The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

Letters - April, 2005

Mario T. Lanza: I just finished reading It's Only a Game, Right? where Mr. Scarborough seems put off by games where players escape into unsavory roles. While I afford every person the right to a personal preference, I personally am not put off by taking on the role of an anti-hero—a pirate, a mobster, a greedy corporation, etc. As he alludes to himself, games are, in part, about escapism. I watch movies and I read books, which also provide a fantasy where sometimes the characters do despicable deeds (Stephen King) or are about despicable topics (Schindler's List, Amistad). I enjoy these because I don't take them too seriously, because I realize they only paint a dramatic story even if rooted in real events. Obviously, I would exercise a greater deal of restraint for what I'd allow developing children to be exposed.

Still, playing Puerto Rico never struck me as the least bit offensive.

I'd stay miles away from any game where I take on the role of Holocaust Nazis or where I am required to perform gruesome acts against mankind, but playing Bootleggers, no problem. Sometimes despicable topics can be handled with sensitivity. Let's look at movies for a second.

Schindler's List took the most sensitive topic and painted a portrait of a man, while not perfect, nobly risked his own life to save many.

Natural Born Killers, at the other end of the spectrum, seemed purely an evil movie with no redeeming message.

I guess what I'm saying is, yes, there are some shady topics which afford escapism into shady roles, but only for the sake of creating an entirely different sort of experience, not to glamorize the anti-hero or the wrongdoing itself. I'm okay with that. There aren't many cooperative titles, so inevitably most players will play aggressively and sometimes use injurious tactics against their opponents' positions; this doesn't make grown men enemies in the real world—unless you're playing Diplomacy, of course! How boring it would be if the goal of every game was to be kind and thoughtful, perhaps helping old ladies cross the streets printed on a game board. Where's the tension or conflict—the orneriness!—in that? Topics tied closely to dramatic conflict produce more tension and more dramatic results; therein lies the game.

Gerald McDaniel: I enjoyed reading Carol Brunt's article titled The Fine Art of Not Taking A Dive. As a parent and grandparent who has gone through the same questions and solutions as Carol well describes, I congratulate her on her decisions and recommendations.

One additional approach she did not mention is that of using a handicap to help offset the adult's advantage (similar to handicaps in bowling or golf). When my children were young and we began playing the game Battleship, I had an advantage because of my experience with the reasoning process of deduction. To help level the playing field, I would play the game with fewer ships for them to have to find, and I tried not to be as sneaky when placing my ships as I would have been if playing against another adult. We did this for only a short while, because they soon grasped the nuances of searching and were quickly beating me without the handicap.

We applied this approach to several games, especially when introducing a game that really challenged them. It helped their self-esteem and lessened the gap of our scores, while I had to play as best I could to try to win. As I recall, they were very motivated to gradually reduce and finally eliminate the handicap, so they could enjoy beating me "fair and square."

Having applied the solutions Carol described, in addition to using handicapping, I can say that these approaches can be very successful. These days, we play games almost every weekend with our grown son, daughter, and son-in-law, as well as our young granddaughter and grandson. The entire family has a great time playing games together. It's worth the effort!

Patrick Laffey: I showed [the article] to my wife, who works in early childhood education, and she was in agreement with Carol on when to let children win and when they are old enough to learn to lose graciously.

For myself I look for ways to try to level the field a bit. For example, giving a Queen advantage in Chess. Games such as Napoleon, (from Columbia games) where there are three players, one French and two allied. In this game the French must achieve their objects by a certain time against the other two players, has away of pitting quality against quantity. The children take the allies and dad must achieve his victory conditions one day earlier than on the time track, evens things out a bit. In general I look for games where slight changes to the victory conditions will even the playing field between the more experienced player (usually dad) and the inexperienced players (usually mom and the kids). Or, as Carol has pointed out, play as teams.

Dan Hanegan: Though I have none of my own, I do find myself gaming with friends' children from time time. I, too, am uncomfortable with deliberately throwing a game, but also dislike seeing kids lose constantly, an experience that can be much more traumatic for a child than an adult. I would like to add one additional strategy to your list: look for games the kids can beat you at.

Kids minds simply don't work the same as adults. For most skill based games, this works against them. Adults' greater experience, superior verbal skills, better developed logic and so on usually allow them to craft more effective strategies. However, some game concepts are so unique that the adult's experience is useless, and the child's superior ability to learn completely new things dominates.

The game I have found that best exemplifies this is the card game Set, by Set Enterprises. Set involves a deck of cards marked with geometric symbols, that can be combined in a variety of ways to make 3 card sets. There is no luck element whatsoever. There is also no text to read, no resources to manage, no complex rules: nothing that gives an adult an advantage based on superior experience. It is nothing but pattern matching; but in my experience kids catch on much faster than adults. Even after several years of playing the game, most 8-12 year olds can consistently beat me after their first game. And against inexperienced adults... prepare for stunned looks of shock and humiliation when the kids outscore the adults 5 to 1 or so.

Dan Blum: In response to Jeff Goldsmith's letter, while Kaliko (aka Psyche-Paths, under which name the game was first published in 1969) does look rather like Tantrix, the tile sets are actually rather different. Kaliko uses all possible combinations of lines in 3 colors, whereas Tantrix uses a subset of combinations (possibly all those without straight lines, according to a BGG commenter) of lines in 4 colors. The games played with the tiles are also different.

Todd Neller: In the March issue of The Games Journal, Stefan Alexander wrote an enjoyable article on various types of "hard decisions". In the section "Hard Decision #1: Press Your Luck", Alexander mentions the jeopardy dice game Pig. I'm writing to share online resources for readers who would enjoy looking into this prototypical "press your luck" game in detail.

The game of Pig is the first and perhaps simplest jeopardy dice game described in Reiner Knizia's Dice Games Properly Explained. The first player to score 100 points wins. Each turn, a player repeatedly rolls a single die until either the player decides to hold (stop rolling) or a 1 is rolled. (Both end the turn.) If a 1 ("pig") is rolled, the player scores nothing. If the player holds before a 1 is rolled, the player scores the turn total, the sum of the rolls of that turn. Players take turns until one player wins by holding and reaching a score of 100 or more points.

For such a simple dice game, optimal play is surprisingly complex. In his book, Knizia calculated that one should hold at 20 points to maximize the expected points of a turn. However, as Alexander noted, there is a significant difference between playing to score and playing to win. In order to win more frequently, one has to be willing to lose more spectacularly. In this figure, one can see the complex boundary between situations where you should roll and hold. The gray solid represents situations where it is optimal to roll.

At the Game of Pig website you can play an optimal computer Pig player, see 3D VRML visualizations of perfect strategy, and learn about the game s history and many variations. A journal article on the game's analysis, Optimal Play of the Dice Game Pig, is also available.

For programmers interested in solving such games, I am in the process of developing course materials for the National Science Foundation that teach the techniques I used to solve Pig and many of its variants (including an approximate solution to Pass the Pigs). These materials can be found at:

Pig has also proven to be an excellent tool for teaching probability concepts from the middle school level on up. Pig educational materials are available online in the Links by Variant section of the website.

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