Teesside Snog Monster (jiggery_pokery) wrote,
Teesside Snog Monster

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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!

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