The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

Letters - February, 2003

David J. Bush: I enjoyed the article [Sleuth review], but I take issue with some of the points raised.

"Not too taxing on the intellect"

That depends on how well you want to play it. The puzzle provided with the game is arguably typical of the chain of reasoning you need to put together to determine the hidden card. There are plenty of times when the reasoning required is much more complicated. Perhaps you haven't tried the "Supersleuth" variant, in which all answers are strictly numbers, and no cards are shown. There is even another level of play for this game, where I have never gone, which involves paying attention not only to your own information, but what do you know about what the others know, and how can you learn what you need without revealing to your opponents the info that they need. Pretty heady stuff!

"The unreliability of drawing a useful search card makes the methods of questioning more random than they are in Clue, since a player may be forced to use a search card he really doesn't want to and question someone he really might not need to."

I strongly disagree. In Clue, most of the time you can't even ask a question; you're waiting for the dice to let you. The Sleuth search cards place no restriction on whom you ask, just what to ask. Once you have entire categories accounted for, useless search cards become more frequent, but you can still hear numerical answers to questions asked by other players. There's perhaps more skill there than you realize.

"The information sheets ... are not really too useful for recording conjectures and guesses (like if you note that a player has 3 blue cards)."

An extra sheet of paper may be helpful, but a compact notation is possible for the info sheets, for games up to five players. For more than four opponents, there probably isn't enough room for all your notes. Here's the method I use:

Each corner of the box corresponding to a particular gem card, is devoted to information about a particular opponent. The corners can be assigned the same way your opponents are seated relative to you. Each piece of "vague" information is assigned a unique symbol. I usually run through the alphabet and have to use upside down and backwards letters to indicate each new bit of information. For example, capital A could be assigned to "player 2 has 3 blue cards." Each box for a blue card that you don't already know about, is given the label A3 in the corner corresponding to that player. Later, if you find out what one of those blue cards is, you change the 3 to a 2 in the remaining boxes. The blue card that you identified is given a big dot in the center, with a line leading to the corner for that opponent. Eventually you may determine that all but 2 of the blue cards belong to other players, so you can then conclude that those remaining 2 cards belong to player 2, and label those boxes accordingly.

On the other hand, if you determine what all 3 of player 2's blue cards are, you can then conclude that the remaining blue cards must not belong to that player. This can be indicated by some distinctive shape, in the corner for that player, in each of the boxes which are still unaccounted for. Once you have placed such a box shape in each opponent's corner for a gem card, you can conclude that that is the missing card, assuming your chain of reasoning was correct.

You may also want to write each separate info on another sheet, such as "A:2B--3" to indicate player two has 3 blues of unknown gem type and unknown quantities, and this is represented by A on the info sheet. Redundancy can be helpful if you find you made a mistake, and need to start your chain of reasoning over again.

Don't forget extra conclusions you can draw, based on the number of cards in each player's hand. For example, in a 5-player game, each player gets 7 gem cards. If you know player 2 has 3 blues, 1 red, and 2 greens, then he must have 1 yellow card. This info can be given another unique symbol for the info sheet.

Anyway, I'm glad you like the game, but I hope you will try it again sometime. It's really very deep! Thanks for your time.

Tom Jolly: Will Baker's Master's Degree in Gaming brings home some interesting facts, primarily that long-time gamers know a hell of a lot about their own industry. Looking over the "curriculum" it astounded me just how much information gamers carry around in their heads as part of their hobby. And designers and manufacturers are even worse (or better, depending on your viewpoint).

Oddly enough, while surfing gaming sites, I came across, Tom Sloper's site on game design (and his own games), and he teaches a course in it at Cal State U. Dominguez Hills. So, I guess this isn't too far fetched (except for the fact it's a single course instead of 30 or so). It's funny to see so many people trying so hard to get into an industry that pays so little.

Larry Levy: I found Sus Lundgren's article on the possibility of adding computing capabilities to board games fascinating. The subject was so interesting, that I downloaded her thesis and read through that! (Others may want to do that as well--there's quite a bit of interest to non-geeky board gamers.) It's very possible that we are on the cusp of something very new and different. We're already seeing some hybrid games; Knizia's Monopoly Stock Exchange, which uses a computer to set stock prices and keep track of shares, is but one example.

To be honest, I have mixed feelings about combining computers and board games. One of the things I like about board games is that you know all the underlying causes of the effects. So I know my action will cause the stock to rise $1, or will eliminate your army, or will give me 5 Victory Points. A computer can take care of far more complex interactions than humans care to deal with, but I'm not sure I'd like it if I couldn't peek behind the curtain to see exactly what caused everything to happen. I've noticed this dissatisfaction when playing computer games (I used to pour through the instructions, so I knew exactly why everything occurred) and I would think it would bug me if it was part of a board game.

Having said that, I can still see lots of exciting ways in which this technology could be applied to improve board games. Games in which players try to obtain information about actions that will occur in the future are a natural possibility. For example, imagine a stock market game in which player actions include getting tips on stock performance or doing company analyses. A computer could easily handle this.

Another idea comes from the ongoing controversy concerning "random" dice rolls. The leading example of this is Settlers of Catan and all its ilk. It's quite common for dice rolls to bunch up in this game—for example, rolling a lot of eights in a short time span, or no fives for half the game. This can have an enormous effect on the game, rewarding or penalizing players just because they happen to have settlements next to luckily or unluckily chosen hexes. Lots of players accept this and move on, but a number of gamers have tried to come up with fixes for this. The most common is the Dice Deck, which usually consists of 36 cards, one for each die combination of 2D6. This ensures that each number will occur the correct number of times and lessens the likelihood of bunched rolls, but it introduces other problems. For example, if the first card shows a 12, you know that that number cannot occur for the next 35 rolls and can adapt your strategy to this. Something that might really be useful is a computer generating dice rolls. The likelihood of a number being rolled would depend upon its base odds, along with how often it has appeared over the whole game (trying to make it come up the appropriate number of times), as well as how often it has appeared in recent rolls (trying to even things out over the short run). This would not be straightforward and might require a little statistical know-how, but once the algorithm is determined, the programming and hardware implementation would be trivial. If a "fairer" way of determining dice rolls in Settlers and other games could be devised, there would be a lot of happy gamers. Similar applications include avoiding clumping in card set collection games like Union Pacific, but that would be considerably harder (since the game uses physical cards), and is probably less of a recognized problem.

Anyway, it's all tremendously interesting and affords a very different angle on classic boardgaming. Thanks to Sus for writing the article; I very much look forward to seeing how her future efforts in this field pan out.

Gee Barger: Interestingly enough, I found that several of the "entirely new" mechanics made possible by utilizing embedded computing (see Bits & Pieces) are already in use, either computerized or not, and have been since the 80's

For example:

Computerized Clues: Any of the Parker Brothers/Milton Bradley electronic games (Stop Thief, Lost Treasure.)

Complex Commodities: Not unlike the "Bazaar" from Dark Tower.

Secret Partnerships: No computer is required, and the mechanism is quite nice in Inkognito.

Active Surface: Greg Aleknevicus sites Vampire Hunter, and I would add Die Magier von Pangea.

Espionage: While not as detailed as what the author would have the computer doing, I'm sure, Heimlich and Co. uses this quite well as a hidden identity version of the mechanic.

Would the addition of more electronic components actually make these games better? Possibly...but it seems to me that the social aspects of boardgaming, which many see as the hobby's main appeal become lost as more and more "non-human" aspects are added.

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