Monday, February 27, 2006


It's hardly unique to dislike suprises... most of us fear them.

Do you agree or disagree with that statement?

If you disagreed then you're obviously a bonehead who tends not to think things through, acting instead on the faint currents of intelligence that drift lazily through your mind stirring up only the happy, cheerful childhood memories of Christmas mornings, birthdays and playing doctor with the cute chick next door.

Those of you who agreed have tapped into the ugly reality of life... which really is -- at least as described by me -- a never-ending series of chaotic and terrifying events inexorably thundering towards an uncertain future dragging you along kicking and screaming and allowing precious little time for anything but struggling to exert enough tenuous control over the headlong rush that you don't have too many suprises along the way.

Seem harsh? Perhaps. But how many suprises are really that good? Some seem that way at first but rarely turn out as expected. For you men out there, how about what seemed like a nice suprise that night when you, thouroughly drunk and properly attired in fresh beer-goggles, asked what seemed like the hottest chick in the nightclub to come see your (pick one) etchings/game collection/stereo/Halo set-up and she accepted. Nice suprise you thought. Until 6:45 AM rolled around and you looked over at her in the bright morning sunlight and realized that Coyote Ugly isn't a joke after all... you really were going to have to chew your arm off and then move to a new place... before she woke up.

Or this: have you ever accepted a certified letter? You have? What the hell were you thinking? Certified letters are suprises and suprises, when you pass the age of about 7, are almost never good. Someone once noticed I never accepted certified mail and they asked me why? So I asked them, "Have you ever received anything good in a letter you had to sign for?"

"Well, no, not that I can recall."

"Right. Who sends certified mail?"

"Hmmm... I got one once from a lawyer. I was being sued. Then the tax commission sent me several when I was late paying them."

"Yes, yes, but answer me this; have you ever received a certified letter that had a good suprise?"

"No. But if someone was sending you money wouldn't they send it certified? If you didn't accept the letter, you'd miss the good suprise."

"Ah. So... who is going to send you money and not tell you? In fact, just answer the first part of that question."

"Right. I see your point."

What does this have to do with games?

I'm getting there, I had to do the intro and background so the Euro-gamers who read this article aren't left in school while the rest of us go out and play.

Suprise, which we all now understand sucks, is one of the main foundations of a good game. If you think about it, and some of you have done that for sure, the fewer mechanics in a game design that allow for unexpected events, the dryer and less fun the game becomes. Certainly there are some gamers who resist the notion that a true perfect information game, like chess, isn't fun. Okay, for you it's fun. But let's get real here, how highly does chess rate on BGG? For that matter, except for the few of you who actually play chess well, how often is it the game of choice?

Let's take another example, closer to the Game Geek's heart - Puerto Rico. It's nearly a perfect information game, all the elements are there to be seen except for the stacks of plantation tiles. And if you've ever bothered to do a tile count and then kept track of things during the game, those stacks hold very little mystery. The element of suprise in Puerto Rico really boils down to one thing - which player is going to grow so incredibly bored and irritated with the game that they finally snap and take the Craftsman just to get the damned thing over with?

I just described my last five games of Puerto Rico. Which is why every time I think about it and happen to be logged onto BGG I lower my rating another half a point.

At some level you can have all the information about a game but no information about what random elements will cause nasty little suprises for you when the game is actually underway. Poker is a good example. There is a perfect information level of Poker... the 13 cards of four suits. Everybody has that knowledge. But the hidden nature of card distribution and the rules of play, betting, raising, bluffing and so forth make Poker a very tense and highly exciting game to play for money. Or for articles of clothing, whatever your situation dictates.

Random is fun

In DW's little world of gaming I prefer games with random elements that create tension through unexpected occurances. I like suprises in my games much more than I like them in life.

Jumbo-Tron dropped by Saturday and I taught him how to play the excellent Command & Colors: Ancients. He'd played Memoir '44 so it was really just a quick tour of the units, cards and slick new rules additions.

After the first scenario or so I suggested that we play the Lake Trasimenus scenario. This heavily favors the Carthagians who, led by Hannibal, cannily suprised the foppish Roman general Flaminius in a narrow defile near the lake's shore. I've played Rome several times and never won that scenario.

Jumbo started right off by, suprise, bringing his entire cavalry down from the hills on my left flank. Then he rolled like crap. The net result after the first couple of turns was that I had 3 of the victory points out of the 6 needed to win and Jumbo had zip. I had punished Hannibal's light cavalry in the Battle Back phase. Then Jumbo made a poor decision and chose not to evade my infantry when he could.

The battle waxed and waned the next couple of turns as Flaminius struggled to move his forces off the shore. But Jumbo, a worthy Geek to act in Hannibal's stead, had saved up two cards that would suprise the hell out of me and yet again, send Flaming Flammy packing. What Jumbo had was both "line command" cards. These cards allow an entire linked block of foot units to move and attack. He played them back to back and won the game 6 VP's to my 5 VP's.

The whole thing took 45 minutes and was engrossing, fun, suprising and left both of us smiling. The bad rolls, good rolls, unexpected card plays. choice of formation and who to move and where to move them made the 45 minutes seem like a real battle. The game is full of suprises.

In the 5 minutes of post game discussion I looked at my 4 cards and realized something. Jumbo had left a Warrior unit unprotected down on my left flank as he aggressively pursued the victory in the center and right. I was so on the defensive and in a react mode to his onslaught that I lost focus on a single card I had that could have made Flaming Flammy a hero. I had a "move 3 left flank" card. And I had two medium foot and an Auxilia unit along with Flammy himself there. I could easily have blocked all hope of retreat and probably killed that one unit and secured the victory.

But I didn't. Jumbo kept the pressure on and kept me pointed in the direction that he wanted me to point. He suprised me and Flaminius was his bitch in the end.

A good design generates suprise

At least that's how I view board games. In real life I prefer to not be suprised. In gaming, I'm bored and disenchanted if the game is too structured and relegates all potential for suprise to an opponent's suprising choices. That's why I dislike chess and love backgammon. It's why I screen my calls and never sign for mail. Competition of any sort that is designed for fun rather than sheer survival has to have unexpected results or it gets boring.

It's true in sports as well

Yesterday was the first race of the World Superbike 2006 series. During the first race two Japanese riders, Haga and Kagayama, battled for the lead until the last lap. Shadowing them was 2004 Champion, Englishman James Toseland. He was too far back, perhaps half a second, to mount an assault and it looked like Haga would make the final pass on Katayama and win. When Haga went for the pass, several turns from the finish line, his front tire, worn from heavy braking and the heat of the Middle Eastern desert, gave way and he went down hard, sweeping Kagayama's Suzuki along with him and they both crashed out of the race. Toseland rushed to victory. A total suprise.

Using that race to counter my theory you might say: "But that suprise was good for Toseland."

You'd be right. But it was bad for just about everyone else in the Superbike series. Haga crashes a lot and is no threat. Kagayama only does well when his equipment is perfect and he isn't rattled. The second race he drove off the track and finally retired. So for every other contender - primarily two Aussies, both former World Champs themselves - Troy Courser and Troy Bayliss, this was a bad suprise. It meant that Toseland is already a threat.

That's what games are all about to me. Unexpected turns, suprises good and bad. If the design allows for some level of perfect information then it should have elements that shroud what's happening in each player's little universe. I want to come out from behind a wall and suprise you. I want you to think my effort is over here when it's really over there. It doesn't matter if the game is a war game or a trading game, a Euro or something totally American. if it allows for players to generate suprises, then it's a great game.

And please remember, if you're sending that money you owe me, just drop it in an envelope, no need to make me sign for it.


ekted said...

I apologize in advance, but it's:


I also apologize subsequently.

I too am a realist. Surprises are almost always bad. I hate when the phone or the doorbell rings.

Anonymous said...

Well, chess has a lower rating on BGG because there aren't too many strong chessplayers, im guessing. As you get good, the game is more surprising than you give it credit for, even with perfect information.

That said, I generally agree, some hidden information makes gaming more tense as long as the game is not wildly random. I think that your example of C&C applies to the "revolution" in wargaming regarding card driven games. They often lack historical accuracy, but are compelling because of hidden information.


gamesgrandpa said...

Right on, DW! A game with no surprise element becomes bogged down with too much analysis, little or no conversation, and only surprises you when someone makes a gaff. The key to a great game (for me) is having just the right amount of randomness (surprise). Neither too little nor too much is fun. There is a middle ground for me, which may vary from game to game, depending on other factors.

Anonymous said...

Bro, if life is tossing nasty little events your way that are worse than you can imagine you should do a little work on your imagination(g).

The two biggest suprises in my life so far are 1) getting all the way to my 30s and still being alive and 2)how much I enjoyed being a father. Both were unremittingly positive...can't lose 'em all, you know.

Imho, creating some sort of order out of the random elements is precisely what makes some game sessions so satisifying. Since life is a ongoing battle in the face of xaos, recreating the struggle in minature resonates.

Al Tabor

Anonymous said...

I have no particular problem with surprises in life. They're a necessary part of the game that is life. Random surprises in games remove the aspect of games I enjoy most: the planning, the prediction, the perception and manipulation of patterns. I don't much enjoy (and frequently dislike) the short term tactical planning that many games with significant luck factors encourage. I find significant luck factors in non-trivial games disenchanting.

Mike said...

I think it depends on the person. Some of us want more chance in our games, some want less. Usually, the less the chance, the greater the skill - Bike racing vs most CCGs. Conversely, the greater the randomness, the less the needed skill. I think most people play a game to experience the chance. Not just gamers, but all people.
Think I'm wrong? Don't bet on it. The Multibillion dollar gambling industry seems to agree with me. Go into any casino. What game type is most available? Slots. Purely random. Then you have the table games. Even 21 has too much skill for some, so now Casino War is available. Yep. The old War card game. Each person flips one card. Highest wins. Also, how popular is the lottery? Nothing but random but people throw their money away. Although you could make the point the lottery is not really a surprise. You will lose.

The point is, we are on a spectrum and most of us can be in multiple places on the spectrum. (Wolf wanting 0 surprises in life, some in games. Maybe wanting a BIG surprise on the lottery.)