The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

The Ultimate Game

Tom Jolly

December, 2001

I've designed an awful lot of games in my time, most of them are in a file labeled "unplayable" or "to be tweaked at a later time." But deep in most gamers' design philosophy is to design the Ultimate Game.

There are (to me) at least three ways to define the Ultimate Game. One easy way is that you create a game that absolutely everyone in the world buys. The success of the Ultimate Game would be based on how well it sold. This is not my idea of the Ultimate Game.

Another way to view it is a game that includes all the rules we all already know. We call this game "Life", and no, I don't mean the Parker Brothers version, I mean real life. We live life, we all know most of the rules, and we can even change rules and add them as we go along. It's an incredible game, and different people measure whether they win or not using different measuring sticks. For some, it's a simple point system; whoever gets the most dollars wins. For others, it's a control system; whoever controls the most humans wins. For others, it's having and raising the most children, for others, it's murdering the most people. Oddly, since everyone can have a different winning goal, almost everyone can win the game.

However, this is also not my idea of the Ultimate Game, though it is an interesting philosophical item in and of itself. My idea of a game, first of all, is that it represents a subset of the rules of Life, or an artificially contrived set of rules that represent something else entirely. The key, of course, is that all the players agree to use the same rules, artificial or not. My idea of the Ultimate Game is much more obscure than either of the first two items.

Those of you who have had the disturbing experience of actually talking to me know that I revel in obscure and unique game mechanics. The game concept of nifty wooden tokens occupying territories on a map, done twenty different ways, is already wearing thin for me. The mechanic of helping another player in the process of helping yourself (very German) is even beginning to pale a bit. Though I still love playing the games, the uniqueness of the mechanic potentially being built into one of my own games becomes less likely, since it has become so commonplace. So, the Ultimate Game for me is going to be very, very strange. In fact, my design would require the game to have its own consciousness. No, I don't mean a self-aware computer game, I mean a self-aware board game.

Okay, sure I'm nuts, but I've already tried to put some preliminaries on paper. It goes something like this; players each have a set of interacting pieces, ten or so. Each player represents, at some level, a thought node, or neuron. A single idea, like "green" or something. When players play, using their own minds, they come to a consensus link between their two unique ideas. The "winner" of the consensus idea carries it away with him. Maybe it's one of the other guy's playing pieces. If he plays with another person/node in the "brain", they might reach another, slightly higher level consensus of differing concepts. The interlinks between concepts start building up as more and more players play each other. The interlinks can be concepts like "not" or "identical" or "is sometimes" or "prefers", etc. The players don't even have to be aware that they are tools for the game intelligence. Finally, after a million or so games are played, the board-game intelligence, represented by the game-piece set of the highest level player, yields some thought. Or perhaps it is continuously yielding thoughts as the game is played. I don't know. Perhaps it wouldn't even have human thoughts in that sense, though since humans are playing it, I don't see how it could avoid being shaped by human predispositions.

What is required is that the board-game intelligence be able to inflict its decisions on its environment. In this respect, it has to use the human tools at hand. This could be something as simple as causing humans to buy more "food" (i.e. game pieces) for it, so it can grow. It would have to be a very symbiotic relationship. The game-brain would think very, very slowly, but I wonder what sort of mountains it could move? I wonder what it would want from us?

- Tom Jolly

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