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September 7th, 2002

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05:50 am - This game sucks
There is a class of games in which the play of the game involves changing the rules of the game. (The old joke goes "Don't like the rules of the game? OK, we'll change 'em!") The most famous example of the genre is Nomic. bateleur recently wrote a fascinating post on his recent experiences with the game.

I don't think it would be too unfair a summary to say that a large part of it concludes to "It's an interesting idea, but few people think about it hard enough to bring out all the game's possibilities into practice". I believe it's true that there are few people who are willing to think at bateleur's very high level about the game; indeed, I very much doubt that I "get it" to the extent that he "gets it". (This isn't intended to be sarcastic or mocking, in case this appears unclear.) However, I have spent considerable time, thought and effort playing rule-changing games and believe they are a fascinating topic.

Over the years, I've been involved with, I think, four Nomic initiatives and have played a few related games. Some more history may be useful.

Nomic was invented in 1982 and started to spread from there. One of the most interesting and open-minded communities of gamers I know is the postal game 'zine fandom, never shy from trying out rule variations and game variants. In 1987, Nick Kinzett (one of the most famous rules tinkerers, organisers and miscellaneous nice-mad geniuses) codified Somewhat Demiurgic Diplomacy, an attempt to apply the rule-changing paradigm to the established Diplomacy framework. An interesting project some day would be to visit the Zine Archives and investigate the discussions leading up to the start of that game. Somewhat Demiurgic (rule-changing) variations of some other games were tried, most notably Somewhat Demiurgic Railway Rivals by David Oya, more about whom some other day. Some 'zines ran Nomic games as well. The overall conclusion - and if only postal zines were hypertextual, I could give you an exact quote - was that these games tended to degenerate into brawls between the GM, trying to retain his sanity and ensure the continued running of the game, and the players who were trying to make the GM lose his cool and make the game impossible to run. There has been fairly convincing evidence for this. Indeed, I suspect that it may not be an uncommon path for a large number of Nomic games to follow.

Let's deal with the big Nomics first.

OxNomic was played in about '96; if anyone should be singled out as the prime mover, it should probably be owen, though Perl big-wig Simon Cozens was another prominent player. The game started from a set of rules which were very similar to the Suber originals. (Technically, I think our original ruleset may have been that from the famous Agora Nomic.) I dropped out fairly quickly when it was clear that my sense of humour and enjoyment was not particularly well-aligned with that of the other players. The game managed to iterate to a conclusion about four times; eventually what killed it off was a judgement that was interpreted as being simultaneously true and not true. Death by bifurcation.

You Don't Know was played in the fairly short-lived but celebrated e-mail Diplomacy 'zine The Bluesmobile. It was organised by very laid-back Dutch GM Berry Renken, starting from a remarkable ruleset:

  • All Bluesmobile readers participate in this truly ingenious game.

  • All participants receive one point each round.

  • Each round each participant may propose a new rule or a rule change. The game starts as soon as five or more people do this.

  • Each round the players may vote Yes or No to proposals made in the previous round.

  • If a proposal receives more Yes-votes than No-votes, it is accepted and will become effective in the round that follows.

A very major difference between this ruleset and the Suber ruleset is that it implies a discrete one-round-at-a-time structure, ideally suited for a large number of games. It also doesn't force people down the horrible roads of mutable and immutable rules, calls for judgement and so forth. (Really, I think the Suber rules are intended for face-to-face philosophy-department play and struggle in other settings.) They are missing the principle that "A player always has the option to forfeit the game rather than continue to play or incur a game penalty. No penalty worse than losing, in the judgment of the player to incur it, may be imposed." which is one I always like to see established early, more to codify the social structure of the play process than anything else.

"You Don't Know" managed to last 53 rounds - a shade over two years - and must have had about twenty or thirty players over that time. The final ruleset had animals and automata participating, random events, two game currencies as well as points, a hexagonal game board with named hexes, the ownership of numbers, the co-operatively written National Anthem, guessing games concerning words, numbers and Dutch translations, gem auctions, marriage proposals, special moves, deedpoll player name changes, nuclear missiles (aimed at rules and other players), poker, Scrabble, book and film reviews, bananas, word chains, the Nomic Oath and Pokénom, the Nomic Pocket Monsters. (There were plenty of good rules which entered and left during the game, not least a few sporadic interactions with InterNomic.)

It was a brilliant game. It was very silly, but that suited us just fine.

RPGSocJ Nomic ran from February to May of 2000 and featured about a dozen players from the OU RPG Society. I've just enjoyed spending about an hour and a half skimming through the mail that the game generated. (It too had a hilarious Schrodinger's Vote incident leading to bifurcation, but this was quickly reined in.) It was probably somewhere between the two above-mentioned games in terms of style, containing some very frivolous elements and also some very deep and appropriately self-referential thoughts on the purpose of play, the methods of play, the ethics of play, the properties of a game which is desirable in some sense. To single out one participant, Matt Marcus (verlaine) and I have evidently quite different opinions on the latter issue, but Matt is a fine gentleman, kind enough to spend considerable time and effort moderating the game, and it was tremendous fun playing with him. I note that the abortive revival attempt's Yahoo! Group remains open. It really was a lot of fun.

Games In Testing Nomic was a game I ran postally for six or seven rounds, attempting to emulate the success of "You Don't Know". It didn't really work. It got far too silly too quickly and ended up being a little too hostile between players and GM. A few high points, but not one of the world of Nomic's finest moments.

Democrazy is a Nomic-lite rule-changing card game. At some point I shall cut-and-paste a review of it that I originally wrote for the players of the RPGSocJ Nomic game. (Can one embed <lj-cut>s in a <lj-cut>?) Cosmic Encounter is another famous example of a board game with rule-changing properties - or, at least, in-game properties which will let you override the game's essential rules.

Mao - er, The Chairman's Game - is a playing card game whose initial ruleset is not public knowledge. It's not spoiling too many surprises to reveal that the rules of the game can change while it is played and much of the challenge is to figure the rule changes out. It has been one of the most-played games among certain of my university friends for a good six years. In the right company, it can provide gaming thrills that no other game I've yet discovered can reach. Imagine the inductive challenge of Zendo with the aforementioned rule-changing nature of a Nomic, then wrap the game up in the shell of a "hazing ritual"-style practical joke. To tell you much more about it would be to spoil the effect; if my description intrigues you, you will have to finagle your way into a game some time.

Somewhat Demiurgic Drinking Perudo was an attempt to apply the Somewhat Demiurgic rule-changing principles to Liar's Dice. It was played at ManorCon in probably 1998 by half a dozen from, or associated with, the good old Diplomacy Society (from memory: Dan Lester, Simon Hornby, Dave Percik, myself, probably Mark Sheiham and probably Declan Waters) and fairly quickly ascended to legend. To turn Liar's Dice into a rule-changing game: on your turn, instead of making a call (or a challenge) you may propose a rule change. Everyone votes on whether to accept it or not. If the proposal is accepted, it comes into play and your turn is complete. If the proposal is rejected, you lose a die. (A rule requiring taunting and other penalties of anyone who proposes a rule to avoid having to make a tricky Liar's Dice call either way is recommended for early adoption.) The drinking stipulation adds the rule "lose a die, take a drink".

The game itself only lasted about an hour and a half but it got through a lot of very silly ideas. Someone who played without looking at their dice became The Ironman and had privileges about making other players drink with them. The player who had drunk the most (counted, naturally, on the pint-o-meter, with pint-o-meter penalties for toilet breaks) was the beer-sniveller and could make the Ironman drink. There were copious numbers of sound effects and altered names. (And these are just the changes I can remember years later.) It was more drinking game than rule-changing game by the end of things. This might surprise you as I'm famously teetotal, but I was keeping up on lemonade. Three pints of cold draught lemonade in fairly quick succession proves to be surprisingly much... there's just so much sugar in there that you end up with your jaw hurting. We tried a repeat performance next year with nine players but it was rather forced, we made too much of an effort. The best results arrive naturally and spontaneously. (Yes, I'd try again, though!)

A good game, I conclude, needs a base of players with some broad consensus about what properties are desirable and a not-too-close consensus about the best way to get there. A fairly communal sense of humour helps a great deal, at the risk of rather railroading you into a certain set of gags. A certain sense of robustness and moderately thick skin is very helpful because a great deal of the fun is the associated discussion that accompanies the play of the game. Dom's suggestion - or, at least, my interpretation of Dom's suggestion - that there might be such things as "bad Nomic players" is sadly versed in fact. I can't (and wouldn't) give you a list of attributes which makes a bad Nomic player, but I do agree that there will be coincidences of personalities and circumstances which will lead to better games than other sets of coincidences. I would hate to regard someone as "not being very good at Nomic" or, alternatively, "not being much fun to play Nomic with", but these people will exist. (Quite possibly, I am one of them. It's all a matter of levels and degree - and, no, I'm not implying some sort of university RPG there.)

It's all about trying and making the effort. So why am I not playing in a Nomic game at the moment? Well, it's rather a mental (and, to an extent, emotional) commitment. If it isn't, then you aren't reaching the heights that Nomic has to explore. On the other hand, I think it would be fair to warn you that you shouldn't feel that you can expect to "get everything" in the game you're in. There is a nomic community where people have discussed playing, though. Hmm...

It's a big time commitment, too, especially for the moderator who keeps the game's ducks in a row. (Sometimes quite literally.) One thing that I aim to do in the next year or two is try to get a group of people together at a face-to-face games convention (just a housecon would do) and try playing face-to-face Nomic for a couple of hours. These days, it's not so unreasonable to expect to have a computer, a printer and an office package with which to keep track of the development of the game and its rules. I don't know how far we'll get within a couple of hours - whether that'll be enough to bring the game to a natural conclusion or two, or whether we'll get the wrong blend of players and it'll turn into a nasty mess. But at an investment of only a couple of hours, it's got to be worth a try. Ideally, I'll try it in a few different sets of circumstances with a few different initial rulesets. If I do, expect reports on the developments!

I love rule-changing games with a passion; they let you do things and explore concepts that other games do not. (This is close to an argument that I've seen in favour of RPGs, in a slightly different form.) If you regard yourself as being interested in the wide spectrum of games, they're definitely something to explore.

In an ideal world, I would be able to conclude this article by saying "Like the sound of this? Sign up for this new game, get in on the ground floor and have a ball." and start a trend. Unfortunately, I can't. Can you? If you know of one, please do post details of what's going on as a comment. It's always possible to jump in on an existing game, but somehow, it's not quite the same...

Mood-wise, I'm a tad on the bummed side. quiz_master_man set a record by winning feeeeefty thououououousand dollllllars on Jeopardy! yesterday. Today he saw the harsher side of the game and, well, he won't be setting any more J! records. But winning 50K in half an hour - on a game show where, relative to most, you really earn it - is both impressive and damn cool. Myron, you rule!
Current Mood: See above
Current Music: brakusjs's Bemani 3-65 station (no room to link)

(5 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:September 6th, 2002 09:55 pm (UTC)

Mama Weer All DemoCrazee Now

...or "Chicken in a basket, Nomic in a box"

"Don't Break the Rules, Make the Rules!"
A game by Bruno Faidutti, based on an idea by Karl-Heinz Schmiel.
Published by Blue Games (a Eurogames / Descartes Editeur brand).
30 to 45 minutes, 4 to 10 players, ages 12 and up.

As part of my recent trip to Ohio, I had the opportunity to pick up this
brand new card game for ten and nineteen-twentieths of your Earth
Usbucks, simply based upon its name and its reputation of being Nomic in
a box. It plays like Fluxx with a game behind it. Designer Bruno
Faidutti may be France's premier board/card game producer and may be
most famous for the excellent, original "Knightmare Chess".

For your money, you get an inch-and-a-half-thick A5 box containing sixty
counters (fifteen of each of red, yellow, green and blue) in rather a
natty cloth bag and a deck of 112 cards. There are essentially two types
of cards, vote cards and law cards. There are 10 YES vote cards, 10 NO
vote cards, 10 "Wild Card" vote cards (4 DEFINITE YES, 4 DEFINITE NO and
2 SCAM); 74 law cards, 7 blank law cards and one END law card.

Setup sees each player drawing a number of chips from the bag and taking
the same number of law cards from the shuffled deck of 74. Then 25 of
the remaining law cards are shuffled and the END law card inserted
somewhere towards the bottom of this deck (16th to 26th). Each player
then takes one YES vote card, one NO vote card and one "Wild Card" vote
card selected at random. Players' chip holdings are always public
information, cards in hand are private information.

Players aim to end the game with the highest score, and score is largely
determined by players' collections of chips. Initially, each chip is
worth one point, though many of the law cards change this rule and/or
provide players with possible bonuses or penalties for particular
holdings and combinations of chips.

The turn sequence each time is that players in turn draw a law card,
propose a law from their hand, vote on the proposed law then lastly play
or discard the proposed law. When the END law card is drawn, or the last
chip in the bag is taken, the game ends and scoring takes place.

Law cards are of two types, red and blue. Red law cards have a one-off
immediate effect and are then discarded, such as "Players who wish to
may lose all of their chips and draw back the same number." or "The
player who proposed this law, along with a player of their choice
(chosen after the vote) each draw two chips." Blue law cards have a
permanent effect on the game, such as "The player (or players) who has
the fewest number of chips scores 5 bonus points." or "Each color a
player possesses that the player on the left does not have, scores 3
bonus points."

There is a clever mechanism to eliminate rule conflicts. Each blue law
card is determined to belong to one of a number of suits. Only one card
of each suit may be in play at any one time; a newly-voted-in blue law
replaces an extant blue law of the same suit. There can be up to six
blue laws in effect at any time; if you try to get a seventh passed, you
must nominate an extant one to be replaced at the same time.

Voting is simple. Each player lays down a voting card (YES, NO or their
Wild Card) in front of them, then all votes are revealed at the same
time. The number of YES votes and NO votes is then compared. Should
these numbers be the same, another elegant feature of the game comes
into play: each law card has either a white or a black circle on it;
laws with white circles are accepted in case of a tie, laws with black
circles are rejected. I think it's worth playing the game with an even
number of players in order to make this a factor.

However, this result may yet be ignored. If there has been exactly one
DEFINITE YES or DEFINITE NO card played, then this definite result
supercedes the usual voting result. Lastly, a SCAM card reverses the
result of the vote. (Two or more DEFINITE vote cards cancel each other
out, which seems illogical - I think it makes more sense to play that
the presence of a DEFINITE vote card being cast means that only DEFINITE
votes are counted. It's also not completely clear that a SCAM card can
reverse a DEFINITE vote.)
[User Picture]
Date:September 6th, 2002 09:55 pm (UTC)

Re: Mama Weer All DemoCrazee Now

After the result of the vote has been computed, the rule is either
implemented or ignored and YES and NO votes are taken back into hand.
Note that "Wild Card" votes are one-effect items, though some red cards
can affect this.

The game is mostly played just for the experience - in order to see
where it's going to snake round to - rather than to let people
demonstrate massive skill. Some of the blue law cards add considerably
to the thought required behind plays; favourites are "AFter the scores
are calculated normally, each player subtracts from their score the
score of the player on their right." and "Each time a law is adopted,
the players who voted in favor lose a chip and those who voted against,
draw a chip. Each time a law is rejected, the reverse happens." (sic)

Experienced players might want to fish such favoured cards out of the
deck in advance and start the game with them in place, or possibly to
play all the way through the entire deck of law cards. Real Nomic hard
nuts might even want to play "Das Regeln Wir Schon!", the German
original that this is based upon. (Review forthcoming after I get a
translation of the game's rules and its cards. $20 is not too much to
gamble on buying a game I can't even start to understand.)

There are some silly laws in the box too, things like "Each player must
play their vote card using their left hand. The penalty for failing to
do this is the loss of one chip." and "No smoking." but the game is kept
tightly focused on chip-accumulation and point-scoring; there is less of
a scope for creativity here than in Nomic as you are restricted to the
new laws that you have in your hand. There are blank law cards, but you
are suggested to play these as Red laws in the style of the spirit of
the game. Similarly, if you play Nomic for the challenge of trying to
find loopholes, you may find the "suits" restriction tends to make
things rather too clear for your taste.

However, despite the rather pedestrian nature of most of the law cards
(I've picked the most interesting ones as examples) there is still scope
for memorable moments in gameplay - a particularly ballsy proposal, some
cunning play with your chip holding or a cunning use of your "Wild Card"
vote will still raise smiles. Initial plays suggested that this game may
be a little short (!) but I think it's been deliberately pitched as a
lightweight filler and hits its target well. If space is short, the
entire game can be carried around in the cloth bag and would take up
less volume than a can of Coke.

The artwork in the game is enjoyable - some cards look to be very much
in the MAD magazine / Alfred E. Neumann style. The cards and box art are
credited to Gérard Mattieu. Particular favourite cards are the DEFINITE
vote cards, where characters smash down their shoes to show their
insistence and the END law card which depicts a party in full swing,
overturned ballot-boxes up to people's chests. The NO vote dude also has
to be seen to be believed.

So, all told, nicely produced, nicely designed and gently pitched at a
general audience. It's not tremendously likely to convert players into
Nomic fiends, but genuinely practicable in polite general gamer company
and much more accessible than most initial Nomic rulesets. However, most
of the players will have seen most of the tricks possible after two or
three games and many players will be left wanting expansion sets - or,
better still, decks of blank cards.

Recommended without hesitation as the best game of its type I've yet
found to the self-selecting audience of "people who like rule-changing
games". On a scale of 1 to 10, this game deserves at least a brown belt.
[User Picture]
Date:September 7th, 2002 02:28 am (UTC)

A few comments

Hmm... comprehensive, but I have a few things to add:

1) Problems with play on Mono had, fortunately, nothing whatsoever to do with people being no fun to play with. Some of the games were a lot of fun, just rather superficial.

2) You seem to associate Nomic with voting. This is quite understandable of course, but the interesting core of Nomic (for me) has nothing to do with voting. The voting is nothing more than a mechanism for forbidding abusive rule changes. At least one of the Nomics I ran on Mono had no voting at all - each player can propose rules at any time and once per day the game's moderator selects the (subjectively) best one. Works soooo much better than voting, as long as the moderator is impartial and makes an effort to select according to consistent and sensible criteria.

3) Although I never played OxNomic, I watched it for quite a while. The thing which most struck me about it was that many of the players put in huge amounts of effort, but produced very few interesting rules. It was, in many ways, a perfect encapsulation of all the bits I think Nomic could do without !

[User Picture]
Date:September 7th, 2002 07:12 am (UTC)

Re: A few comments

1) Fair enough. I have applied for a Mono account so I can take a look and make up my own mind.

2) I think that voting is an inherently entertaining mechanism. It keeps everyone involved all the time. (Not necessarily a good thing - see RPGSocJ Nomic, several proposals.) Voting when people reveal the reasons also makes for a lot of fun; usually, the reasons behind the voting decisions, and the way in which the voting decisions are expressed, are more entertaining than the actual votes themselves.

That said, I've always liked the sound of Imperial Nomic since I heard about it. I can imagine that a suitably talented autocrat can blend things to produce a very entertaining game. Yet somehow I suspect it might feel less empowering; maybe it would a good demonstration that living in a democracy is in some sense more entertaining than living under a benign dictator. Having played and moderated it, what really are the downsides?

3) Fully agreed. That's why I dropped out and tended to generally stay on the fringes...
Date:September 8th, 2002 10:28 am (UTC)

Re: A few comments

2) One of my geek interests is (or has been) electoral systems, but I didn't enjoy the drudgery of keeping track of votes in OxNomic. Incentives to participate need to be genuine incentives: a rule forbidding players from not playing is not only ungamelich, it's ineffective compared to the harder task of creating intrinsic entertainment. Even with penalties, people just don't bother to vote -- in Nomic and in RL.

There are lots of unexplored compromise mechanisms. I favour a lottery, either between proposals as suggested in another comment, or between votes on a proposal: one vote is chosen at random as the decider. Automatic encouragement to vote, occasional fun (in the sense of chaos).

3) OxNomic certainly was dry: I put this down to the core of mathematicians, programmers and players interested in law (these groups were not exclusive). But I think I can say that several of us enjoyed it precisely because of its massive nitpickiness. I was delighted when it was forced into stasis through contradiction.

This supports your hypothesis that the players' personalities make the game worth playing or not: almost by definition the players construct a game style that suits the majority of them. Ah, the tyranny of democracy.


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