” Not an easy concept to convey.).

Recovery vs Decisiveness

The ability to recover from a misstep versus the ability to have a decisive winner on the majority of games is the next scale to grade these games upon.  No one enjoys a game that is nothing but a continuous downward spiral, with one bad move ruining the entire game. But games that between equally matched opponents almost always end in a draw are very little fun as well.  This delicate balance is probably one of the hardest for game designers, but I greatly appreciate when I see it.

Tic-Tac-Toe is a prime example of a game with very little decisiveness.  I can play 100 games of Tic-Tac-Toe against my husband and I can guarantee that 99.99% of them will end in a draw, with that .01% of difference being allotted through a stupid error in which I simply didn’t care any more.  The game holds absolutely no thrill for me, because I know how it is going to end long before I make that first X.

Chess is one of those games that I feel is lacking on the recovery side of the scale though.  Once a player has a significant advantage, the game has all but been decided.  There is a very narrow possibility that your opponent might suffer a head injury mid game, thus allowing you to catch up, but otherwise kiss the win goodbye.  (OK, it might not need to be a head injury.  Perhaps a house rule of:  If you take one of your opponents pieces you take a shot of Tequila as well, might also work to level the playing field.)

New abstract strategy games come and go each year.  It’s rare to see a newer one stick around to compete with the oldies, and I think that largely has to do with games that are tipped way off balance on one of these two scales.  Granted, it’s certainly not easy to create a perfectly balanced game and if the scales are tipped too far in one direction on either scale the whole game will be a flop.  Hopefully by analyzing what makes one good we can all make wiser decisions about our abstract strategy game purchases in the future, spending only our time and money on the ‘Good’ and leaving the ‘Bad’, and especially the ‘Ugly’, on the shelf.

This entry was posted by The_Null_Entry on Thursday, August 6th, 2009 at 8:12 am and is filed under Random Things that Fall out of my head .
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4 Comments

  1. parkrrrr says:

    Does Inner Circle really qualify as an abstract strategy game even with two players? I’m pretty sure there is some hidden information: the relative orientations of the four boards. If I’m doing the math correctly, there are 64 possible configurations of the four boards, and no matter how expert a player you are it’s impossible to determine at the beginning of the game which of 16 possible games you’re playing.

    I believe, but have not proven conclusively, that once you get to the fourth board, it becomes like Tic-Tac-Toe: there’s no point in continuing to play if both players are halfway good at the game, as the winner has already been determined at that point. Whoever is closest to the center, by a metric that is somewhat complicated but entirely unambiguous, will win.

    Let’s say that you’ve played through the first two boards and are looking for the first time at the third board (which has a fourth board underneath it, visible only – if I recall correctly – through three holes or “survival spaces.”) You can tell how many dots are on each of the fourth-board circles visible through the holes in the third board, but unless you’ve memorized the four different possible combinations of third and fourth board orientations, you don’t know which of those spaces is closest to the center. If you have memorized those four combinations, you can probably find one best strategy by which to arrange for one of your pawns to end up on the best of those three survival spaces. Unfortunately, until the second board was removed you had no idea which of those three spaces would be the best, so you didn’t have sufficient information to arrange for your pawns to be in optimal places for third-board play; it’s just as likely that your opponent has a perfect strategy by which he can occupy the best survival space.

    There may be a perfect strategy for winning this game anyway, since the amount of hidden information is so small, but there is definitely hidden information.

  2. The_Null_Entry says:

    Hmm… ya know, I never really perceived any of the survival spaces to be more advantageous then any other, although that might be entirely incorrect, and thus didn’t consider the hidden information present in this game. The fourth board is an unusual conundrum requiring several moves to get from the starting spot to the survival whole, seemingly regardless of board orientation. I wish more of the boards required the foresight needed to win the fourth board. Regardless however, it is entirely possible to best your opponent without ever getting to this board if you can eliminate their pieces early in the game.

    Inner Circle is certainly not my favorite abstract logic game, it probably wouldn’t even make the top ten (although, thats a completely different blog post!). However, if you are looking for a good one, I highly recommend Quarto. To date it is one of my favorite abstract logic games, although it can be slightly indecisive between two very skilled players. As it is though, I can usually best my husband at this one, hands down. ;-p

  3. parkrrrr says:

    I was inspired by all of this to dig out my copy of Inner Circle and actually do the math. The first thing I noticed is that I misremembered the symmetry of the boards; there are six possible relative orientations of each pair of boards, for a total of 216 possible games and 36 possibilities for each beginning configuration. The second thing I noticed is that the endgame is uglier than I thought. A more detailed writeup can be found on my own blog, here: http://parkrrrr.livejournal.com/32352.html

    My next unfounded theory is that all of the problems with the end of this game could be fixed by the simple expedient of reprinting the last board so the orientation of the dots doesn’t prematurely give away its orientation relative to the third one. It still wouldn’t be an abstract strategy game, though; we’d be hiding even more information!

    Here’s an interesting question: does Gobblet qualify as an abstract logic game in your book? If you’ve been there from the beginning of the game and you have a perfect memory, you’d have perfect information. However, since you’re human, you presumably do not actually have perfect information.

    Again trying to pull myself back onto the main topic, I’m currently reading a game design book called “Rules of Play,” and they cover the underlying meat of your point about Recovery vs. Decisiveness in the chapter on cybernetic systems (which seems to be their fancy term for what us old-school engineer types would call feedback loops.) They make the same observation: there’s a delicate balance between runaway leader syndrome and “might as well just flip a coin.”

  4. MarylandBill says:

    I am not sure I agree with your belief that Chess is a game where it is realtively easy for a novice to weigh the benefits of different moves. Unless one has studied the game, it might be difficult to understand why anyone would open with anything other than d4 or e4, and likewise, when I have played stronger players (almost any serious player), it is rarely easy for me to understand what they are doing until they are already in position to tear me apart. I will grant I am a pretty weak chess player, but your argument above was that I should be able to understand what the player was doing. On a small board, I actually find Go to be a much more straightforward game.

    As for recovering from a significant disadvantage, honestly, I think the difficulty in that is directly related how strategic a game is. If the game is easy to recover from a big disadvantage, then strategy plays relatively little role in the game since a disadvantage can be overcome through a short burst of strong tactical play.

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