The Universe of Discourse

Wed, 03 May 2023

Notes on rarely-seen game mechanics

A while back I posted some miscellaneous notes on card games played by aliens. Dave Turner has written a response in the same mode, titled “Rarely seen game mechanics”. If you like my blog, you will probably enjoy this article of Dave's.

Dave's article inspired me to write him an email reply, a version of which follows.

[ Content warning: discussion of self-mutilation. ]


Dave says:

Some time ago, I invented a game where you try to determine physical quantities. Like, you’re given a box full of weights, and you have to determine how many grams it is, just by hefting it.

So far I can only think of one common game that is even a little bit similar to this: guess the number of jelly beans in the jar. As Dave points out, weighing the jar, measuring it, or even picking up the jar are forbidden.

Montessori education focuses on developing a child's perception, and has many activities of this type, not played as competitive games, but as single-person training games. One example is the “sound boxes” or “sound cylinders”. This is a family of twelve opaque containers, usually in six pairs.

Two wooden boxes, each
containing a set of six wooden cylinders.  One set has red caps on the
ends, the other has blue caps.

Two containers (call them R1 and B1) contain a small amount of sand, two (R2 and B2) contain dried peas, R3 and B3 contain small pasta, R4 and B4 contain pebbles, and so on. The child is first presented with three cylinders, say R1, R3 and R6. They shake the cylinders close to their ears and listen to the sounds. Then they are invited to listen to R1, R3, and R6 and to match them with their mates B1, B3, and B6. As the child gets better at this, more pairs of cylinders cnn be introduced. Later games involve taking a single set of cylinders R1–R6 and ordering them from quietest to loudest.

Other Montessori equipment of this type includes “baric tablets”, which are same-sized tablets made of different woods, to be distinguished by weight, and “cylinder blocks” which are sets of cylinders in different sizes, to be sorted by size and then put back in their corresponding sockets. None of this is hard stuff for adults, but it is interesting and challenging for a three-year-old. Montessori was a brilliant woman.

My piano teacher would sometimes play two notes and ask me to say whether it was a major third or a perfect fourth or whatever.

Dave mentions a microgame played by Ethiopian girls to choose who gets to go first:

they would instead hide three stones in one hand and four in another, and ask another player to figure out which hand had more stones. Of course, this is also a deception game.

This made me think of Odds and Evens, which was the standard method in New York where I grew up. One player (doesn't matter which) is designated “odds” and the other “evens”. Then on a count of three, the two players each reveal either one or two fingers. If the total number of fingers is even, the evens player wins. I always assumed that this was a game of pure randomness, but now I'm not sure. Maybe other people play it at a higher level, using psychology or trickery to gain an advantage.

Short-term memory

At math camp we used to play a short-term memory game that went like this: The first player would say "I went on a picnic, and I brought an abominable antelope.” Then the second player would say “I went on a picnic and I brought an abominable antelope and a basket of bananas.” Then “I went on a picnic and I brought and abominable antelope, a basket of bananas, and a copy of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” If you miss one, you have to drop out. Have-to-drop-out is often a bad game mechanic, but since this is a low-stakes social game, it can be fun to hang around and watch the end even after you're out. And since this was usually played in a larger gathering, it was easy enough to wander away and talk to someone else.

Similarly at one point I worked with an instructor who, on the first day of class, would have the kids do this with their names: kid #7 would have to recite the names of the six kids who had gone before. Unfair to the kids in the back, of course, but that's what you get for sitting in the back. And the instructor would promise ahead of time that he would have go last and the TAs would have to go next-to-last.

Pain tolerance

Dave said:

Dominus suggests a version of chess where you can make your opponent take a move back by chopping off one of your fingers. This is rather permanent (at least for humans). But what about temporary pain?

I had originally imagined this variation played by aliens with many regenerating tentacles, where cutting one off is painful, embarrassing, and inconvenient, but not crippling. But then I thought the idea of playing it as a human was much funnier and more compelling, and it ran away with me.

You enter a chess tournament and sit down. Try to imagine your thought process when you see that your opponent is missing a finger. Or that your opponent is missing three fingers.

There would be stories about how in the 2008 Olympiad Hoekstra was mounting a devastating attack, and thought he was safe because his opponent Berenin was not a finger-chopper. But then Berenin completely foiled the attack by unexpectedly chopping his finger, at just the right moment. (Interviewer: “You have never cut off a finger before. Was it a sudden inspiration, Grandmaster Berenin?” Berenin: “No, I saw what Hoekstra was doing, so I had been planning since move 13 to interfere with his rook defense in this way.”)

Or there might be the legendary game in which Berenin made the devastating move ♘fe6, and when Hoekstra, perhaps panicking, cut off a finger, Berenin merely shrugged and immediately made the equally devastating and nearly identical move ♘de6.

What's the record for one player cutting off fingers in a single game? Is it a legendarily bad game by a reckless dumbass? Or is it a story about how GM Basanian would stop at nothing to win the 1972 world championship? What's the record for two players cutting off fingers in a single game?

Okay, let's try a more plausible variation. Chess, but if your opponent makes a move you don't like, you can force them to take it back and play another by taking a shot of schnapps. Intriguing!

Dave continues, discussing a P.K. Dick story in which the characters take turns holding their fingers in a cigarette lighter. In the story, they're not burned, because Dick, but you could imagine playing this as a brutal game in our non-Dick universe. In fact I thought I might have heard of people playing exactly this game, but I'm not sure.

For a game of this type that I'm certain of, consider Episode 13 of Survivor: Borneo:

Final immunity challenge: Each tribe member held on to the immunity idol while standing on a small log. The person who lasted the longest would win immunity. After two hours of holding on the idol, Jeff tempted the three with oranges. After 2½ hours, Richard gave a speech, said he wouldn't be able to outlast Kelly, and stepped down voluntarily. … After three hours, the two left switched positions while keeping their hand on the idol and were to do so every half-hour. … After 4 hours, 11 minutes, Rudy [inadvertently] took his hand off the idol while switching spots, and Kelly won immunity yet again.

People compete in eating contests, which also has an element of seeing whose body can take the most abuse. And there's that game where two players take turns hitting each other in the face until one gives up or is too battered to continue — I don't know what it's called.

There are also games like Chicken and Russian Roulette (and possibly follow-the-leader) that are about who is willing to tolerate the greatest amount of unnecessary risk.


If you haven't read Dave's article yet, at least check out the thing about the Sichuan peppercorns.

[ Addendum 20230517: More notes about games with pain mechanics. ]

[Other articles in category /notes] permanent link