Saturday, July 23, 2011

Playing with Kids: Asymmetrical Games?

In my experience, there are at least two different approaches to parents playing games with kids, related to two different views of what children are: Pets who can talk or small human beings who don't yet know much. The former provides a justification for the adult cheating against himself, deliberately playing badly in order to give the child a chance. The latter implies that children, like other people, are entitled to honest treatment, and pretending to try to win when you are actually trying to lose does not qualify.

The simplest version of the second approach, and the one I am familiar with from my own experience, is the sliding handicap. Our house had a basement with a ping-pong table, and I spent a good deal of time playing ping-pong with my father. The rules were very simple. I started with some number of points, and whichever of us got to 21 points first won. Every time I won, my starting number went down by one, making the next win harder. Every time I lost, my starting number went up by one, making the next win easier. The result was that the typical game was close, decided by how well each of us played—a  more interesting interaction than if we had played without a handicap and my father, who for most of the relevant period was a better player than I was, had deliberately thrown some of the games in order to "make it fun" for me. And the sliding handicap provided a longer run metagame as well, in which my objective was to push the handicap down as far as possible—ideally, in the sufficiently long run, to zero and below.

The  approach can be applied, and no doubt is, to a wide variety of other games, as when the better chess player spots his opponent a piece by removing it at the beginning of the game. 

What about a game that, unlike ping-pong, is asymmetric, and as a result easier for one side than the other to win? Consider, for example, a board game based on the battle of Gettysburg. The two armies in that battle were quite different, as were their objectives. Unless the designer of the game makes a point of tuning the rules to make victory equally easy for either side—which, of course, he might do—one would expect one side to start with an advantage. The same could be the case for a more abstract game, such as one of the variants of Tafl, a family of early European games of which the best recorded example is  Tablut, discovered and recorded by Linnaeus during his travels in 18th century Finland.

In the Tafl games, one side represents a king and his defenders, starting in the central portion of the board. The other represents the attackers, starting around the periphery. The objective of the attackers is to kill the king, the objective of the king is to escape the board. Not surprisingly, in most of the variants, which differ mainly in the size of the board and the number of pieces, one objective is easier to accomplish than the other.

The problem with an asymmetric game is that the handicap doesn't slide. It works fine for two unequal players who are going to stay about equally unequal, but not for the parent/child situation where the child will, with luck, be gradually catching up to the parent. Are there examples of asymmetric games that solve that problem, perhaps by a range of starting scenarios of increasing difficulty for one side, decreasing for the other? The obvious ones are computer games where the player can set the difficulty level against the computer—are there good two player games that work that way?

I cannot resist the temptation to end this post, more random in its subject matter than most of mine, with a quote from the page on Tafl that I earlier linked to:

"Evidence shows that the game of Tablut, described by a traveller called Linnaeus during his trip to Finland in 1732 ..."

Presumably the author of that comment knows more about the history of games than the history of biology.


Colin Downes said...

The board game Go is, I think, an example of a game that is both asymmetric and has a sliding handicap. In it, players take turns placing stones with the goal of encircling territory. The first player (black) has an advantage over the second player (white). In even games, this is usually adjusted for by providing white with a handicap - called the komi - worth 6.5 points of territory in the final tally. In uneven games, however, the lesser player plays the black stones and places a number of handicap stones on the board before play begins. The amount and direction of the komi as well as the number of handicap stones can be adjusted to create a very finely tuned way of balancing a game with even very dramatic differences in skill level.

Patri Friedman said...

The early cyberpunk CCG Netrunner was asymmetrical, with a point system where the winner got 10 points, and the loser had 0-6, depending how the game went. A match consisted of playing once each way and adding the totals, thus resulting in a score which can be handicapped.

But the key here is the point system, not the asymmetry. An asymmetrical point game can be handicapped directly by letting one player start with more points, just as in your ping-pong example. A symmetrical game without points or changeable starting configurations can't be handicapped because it can't be changed.

I find it hard to imagine such an unmodifiable game, though - why can't your Gettysburg example be "handicapped" (adjusted from the default relative difficulty) by removing pieces from one army, offering extra rolls or bonuses, etc? The difference between a symmetrical and asymmetrical game is just whether the handicap starts at zero.

Tim Worstall said...

Tablut sounds rather like the (imaginary) game that Terry Pratchett uses in his book "Thud".

The asymmetry is addressewd by playing each side once.....

Gordon said...

Chess (and, I think, Go, as mentioned above) is asymmetric, at least as actually played (there might be a drawing strategy, but no one knows what it is) because White moves first. Where it is important, this advanatge is mitigated by trying to ensure that each player has White the same number of times. Isn't this the ususal situation with board games? Indeed, I would think that ping-pong is asymmetical, at least point by point - isn't it an advantage to have the serve? And doesn't the point winner retain serve (I don't know the rules of ping-pong)? When the first-mover advantage is small, the game might seem to be symmetrical in the context of two players of much different strength, but, as a younger player grows in strength, always being given first move might be all the handicap needed. So the question might be, what truly *symmetrical* games are there?

Perhaps Backgammon is the best example, since even if there is a first-mover advantage, the first-mover is selected by chance each game.

Anonymous said...

Chess can be made asymmetric by playing with clocks. The stronger player is given less time than the weaker. Of course, any game with points is similarly easy to make asymmetrical. Scrabble, for example.
As far as computer games go, many two player games allow a handicap to be set (the weaker player can be made to do more damage, move faster, etc. as appropriate).

Norm said...

Traditionally, small handicaps in go were: getting the first move every game, getting the first move two out of three games, etc. For a ten game match this works. The same idea could be applied in asymmetric games.
Removing a piece or pawn in chess works for beginners, but at higher levels it distorts the game because "simple" trading of pieces leads to a win for the player with more material.

Will McLean said...

Real world team athletic games are always somewhat asymmetric, so we have the concept of beating the point spread.

Joshua L. Lyle said...

It seems to me that the easiest way to give Tafl-games a sliding handicap is to first use the classic trick of a side-switching double game to make it symmetric, then handicapping the difference in moves; i.e., if the weaker player wins with the advantaged side in the number of moves needed by the stronger player plus a handicap, then they win.

William H. Stoddard said...

This does not just come up in playing games with children. I game master (and sometimes play) GURPS and other roleplaying games. I was recently in a protracted and often heated discussion of "fudging": The practice of the game master (a) rolling the dice to decide the outcome of some situation, (b) deciding that the outcome is unacceptable—for example, because it results in the death, crippling, insanity, or other negative experience of a player character—(c) changing the roll to something with a "more acceptable" outcome, and (d) not telling the players. I don't do this, personally; other people do, and sometimes believe that you can't possibly run an rpg without doing so.

I personally prefer the "drama point" approach: each player gets a budget of so many points that can be used to adjust an outcome in their character's favor; the GM gets a budget that can be used to adjust things in the adversary's favor. In simulating a fictional setting such as the Buffyverse or the setting of Star Wars, where things work by cinematic logic (or as Terry Pratchett would say, "narrative causality"), this works quite well without having the player characters in a story manipulated by the GM. I really don't like the "little man behind the curtain" approach. Your formulation about pets that can talk nicely captures what bothers me about it.

There is something of a Hayekian aspect to this. I think back to a session in a game I ran many years ago, in which one of the player characters was the subject of a brutal sexual experience not far from rape, which she roleplayed quite chillingly. I got worried about the intense content, and asked her privately, a few days later, if I had let her be subjected to something that made the game unpleasant for her. Her whole face lit up, and she said, "It was great!" From her perspective, she had gotten to act in a compelling scene that riveted everyone else's attention and gave us chills. Now, I suppose I could have acted like a central planner, and said, "Oh, well, that will lower her utility function unacceptably"—and I would have deprived her of the chance to play a challenging scene brilliantly, which she got because I (and the other player whose character was the abusive sexual partner) had not said, "Yes, that's what the rules indicate, let's play it out." It's a real what-is-seen/what-is-not-seen, don't you think?

David Friedman said...

"This does not just come up in playing games with children."

(William Stoddard on DMing rpg's)

My gut reaction is the same as yours, without the proposed technical solution. On the other hand, the best DM I ever experienced was on the other side--he said a good story should never be ruined by a bad die roll.

On the third hand, I was once in a game DM'd by its inventor (Empire of the Petal Throne). He was a very good world builder, almost Tolkien class, but the "game" was a guided tour, not a role playing game.

Glen Whitman said...

If you haven't played Settlers of Catan, you should. Aside from being an excellent strategy game, it also incidentally demonstrates a number of economic principles (e.g., that both scarcity and that monopoly power tend to drive up price).

But I bring it up here because there's an asymmetry introduced by the initial placement of settlements on the board. Each player gets two initial settlements, for a total of eight in a 4-player game. According to the rules, the first player places the 1st and 8th settlements; the second player places the 2nd and 7th; the third player the 3rd and 6th; and the fourth player the 4th and 5th. I'm frankly unsure which of these positions is preferable, though I suspect it's 1st/8th, followed by 4th/5th (because it allows greater coordination). However, the system could be altered to give a handicap to certain players -- e.g., by letting a player place the 1st and 2nd settlements (for a large handicap) or 1st and 5th (for a smaller handicap).

Pavlos Papageorgiou said...

I agree with the comments about Go. I'm a novice player, but it is indeed impressively scalable across skill levels. You can also crop the board size to make the game easier and shorter in general.

Catan is an impressive game in every respect. Also, our son, 8, actually wins. A lot in that game is about soft diplomacy while trading, so if the parent is accommodating and not nasty about trades that gives a soft handicap.

Online games such as Starcraft seem to be missing a trick here. They have a ladder system intended to match up players, but they don't have a handicap system. Players of very different experience arrange a handicap by agreeing rules such as "no tanks" for the strong side.