Friday, April 06, 2007

Why You Will Never Win a Game of Set

Played a game of Set yesterday at a picnic with my daughter and a random kid.

"Games Are Made By Machines"

The kid was confused that I had brought games to the picnic and that I like to play games. I'm an adult, after all.

I look forward to this sort of encounter.

I told him that I play games, run a game group, design games, write about games, and so on, and he refused to believe me.

"People don't make games," says he.

Blink. Blink.

"They don't? Who makes games?" I asked.

"Games are made by machines!" he triumphantly declares.

"Uh ... who designs the games so that the machines will make them? Who makes the machines?"

"No one designs games. The games are already there. Machines just make them!"

This is where we stand, ladies and gentleman. All games that ever will be created have been created, according to the masses. Forget the 25,000 new board games created in the last 40 years; every time a journalist writes about board games, he or she is referring to the games created more than 40 years ago - with the exception of the three or four blockbuster games since then (Cranium, Trivial Pursuit, Scene It) or variations on the old ones (Monopoly: Lord of the Rings edition).

Why not describe all video games as simply Pong and Space Invaders, with a few exceptions?


Set consists of an 81 card deck. Each card has 1, 2, or 3 items. The items on each card are either ovals, diamonds, or wavy. The items are either solid, lined, or empty. The items on the card are colored either purple, green or red.

12 cards are laid out. The first person to see a "set" calls out "Set!" and collects the three cards that make up the set. 3 more cards are laid out to replace them. The game ends when the deck is gone and no more sets remain.

A "set" consists of three cards where a) the number of items on each card are the same (1,1,1) or all different (1,2,3); b) the colors of the items on each card are the same (red, red, red) or all different (red, green, purple); c) the fillings on each card are the same or different; and d) the shapes on each card are the same or different.

The challenge is that the brain likes to pick up patterns that don't exist, and you constantly have to find real sets from the "close, but not a set" that pops into your head.

You Will Never Win This Game

It is conventional wisdom that some people get the game of Set and some don't, and that's the way it is.

You can train to get faster fingers in video games and Spit. You can train to have steadier fingers in Jenga. You can learn the patterns in Go and Chess so as to avoid repeating your mistakes. But you will never get better at Set if it doesn't click.

Why is this? Is it self-doubt? The challenge is just too overwhelming? Or is there no effective training technique for that part of the brain?

I think not.

I think you can train yourself if you try methodically enough. Maybe set out different types of sets in different arrangements. Then do the same thing with 4 cards, with 5 cards, and so on, upping the number each time. Or try playing the game with only the purple cards, or only the diamond cards, for a while.

But no one really wants to spend that kind of time, just to get good at a game. The funny thing is, is that the brain power you build getting good at Set will probably come to help you at future moments in your life.

What other games are reputed to be "impossible" for some people?

Game News

Ottawa Citizen talks up playing with your kids.

Speaking of which, Youthlinks is a Maine-based organization that encourages youth and adult interaction. They organize events, such as "Board Game Buddies", which gets kids playing with the elderly, for the benefit of both. Calendar of events.

Jew News

Schools in the UK are shying away from teaching about The Holocaust because the material is "sensitive".

If you don't read Renegade Rebbetzin, you should. Her latest post about the seder and its mishaps is a good intro.



gnome said...

Hehe, funny kid's idea, but, uhm, what on earth can "sensitive" mean?

Yehuda said...

Muslims object? Who knows.


gnome said...

Infuriating! It's not a matter of religion after all, and muslims would rather have avoided being bombed than having such matters treated as "sensitive". Bah...