The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames


Mike Church

March, 2005

Motivation, Design, and Evolution, Part I

Among games, there is an elite class that has been awarded an exalted status: they are recognized as much deeper than mere recreation, designated as mind sports. These games are renowned for their strategic depth and beauty. Full-blown cultures and communities often develop around such games. For a game to be a mind sport, it is necessary that the game be predominantly one of skill and strategy. Chess and Go have been recognized as such; purely chance-based games like Roulette and Bingo have not, and never will. When games achieve this status, they develop rich cultures where strong reputations and skilled performance bring very real rewards: prestige, fame, and possibly a lucrative career. Mind sports can also smash barriers of social class: in the context of a Chess match, a wealthy businessman relates as an equal to the inner-city teenager across the table. Anthropologists and ludologists alike recognize that mind sports contribute greatly to culture.

Some games that have prominently achieved mind sport status are Chess, Go and Duplicate Bridge. More modern nominees are Poker, popularized by the game's World Series and World Tour, and possibly (despite my reservations about awarding any accolade to a blatant contest of corporate consumption) Magic: The Gathering.

Despite their obvious cerebral nature and strategic depth, I feel that the popular trick-taking games are underrepresented on the list of canonical mind-sports, and I blame one culprit: wide swings of chance resulting in quality variations among dealt hands. I call this factor hand-luck. Among players of relatively equal skill levels, hand-luck can easily play a decisive role, measurably influencing game outcomes. Duplicate Bridge admits this unfortunate tendency of its kernel game, Rubber Bridge: hand-luck is eliminated by having a large set of partnerships play the same hand, and scoring players according to their relative performance. However, duplication has imperfections. Most notably, the difficulty of amassing the required number of players relegates Duplicate Bridge to club and tournament settings. Also, since scores are kept differently in Duplicate, emergent behavior is likewise altered.

My driving goal in the design of Ambition, has been to create a trick-taking game in which the role of hand-luck would be as minimal as possible, without resorting to duplication. My ultimate desire is to create a skillful, deep mind sport with the capacity to generate its own rich culture. At the first goal, I believe I have succeeded; at the second, it is too early to judge. (Ask me at the 2018 World Ambition Tour.)

We will first discuss the trick-taking genre of card game, along with various mechanics frequently and prominently employed in this style of game. Next, in motivating aesthetic criteria for mind sports, we will discuss reasons for revising the "luck vs. skill" paradigm, by which games are often measured, to a more useful four-factor model. After this, I will present the mission statement I set for Ambition in the fall of 2003.

In the next installment, we will discuss emergence of hand-luck within other trick-taking games, and the design process specific to Ambition itself, including setbacks and surprises in the development. After this, we will evaluate and analyze the success of Ambition according to my own aesthetic criteria. As an addendum, I will provide discussion of the rules and emergent behavior of Ambition in its current form.

Trick-taking Games: Background

We now discuss the genre of card game known as trick-taking games. These are played with a deck of ordered or partially-ordered cards—for our purposes, 52 cards divided into four ordered suits. Usually, aces rank highest, twos lowest. Play to the trick occurs in a specific order: one person is obligated to lead (play first) to the trick, and after her, the others play in order by physical position (usually clockwise). How to choose the leader to the first trick is specified by each game's rules, and subsequent tricks are led by the winner of the previous trick. Most trick-taking games require players to follow suit; that is, if able, they must play in the suit of the card led.

In the absence of a trump suit, the highest-ranking card of the suit led wins a trick. Objectives of trick-taking games vary: sometimes players seek to win tricks; other times, they seek to lose them. We here discuss several recurring themes among trick-taking games:

Positive objective: In many trick-taking games, (Bridge, Euchre, 500) players desire unambiguously to win tricks, and cannot be penalized for taking "too many".

Evasion objective: Other trick-taking games (Hearts, Reversi) have the opposite objective: it is best to lose tricks.

Exact prediction: Some games involve a predictive element. For example, in Oh Hell, players bid on how many tricks they will take, and score points only if they win that exact number. Spades penalizes falling short of one's bid (getting "set") quite heavily and exceeding the bid ("sandbags") more leniently. In these games, all players bid.

Competitive bidding: Bridge, 500 and Euchre feature competitive auctions. The team whose bid is highest takes an "active" role and can be rewarded for achieving the bid; the other team takes a "defending" role and tries to set the bidders. In many of these games, including those listed above, winning the bid confers the right to determine the trump suit.

Trump suit: Many positive trick-taking games feature a special suit, called "trump". Cards in this suit outrank those in any other suit when played to a trick. Trump may be static (as in Spades) or dynamic (as in Bridge). When the trump suit is dynamic, the ability to choose which suit acquires this designation becomes very powerful.

Plain-trick scoring: In some trick-taking games, only the number of tricks taken is relevant, and the contents thereof are irrelevant.

Point-trick scoring: In others, numerical point values are assigned to certain cards, and assessed to the person taking the trick. For example, Pinochle and Hearts are point-trick games.

Partnership: In games such as Bridge, players compete in two teams of two people; teams are scored as a group and therefore share objectives.

Exchange: Some trick-taking games allow players the opportunity to exchange cards in their hands for others. These cards may come from a separate pool (500), a partner (Spades, when "Nil" is bid), or an opponent (Hearts).

Reversals: Reversals are conditions, provided by the rules, whereby players can reverse, locally or globally, the game's objectives. For example, in Hearts a player who collects all fourteen penalty cards ("shooting the moon") deflects the penalty points, which would otherwise be assigned to him, to his opponents. "Nil" and "misère" in positive games like Spades and 500 are other examples of reversals. Traditionally, these are high-risk, high-reward options to players with unusual hands that would otherwise be doomed.

Context: Some trick-taking games feature rules whereby the rank-order of cards might change according to an external context. For example, the rank-order might be altered in the trump suit, or "sometimes high" properties might be awarded to traditionally low cards such as the 2.

Trick-taking games are built by combining a number of the elements listed above, in order to produce a challenging and strategically complex game. Simpler games become prone to hand-luck as players figure out basic strategy, while more complex ones allow players to grow in skill indefinitely. The role of hand-luck is present in all trick-taking games, and may be unavoidable. This reflects a tension central to this style of game: players must demonstrate skill by adeptly managing dynamic, chaotic situations, in the forms of their randomly dealt hands. But we do not want this chance factor to exert significant influence upon game outcomes: then our game degrades, partially, to one of chance.

Ambition, as we will discuss later, was originally designed with a blend of positive and evasion objectives, point-trick scoring, an exchange à la Hearts, and a context rule (the high/low 2). Shortly after, reversals were added to complete the game.

Four Elements of Outcome: Breaking the Luck/Skill Paradigm

Key in determining whether or not a game will develop mind sport status is the extent to which success in the game requires skill and strategy. Roulette and Bingo, driven by pure chance, are not recognized as mind sports, and never will be. A chancy game is not a mind sport. For this reason, there is frequent discussion of the "luck/skill balance" within a game. Yet, we ask ourselves, how should we define these constructs of "luck" and "skill"? In some cases, they are difficult to separate.

Consider Rock, Paper, Scissors (RPS). A single round is luck: there is no way for a rational player to predict which strategy her opponent will choose. Iterated, the game becomes one of skill; it would remain a game of chance against a player who selects each strategy with uniform probability (the "optimal" strategy) but real humans are terrible random-output generators, and a skilled RPS player exploits this fact. So, RPS is difficult to classify as "luck" or "skill". Rather, it's driven by strategy, which in practice straddles the supposed dichotomy.

Then consider Chess: modulo the white/black issue, it's considered to be a game of pure skill. I claim it's not. If it were a game of "pure skill", the outcome would never change, even among players of very close skill levels. A factor known as flux (along with strategic elements) enters play, creating a healthy psychological tension between nearly-equal players.

Therefore, I claim we should eschew the traditional luck/skill paradigm in favor of an altogether different model where four factors drive the outcome of a game.

The first is pure chance arising from impartial, probabilistic agents such as dice, shuffled cards, and wheels of fortune. Random by design, (fair) players have no influence over these game elements.

The second is personal skill of the players, which results from experience, knowledge, intuition, and judgment. Players maintain their skill levels even when playing in new environments, and with unfamiliar players.

The third element, strategy, in truth straddles the luck/skill dichotomy. Strategy involves the intended and unintended effects of players—teammates or opponents—on one another as they seek their own objectives—it is the interactive element of play. In general, strategy is, by a significant measure, skill rather than luck: the ability to formulate an effective strategy, while anticipating and thwarting those of opposing players, is skillful more than chancy. It does happen, however, that players get "lucky" due to unintended effects of other players seeking their own goals. RPS, in my classification, would also be strategic in nature.

The fourth factor, flux, refers to personal fluctuations of a player's attention, interest, reasoning, and other mental faculties. Positive flux is sometimes described as being "in the zone"; negative flux as being "on tilt". Flux is ethereal and human, difficult to harness or measure, but very powerful in games. Among players of nearly equal skill, flux generates tension and excitement as it becomes prominently influential over game outcomes.

In analyzing a game's balance, we should concentrate not merely on the separation of "luck" apart from "skill", but more finely upon the balance of chance, skill, strategy, and flux.

Specific to trick-taking games, there is usually only one source of pure chance: hand-luck.

Balance and Aesthetics

We describe a game as decisive if players with superior skill and strategy (and flux) will usually defeat weaker players. We want the game's outcome to be significant; some meaningful measure of external and self-assessment should be at stake. Decisive games can generate rich cultures; indecisive ones will not. We describe the game as rigid if it is so decisive that game outcomes tend to repeat without variation, even among players with roughly equal skill levels. There is little uncertainty in rigid games, and they are rarely challenging to expert players. For this reason, they usually fail to provide the excitement necessary for culture-generation. Finally, we describe a game as tensely decisive if it is decisive but not rigid: superior players usually win, but the game remains challenging even to them. Furthermore, flux plays an important role in tensely decisive games, often measurably influencing outcomes.

It is ideal for a mind sport to be tensely decisive: there should be uncertainty and excitement as to the game's outcome, but results should be significant. This can be a difficult balance for a designer to achieve.

In order to discuss decisivity, it is necessary to specify a timeframe: games usually become more decisive as time progresses and skill-based advantages accumulate. For example, consider Poker. A hand, or even an evening, of Texas Hold 'em is not decisive: it is common for an inferior player, on a bad call, to outdraw a superior player. Even solid players frequently lose large amounts of money—sometimes going bankrupt—because of weak cards and "bad beats". Poker is only decisive in the very long term: tens to hundreds of hours.

Why, then, is Poker so highly regarded? In my estimation, there are two reasons. 

  1. Poker is not a game played in hours or sittings, but one game played over the entirety of one's life. Advanced players recognize this fact and accept the "bad beats" and nights of loss. (A good Poker player's per-hour standard deviation is frequently eight or more times her mean expectation.) 
  2. Descending from the gambling tradition and only recently attaining any measure of mind sport status, Poker follows a distinctly different aesthetic from the trick-taking card games. The gambling tradition is much more tolerant of chance taking a prominent, decisive role; in fact, it encourages it.

We should not expect hundreds of hours of patience from our players in developing a trick-taking game. Ideally, the game should be tensely decisive within one episode of the game. This requires a prominent role for skill and strategy, a diminished role for chance (hand-luck).

I admit that my aesthetic values are not the only meaningful ones that can be applied to games. They are intended to apply specifically to mind sports. Family and social games (Monopoly) require chance in order to satisfy all players: chance is an equalizer, and if the six-year-old has no chance of defeating his parents, he may not enjoy the game. Furthermore, games in the gambling tradition (Roulette, Blackjack) allow wide swings of luck because, in their respective cultures, these are considered exciting rather than damaging to the game.

Magic: The Gathering cardsLikewise, I posed Magic: The Gathering as a candidate for mind sport status, which may seem to contradict my aesthetic criteria. Magic has hand-luck, to the point of a gaping design flaw, known as "mana-screw". This fact might contradict my claim that hand-luck inhibits mind sport status, but what allows Magic to enjoy (for now) such recognition is the introduction of a quite novel skillful element: deck construction. For Magic to maintain status as a "mind sport", it will have to address and correct for this design flaw. An even graver threat to the game's long-term health is that it unabashedly favors the wealthy, snubbing the time-honored belief, held by some, that games occur in a "magic circle" where players, under the "law", are equal. That Magic favors economically advantaged players engenders contempt for the game, possibly cheating and counterfeiting to some degree.

The game-space of a 52-card pack is small; a designer is unlikely to develop something akin to deck construction in that nutshell. So Ambition must chase a different sort of novelty: a trick-taking card game where hand-luck is minimized.

Mission Statement for Ambition

With the aesthetic criteria for mind sports thus formulated, we are ready to assert a mission statement for the card game, Ambition, representing the design goals I drafted in the fall of 2003:

Ambition, a trick-taking game played with the standard (52-card) pack, should be fun to play, strategically deep, and mostly decisive within about an hour (6-8 rounds). The role of pure chance—that is, hand-luck—should be minimal as possible. However, the randomizing element—the dealt hands—must subject players to a diverse array of challenges. Players should never feel "doomed" by their dealt hands, but should often feel challenged by them.

In our next installment, we shall discuss the specific design process of Ambition, and analyze the success of the game according to these design criteria.

- Mike Church

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