Saturday, October 08, 2005

Five Games I Don't Like

Often when I review I choose to talk about games that I like, to help spread the love and bring more gamers into the fold of my favorites. It's a rarity that I specifically pull out a bad game to write a review about--unless it seems to be generating a lot of unwarranted publicity (or unless I've been given a review copy, which pretty much necessitates a review unless it was sent to me cold).

This week, however, I want to change things up a bit, and to talk about a number of the games that I don't like, all of which are considered classics.


What better place to start than the king of games, what most folks think you're talking about when you say you're playing a "serious" game.

Chess has, I think, been corrupted by its own success.

Back in High School I used to try and play Chess. I'd go by the Chess club at lunch because that's what all the nerds did. But after a year or so I gave up the habit, because I never found Chess that enjoyable--it had too wide of a decision tree, and thus required too much thought--and because I decided that the Chess club members were even more socially retarded than I. That's simply a statement that I really have tried Chess, however, not a statement of why I don't like it.

The biggest actual problem with Chess is the huge amount of literature that has been written about it: the exhaustive listings of starting moves, strategems, and counter-strategems. The necessity to have memorized these hundreds or thousands of standard strategies turns Chess into a game of memory rather than strategy.

That we can now program computers to play as well as the top humans says a lot about how staid and automatic this game has become at any truly competitive level.


Scrabble has much the same problem. It can be perfectly enjoyable at a non-competitive level where players drop down words with their spouses, friends, or loved ones, and might know that "aa" and "qat" are perfectly acceptable words, but not a lot more.

Where Scrabble falls apart, however, is again at the competitive level. It was Word Freak which showed me how truly degenerate Scrabble play is among professionals, with its descriptions of obsessive and continuous memorization of 3-, 4-, and even 5-letter words. Like Chess, Scrabble loses its strategy at higher levels of play and instead becomes a game of memory.


Bridge is a fine, though not particularly notable, trick-taking game. The bidding system for Bridge is what really stinks.

I played Bridge for a while when courting my then wife-to-be, and in the process I studied crib sheets carefully. I learned what bids to make with how many points and started to eke out the meanings of what my partner might mean when she was making a bid herself.

I eventually came to the realization that there was no real game to the bidding of Bridge, it was simply the act of learning a secret code--a foreign language--and then applying that linguistic knowledge. And I decided that if I wanted a foreign language in my gaming I'd do better to work on a more useful one, for example by playing A Game of Thrones entirely in Spanish:

"You deseo ... uh ... ser un amigo con blanco. Lobos blancos? Blanco y verde solamente amigos. Muerto ... muertamos rojo. Uh ... Rojo no juega. El pollo rojo esta en la casa loca, mis amigos."

Texas Hold 'em

Before I got involved in European games, I used to have a Poker night every week. It was always Dealer's Choice play, and inevitably someone would offer up one of the Texas Hold 'em variants to play. Usually these games just confounded me, because I didn't understand where the game was.

More recently I was given a review copy of a Texas Hold 'em computer game, and I've now spent several hours trying it out. And I've come to the conclusion that this is scarcely a game worth playing.

Clearly Texas Hold 'em is intended to be a game of almost pure bluff. You're given two cards, and then you can combine those with a set of (eventually) five face-up cards to form the best five-card hand you can. You never get to see anyone else's cards until the very end, and so you have to make your assessment of other peoples' strengths solely based on their bids (and their past behavior).

However, as a game of pure bluff, this is one of the more boring that I've seen. In a 10-player game, you can usually expect 6-9 players to fold before any cards are flipped face-up. The vast majority of games end with the penultimate person folding. For the most part, you don't want to stay in unless you have a pocket pair or a nice high matched set in your hidden cards. So round after round after round it's nothing but "fold", "fold", "fold", "call", "fold", "fold". I think it speaks a lot for how broken this game is that in most games two players are forced to bid--else the folding which takes up the vast majority of gameplay would take up just about all of it.

The forced bids (which increase in value throughout the game) also seem to largely break endgame play where the last few players have to bid every round and the amounts are so high that victory swings back and forth based largely on the draw of the cards.

The problem with Texas Hold 'em is, pretty clearly, that it was developed for TV play. The one "exciting" part of the game is when a couple of players are "all in" and then you slowly reveal the common cards one at a time to see who the actual winner is. Of course, this is a probabilistically random event, with no strategy at all because you've already made your bidding decisions.

On TV these showdowns can look great, and conversely you don't have to sit through hours of people folding. In real life you do, marking Texas Hold 'em as a failure in my book despite its immense popularity.

Puerto Rico

At last we come to one of These Games of Ours. To be honest, I do like Puerto Rico. I think it's an entirely clever and fun game and I often enjoy playing it with some of my best friends.

What I don't like, however, is many of the people who play Puerto Rico. As Puerto Rico has gained renown as one of the most strategic and thoughtful games of the German Invasion, it's begun to suffer from Chess Syndrome, with pre-programmed moves and "optimal" strategies slowly sucking the life out of the game.

Take a moment and listen to the conversation at one of the nearby Puerto Rico tables:

"Well, I would have won if I hadn't been sitting to Jeremy's right, and he kept taking Producer when there was no logical reason for him to do so."


"So I took Producer which of course meant that Jamie Sold, then Alexa shipped, which was exactly what I expected because it then let me build on the next turn, though that played into Alexa's hands who had saved up a larger store of money, but if I'd instead built with my then lesser resources, then Jamie would have produced, I would have gotten left with no coffee and Alexa would have shipped anyway, and shipping wasn't an option for me either because then Jamie would still have sold and Alexa would have refused to produce at all ..."


"No, no, if he took builder then you have to grab a quarry with settler. Anything else is a subpar move."

There's nothing like a bit of I-know-better-than-you-itis to destroy the fun factor of a game.

(Jeremy Avery expanded on this same topic a while ago in The Jedi of Puerto Rico, though I only found that article after I drafted the above. Ironically my use of the name "Jeremy" in one of my examples had nothing to do with his scribing.)

Final Notes

Perhaps listing this as five games I don't like was a bit strong. I actually like Scrabble and Puerto Rico, two of the games on the list, and if I didn't find it as boring as staring at a blank wall, I'd think the gameplay of Chess was OK.

However each of the five games I list this week, from Chess to Puerto Rico, has what I'd call meta-problems: issues outside the central focus of the game which can still destroy any fun that the game can offer.

Published moves, rote memorization of words, secret codes, made for TV play, and obnoxious know-it-alls, while somewhat beyond the internal scope of these games, still can contribute to their fun (or lack thereof) in the real world.


ekted said...

Bidding is not a part of the rules of Bridge; it is simply something that most people do in a standardized way. You can make almost any agreements you like with your partner, as long as there are no secrets from the opponents. Also, bidding is not simply a language. Given a large assortment of hands, you will find even experts who use the same bidding system will not agree in all cases. Bidding is an art form, and something that can be refined to some degree if you have a long-term partner. Remember, the number of possible bidding sequences is in the thousands (realistically in the hundreds), while the number of possible bridge deals is 53,644,737,765,488,792,839,237,439,999.

Anonymous said...

I agree with your assessment of Texas Hold 'em but it was not developed for television. It's been played for a lot longer than the very recent popular explosion of programs on TV.

Shannon Appelcline said...

A few thoughts:


In response to siddgames' comments, yes I think many games could suffer from meta-gaming, and it's not really a knock against Chess or Puerto Rico that they have (except insomuch as it reduces my interest in playing either with meta-gamers).

Some games are resistant to meta-gaming, and I think it has to do with how much randomness there is in the game (be that luck or just chaos created by other players). Chess and Puerto Rico are sufficiently constrained and "obvious" that there isn't much randomness, hence the meta-gaming.

However Basari or Caribbean are good examples of games that I suspect aren't at all vulnerable to meta-gaming because any good strategy becomes a bad strategy if matched. Likewise I suspect it might be harder to meta-game Ticket to Ride just because there's so much interaction between different players that it's hard to predict a continued ideal strategy from game to game. It all depends on how the other players play.

Texas Hold'Em & TV

In response to Greg, even if Texas Hold'Em wasn't created for TV, it was popularized by the televised tournaments. If it weren't for those I'm pretty confident that you wouldn't see it sprouting up like weeds everywhere.

As for the others: interesting thoughts all.

Coldfoot said...

I was with ya' up to PR. I would have substitued Acquire.

Joe Gola said...

Count me among those who have failed to be charmed by Texas Hold 'Em. It seems like poker redesigned by a control freak—the unknown is reduced to the bare minimum and the luck of the draw is dampened by the players sharing the majority of their cards with each other. Poker without all the messy guesswork! Somehow the whole thing is so much more fussy-girly than facing nothing but the backs of five cards and an evil grin.

Unknown said...

Shannon, you took the words right out of my mounth on ALL those games, especially Chess and Puerto Rico.

Anonymous said...

Texas Hold'em:

You're putting the cart before the horse. Texas Hold'em is not popular because it is on TV -- it's on TV because it's popular.

I'll agree that it's popular *with everyday people* now because of it's exposure on TV but it has been considered the most popular game amongst actual Poker players for far longer. In fact, I'd suggest that the reason Texas Hold'em is the variant that they show on TV is precisely because of its popularity among the Poker playing community.

Joe Gola said...

Siddgames--I see your point, but it seems like the desirable skill for playing Texas Hold 'Em is just a little quick math, i.e. figuring how many combinations of two cards will beat your hand and dividing that by the total possible combinations. I'm not impressed. It just takes a great gambling/psychological game and turns it into an efficiency exercize. Not every game has to be a brainburner.

Anonymous said...

Well, I don't agree with everything you've said, but good on you for pointing out some of the ways that the life can be sucked out of a game for people there to have fun rather than win.

One misconception about bidding in Bridge, however, the actual system you use is only a part of it. If you pick up a book on bidding, you will find most of it talks about judgement rather than memorizing rules. You can never plan a bid exactly, because I read once that it is most likely that in all of the Bridge ever played in the world, the exact same hand has never been dealt twice.

Shannon Appelcline said...

Just as a brief response to the couple of comments on Bridge hands: keep in mind that there's a big difference between "different hands" and "meaningfully different hands". In other words the permutations "3 and 5 of spades", "3 and 6 of spades", and "4 and 6 of spades" are almost identical.

That's not to say that there isn't some slight level of meaningful judgement in the bidding. However, saying there are 53,644,737,765,488,792,839,237,439,999 different Bridge deals is pretty misleading.

ekted said...

Yes Shannon, but even taking all possible hands where anything below a 10 is just an "x", there are still millions of hands for any bidding sequence. You have the right to not like any game you like, but your reasons for not liking Bridge are not those of someone who understands it. It's like playing PoF once and saying, "It's all about what cards you draw."

Joe Gola said...

Re T.H.E.: I'm missing something, then, because my knowledge of the game is mainly from playing it myself, and we did not play with any special betting rules. I've seen a few snippets on TV but have never sat down to watch the entire program. I'll check it out.

Anonymous said...

Chess and PR are fun with the right people. Chess, like many other abstracts, needs to have two players with similar ability for it to be fun. Someone that spends their lives memorizing openings is (probably) better than me at chess and I won't choose that game to play with them.

Personally, I'll only play chess with a clock (set to no more than 10 minutes to a side) or with someone that I know plays quickly. (Although, I have to admit, I've not played it even with a clock recently, except to teach the kids).

PR, I think is harder to reduce to the "perfect move for the situation" systems. I'll play this with anyone. If they whine about someone else's play screwing them up, I'll have to consider whether playing with them is fun. I don't mind, "If he'd picked this, I'd have won," comments, but I don't like, "Obviously, his play gave you the win and wasn't his best move," types.

I played bridge growing up, but never tried duplicate. We had lots of fun with it. Unfortunatly, it's not a game that my wife enjoyed (after giving it several tries with different groups), so it's not one that I play much anymore. The bidding is certainly a code/language, but you are free to use as much or as little of the established conventions out there as you (and your partner) choose. You can even make up your own conventions. For example, my sister listened to my bid and then subtracted two points from her hand, because she knew I was prone to overbidding. :-)

The only good thing about Texas Hold'em is that it's something that non-gamers will play. It also introduced or at least formalized the concept of table stakes, which in my opinion greatly reduces the tension of "friendly" poker games because now none of your buddies keeps throwing money a the game even when losing badly (and possibly more than he can afford).
Scrabble has never been a favorite of mine, but only because I stink at it. :-) I have a pretty good vocabulary, but I don't see the words that I know when the letters aren't in the right order! :-) Certainly not a problem with the game, but a lacking in me.

Anonymous said...

I agree wholeheartedly with one of your central thrusts: Games suffer when they achieve gross popularity.

It is for this reason that Eurogaming is such a wonderful niche hobby. Most of our games haven't become studied.

The fun, for me, is responding to and learning from a game as it unfolds. The idea of having to read up on openings and to have to memorize anything is a serious detriment to the fun factor. Since I'm not hoping to earn any big bucks on my Settlers prowess, I'm fine with that. Besides, I prefer the atmosphere where games are a pastime not a sport.

Anonymous said...

The reason why you get that kind of behaviour from some PR players is that PR is a game that has substantial depth.

Most people making those kind of comments (and I've played ALOT of online PR, and seen very few of those kind of comments) have played 100+ games. Many people would be hard pressed to identify any game they've played 100 times (excepting card games).

So, in some ways I believe the behaviour you are seeing with regard to some PR players is actually due to positive aspects of the game. Firstly, its depth. And secondly, its longevity.

Now, don't get me wrong, those behaviours you mention are annoying. But what I like in PR is that (unlike Chess, which is obviously alot older) the 'correct' strategy is ever changing. Every few months, the killer strategy is torn apart and a response created.

So, I suppose my point is twofold.

a) You won't see these behaviours unless you are playing with experts (and annoying ones at that). So it won't affect most players and game groups.
b) These behaviours are indicative of the enduring quality of the game of Puerto Rico.

Don't mistake me as a fanboy. I like PR, but don't play it as often as I used to. 150 games is enough. ;-)


Ava Jarvis said...

What an odd comment about chess. I don't like it, but one thing about it is that it's never had a static strategy, any more than Puerto Rico does. The fact that there are many books about openings, endings, the middle game, and the fact that people develop their own personal strategies would seem to indicate a rather dynamic game. The fact that people like to analyze it to death says the same thing. (Maybe they're not my people, your people, or Puerto Rico people, but there's quite a large chess community.)

I prefer game outings where everybody can be shaken up a little. Probably why I like some Faidutti games immensely, or don't mind luck elements or handicapping. It's hard to shake up another person who's very experienced in some games without handicaps of some sort or other.

I do like chess with Knightmare Chess cards added; the expression on a chess addict's face when his long-laid personal instincts are tossed asunder is quite amusing. It doesn't seem to happen often enough in chess when you reach a particular level, but then again, I've never reached it, so I probably don't know what I'm talking about here.

Anonymous said...

Interesting article but I definitely have some thoughts on the games except texas which I have never played and from your description am not interested either.
Chess - I played reasonably well but usually lost after I worked out some really deep strategy for the next dozen rounds and promply forgot that my queen was in check and hence lost the game. I basically game up on the game as too long and boring though I can easily see high tension thinkers enjoying a chalanging game.
Scrabble - would certainly help if I could spell 3 letter words, but since I use a dictionary for everything my future playing is limited to my wife who loves the game and is perfectly willing to allow me to look up every word I think of (with about 75% spelled wrong but look that way is legal)

Bridge - I think you are totally wrong about the bidding. Yes it is a language to comunicate with your partner. It however, only gives you a framework. The ops are interfearing, bluffing, sacrificing, trying to force you higher or just passing free info to their partner at your expense so the language rarely works perfectly as you must improvise. hands must be re-evaluated all throught the bidding process. many hands don't fit the rules and you have to decide when to try and comunicate again, abort, settle for second best, sacrifice, push the opponents, or peanalize the oponents on every bidding sequence at a duplicate style game. Rarely do you have the ability to even make 3 bids to describe the millions of possibilities and find the best contract for you and your partner

puerto rico - I think gamers enjoy discussing their great plays and analysing things to death. its human nature and I think it will happen in every game which has intellegent strategy in it