Fri, 24 Mar 2023
A few years back I mentioned, in an article on a quite different topic:
Apparently the answer to that is ‘later’. Much later.
Last month Eric Erbach wrote to ask:
I'm not sure. This is not that article.
But M. Erbach inspired me to think about this some more and I excitedly sent him several emails about the alien relationship to poker and other card games. Then today I remembered I have a whole section of the blog for ‘notes’ and even though it has only two articles in it it was always intended as a place where I could dump interesting ideas that might never go anywhere. So here we are!
I didn't actually talk about chess or go in my message, but I went off in a different direction.
The essence of poker is the secret information, which enables bluffing: does that person across the table from me have a winning position, or are they just pretending to have a winning position? Or, conversely: fate has dealt me a losing hand. How do I make the best of a bad situation?
This is, I believe, a crucial sort of problem that will come up over and over for all sentient beings. Everyone at some point has to make the best of a bad situation. You have to know when to hold 'em, and when to fold 'em. Games like poker are stripped-down practice versions of these sorts of fundamental problems.
(Games like chess and go are stripped-down practice versions of different sorts of fundamental problems, problems of strategic planning and tactical execution.)
Thinking about human card games, I said:
Humans invented trick-taking card games over and over. Consider not just European games like bridge, pinochle, euchre, skat, hearts, spades, and canasta, which may have developed out of simpler games invented a thousand years ago in China, but also the West African game of agram. So it is tempting to think that the aliens would surely do the same. But maybe not! Turning it around the other way, I think auctions are also something very likely to be shared by all sentient beings, and yet human card games seem include very few auction-themed games. If the humans can neglect what must be a huge class of sealed-bid auction games, perhaps the aliens will somehow forget to have trick-taking games.
Trick-taking games like contract bridge and auction bridge have things called auctions, but they're not actually very auction-like. For an example of what I mean, here's goofspiel, a game that is pure auction:
For a more complex auction bidding game, see Sid Sackson's All My Diamonds.
Now, my point is that as far as I know there are very few popular human auction games. But perhaps, instead of bluffing games like poker or trick-taking games like whist, the aliens love to play auction games with cards? Many interesting variations are possible. In email with M. Erback I suggested a completely made-up auction game of a sort I've never seen among humans:
I think there might be interesting strategy here. Suppose you are going second. Which card of the bundle will you look at? You can look at the same one that the first player looked at, so now you know what they know, but they also know what you know and that you know what they know. Or you can look at a different card, and learn something that nobody else knows yet.
After that you have to make a bid, which communicates to the other players something about what you know, and in the early stages of the game you can be tricky and make your bid a bluff.
Maybe players are allowed to pass without dropping out. Or maybe it wouldn't work at all; you never know until you playtest it. What if we played Texas Hold'em in this style? Instead of exposing all five community cards, some were kept partly secret?
Another thing we can do to get an alien game is to take a common human game and make it into something completely different by changing the emphasis:
Many old games can be spiced up in this way. For example chess, but if your opponent plays a move you don't like, you can force them to take it back and play a different move, by chopping off one of your fingers. Totally different strategy!
Finally, I remembered a funny moment from the Larry Niven story “There is a Tide”. Niven's character Louis Wu has discovered a valuable lost artifact. Unfortunately, a representative of a previously-uncontacted alien species has discovered the same artifact. Rather than fighting, Wu proposes that they gamble for it.
Pretty funny! Louis is imagining something fun and interesting, but the alien proposes the opposite of this. In my opinion this is a good plan, as it will tend to prevent arguments. Although something needs to be said about the 22% chance that Louis and the alien will tie. In any case, Louis is kind of a dilettante, and it turns out that the alien is actually playing the game that is one level up.
[ Addendum: Thanks to John Wiersba for providing me with the name of goofspiel. ]
Addendum 20230523: Dave Turner has a sort-of response to this article titled “Rarely seen game mechanics”. ]