Friday, May 9, 2008

"Pure Strategy"

I'm excited because I got a new game this week, namely Tzaar, designed by the Belgian Kris Burm. Gamers always refer to this type of game as "two-player abstract," though this is misleading because it suggests that one of the primary distinguishing qualities of the type is that the games do not make any pretense of being analogues of real-world situations in the way that Monopoly is "about" real estate. It may well be true that most of the games that fall under this umbrella aren't "about" anything other than themselves, but what gamers are really thinking of when they talk about two-player abstracts are games which are 100% skill-based—in other words, games in which there is no random element. For example, checkers is a two-player abstract while gin rummy is not.* By contrast, the game Mole Hill does have a real-world setting, fanciful though it might be, but most gamers would still consider it as being a two-player abstract (and indeed someone has classified it as such on the massive gaming database

Tzaar bills itself as a "pure strategy game," and I think this is more apt a description than "two-player abstract," though I will probably go on using the terms interchangeably from force of habit.

Tzaar is a chess-like game in which pieces capture other pieces. The moves are less restricted than they are in chess, but a piece cannot stop on an empty space; pieces instead move along one of the lines radiating from its intersection to capture another piece, just so long as the capturing piece is at least as strong as the piece that is captured. "Piece" in this context refers to both a single piece and a stack of pieces, and strength is measured in terms of the height of the stack, with a single piece having a height and strength of one. Each player has three types of piece, and some are scarcer than others; if any single type of a player's pieces is eliminated from the board that player loses.
What makes the game interesting is that a player can forgo capturing an opponent's piece to instead jump on one of his own pieces to create a stack and thus a more powerful piece. He can also increase the height of an existing stack. The down side is that instead of reducing his opponent's pool of pieces by one he has reduced his own pool of pieces by one; this is a problem because a player will also lose if he is unable to make a capture.

The result is a game which has an almost philosophical element to it; players must adopt an approach and make choices between options which are qualitatively different but both good in their own way. This is a very common feature of the "German" style of family board games that has been popular since the mid-1990s, but it is not necessarily something which is seen very often in pure strategy games outside of choices between opening moves. Certainly there are sacrifices in chess, where a player will willingly give up a piece in order to gain a better overall board position, but this is only done with a very specific aim in mind, whereas in Tzaar a player might choose choose to create stacks simply because the play style appeals to him or to explore a strategical approach.

I love well-designed pure strategy games. There is a wonderful sense of exploration about them, and the sense of psychic connection that one gets with a well-matched opponent is something unlike any other gaming experience. There are often odd, half-silent conversations that go on during play, as a player will shrug or chuckle or curse with a move and the other player will know exactly what his opponent is referring to. Despite the supposed dryness and abstraction, players' personalities are on center stage, and they often show through the moves as clearly as if they were painted on the pieces.

The difficulty is that many people are just not suited to this type of game. For many people in the hobby the setting of the game is the most important element; if the story takes place in ancient Rome or in the age of the rail barons or in deepest outer space the imagination kicks in and conjures up associations that tickle their fancy. In this case the point of playing is to live out history, enjoy a role, or simply to reconnect with the daydreams of adolescence.

Beyond that there are pitfalls even for those who enjoy the abstract mechanisms of a game more than the window dressing. The problem is that a player can perceive his ego or self-worth being at stake when the game is a pure test of wits, and so not only an intense sense of competition arises but sometimes also a paralyzing fear of making a mistake and a compulsion to leave no stone unturned in searching for the best move. The result is a game that takes hours to play because one player (or, God forbid, both) will be approaching it like a puzzle which is solvable given a sufficient amount of effort.

Chess solves this problem by adding a clock to the game which forces players to keep things moving, but this solution can be awkward or potentially insulting to suggest when playing a casual game with friends. It is better, I think, to try to find opponents who have an instinctual sense of the social contract of this type of game and who understand that the game is not really about the winning but about the playing, just as a journey is often more meaningful than the destination. To me a good player is a player who can make good moves in a reasonable amount of time; a player who wins a lot of games but takes five minutes per turn is just a good robot.

Anyway, I will hopefully be able to play a game of Tzaar or two tomorrow at "The Mother of All Board Game Events" being held in Shelton Connecticut. If so, I will report back with my findings. At some point I shall also have to write up a little something about the larger game concept of which Tzaar is only a part—that is, terrifying and majestic Gipf Project. Stay tuned.


* It's worth mentioning that there are a few games which lie in a gray area; some people might consider games like Stratego or Plateau two-player abstracts because strictly speaking there is no randomness, but there is hidden information which introduces an element of luck. Another question that arises is whether a game which can be played by more than two players is "pure strategy" if there is no random or hidden element. Perhaps this is snobbish of me, but I am inclined to say no; player A might win not because he is the best player but because player B is a poor player and did something unpredictable which helped player A or hurt player C.

1 comment:

Matthew Gray said...

whether a game which can be played by more than two players is "pure strategy" if there is no random or hidden element. Perhaps this is snobbish of me, but I am inclined to say no;

I don't think is snobbish (unless one were to condescend to multi-player by calling them "impure strategy" or the like) but a valuable classification.

That said, I think I prefer the term "perfect information games", since it cleanly excludes Stratego and the like. "Pure strategy" might be better reserved for games with no game-produced randomness. Lots of games are pure (from a game-theoretic point of view) strategy (albeit, randomized) and it would be a shame to lose the obvious label.