Metarules for Games

[Note: If you don’t like strategy games, this might seem a little esoteric. I personally feel that this post also has broader life-strategy implications. But that might be wishful thinking on my part.]

I play a lot of games. I believe that we are in a golden age of games, and that these games – in contrast to watching TV, surfing the internet, or other forms of passive entertainment – provide a rich opportunity for engaged and healthy social interaction.

Learning a new game follows a pattern not unlike the pattern of a person’s life. You start out clueless and helpless, without any idea of what to do or what to expect. You don’t know the language or rules of the game. You pick up things bit by bit. You learn the rules, and then you start to learn the strategy. If you play against someone who has played before, you will probably lose. But then you build your own unique mental model of how to survive and thrive in the game. And then it becomes fun. Sooner or later, you win. And then you lose again. Rinse. Repeat.

I’ve followed this process enough times where I’ve started to think about whether any of the lessons I’ve learned from some of the games are applicable to all or most of the games. And I think the answer is a qualified yes.

The following list is my attempt to summarize such a set of metarules for all, or at least most, games. Here goes:

  1. There is no such thing as a universal strategy

The first metarule in gaming is that there is no such thing as a universal rule of gaming.

This may seem a little Zen-koan-like, but I believe it to be true. No game that’s worth playing allows one strategy to dominate all the time. In any game that is better constructed than checkers, Connect 4, or Monopoly, there will be no universal strategy. If there were a universal strategy, there would be no point in playing.

There are simple strategies in chess that allow you to win a match in as few as four moves. But if your opponent has even a basic awareness of how to play, that strategy won’t work. There are more sophisticated starting moves that can put pressure on any weak opponent, but those strategies aren’t capable of ensuring victory in competitive tournaments for 6 year olds. To get good at chess, you need to develop a rich set of mid-to-late game strategies. And all are subject to variations, mistakes, and exploitation at the hands of strong opponents.

There is no universal strategy, which creates an inherent uncertainty and variability in all well-constructed games. It is a necessary component of the game-playing process.

  1. If your opponent knows your strategy and is prepared for it, you’ll increase your chances of success by adopting a new strategy

This ties in to the first point. As soon as your opponent knows a strategy, they’ll be prepared, and they’ll likely adopt one of two approaches to react to your strategy. Either they’ll copy your strategy, or they’ll counter your strategy. If they copy your strategy, then your strategy no longer provides a strategic advantage. The winner will be determined by the whimsies and circumstances of the game – turn order, card order, or some other game feature.

If your opponent knows a good counterstrategy, then your initial strategy not only fails to provide a strategic advantage, it becomes a strategic disadvantage. Which is why, when you realize that your opponent knows and is prepared for your strategy, that you should consider a new strategy.

  1. To win games against savvy opponents, play everyone’s game as well as your own

First you learn the rules of a game. Then you figure out the strategy. But the only way to really get into the dance that makes a game rich and powerful is to keep in mind not just your own moves, but everyone else’s as well.

When one player is aware of not just his own moves but those of his opponents, it creates an enormous competitive advantage.

When all players learn this, it usually creates something akin to a competitive equilibrium (depending on the relative skills of the players and whatever randomness features make up the game).

  1. The player with the fewest wasted or inefficient moves wins

As players gain sophistication, games are more often decided not by error, but by which player has the most efficient strategy. What constitutes an efficient strategy varies from game to game, but in many games, you’ll find yourself in a position where you realize that the move you’ve just made was wasted, because a target objective was blocked off by an opponent and otherwise rendered not useful because of the conditions of the game.

In many games – such as Istanbul and Broom Service, two recent Kennerspiel des Jahres winners – it’s nearly impossible to avoid this fate. But in those games, and in many others, those who waste the least win the most.

  1. Find features that yield cumulative benefits early, reap rewards late

Albert Einstein is famous for saying, “Compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world. He who understands it, earns it … he who doesn’t … pays it.”

Many games have features that function like compound interest. Whether it’s a resource or option that you can acquire, it pays for itself many times over. In a game where the goal is to maximize potential based on constrained resources, if there is feature that functions like this, then that is probably the feature that will determine the winner. Almost without exception, the key to these features is acquiring them early. Examples of this include the resource cards in 7 Wonders and high-value plantations in Puerto Rico. Secure an advantage in the features of a game that have cumulative benefits early; prioritize that advantage over an early scoring lead every time.

  1. Sometimes the best move is no move

Most game players have an unshakeable bias for action on every turn. We’re only able to make decisions and take action during a limited percentage of the time we play in any given game, so when we have a chance to take action, that’s usually what we do. Yet many games allow for discretionary moves or allow for resource-building moves. And there are many games that offer rewards for those who exercise restraint and avoid mediocre moves in favor of fewer, stronger, targeted moves.

The popular Ticket to Ride is a great example of this. Weaker players aggressively lay track as soon as they are able. Stronger players often refrain from showing where they’re planning to go and gather resources until they are able to quickly construct a route, giving competitors little time to react.

  1. The only way to get better is to lose more than you win

When I was young, and when I first started playing strategy games as an adult, I was a terrible loser, prone to pouty behavior and tantrums. But as I played more, I grew more accustomed to losing. And the more you lose, the more losing is no big deal.

They are games, after all.

If there’s one rule to growth, it’s that regular and consistent losing is a necessary precursor to winning. Get used to being in over your head. Get used to feeling lost and confused. Get used to losing. Find everyone around who is good enough to beat you. Learn from the experience. And then when you find yourself winning more than you lose, find a new game. Find a new challenge.

When the process of learning and stimulating yourself means more than winning or losing, then you’ll enjoy playing, regardless of the outcome.