The Philosophy of the Science of Poker

Friday, October 10th, 2014

Existential Comics illustrates the philosophy of the science of poker:

Existential Comics Philosophy of Science of Poker

(Read the whole thing.)

Sports are Broken

Thursday, October 2nd, 2014

Most sports were invented years ago, Scott Adams(Dilbert) notes, and much has changed since then:

Equipment technology has improved. We have far more knowledge of health risks. Our attention spans have shrunk, and our options for leisure activities have increased. If you were to invent the rules of sports today, from a blank slate, you would do a lot of things differently.

For example, when tennis was invented, serving was just a way to start the rally. One player bunted the ball into the service box and it was on.

Fast-forward to 2014.

Now the pros are 6’8″, their rackets and strings are made from exotic materials, and they are trained to serve at 140 miles per hour. As you might imagine, that creates a lot of double-faults and aces. Both are boring.

To fix tennis, eliminate the serve. That is already happening where I live. A group of folks in my town already play without the serve. Under the no-serve rules either player can start the rally and the point is live on the third hit. You play to 21, win by two, so no more funky tennis scoring with the 15-30-40 ridiculousness. This version of tennis is about twice as fun as playing serve-and-miss while wishing you were getting some exercise.

In 2014 we know a lot about the dangers of concussions. Football wouldn’t be allowed as a youth sport if it were invented today. Soccer players wouldn’t be allowed to head the ball for the same reason. So let’s get rid of football entirely, at least for kids, and make it a penalty to head a soccer ball.

Speaking of soccer, if we invented that game today the goals would be 50% wider to create more scoring and there would be TV timeouts built into the game design so the major networks could more easily monetize with commercials. And the off-side rule has to go; that is just boring. And while we are at it, let’s put up a glass wall around the field so the ball stays in play.

Baseball could be interesting if it were slow-pitch and any ball hit out of the park were ruled an out. I might add another player to the outfield, but the idea is to have lots of hits and lots of defense. In the age of smartphones, no one has the patience to watch nine guys standing around in the grass wondering when something might happen.

Volleyball has one of the most ridiculous rules in sports. The players need to rotate positions after every point. The well-coached teams do a quick, synchronized rotation as soon as the serve is hit to get into the positions they prefer instead of the positions the game rules require. Let’s just lose the player rotation rule.

Golf also needs to be fixed. The main problem is that 18 holes is far too much time commitment and 9 holes seem too little. I hear that 12-hole courses are being built for exactly that reason. That makes sense in 2014.

Another thing that golf needs to lose is the annoying foursome behind you that makes you feel rushed and guilty. I don’t know how to fix that in an economically way, but it sure would improve the game if someone did.

World Of PeaceCraft

Friday, August 22nd, 2014

“You’ve fought terrorists in Call of Duty and alien hordes in Gears of War. Well, now get ready for the opposite of that“:

(From Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.)

Creating History Is Hard

Thursday, August 14th, 2014

I still haven’t played Dwarf Fortress, but its world-building process intrigues me:

Adams has, over the years, developed an intricate process to simulate eons of complex geologic time, a way of stacking fractal layers and blending them with algorithms to give life to each world.

The first layer plots the annual rainfall of each map location. Then a separate fractal simulates the deposition of mineral elements throughout the underground strata, giving the land itself a kind of texture. A temperature fractal is generated and rough biomes emerge as contiguous tiles on the map that contain a subset of closely related flora and fauna.

The order here is important, because in the next step — drainage — Dwarf Fortress begins to simulate the complex forces of erosion. Only after the biomes have been created can the rivers run, slashing deep valleys as they flow toward unnamed oceans. When they finally meet the sea a salinity algorithm kicks in to define the areas for swampy river deltas, alluvial islands and mangrove swamps.


In his research for the game Adams learned that in the real world when warm, wet air travels up the side of a mountain it loses moisture. Rain precipitates out creating areas like rain forests and snow capped peaks. On the other side of the mountain deserts form in areas that are called “rain shadows.”


After the map has been locked into place, the game assigns a kind of energy to each region, ranging from good to evil on a scale of one to 20. It then uses the positive and negative energy of each area to generate place names — The Ocean of Muting sit along the edge of The Jungles of Mire near the Ivory Hills — and on and on creating hundreds of uniquely named regions.

But these are just the names as translated for the player. Adams says that each area of the map has been named by one of four cultures. Human, dwarven, elvish and goblin languages are actually programmed into the game.

Can Video Games Make You Smarter?

Friday, July 11th, 2014

Can video games make you smarter? Yeah, sort of:

Magnus Carlsen’s Route to Chess

Wednesday, July 2nd, 2014

World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen’s route to chess took longer than his subsequent progress might suggest:

Henrik, 52, a keen chess player himself, remembers introducing the game to Magnus and his older sister, Ellen, now 25, when his son was turning 5. But after a month or two, Henrik says, “I gave up, basically, in the sense that we continued to play chess occasionally, but I didn’t have any ambitions.” He knew that legendary players such as Capablanca and Kasparov had understood the game — he clicks his fingers — “just like that.” Magnus and his sister, he says, “learned the rules quickly, and they could capture a piece, but to get two or more pieces working together, which is what chess is about, this spatial vision took a long time.”

At the time, Henrik reconciled himself to the fact that chess would simply be an enjoyable family pastime. “I felt, OK, they’re definitely not geniuses, but it doesn’t matter. Because, I mean, we loved our children. Chess was something we could do together, just a hobby, like playing cards or anything else.” In the meantime, there were signs that Magnus had the aptitude and the determination to perform impressive mental feats. Sigrun, 51, recalls her son sitting for hours with puzzles or making advanced Lego models, patiently working his way through pages and pages of instructions meant for children a decade older. “He had the ability to sit for a very long time, even when he was small,” she recalls.

This quality has contributed in no small measure to his success; chess commentators draw attention to his ability to wear down opponents, to wait patiently for them to make the tiniest mistake. Magnus himself maintains that he is an aggressive player but that audacity isn’t always what’s called for. “When you play against the best people in the world, they see through your plans, and you cannot win with a swashbuckling attack all the time,” he says. “You just need to take what’s there.”

His parents are eager to point out that he wasn’t an obviously faster learner than his sisters (he also has two younger siblings, Ingrid, 20, and Signe, 17) but that he kept on going, focusing his attention on a specific subject, such as car brands, until he knew it inside out. When I ask Magnus about his childhood proficiency, he replies simply: “I didn’t particularly know if I was good at it or not; I just tried to do it.”

Then came a turning point. Just before Magnus turned 8, says Henrik, “Ellen suddenly understood enough to make it interesting for me to play with her.” Magnus would sit to watch them and, a little later, join in. Henrik’s dilemma was that if he adopted poor strategy, his children wouldn’t learn anything, but he also didn’t want them to become discouraged. So he began to play with limited resources — just his king and a pawn — slowly adding pieces as they learned the game. Magnus’s interest started to grow, although Henrik maintains that “he just wanted to beat his sister.” He had a competitive streak even as a small child? “Yes, absolutely,” Sigrun says, “he still has that.” More competitive than his sisters? “Absolutely.” She laughs and gestures to her husband. “It’s not from me, it’s from him!”

Soon he was entering and very quickly winning tournaments. At home, during dinner, he began sitting apart from the family so he could study his chessboard while eating. “He was in the same room,” remembers Sigrun, “so we could speak to him if we wanted to; he could hear what we were talking about if he wanted to join.” Despite their unorthodox meals, they were, and remain, a close family.

The Mystery of Go

Wednesday, June 11th, 2014

In 1965 New Scientist published I.J. Good’s The Mystery of Go:

Go, the Japanese national pastime, was recently described by Ralph Fox, a Princeton professor of mathematics, as the most interesting game in the world. At any rate many expert chess players, including Emanuel Lasker, who was World Chess Champion for 28 years, have held that Go is more interesting than chess, and it is not easy to think of any third game that is a serious rival. Another, unrelated chess master, Edward Lasker, believes that Go will replace chess as the leading intellectual game of the Occident just as it has reigned supreme in the Orient for some four thousand years.

In Japan the game is known as I-go or Go, in China as Wei-k’i or Wei-Chi, in Korea as Patok. It is played by a high proportion of educated people in Japan, including many Geisha girls, and ability at Go is relevant to promotion in many firms.


The rules are basically so simple that perhaps a game very much like Go is played in many extra-terrestrial places, even within our own galaxy.


A weakness in chess is that there is too much knowledge about the openings, and it is constantly increasing. It is not good for a game if its mastery requires much rote learning. In Go, although play in the corners of the board is somewhat stereotyped among masters, one can become a competent Go player by occidental standards with very little knowledge of these so-called Joseki.

In chess, the parrots can be defeated by playing Randomised Chess, wherein the pieces on the back lines are permuted at random. Similarly, Randomised Go could be defined in terms of a random deletion of some of the vertices near the corners of the board. The corners could even be abolished by playing on a cylinder or an anchor ring: this could be done, without using a magnetic set, by identification of opposite sides of the ordinary board, either one pair of sides or both pairs. Another form of Go is that with more than two players, all against all, with one colour for each player. Since it is possible for players to form coalitions, this form of Go bears some resemblance to power politics and is liable to create an emotional scene.

But ordinary Go is fascinating enough for people with an IQ between 110 and 190 — in fact, too fascinating. Sometimes the game becomes an addiction, like smoking, food, drink, television, chess and women. It seems to appeal especially to scientists and mathematicians, because of the emergence of the Gestalt — a unity with a significant pattern — out of a collection of discrete entities and axioms.

Go on a computer? — In order to programme a computer to play a reasonable game of Go — rather than merely a legal game — it is necessary to formalise the principles of good strategy, or to design a learning programme. The prlnciples are more qualitative and mysterious than in chess, and depend more on judgment. So I think it will be even more difficult to programme a computer to play a reasonable game of Go than of chess.

The experienced player will often be unable to explain convincingly to a beginner why one move is better than another. A move might be regarded as good because it looks influential, or combines attack and defence, or preserves the initiative, or because if we had not played at that vertex the opponent would have done so; or it might be regarded as bad because it was too bold or too timid, or too close to the enemy or too far away. If these and other qualitative judgments. could be expressed in precise quantitative terms, then good strategy could be programmed for a computer; but hardly any progress has been made in this direction.

Indeed, hardly any progress was made in computer Go for decades after Good’s article came out, until Rémi Coulom’s Crazy Stone combined a tree search with Monte Carlo methods:

He christened the new algorithm Monte Carlo Tree Search, or MCTS, and in January of 2006, Crazy Stone won its first tournament. After he published his findings, other programmers quickly integrated MCTS into their Go programs, and for the next two years, Coulom vied for dominance with another French program, Mogo, that ran a refined version of the algorithm.

Although Crazy Stone ended up winning the UEC Cup in 2007 and 2008, Mogo’s team used man-machine matches to win the publicity war. Coulom felt the lack of attention acutely. When neither the public nor his university gave him the recognition he deserved, he lost motivation and stopped working on Go for nearly two years.

Coulom might have given up forever had it not been for a 2010 email from Ikeda Osamu, the CEO of Unbalance, a Japanese computer game company. Ikeda wanted to know if he’d be willing to license Crazy Stone. Unbalance controlled about a third of the million-dollar global market in computer Go, but Zen’s commercial version had begun to increase its market share. Ikeda needed Coulom to give his company’s software a boost.

The first commercial version of Crazy Stone hit the market in spring of 2011. In March of 2013, Coulom’s creation returned to the UEC Cup, beating Zen in the finals and — given a four-stone head-start — winning the first Densei-sen against Japanese professional Yoshio “The Computer” Ishida. The victories were huge for Coulom, both emotionally and financially. You can see their significance in the gift shop of the Japan Go Association, where a newspaper clipping, taped to the wall behind display copies of Crazy Stone, shows the pro grimly succumbing to Coulom’s creation.

In War, Not Everyone Is a Soldier

Saturday, June 7th, 2014

Many video games have a military theme, and in many of those, the player plays as some kind of soldier — or super-soldier. In war, not everyone is a soldier though, as 11 Bit Studios’ This War of Mine illustrates:

By day, your group of civilians hides from snipers. By night, you sneak out for building supplies and medicine, or contrive ways to capture rainwater for drinking.

The game, which will be available on mobile, Mac, PC, and Linux, is about the difficult moral choices people make every day in the face of violence-induced scarcity. “Try to protect everybody from your shelter or sacrifice some of them in order to prevail,” says the press release, “there are no good or bad decisions during war.”

To calibrate the options available to their players, game designers studied accounts from Syria and Sarajevo. They also talked with an American soldier who had been in Fallujah.

“While designing a new game,” lead designer Michal Drozdowski explained in a blog post, he and his team read a viral online account called “One Year in Hell,” written by a Bosnian about his life in the early 1990s. “We learned about his hardships and the horror of that experience. We decided to work around this idea and make something real, something that moves people and makes them think for a second. It’s about time that games, just like any other art form, start talking about important things.”

They should really merge the project with one of the big first-person shooters, so some players are blithely blowin’ $#@! up, while others are losing friends and family and looking for clean water.

Different Worlds

Friday, May 23rd, 2014

BeanFest is a silly little game that has nothing to do with politics:

It’s a simple learning video game in which the player is presented with a variety of cartoon beans in different shapes and sizes, with different numbers of dots on them. When each new type of bean is presented, the player must choose whether or not to accept it — without knowing, in advance, what will happen. You see, some beans give you points, while others take them away. But you can’t know until you try them.

In a recent experiment by psychologists Russell Fazio and Natalie Shook, a group of self-identified liberals and conservatives played BeanFest. And their strategies of play tended to be quite different. Liberals tried out all sorts of beans. They racked up big point gains as a result, but also big point losses — and they learned a lot about different kinds of beans and what they did. Conservatives, though, tended to play more defensively. They tested out fewer beans. They were risk averse, losing less but also gathering less information.

Liberals and conservatives have different personalities:

Again and again, when they take the widely accepted Big Five personality traits test, liberals tend to score higher on one of the five major dimensions — openness: the desire to explore, to try new things, to meet new people — and conservatives score higher on conscientiousness: the desire for order, structure, and stability.

Conservatives pay more attention to the alarming, the threatening, and the disgusting in life:

In one experiment that captured this, Hibbing and his colleagues showed liberals and conservatives a series of collages, each comprised of a mixture of positive images (cute bunnies, smiling children) and negative ones (wounds, a person eating worms). Test subjects were fitted with eye-tracker devices that measured where they looked, and for how long. The results were stark: conservatives fixed their eyes on the negative images much more rapidly, and dwelled on them much longer, than did the liberals.

Liberals and conservatives, conclude Hibbing et al., “experience and process different worlds.”

Around 40 percent of the variation in political beliefs is genetic:

“Liberalism may thus be viewed as an evolutionary luxury afforded by negative stimuli becoming less prevalent and deadly,” write Hibbing et al.

You Must First Invent the Universe

Monday, May 5th, 2014

Sid Meier describes the allure of Civilization, his groundbreaking 1991 game:

We really didn’t design it in, but as I look back, I realize there is a really interesting growth path in the game. In the beginning, you have one or two military units, just a couple of technologies, and just a couple choices to make. The game opens up and unfolds gradually at your own pace. And before you know it, you’re dealing with lots of interesting decisions.

There is also that one-more-turn quality. There are enough different things going on that there is never really a good time to stop. In one city, you’re building something, and when that is done, you’re exploring this other continent. And then you meet the leader of another civilization, and you’re wondering how that is going to turn out. There are enough different threads in your imagination at any one time. One of the reasons that Civ has become this well-known phenomenon is that people remember the night when they stayed up to 3 a.m. playing it. It’s these experiences that stick with you.

So true.

The game was originally going to be about the rise and fall of civilizations:

There would be occasional setbacks, such as the Dark Ages, that you would have to overcome, and the glory of overcoming them would be satisfying. But what we found was that when bad things happen, people would just reload the game. They were not interested in the fall of civilizations. Just the rise of them.

So we ended up with a game of constant progress. We actually started to understand the psychology of gamers. When something bad happens, often they blame it on the computer, or the designer, or some other outside force. They would think it wasn’t fair, and they would reload the game.

We also found the same phenomenon when nuclear weapons came into play in the game. Players did not have much hesitation in using nuclear weapons against the AI-controlled civilizations. But if somehow the AI used a nuclear weapon against them, it would be: “wait a minute, that’s not fair.” The message of Civ is that [nuclear weapons are] a lose-lose for everybody. But we found that we couldn’t allow the AI to use them, because it was destroying the player’s experience. If the player is destroying the AI’s experience, then it’s only the computer that suffers.

Stupid computer…

Dungeons & Dragons & Philosophers

Friday, April 18th, 2014

Dungeons & Dragons & Philosophers features Michel Foucault:

Dungeons and Dragons and Philosophers

David A. Trampier, 1954-2014

Friday, March 28th, 2014

David A. Trampier with Yellow Taxi in Carbdondale, IllinoisDungeons & Dragons has attracted some unusual individuals over the years, including illustrator David A. Trampier, who just passed away, according to the The Southern Illinoisan:

He disappeared in 1988, leaving his ongoing D&D comic Wormy abruptly unfinished, and retired from illustration to drive a Yellow Taxi in Carbdondale, Illinois. (The above photo from 2003 is one of the only pictures ever snapped of Trampier.)

Trampier PHB Cover, Lizard Man, Wererat, and Goblin

Critical but Creative Thinking

Friday, March 21st, 2014

The government has started using strategy board games much more often — not to predict outcomes, but to foster the critical but creative thinking needed to win (or avoid) a complex battle or campaign:

Some games are for official use only. The Centre for Naval Analyses (CNA), a federally funded defence outfit, has created half a dozen new ones in the past two years. Most were designed by CNA analysts, but commercial designers occasionally lend a hand, as they did for Sand Wars, a game set in north-west Africa.

CNA games address trouble in all kinds of places. In Transition and Tumult, designed for the marine corps, players representing groups in Sudan and South Sudan try to whip up or quell local unrest that might lead American forces to intervene. In The Operational Wraparound, made for the army, players struggle to stoke or defeat a Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan. Avian Influenza Exercise Tool, a game designed for the Department of Agriculture, shows health officials how not to mishandle a bird-flu epidemic.

Board games designed for the government typically begin as unclassified. Their “system”, however, becomes classified once players with security clearances begin to incorporate sensitive intelligence into it, says Peter Perla, a game expert at CNA. If an air-force player knows that, say, a secret bunker-busting bomb is now operational, he can improve the dice-roll odds that a sortie will destroy an underground weapons lab. During official gaming sessions, analysts peer over players’ shoulders and challenge their reasoning. Afterwards, they incorporate the insights gleaned into briefings for superiors.

One reason why board games are useful is that you can constantly tweak the rules to take account of new insights, says Timothy Wilkie of the National Defence University in Washington, DC. With computer games, this is much harder. Board games can also illuminate the most complex conflicts. Volko Ruhnke, a CIA analyst, has designed a series of games about counterinsurgency. For example, Labyrinth: The War on Terror, 2001-? (sold by GMT Games of California) models “parallel wars of bombs and ideas”, as one reviewer puts it, on a board depicting much of Eurasia and Africa.

Even training for combat itself can be helped with dice and cards. Harpoon, a game about naval warfare, has proved so accurate in the past that hundreds of Pentagon officials will play it when the next version comes out in a couple of years, says Mr Patch. One of its designers, Chris Carlson, is also responsible for the “kinetic” aspects of Persian Incursion (ie, the bits that involve shooting). Mr Carlson is a former Defence Intelligence Agency analyst; Persian Incursion’s data on the nuts and bolts of assembling and commanding bomber, escort, and refuelling aircraft “strike packages” for destroying Iran’s nuclear sites is so precise that on at least two occasions intelligence officials have suggested that he is breaking the law by publishing it.

The Man Who Built The Settlers of Catan

Saturday, March 15th, 2014

Klaus Teuber was working, unhappily, as a dental technician when he created The Settlers of Catan:

First published in Germany in 1995 as Die Siedler von Catan, the game has sold more than eighteen million copies worldwide. It was released in the United States in 1996; last year, its English-language publisher, Mayfair Games, reported selling more than seven hundred and fifty thousand Catan-related products. Big-box chains like Target, Walmart, and Barnes & Noble carry the game and its offshoots, such as Catan cards, Catan Junior, and Star Trek Catan. Including all the spinoffs, expansions, and special editions, there are about eighty official varieties of Catan—more if you include electronic versions—and Teuber has had a hand in creating all of them. Paraphernalia in the online Catan shop includes socks and custom-designed tables. Rebecca Gablé, a German historical-fiction author, has written a Viking-era Settlers of Catan novel. Pete Fenlon, the C.E.O. of Mayfair Games, said, “Our volume of sales will be such that, over time, Catan could, in terms of gross revenue, be the biggest game brand in the world.”


Teuber was born in 1952 in Rai-Breitenbach, a small village tucked beneath Breuberg Castle, in central Germany. As a child, he set up miniature fighters and ancient Romans on the floor, using strings to create mountains and rivers and to build routes through the terrain. He rediscovered games during his mandatory military service, when he needed something to entertain his wife and young son in the barracks. He was still running Teuber Dental-Labor in 1988, when he designed Barbarossa, a game in which players mold clay sculptures and try to guess what their opponents’ figures represent. He had been reading “The Riddle-Master,” a swashbuckling fantasy trilogy by Patricia McKillip about a man who wins a game of riddles against a ghost. “I was sorry to see it come to an end,” Teuber said, “so I tried to experience this novel in a game.” It took Teuber seven years to show Barbarossa to a publisher, but when he did it was a hit. The game won the 1988 Spiel des Jahres award, the most coveted prize in the board-game world. According to Stewart Woods, a communications professor at the University of Western Australia, a successful game typically sells about ten thousand copies in Germany; a Spiel des Jahres winner can expect to sell between three hundred and five hundred thousand.

After Barbarossa, Teuber designed several other games and won two more Spiel des Jahres awards, but he was still working fourteen-hour days in the dental lab. In 1991, after reading histories of Viking life, he became fascinated with Iceland and the age of discovery. “What was it like when they reached this virgin island?” he said. “I wanted to find out.” He tinkered with an island-settling game for four years, testing versions on his wife and children every weekend. Initially, the instructions included lots of complicated mechanics—for example, if you had enough cities and settlements in a cluster, you could create a metropole—but eventually, Teuber said, “I cooked it to the heart of the game.” A breakthrough moment came when Teuber experimented with using hexagonal tiles instead of squares for his board. He said he had a dream that he remembered having once before, the last time he won the Spiel des Jahres: “I was standing on the shore of a pond and saw very big fish, and I angled the biggest of them.”

Die Siedler von Catan was an instant success in Germany and won the 1995 Spiel des Jahres. At the time, Spiel des Jahres winners had been gaining traction in American hobby stores for several years, but Catan became America’s gateway into Eurogames, a genre of tightly designed, strategy-based products. Eurogames—also called German-style games, because most of them originate in Germany—have fairly simple rules and are intellectually demanding but not overly complicated. They are also more expensive: Monopoly’s suggested retail price is eighteen dollars; The Settlers of Catan retails for forty-two dollars.

Aaron Allston

Friday, February 28th, 2014

Game-designer (and novelist) Aaron Allston just passed away.