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.