I am fascinated by games.

A thin cross-section of culture and interaction codified into a set of cards and position markers. Complex processes transformed into simple patterns through cooperative turn taking and competitive resource management. Epic historical events retold, asking new questions each time about the importance of cleverness and the value of courage. An electron microscope for behavior, a workshop for civilization, and an encyclopedea of knowledge.

They’re also a delightful way to pass the time.

For several years, I had the good fortune to have friends who played a variety of board games a couple of times a month. Through them, I was exposed to dozens of games, and the range thereof was considerable. Our habit of learning a new game, playing it once or twice, before talking about game design elements and how they worked together was incredibly instructive. I learned that I enjoyed thinking and talking about game mechanics more than actually playing the games.

I’m fascinated by game theory and see its application everywhere. As a programmer, abstracting problems is second nature. Games are a way of abstracting the world, and the rules of games say a lot about the mental functions we use when we actually interact with the world. Game theory is used to try to understand complex human interactions in the real world, by trying to understand both how systems and processes direct behavior, and how people make decisions in complex situations.

So when I think about games, I’m really thinking about the structure and mechanics of the game. I’m wondering about how the game conceptualizes its world and what elements are important, and which are “functional”. I’m imagining how that game works over a hundred plays or a thousand plays, and how easy the mechanics are for the players to manage. Some games have an excellent abstraction of some real-world processes, yet are smooth and enjoyable. Some games have a radically simplistic representation, yet retain the tediousness of reality through the course of the game. Finding the balance is a great challenge.

All games lie upon an axis between pure chance and pure skill. The standard pattern is that each player takes a turn to play. When each player takes their turn, the degree to which their action is determined by a random number generating device pushes that game toward the ‘all chance’ end of the axis. Inasmuch as a player is given a free hand to choose from a set of options, the game is pushed toward the ‘all skill’ end. This is a fundamental descriptive term for any game.

If your only option to play has you roll a die to determine what or where or how far, that makes it a game of chance, not skill. There is a lot of debate in the world of games today regarding the optimal position of games on this axis. Personally, I don’t like games of chance. I recognize that randomization is an important structural element of many games, it’s just my preference that any chance element applies to the entire game, not a specific player on a specific turn.

Ultimately, this comes down to my desire to be a participant, not just an observer. While being the one to throw the die and move the pawn is “participating” in a sense, if the player isn’t making choices, then they simply become a biological cog in the machine that drives the game. It becomes a lot more like watching TV. This is a good mechanic for folks who want a simple, non-thinking game, but it leaves me very little analytical meat to enjoy.

Folks have been playing games since forever, and game pieces are among our earliest archaelogical finds. Some of the oldest game related artifacts we have serve the same purpose as dice. Knucklebones, colored shells, and painted sticks were all probably originally used to divine the intention of the gods. The earliest games may have started as a kind of divination, where the shells or sticks served as a communication tool with the divine. Later, they served a way to select from a small set of choices. Having a means to make a choice without adding personal bias (or perhaps inviting the bias of the gods and the ancestors) appears to be a very early component of games.

Another common, ancient game artifact type is position indicators, which are used to mark a player’s location on a track, or a grid. Grids have been found, scratched into stone and created with wood and bone, which were clearly used to represent physical spaces or process positions. Closed loops of connected squares were used for racing games. Square grids were used for area domination games, such as go or chess.

Senet — Egyptian grid based race game with position indicators

The oldest games we see rendered in art are in the form of position markers on a grid. In these games, the players take turns moving the markers along a specific path and the first to the goal would win. Ancient Roman graffiti includes closed path game tracks scratched into stonework, and the earliest known printed board game, thematically a goose race, was based on a curvy, yet closed, path.

Collections of position indicators for each player are used in some games as a means to occupy space as in go or as simulation of battle confrontation, as in chess. In go, each marker is a simple colored stone to indicate which side had placed it. Except when a stone is captured by an opponent, the stones, once placed, do not move. The game changes as play goes on, as the importance of some spaces change based on what open spaces are left around them.

The game Monopoly is based on a closed path and requires dice to move the player tokens. The game was originally designed by Elizabeth Magie in 1902, trying to spread the message that capitalism is evil. The game’s unregulated cutthroat economy is designed to be hated. “The Landlord’s Game” had a second set of rules that called for players to work cooperatively in order to show how socialism would work better than capitalism in the same context. But the capitalists at Parker Bros. yeeted the socialist rules and glorified greed instead.

Backgammon is an ancient game that uses both collections of position indicators and a closed path, such that elements of resource management and area domination are woven into the competitive race dynamic. The game uses dice to determine the distance a player can move the stones, but it’s up to the player (and the condition of the board) to choose which stones are moved, giving the game a nice balance of chance and skill.

But chess… ahh, chess… Chess is the most interesting game that I have the least desire to play. As much as I love thinking about chess, I don’t enjoy playing it much at all. Chess is considered an ‘all-skill’ game, as which piece is moved and how far is entirely determined by the player and the underlying rules of the game. Each player has to face the consequences of their own and their opponent’s actions. There’s a purity to that. The competition itself literally ranks the players. I have built chess sets, and have chess on every device, yet I don’t ever play it. Instead, I like to think about it.

Chess is one of a whole class of abtract strategy games played throughout Europe and Asia starting at least by the 6th century AD, where two equal armies meet on an 8×8 grid. Although there is some variation in pieces used and grid size, the general idea is consistent that each player has the standard war technology of their day and has their choice of play on each turn as each endeavors to capture their opponent’s King.

Modern chess uses armies of 16 pieces, composed from six ranks, each of which having their own rules about movement and capture. Most pieces can capture any opposing piece by landing in the same square but are unable to pass through or land on friendly pieces in their path. Throughout the game, there will be pieces stuck in position, unable to move until other pieces move or are captured. Successfully capturing the king often involves trapping them against their own pieces.

The start of the modern game keeps the six most powerful pieces trapped and unable to take the first move: only pawns and knights have that honor. The eight unobstructed pawns can go one or two spaces on their respective first moves, and the two leaping knights each have two squares to which they can jump over the line of pawns. Thus, there are twenty possible, specific moves from which each player can legitimately choose as their first.

A glance at a game in play would seem to indicate a great number of options available for each player, yet a player cannot take a piece and put it just anywhere — rules must be followed, and only certain destination locations are thus allowed to each piece. Sometimes an empty square is the focus of several pieces, and so its selection becomes a strategic choice. A good deal of chess strategy involves using pieces in combination in order to create and execute on just such ‘protected’ or ‘trapped’ squares.

Globally, there are many different versions of chess. Tamerlane chess, shatranj al-kabir, is a medieval variant of Persian chess, shatranj, with eleven unique pieces and several arrangements of starting positions on an 11×10 grid, but any modern chess player could easily understand the game today. Shogi, or Japanese chess, has a brilliant mechanic that promotes successful pieces to greater power and allows captured pieces to be put back in play. Xiangqi, or Chinese chess, places markers on the intersctions, not in the spaces, and has obstacles and variant pathways designed into the play grid. Some versions include viziers, camels, cannons, generals, or elephants, each with their own specific movements.

There are some demented variations of chess that use dice or cards to determine which piece is moved, introducing an element of chance that requires players to make less than optimal moves. Some might say this adds an element of realism to the game, throwing in the ‘fog of war’. But for the most part, such tawdry distractions of the jaded are abandoned, and today’s game is played without any random limitation on the players’ choices.

Professional chess players will record every game they play to a log by coding each move as it occurs throughout the game. Later, they will study those logs, often replaying the games on a board at home, or in their minds. There’s a long, honorable history of chess logging, and it gets done in a number of ideosyncratic ways. Anyone who reads about chess or plays with a chess club will be familiar with them. Collections of these logs have been made, and analyses of those collections have been made. Through these approaches (and other, less savory ones) people have attempted to learn the “secret” of chess, or at least to learn how to stay ahead of their competition. 

From such analysis, it can be demonstrated that specific orders of play statistically preceed victories, and as such complex sets of up to twenty or more moves are documented, named, and discussed by the masters of chess, who call them “openings”. Advanced players recognize these openings and generally know a handful of popular replies, or attempts to shift the opening into one more favorable to the defending player. There are specific openings that tend to lead to victories, and others that represent such a massive loss of momentum and direction that only defeat is possible. Many players have favorite openings, and some openings have gone through faddish popularity.

These openings have been sorted into lists such that the ones associated with the most winning games are grouped together at the top, and the biggest loser openings are grouped at the bottom. If you look at just the first, opening move for each of these openings, it becomes apparent that most games are won by using one of the center six pawns as the opening move, with the center two providing the best results. Using the outer pawns or the knights as the first move leads to very poor results most of the time.

While capturing the king is the nominal object of the game, strategy dictates that the center of the board is the first object of conquest. Whoever owns this has a great deal of control and can blunt the force of any attack. The various pieces hold specific point values, such that capturing one is often more valuable than another, so capturing high value pieces becomes another object of conquest. Although amorphous, a third object of conquest is “momentum,” which has to do with being able to focus on attack rather than defense. The basics of the game are dead simple, but the depth of knowledge surrounding it is astounding.

The basics are so simple that chess was one of the earliest applications of the digital computer era, and the construction of such games became a common task in programming classes. The board is a grid, the pieces are objects, the movement of the pieces is a vector, and the log is a data set defined over the iteration of turns. Everything about chess abstracts cleanly into simple data elements, but once you start considering the possibilities of all the moves that can come after the next one, you’re immediately dealing with an absurd and nearly unmanagable quantity of data.

Modern computer chess engines outplay every human player. It’s simply a matter of engineering to create a device that easily handles enormous data sets. The comparatively paltry few chess moves are no problem for the average, modern device. They don’t just know the winning openings. They know the best move for any play and can list all the subsequent best moves to follow it. This may seem alarming, but I see it as humanity once again, creating a tool that overcomes an obstacle to reach a desired result. Even if the obstacle, in this case, is a game.

And yet, we continue to play the game against each other. There’s no guarantee that any particular opening will result in victory, merely a statistical indication. There are no strategies that haven’t been overcome. Even if both players can know all the best possible moves in a situation, there’s no guarantee that they’ll choose the best one. Sometimes, lesser moves are chosen in order to surprise an expert player into a fatal error.

Sometimes lesser moves are chosen because they’re the best the player can do, and the way that player learns which tactics work well and which do not — through experience. The game is accessible to people despite age or disability, and provides a means to communicate that transcends language and culture. It reaches to us from the distant past as a distilled jewel of knowledge and whetstone of kings.

This is why I’m fascinated by games.


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