Friday, June 22, 2018

After the War

This is a response to Ben Hoffman's fascinating analysis of the economic and social consequences of wartime mobilization, available at


The Problem with Demobilization

Ben, thanks for another useful and original essay! I accept your claims that (1a) collecting taxes for self-defense can put farmers who aren't used to doing much trading in the position of being forced to take on private debt simply to meet their civic obligations, and that (1b) a benevolent government might need to borrow money for a war of self-defense above and beyond what it can collect by taxing farmers, creating public debts, and that (1c) the government's attempts to pay back these public debts after winning the war by taxing more than it spends can cause compound harm that is worse than the sum of its parts by deflating the value of the labor that farmers might otherwise have used to service and repay their private debts, causing the farmers to go bankrupt in ways that are difficult for the farmers to predict or avoid or cope with.

I likewise accept your claims that (2a) prolonged or intense war can leave villages 'hollowed out' or otherwise less comfortable or sustainable places to live, and that (2b) forcibly resettling ex-villagers back in their old villages, even when done with careful planning, has repeatedly led to horrific casualties and suffering.

I further accept your (implicit?) claim that (3) trying to cope with the above problems by using fiat currency to artificially stimulate urban employment saps our ability to find joy and inner peace by training us to interpret all of our experiences as either service to an outside authority (which is compulsory, and therefore unpleasant) or luxury consumption (which is shallow, and therefore unsatisfying). At least, I'm assuming that's the chain of causality you're trying to draw between World War 2 and your co-worker not realizing that she could put her kitchen knife away if that would make her happier.

Coping with the Collapse of Wartime Demand

So, what would be a better solution to post-war demobilization? For starters, I think it's necessary to acknowledge that there's a very real loss associated with the sudden collapse of wartime demand. On the one hand, people *must* make investments in wartime production because otherwise the nation will not be able to increase its production sharply enough, and the nation will lose the war as a result. See, e.g., Nazi Germany, which coddled its home front until 1943 and was therefore unable to match the Soviet Union's more ruthless production of tanks and planes. On the other hand, the social utility of wartime production very sharply decreases the day after your enemies surrender, and you can't accurately predict or control the timing of your enemies surrender. That means *someone* will be a big loser when the carousel comes to an abrupt stop. If you build a tank factory in 1941, you're a genius. If you build a tank factory in 1942, you're a genius. If you build a tank factory in 1943, you're a genius. If you build a tank factory in 1944, you break even, and if you build a tank factory in 1945, you lose your shirt. The problem is that ex ante you have no idea how long the war will last. *Someone* will lose their shirt by patriotically opening a tank factory (or moving to a factory city to work at the tank factory, or moving to a factory city to open a cafeteria to sell dinner to laborers at the tank factory). This loss is real, and the loss is not preventable by any means short of achieving permanent world peace.

By printing money until urban employment stabilizes at wartime levels, you are essentially hiding and denying and postponing this loss, but the loss cannot be avoided forever. Artificially stimulating employment leads to artificial employment, which erodes virtue and causes long-term deadweight losses. If you train people to buy a superficially 'new' but functionally identical model Ford every three years as a way of keeping Detroit's factories open even after the US Army stops buying tanks, then you're throwing enormous amounts of industrial wealth away just to create the illusion of prosperity.

What you *can* do safely is print just enough money to cancel out post-war deflation. Suppose the optimal level of peacetime government infrastructure investment in new bridges, hospitals, dams, etc. (optimal in the sense that the investment will yield the highest rate of annual GDP growth) is $800 billion per year, and the optimal level of debt service (optimal in the sense of keeping your interest rate low without forcing you to delay consumption for too long) is $200 billion per year. Assume the government is going to adopt these optimal spending levels, and is just trying to figure out how it should pay for them. So, consider three choices:

  1. If you stay on the gold standard and set taxes at $1 trillion per year, you trigger a deflationary spiral and indebted farmers go bankrupt. That's bad.

  1. If you set taxes at $600 billion per year and print $400 billion per year in paper money, you get full employment in your cities, but (by definition) if you are funding businesses with paper money just for the sake of creating jobs, then you have severed the link between employment and genuine productivity, so your economy rapidly becomes fake and/or corrupt, and even respectable businessmen in grey flannel suits start shamelessly investing in Coca-Cola and McDonalds and Walmart and Facebook and other things that don't actually make anyone happy.  That's also bad.

  1. If you set taxes at $800 billion per year and print $200 billion per year in paper money. That way the paper money *only* gets used to pay off wartime creditors. There's no need to artificially stimulate whole new industries of bullshit, because by law and custom, the only acceptable government use of paper money is to pay the government's own bills. You still wind up somewhat diluting the value of the currency by printing some paper money...but this primarily harms the people who *have* currency, i.e., the people who can best afford to pay, instead of primarily harming the indebted farmers who are least able to pay. This is tolerable.

If you go with Option (C), it's a little sad that people who have savings lose some of their wealth, but because in the immediate aftermath of a large war we expect that many of the people who have savings were either deliberate war profiteers or simply lucky in that they guessed right about when to invest in a new tank factory, it's not *very* sad. It's also probably the least sad option available: the loss caused by surprise closure of tank factories is real; you can't erase it or entirely prevent it; all you can do is allocate that loss to the people who can best afford to absorb it while minimizing second-order harms like deflation and McDonalds.

Coping with Unemployed Ex-Villagers

This still leaves the problem of what to do with all of the laborers who flocked to cities in order to work in the wartime economy, who now do not have jobs because the war is over, and who do not particularly want to return home to their villages because the wartime economy made their villages a sucky place to live, and/or because exposure to urban living permanently changed their lifestyle preferences and social networks. As Ben ably explains:

  • If you do literally nothing about all the unemployed urban workers, you get riots and mobs and organized crime and maybe your government collapses under the weight of internal dissent. That's bad.

  • If you try to forcibly resettle the unemployed urban workers, they resist you, and you wind up with widespread slaughter of your own civilians. That's bad.

  • If you try to artificially employ the urban workers with make-work jobs, you collapse the character of the national economy just as surely as if you printed too much money. You wind up with McDonalds and Facebook. That's bad.

  • If you just cut all the unemployed urban workers a welfare check, you get feelings of uselessness, opioid addiction, and suicides. That's bad.

It seems like the solution that's missing from Ben's list is offering *voluntary incentives* for workers to return home. This could take the form of a massive "rural renewal" infrastructure program that tries to make villages nicer places to live -- the Rural Electrification Act was a good start, as are modern-day efforts to lay down fiber-optic cables in the countryside. It could take the form of providing additional social services and supports in modest villages -- not necessarily handing out welfare checks, but providing incentives for doctors, therapists, teachers, and other "helping professionals" to live and work in smaller towns, or even simply paying for the construction of the buildings (in small towns) that such professionals would need in order to do their work. It could involve subsidies for upgrading private solar panels, septic tanks, and other amenities that make it easier to live far from the central grid. It could even be something as simple as training: if the new crop of 20 year olds don't know how to farm or fish or enjoy camping because they spent their teens in an overseas war instead of learning the family business from their parents, then hire some camp counselors who do remember the good old days, and teach them to have fun in the village, or hire some expert farmers and teach them to earn a living in the village.

The reason why subsidizing village life ought to work better than subsidizing city life is that the former is sustainable and healthy and based on something real. You can't safely *force* people to move back to their old villages, because mass violence for the sake of social engineering is Very Bad (tm). You can't easily *invest* in cities in a way that makes city life sustainable, because city life is inherently artificial: there's too much service, too much consumption, too many deadly motor roads, too little community, too much transience, too little investment in one's own homestead or neighborhood simply for the joy of seeing it grow and thrive. What you can do is invest in villages in a way that makes people want to return to those villages even without being ordered there at the point of a gun. Once people choose to return to the villages, they can resume the kind of life they had before the war -- with perhaps a bit more sophistication, a bit more infrastructure, and perhaps even a sense of gratitude for having survived and endured the upheavals of their time.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Creative Inefficiencies

An important principle of board game design is to keep the gameplay as efficient as possible. What do I mean by efficiency? Well, any board game experience has a few very-fun parts, like making big strategic choices and pulling off brilliant tactical combos and imagining the details of a strange new world and making terrible puns based on the game's thematic setting and lobbying your friends to ally with you and rolling a dozen dice at once and anticipating the thrill of victory. Any board game experience also includes a dozen activities that are much less fun, like setting up the board, adding up your score, figuring out the rules, moving pieces back to their starting zones at the end of each turn, and waiting for other players to move. An efficient game gives you a whole lot of the very-fun parts and relatively little of the not-so-fun parts. You want to fill your hour of board gaming (or four hours of board gaming, or however much time you've got) with as much fun as possible.

Often, as gamers and as designers, we don't pay enough attention to the resources demanded by a game. I've heard people say things like "I like Concordia better than Dominion." Fair enough. But do you like Concordia four times more than you like Dominion? Because the same play group can probably get through three or four games of Dominion in the time it takes to play one game of Concordia. And at least in my experience, there are some real returns to scale when you play the same game multiple times -- people get more comfortable with the rules, people feel more free to experiment with oddball or amusing strategies, and it's not as much of a big deal if you lose one game because of an unlucky draw or just plain being outwitted. Are you really going to have more total fun playing one game of Concordia than the total fun you would have playing four games of Dominion or 7 Wonders or Splendor or Codewords? If you're designing a game that takes two hours to play, will people have more fun playing it than they would have playing four half-hour games? People don't often ask these questions, and they should.

The Wrong Kind of Efficiency

Here's where things get interesting, though: too much of the wrong kind of efficiency can be deadly. You want to keep your game moving, so that you can build a sense of excitement and momentum and so your players aren't spending the bulk of their night groaning and sighing and waiting for Bob to make up his mind -- but you also don't want to suck up every ounce of your players' mental energy. Part of what makes a game fun is the chance to engage in banter, teasing, and casual conversation with your friends, the chance to sit quietly and appreciate the game's artwork and theme, to let your imagination run wild for a moment with the game's possibilities, and to savor a beer or a coke or a liter of pretzels. You can't do any of that if 100% of your attention is going to a desperate struggle to keep your character alive. Optimizing too aggressively for something like "strategic decisions per hour" wrecks the other virtues that make boardgaming worthwhile.

As an example, consider three popular space strategy games: Cosmic Encounter, Eclipse, and Space Empires 4X. Cosmic Encounter is inefficient in terms of strategy per hour -- you spend a lot of time politicking to see if your neighbors will help you colonize other planets or at least stay out of your way, and you try to choose the card from your hand that's as weak as possible while still allowing you to successfully colonize a planet, and that's pretty much the whole 90-minute game. Like the vacuum of space, Cosmic Encounters is too thin for the time it takes to play. By contrast, Space Empires 4X is too efficient in terms of strategy per hour -- even after you finish calculating your budget to the nearest milliStarbuck and plotting your fleet's journey on a hex-by-hex basis, you still need to pay close attention to your opponent's moves so you can try to figure out which chits represent which cloaked ships and what upgrades your opponent might have secretly bought. You're constantly calculating odds, calculating budgets, calculating routes, calculating counter-strikes, mentally re-designing your ships -- and on top of that you still have to play politics like you would in Cosmic Encounter. You can literally lose a game of Space Empires by losing track of which of your opponent's fleets was which while you step out to use the restroom. I would argue that Eclipse offers a happy medium in terms of strategic efficiency -- yes, there's a tremendous amount to think about, including ship design and resource management and politics, but when you pass your turn, you've passed. You can take a deep breath, take a deep swig of IPA, and ask the other guy who passed how his artisinal mushroom farm is doing. The game crams a lot of action into its four or five hours, but it also gives you a chance to breathe. Eclipse has some creative inefficiency built into the design.

And if the designers had removed that inefficiency by finding a way to make sure players have something important to do even after they pass? It would have made Eclipse much less fun to play.

Broader Applications

I suspect that this idea of creative inefficiency has much broader application, well beyond the world of board gaming. Take Bell Labs, for example. For decades, Alexander Graham Bell's phone company had a total monopoly on telephone service in the US, driving up telephone prices to inefficiently high levels. People used to pay well over ten cents a minute to talk to people who lived in the next county over. Now we barely even have the concept of "long-distance calls" anymore because the assumption is that calls from a landline anywhere in the US are free of charge. The reason why long-distance charges went away is that the US Justice Department busted up Bell's monopoly, splitting the phone company into lots of smaller competitors (Southern Bell, Pacific Bell, etc.) that competed on price, making telephone service cheaper and more efficient. So that was good, right?

Well, maybe. See, before the breakup, when Bell Telephone pretty much owned the entire telephone industry, Bell had an incentive to invest in all kinds of speculative research on the off chance that it would turn up something useful to the telephone business. It didn't really matter if the scientists figured out a way to make better microphones, or better speakers, or better wires, or better networks -- pretty much any telephone-related invention would be good for Bell. Bell was so huge, and Bell earned such nice fat profits from its inefficiently high prices, that Bell had no reason not to fund a few hundred full-time scientists to see if they could think of any useful innovations that might have something to do with telephones.

As a result of the research at Bell Labs, we got the transistor, the laser, radio astronomy, the calculator, UNIX, C++, and half the modern economy. On a per-dollar basis, or on a per-scientist basis, the research done at Bell Labs was some of the most useful research that's ever been done. But when the hammer came down on Bell's monopoly, Bell Labs' pure research division was shut down, and it hasn't been replaced. The closest modern equivalent is...Google Labs, which is made possible by the fact that Google has over 90% of the market share for Internet search advertisements, and Google regularly collects huge profits that it has no good way of spending. So, Google has no good reason not to pay eight hundred engineers to see if they think of anything neat that relates to the Internet, and as a result we get Gmail and Google Maps and Google Calendar and self-driving cars.

We could use the government to squeeze every last bit of efficiency out of the telephone business and Internet search business, so that consumers get the lowest possible prices. But should we? What if leaving companies with a generous layer of fat is one of the best ways of keeping them healthy and productive? What looks like an inefficiently high corporate profit could sometimes turn out to be an essential pillar of the broader economy.

(You might think the government could just tax AT&T and Google and spend the money on the appropriate kinds of pure research projects, but whenever the government sponsors an activity, there's a certain amount of...public paranoia about whether you're making good use of the taxpayers' money. You know those guys who are always freaking out because the National Endowment for the Arts funded 10,000 paintings, one of which included a boob? Well, they're watching the science budget, too. You can be doing serious research on how to cure gastrointestinal disorders by investigating microfauna in animals, and then some idiot publishes a press release about how your grant is wasting the taxpayers' funds on studies of badger poop, and suddenly you're out of a job. Good science usually requires long-term commitments of energy to speculative, counterintuitive projects. By contrast, anything the government spends money on has a way of becoming the public's business. The public does not like or support long-term commitments to speculative, counter-intuitive projects. They will not pay for more than a tiny amount of it, no matter how good the scientific track record is. I used to work for the US Antitrust Division. I don't like monopolies. But I'm forced to wonder -- is there something about a monopoly's inefficiency that we actually need because we can't get it any other way?)

Think about Baseball; think about baseball; think about baseball...

I don't want to beat a dead horse here, but here's three more quick examples to illustrate the idea of creative inefficiency: baseball, foreplay, and Ford Motors. Baseball is sometimes mocked as the world's least interesting sport, but what you lose in fast-paced action, you gain in relaxation and meditative contemplation. It's actually surprisingly hard to go sit outside on a warm afternoon and relax for three hours. Unless you're a Zen master, you'll either fall asleep or you'll get bored, go inside, and watch TV. Baseball provides just enough stimulation to keep you awake, and then gives you the time and space to let your mind wander and your emotions recharge. If baseball were more efficient at delivering sports-action-per-minute, it would be worse at accomplishing its true goal: recreation.

Similarly, the way foreplay works is that you try not to arrive at your goal. The space that you create by leaving some of your clothes on, by putting certain kinds of touching off-limits, and by framing the exercise as 'introductory' gives you time to focus on touch, on intimacy, on enjoying the look, sound, and taste of your partner(s), and on being playful and silly and thoughtful and kind. If you're woefully inefficient at stimulating your partner, foreplay can get boring, but if you're too efficient at getting each other aroused, then you're missing the point of the exercise. It's the permission to be inefficient that makes foreplay interesting.

Finally, Henry Ford famously paid the workers on the assembly line at his Model-T automobile factory at least twice as much as workers were earning in similar situations. The extra wages allowed Ford's employees to purchase their own automobiles, stimulating demand for the new product. Even better, the higher wages drove up wages at nearby factories, allowing some of the workers at other factories to buy Model-T's as well. Prices for automobiles were higher than they needed to be -- but that was OK, because people were earning more than they needed to earn. The United Auto Workers union eventually locked in those inefficiently high wages at Ford and at its oligopolistic buddies (GM and Chrysler), letting two generations of working-class white men earn a comfortable living, buy houses in the suburbs, and send their kids to college. With the help of sky-high tarriffs and loose anti-trust enforcement, GM, Chrysler, Ford, and the UAW together were able to keep high auto wages and high auto prices going for over five decades. Was that wrong? Should we have instead found a way to manufacture automobiles for the lowest possible prices so that Americans could drive more miles a year and pave over more acres of forest at an earlier date?

Our cars are better and cheaper today now that we have competition from Japan and Germany and Korea -- but is that really good for the economy? Detroit is a ghost town, union workers have lost their pensions, and the Big Three flirted with bankruptcy.

So: try to make board game designs (or try to look for board games to play) that are reasonably fast and reasonably streamlined -- but don't get carried away. If you focus all of your attention on speeding up the strategy, you can lose out on the other ingredients that make board gaming (or anything else) worthwhile.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

A Space for Civilization

My ultimate board game design fantasy is to create Civilization in Space. In this introductory post, I'm going to explain exactly what I mean by that, and then in future posts, I'll share some of the reasons why Civilization in Space is so important to me, where some of my previous attempts went wrong, and what I'm doing on my latest quest for the Holy Space Grail.

What is a Civilization game?

A 'civilization' style board game, or 'civ' game for short, is a board game that shares some of the key features of Sid Meyer's classic 1991 computer game Civilization. Civilization puts you in the role of an absolute monarch, encouraging you to manage the welfare of your empire's individual cities in order to raise armies, construct public works like roads and aqueducts, and discover new technologies. Civilization deserves praise for many, many different features: it had truly progressive and innovative graphics, music, user interface options, tactics, politics, and immersive depth. In my opinion, though, there are two key features that make Civilization and its heirs better than all other games.

First, Civilization lets players seamlessly transition between minor questions about how to manage the population in an individual city and major questions about how to manage the progress of your empire as a whole. With a few clicks, players could direct a group of 10,000 villagers to stop working a Forest tile and start working a Grassland tile -- or, also with a few clicks, players could direct their million-person empire to throw off the chains of Despotism and declare a Republic. A sane player won't have the time or attention span to constantly micro-manage the placement of every single villager in the empire -- but a competent player won't be able to avoid making at least some decisions about how to distribute her workforce. The beauty of this system is that it challenges the player to identify which decisions are truly important, and which decisions can be left to the computer's sub-optimal default choices.

Second, Civilization allows players to directly challenge, invade, and conquer each others' cities, but there is much, much more to the game than simply winning at military conflict. Many 'wargames' such as Axis & Allies, Game of Thrones, and Eclipse have reasonably complex economic systems, but almost the only outputs of the economies in those games are faster, better, and more numerous machines of destruction. In Axis & Allies, for example, if you have a strong economy, you can build lots of tanks and deploy them close to your enemies, and if you have a weak economy, you're reduced to building a handful of riflemen that will be trapped close to your home cities. That's about it. By contrast, in Civilization your economy is good for a very wide variety of aims -- you can discover civilian technologies that help you support larger and happier cities, you can terraform the landscape to make it more fertile and more productive, you can fill your cities with banks or recycling centers or cathedrals or courthouses, you can link your continents with a network of caravans and railroads, and ultimately you can build a starship and launch it toward Alpha Centauri. Of course, none of that will do you any good unless you also build enough Catapults and Chariots -- and then later enough Cannons and Submarines -- to defend your cities and protect your pioneers from barbarians and invaders while they march around laying rail tracks. The beautiful, simmering tension in Civilization is that you have to build a military in order to protect the rest of your accomplishments, but if all you build is a military, then you miss out on most of what the game has to offer. In short, Civilization hits players right between the eyes with the bread-or-butter dilemma of Vietnam-war era America: you have to choose how much you want to invest in a bright new future, and how much you want to invest in making sure someone else doesn't take what you build and run off with it.

To sum up this section, I'd say a game qualifies as a Civilization game if it offers (1) a challenging mix of micro-management and big decisions, and (2) an interesting mix of options for both military and civilian progress.

What does it mean for a board game to be set 'in space'?

At the simplest level, you can set a game 'in space' by changing some of the cover art and the names of the pieces. Your marines become "Space Marines," your cities become "Space Stations" and your sailboats become "Spaceships." Some Eurogame companies make a habit of 'porting' successful games into every conceivable thematic environment -- pirates, Shakespeare, steampunk, ancient Rome, the desert, a coal mine, a horse race, a dog show, a sushi restaurant, etc. -- with only one or two minor changes to the game's mechanics. There's a lively debate that's been running for at least fifteen years about whether this is good for the gaming community, but it's not a debate that particularly interests me -- for better or worse, I'm firmly on the side of the debate saying that your themes need to match and reinforce your mechanics, so that the thematic content of a game piece (e.g., this tiddlywink represents a pirate ship) helps you remember how the game piece behaves mechanically (e.g., this tiddlywink will move to different port cities and take cargo cubes from the cities and from other tiddlywinks).

So for me, to set a game 'in space' means that the mechanics of the game need to match and reinforce the outer space theme. This is tricky, because we don't have much in the way of real-life examples to inspire the mechanics! We 'know' from Grade-B sci-fi movies what bug-eyed green aliens from Mars do, but what do space station managers do when a shipment of water doesn't arrive on time? What do the captains of long-haul space freighters think about when they plot a course back from Saturn or from Betelguese? What does a general in the Asteroid Belt do when she's plotting a diversionary action to cover a retreat from the Moon? What kinds of hard choices are faced by an 'average' terraforming engineer? By an amazingly talented terraforming engineer? By an under-funded and rushed terraforming engineer? What new options become available once civilization starts spreading beyond the planet Earth, and what new challenges will future leaders be forced to grapple with that present-day leaders are free to ignore?

All this uncertainty means that there are really two parts to the 'space' part of the Civilization in Space challenge: step 1 is to imagine, in loving detail, what a human future in space might look like, and step 2 is to tie the details of that future to specific board game mechanics.

Didn't Sid Meier himself already make expansions that set Civilization in Space?

Yes and no. In 1999, Sid Meier released the smash hit Alpha Centauri, which invited turn-based strategy gamers to rebuild civilization on a strange alien world. IGN called it "deep, rich, rewarding, and thought-provoking in almost every way." PC Gameworld called it the "Holy Grail." I called it awesome, and played it non-stop for months when I finally got a copy. For better or worse, though, the action in Alpha Centauri and its expansions all took place on a single planet. You can build satellites that show up in a special window that's notionally 'in orbit' of the planet and that provide benefits to all of your cities, but you don't travel to other moons or other planets, let alone other solar systems -- once the mothership crashes on Planet in the opening movie sequence, you're stuck on and around that planet for the rest of the game. In my opinion, Alpha Centauri is really just a remake of Civilization that happens to have a pasted-on futuristic theme. There's nothing that happens in the Alpha Centauri game that couldn't also happen on, e.g., a post-apocalyptic Earth.
Last year, Sid rolled out Civilization: Beyond Earth, which, oddly, follows exactly the same format: rebuilding civilization on a single alien world, with orbital satellites providing small bonuses and no forays of any kind beyond low orbit. The 2015 'companion game' Sid Meier's Starships extends the premise a little bit by allowing players who successfully rebuild civilization to go out and explore nearby colonies and try to weave them into a federation, and Starships is definitely set in outer space -- but sadly, Starships isn't a civ game! Instead of building a multistellar civilization, you're commanding one fleet on a series of scripted missions with familiar goals like "escort this diplomat," "find this shiny MacGuffin object," "rescue these innocent victims," and "blow up the dreaded space pirates." The gameplay has more in common with Star Wars: X-Wing Alliance than it does with the original Civilization. Good fun, but it's not thematically or mechanically equivalent to building up a civilization as you see fit.

So -- what would it take to truly put Civilization in space? To not just offer a strange alien landscape, to not just offer some civilization-style features on a star grid, but to reinvent the civ-building genre to incorporate the challenges and opportunities afforded by (a) being able to colonize incredibly different environments, some of which are extremely hostile, (b) having to cross very long distances of uninhabitable vaccum in order to reach your neighbors, and (c) having a technological base that can only be sustained with a minimum population that's larger than the population of the average colony?

I'm working on it. Stay tuned!

Monday, August 4, 2014

Free Clubs

When I design a game that only uses standard components (in this case, a deck of playing cards), I like to give away the rules for free. Here are the rules for a three-player trick-taking card game with a fun strategic twist!


Like Spades, Hearts, and Bridge, Clubs is a trick-taking game, where on each turn (or "trick"), each player puts down one card from a large hand, and all players compete to try to make sure their card is the highest card played that turn, winning (or "taking") the trick. 

Unlike most other trick-taking games, Clubs is designed for exactly three people. Also, most other trick-taking games let players guess how many tricks they are going to take, with bonuses for guessing well and penalties for promising more than you can deliver. 

By contrast, Clubs has a fixed target: 7 out of 10 tricks. Whoever wins the bidding in a hand of Clubs must win at least 7 tricks in order to avoid a big penalty. Instead of moving that number up or down, players bid to see what kinds of handicaps they can give themselves without falling short of 7 tricks. For example, a player might say that she can win even after discarding a high card, or that she can win even after passing a high card to her neighbor.

The player who accepts the harshest and most dangerous handicaps will win the auction and get to collect the 'treasure chest' of bonus playing cards. The other two players will then usually try to stop the first player from reaching 7 tricks, although every trick is valuable, so the other two players may also compete among themselves to collect their own tricks!

Play continues for several hands until someone has collected at least 250 points (which represents about 3 solidly won hands). Then, whoever has the most points is the winner.


Start with a standard deck of 52 cards, plus 2 Jokers, for a total of 54 cards. Take the Jokers, Kings, Queens, Jacks, and 10s (18 cards total), and shuffle them together, dealing out 6 cards per player. These are known as the "auction" cards. 

Then, take the remaining 36 cards (Aces, twos, threes, fours, fives, sixes, sevens, eights, and nines) and shuffle them together (do not mix them with the face cards). Deal out 10 cards to each player; these are known as the "primary" cards. Set the remaining 6 playing cards aside face-down; these cards are called the "treasure chest."

Order and Meaning of the Cards

Ace  -- Lowest Primary Card; loses to any higher card of the same suit.
Two through Eight  -- Middle Primary Cards; higher numbers are better.
Nine -- Highest Playing Card; beats any Primary card except a trump
Ace through Nine of Clubs -- Trump Primary Cards; beat all non-trump primary cards.
Ten of Spades -- Lowest Auction Card; opens the auction and means you must discard one spades primary card of your choice (usually the lowest).
Other Tens -- Low Auction Card; means you must discard one primary card of that suit of your choice (usually the lowest).
Jacks -- Middle Auction Card; means you must discard your highest primary card in that suit.
Queens -- High Auction Card; means that you must pass your highest primary card in the suit to the neighbor on your left. For example, if you played the Queen of Hearts, and you had [A, 3, 6, 8, J] of Hearts in your hand, you would have to pass the 8 of Hearts to your left (the Jack is an auction card, not a Primary card).
King -- Very High Auction Card; means that you must discard your three highest primary cards in the suit. For example, if you played the King of Spades, and you had [2, 4, 5, 9, 10] of Spades in your hand, you would have to discard the 4, 5, and 9 of Spades (the ten is an auction card, not a primary card). If you do not have enough primary cards in suit, just discard all the primary cards in that suit. For example, if you had [2, 4, 10] in Spades, you would discard the 2 and the 4.
Joker -- Highest Auction Card; means that you form a partnership with whoever bid most recently. Instead of you alone needing to take 7 tricks, the two of you together need to take all 10 tricks, or you both suffer the penalty for breaking your contract. Whoever bids the Joker wins the auction immediately, ending the auction and collecting the treasure chest. Both players in the partnership must keep and enforce their handicaps from the auction.


After the cards are dealt out, players take turns (going clockwise from the first bidder) bidding with their auction cards to try to win the playing cards stored in the treasure chest. The last player to make a bid will get to collect the playing cards in the treasure chest and use them as part of her hand during the main part of the game, which is a big advantage.

When bidding you must follow two rules:
(1) You can only bid a card that is more valuable than the most recent card that was bid, and
(2) You cannot jump up more than one 'level' on a single bid.

Jokers and then Kings are the most valuable auction cards, followed by Queens, then Jacks, and finally Tens. If two cards have the same 'number' or face card, the tie is broken using alphabetical order, with Clubs being most valuable and Spades being least valuable. For example, if the player to your right just bid a Jack of Diamonds, you could bid a Jack of Clubs, a Queen of Hearts, a Queen of Diamonds, or a Queen of Clubs. You cannot bid a Ten of Hearts or a Jack of Spades, because those are not more valuable than the Jack of Diamonds; that would violate Rule 1. Similarly, you cannot bid a King of Spades or a Joker, because that would jump up more than one level, violating Rule 2. The card one level up from a Jack is a Queen; that means the highest card you can play off of a Jack is a Queen. You cannot play a King until someone has played a Queen, and you cannot play a Joker unless someone has played a King.

Joker > KC > KD > KH > KS > QC > QD > QH > QS > JC > JD > JH > JS > 10C > 10D > 10H > 10S.

Whoever holds the 10 of Spades (the lowest auction card) opens the bidding by putting the 10 of Spades face up in front of her. Bidding then continues clockwise, with each player either bidding one card by putting it face up in front of him, or saying "pass." If you pass, you take no action, and the bidding continues clockwise. You may rejoin the auction if the bidding comes around to you again. However, if two players in a row both pass, then the auction is over, and the auction is won by the last person who bid a card. For example, suppose Jason, Eric, and Rachel are playing. If Jason bids the Jack of Clubs, Eric could pass. Rachel could then bid the Queen of Spades. Jason could pass, and then Eric could bid the King of Diamonds. If Rachel and then Jason both pass, Eric would win the auction. After Jason passes again, it is too late for Rachel to decide to rejoin the auction.
JC < pass < QS < pass < KD < pass < pass.
(KD wins)

The winner of the auction leaves any cards that she bid face-up in front of her, and then sets the remaining auction cards face-down out of play. All other players also discard all their auction cards face-down and out of play, whether they bid them or not. Then, the winner of the auction collects the playing cards from the treasure chest and mixes them in with the playing cards from his/her own hand. The winner of the auction will now have a hand of 16 playing cards, and the other two players will have a hand of 10 playing cards each.


After the auction is over but before the trick-taking begins, the player who won the auction (or both players who won the auction, if the auction ended with a Joker) must resolve all of their handicaps that go along with all of the cards they bid during the auction. For example, if the winner bid a 10 of Hearts and then a Jack of Diamonds, she must look at her hand (including the treasure chest) and discard her choice of heart. Usually you would want to discard your lowest heart. She would then look at her hand (including the treasure chest) and discard her highest diamond (usually the 7, 8, or 9). Note that you cannot discard auction cards to fulfill the requirements of a auction card. That would not make any sense. Instead, discard primary cards to fulfill the requirements of an auction card.

Finally, the Joker changes how many tricks the auction winner needs and adds a second player to the auction 'team.' Leave the Joker face up in front of you, and put the other Joker face up in front of your teammate, to remind all players of their roles. Both players on the Joker team have to discard primary cards based on their handicap bids, but only the player who bid the Joker wins the treasure chest.

If you did not win the auction, and you are not part of a Joker team, then put your bidding cards away -- you do not have to worry about any handicaps.


Immediately after resolving handicaps, but before play begins, each player chooses one card from his or her hand (including the treasure chest, if you have won it) and passes it to the player on his or her right.

Then, play begins with the player clockwise from the person who won the auction (in case of a Joker, play begins with the only person who lost the auction); that player chooses any card in her hand and plays it face-up near the center of the table, facing her. Then, the person to her right must choose any card in a matching suit and put it face-up near the center of the table, facing him. Finally, the third player (who in this case is the player who won the auction) chooses a card in a matching suit and puts it face-up near the center of the table. If you do not have any cards at all left in the current suit, you may choose any card from your hand, instead.

Ordinarily, the highest card played in the correct suit will 'win' the trick. Cards played in a non-matching suit, even if they are very high, are worthless for winning a trick. The winner of the trick collects all three of the cards that were just played and sets them aside in a face-down pile near his or her seat. Aces are low cards; they cannot win a trick unless they are played at the start of the trick and nobody else is able to follow suit.

The exception is Clubs, which are called trump cards. When a club is played after a non-club card, it 'trumps', or automatically beats, the non-club card. For example, the Two of Clubs will beat the Nine of Diamonds, even though nines are higher than twos. Keep in mind that you cannot play a trump card just because you feel like it -- you must have no cards of the current suit in your hand in order to play a non-matching card, be it trump or otherwise. If the first player in the trick chooses a club card (which is allowed), then clubs are the correct suit, so trump is not really an issue -- you either have a higher club to play, or you don't.

If you have no cards at all remaining in your hand, simply pass when it is your turn to play. If you win a trick with your last card, then the player to your right gets to play the lead card of the trick and choose the correct suit for that trick.

After the player who wins the trick collects the three cards, he or she then plays the lead card of the next trick. Play then continues for ten tricks total, or until at least two of the players are out of cards in their hand (whichever comes first). Players then count the cards they collected to see what they scored.


+10 points for each trick you personally won
- 50 points if you won the auction by yourself but you did not make 7 tricks
- 50 points if you were part of a Joker team but your team did not make 10 tricks
+ 20 points if you collected the most Diamonds as part of winning your tricks
          (in case of a tie, all tying players get +10 points)
+10 points if you collected the Ace of Hearts as part of winning your tricks
+5 points if you collected no spades at all as part of winning your tricks

As soon as one player has at least 250 points, whoever has the most points wins.

Penalties for Cheating

If you play a card that you are not allowed to play because of one of your handicaps, or because you are not yet out of the current suit, and someone notices the mistake before another card is played, you may pick up that card and choose a new one, with no penalty.

If you play a card that you are not allowed to play because of one of your handicaps, or because you are not yet out of the current suit, and the mistake is noticed after another card is played but before the trick is taken, you must leave the card you played on the table, and you forfeit that trick. If you would have won the trick, then instead the trick is won by whoever had the second-most powerful card on the table.

If you play a card that you are not allowed to play because of one of your handicaps, or because you are not yet out of the current suit, and the mistake is noticed after the trick is taken but before the next hand is dealt, you forfeit your positive points for the round. You can still get negative points if you failed to complete your contract, but you cannot get any positive points for any reason for that hand. Other players score as normal.

If you play a card that you are not allowed to play because of one of your handicaps, or because you are not yet out of the current suit, and the mistake is noticed after the next hand is dealt, there is no penalty. Seriously, whoever was pointing out that mistake needs to either pick up the pace or learn to forgive!

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Catchup Mechanisms

A catch-up mechanism is a rule in a board game that tends to help whoever's currently losing, to help make sure that nobody falls hopelessly behind and that the game stays interesting and competitive for everyone. They can be tricky to get right! Power Grid probably has the most intrusive catch-up example of any popular game; whoever has the lowest score gets first pick of the new power plants and new commodities each turn. Settlers of Catan also has a minor catch-up mechanism because of the robber; players tend to send the robber to steal from the richest players, which gives the poorer players a chance to accumulate more resources. Risk, on the other hand, has a negative catchup mechanism; once you get a bit of a lead, the game gives you disproportionately more armies, and so you're likely to win all at once and crush your enemies into the dust as soon as you get your first significant advantage.

One interesting feature of a catchup mechanism is that they tend to exist for the benefit of the winners at least as much as the losers -- it's fun to win, but unless you're startlingly immature, it's not much fun to keep playing a game when everyone already knows you're going to win. It's more fun to have a modest advantage that still leaves your opponents with a sporting chance.

I mention all this because Lawrence H. Summers, former President of Harvard University, has written a surprisingly humble, fair, and insightful book review of Picketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century. If you're interested in how we could make sure that people who aren't born wealthy have a chance to catch up with their peers, but don't have time to slog through Picketty's treatise, you should check this out.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014


Jonathan Chait over at New York magazine wrote an essay last week trying to defend Monopoly as an interesting, strategic game, claiming that "if you think the game is all luck and takes forever, you’re playing it wrong." According to Mr. Chait, we can speed up the game and show off our skill by making lots of trades and racing to make savvy investments with a high rate of return. The highlight of the article was a fancy chart showing exactly how long it takes for various investments to pay themselves off:

Of course, all of this information has long been available in somewhat less snazzy form in books like the Monopoly Companion,  in print since 1988.


Even if you use the charts, though, taking a 'strategic' approach to Monopoly doesn't save the game from being long and boring, because there's still only one good strategy: rush to get a light blue, orange, or magenta monopoly and put three houses on it. It's not hard to understand or apply this strategy, and whether you're able to pull it off has far more to do with the luck of the dice than with any decisions you make. 

As for 'creative' trading, I've tried it all, from free landings to joint ventures to option contracts, and mostly it just annoys my fellow gamers -- the time you spend trying to negotiate a complicated trade is time that other players want to spend rolling the dice and taking their turn. A well-designed game should be fun on its own terms; it shouldn't require massive creativity and effort from the players just to keep the game moderately interesting.

Also, hat tip to Forbeck for his list of other reasons why Monopoly violates all the principles of good modern game design.

Monopoly was an exciting game for the 1930s, and there's nothing wrong with appreciating it as a classic example of early board games, just like you might go to a museum to see a piece by Giotto or Donatello. Today, though (thank goodness!) we can do much better. If Monopoly had just been invented last year, though, and somebody tried to pass it off as a fun new state-of-the-art board game, it would be laughed off the shelves.

If you're looking for an exciting, strategic, mid-length game about auctions and collecting sets, try Modern Art, Ra, Acquire, or Cargo Noir -- they're all noticeably more fun than Monopoly and play in about half the time.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Injecting Common Sense into Identity Politics

          Much of what passes for political debate today is really a debate about psychology. Comparatively few people are arguing about who should get funding, or who should get land, or who should go to jail. Instead, the questions that interest people the most are questions about what words public figures should be allowed to say, or about who is allowed to express an opinion about certain topics. Should we boycott KFC for its executives’ homophobic remarks? Should we demand Donald Sterling’s head for his racist remarks?  Do we ever want to hear from Paula Deen again? What about Eliot Spitzer? Who has the most authentic take on the legacy of colonialism: a Seminole running a casino, a descendant of slaves on a cotton plantation, a recent immigrant from Bangladesh, a queer activist from Occupy Wall Street, or an Irish history professor? Should men have a say in what kinds of behavior get prosecuted as rape? Should fundamentalist Christians take care to keep their views on marriage tucked firmly within the four walls of their own churches?
            These questions all touch on extremely sensitive issues, and they all appear to deal with very important topics, such as slavery, equality, corruption, safety, and liberty. However, it is worth keeping in mind that offensive speech, in and of itself, is not the most important problem facing most Americans. People do not wander around thinking, “Well, I’ve got a good job, and a healthy family, and a nice neighborhood, and some fulfilling hobbies – now if only I could get those politically incorrect assholes to shut up, my life would be perfect.” On the contrary, people are drowning. People are sick, ignorant, indebted, lonely, and generally screwed.
            Reining in offensive speech, while useful, is not even a plausible first step toward solving people’s biggest problems. Even if we had a perfectly civil national conversation, where nobody ever used a racial slur, and where everyone always paused to consider how their words might affect people with different histories of privilege and oppression, we would still be sick, ignorant, indebted, lonely, and generally screwed. We would not own our homes, we would not own our farms, we would not know how to run an industrial society in way that takes care of peoples’ physical and mental health, and we would still be ferociously addicted to alcohol and meth and reality TV and narcissism and despair.
            For me, the interesting question is not, “Have you checked your privilege?” The interesting question is not, “Are you an ally of the oppressed?” For me, the most interesting question is, “What can we do to fix our society?” The enemy is not a class or a race or a gender or a political party; the enemy is the catastrophic inefficiency, purposelessness, and corruption of our institutions. The enemy is the fact that we get sick and die younger than we want to; the enemy is the fact that we spend so much of our short lives struggling to pay the bills; the enemy is the fact that we unconsciously follow scripts about how to relax, who to fuck, what to talk about with our friends, even though nobody drafted the scripts on purpose and nobody knows whether the scripts are any good for us.
            There are, of course, people who are suffering in some specific way because of one or another of colonialism’s evil legacies. There are people who feel physically unsafe in public, people who grew up without any decent role models, people who are unconsciously judged and rejected by most of their neighbors because of the way they look. If you are hurting, and you need help, ask for it. If someone is stealing from you, fight back. If you were handicapped, and you deserve a second chance, then by all means, demand it. But in making those demands, be careful not to change the subject from policy to psychology. When the public conversation drifts into a heated debate about everybody's feelings, we all lose, because the problem isn't our feelings, our feelings are just a symptom of this twisted, insufficient, arbitrary Universe we all find ourselves living in, and we're not going to beat that problem by being polite or pleasant or politically correct.