Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Shortest Games: Selection Games

Selection games are very short games, usually taking no more than a few seconds up to a few minutes to play. They generally incorporate a single play that decides the outcome of the game; one test of skill or one random event. In some selection games, only one player takes a turn while the other player watches. The results of this turn entirely determine the outcome of the game.

Some selection games are random, such as a coin toss, while some apparently random games in theory actually allow psychological tactics to come into play if they are played often enough, such as Rock-Paper-Scissors. These games can even have their own international championship events. Other games are tests of skill, wherein the player who is stronger in that skill will always win.

The use of random selection games goes back to biblical times and earlier.

Selection Games to Determine a Starting Player

In Diplomacy, all players begin negotiating at the same time; after negotiation, all moves are made simultaneously. In the 100 meter dash, all players begin running at the same time.

For many games, however, someone takes the first turn. Unless decided by fiat, who starts is often decided upon, surprisingly enough, by another entirely unrelated game: a selection game.

Determining who goes first using a selection game is nearly universal in culture. Yet using a selection game to determine the starting player can sometimes be problematic.

One unwritten expectation in any game is that the outcome of the game relies on the luck or skill of the players within the game itself. If the starting player gains an advantage or disadvantage over the other players, it seems strange to give this advantage to one player or another based on an entirely unrelated game.

This is not a problem for many games. In some games, the starting player is truly unimportant to the end results. For instance, if two players are shooting at a target, one after another, and the result of the first player's shot is not told to the second player before the second player takes his or her shot, then it doesn't matter who goes first.

In other games, the starting player has an advantage but the advantage is statistically insignificant. For instance, there may be some very slight advantage or disadvantage in serving first in Tennis, but this advantage or disadvantage will quickly be lost among the good plays or mistakes made by the players.

On the other hand, if the second player knows that the first player's shot was poor, the second player has a marked advantage, as his or her shot only has to beat the first player's. Also, the win or loss of the selection game for first serve can have a psychological effect on the players; would you rather go into a Tennis match having just lost your last game?

When the player position in a game matters, something is wrong, regardless of whether the starting player is determined by pure chance or a skill unrelated to the game (such as a staring contest). In order to solve this problem, you can try a more fair method to assign player position.

For instance, going first in Monopoly is an advantage. Instead of rolling to see who goes first, try auctioning off the starting position for starting money; the winner starts the game with the usual amount of starting money less his or her bid. Paying for the position with resources serves to balance any gained advantages. A nearly identical method is the divide and offer method: one player takes a certain amount of money from the bank and offers the other player to choose either going first or the extra money.

In some games, this type of selection is built into the game. I'm not referring to games where the first rule of the game is "determine a starting player" or "roll to see who goes first". In Die Macher, for instance, each round begins with a simultaneous auction for starting player. Players bid their resources, and the highest bidder then selects who goes first.

Other games decide who goes first by fiat. E.g. in some games, the game states that the oldest or youngest player starts, possibly in an attempt to give younger players the slight positional advantage (which doesn't work if the game is being played in a n old-age home). Many recent games have been mocking this type of fiat rule by stating things like the player who has most recently been on a boat goes first (for a nautically-themed game), the player who looks most like Abraham Lincoln goes first (for an election-themed game), or even the first player to grab the die goes first. And so on.

Selection Games for Other Purposes

Selection games are sometimes used to settle disputes when parties can't agree on any other course of action and do not wish to use violence. In certain historical cases, large amounts of money, property, or rights have changed hands as a result. Some tied elections have been decided by a coin toss. Often the suggestion to use a selection game to settle a serious dispute is done facetiously.

In rare cases, these games may also be played by very bored people.

Two-player Selection Games

Coin Toss: Flipping a coin to see who goes first is so ingrained in our culture that the very term "flip a coin" is nearly synonymous with a random selection game. The typical coin toss is Heads or Tails, but another variant includes flipping two coins, with one player going first if they match and the other if they don't.

Most of games of coin toss are played and then forgotten, with some notable exceptions. For instance, the coin used to determine who kicks off the Superbowl is a specially minted coin, replicas of which are sold as souvenirs.

Interestingly, most coins lend themselves to a slight bias when flipping, falling one way of the other a slightly higher percent of the time. This is either due to the differences in weight on either side of the coin, imperfections in the coin, or poor flipping quality. Skilled flippers can sometimes make whichever side they want come up.

Rock Paper Scissors: Also known in many cultures, this is a non-transitive game where both players select one of three possible choices: rock, paper, or scissors. The choice is made by forming your hand into a shape somewhat similar to your choice. When simultaneously revealed, rock beats scissors, scissors beats paper, and paper beats rock.

This simple game is nearly as well known as coin flipping, and nearly as synonymous with making a quick decision in favor of one or more parties. Expanded versions of the games add additional choices, while alternate choices with the same gameplay are used in different cultures.

As I mentioned above, RPS is less random than it appears to be, since humans tend to follow certain rules when trying to emulate random play. Males and females have typical first round choices, tend not to repeat their throws too many times in succession, and tend to choose their next throw based on what happened on the previous throw. Using this information, experienced players can generally beat non-experienced players in the long run.

RPS lends itself to cheating by players who change their selection within a fraction of a second of viewing the other player's selection.

Odds or Evens: is a specific form of Morra, listed below. One player plays "even" and the other "odd". Each player decides on one or two fingers and they simultaneously show them. If they match, "evens" wins, otherwise "odds" does.

Walking forward: Two players stand opposite each other at some non pre-determined distance. They alternate walking forward, toe-to-heel, until one steps on the other players foot.

Stick toss: One player tosses the stick into the air and grasps it with his fist somewhere in the middle when it descends, one end pointing up. The other player places his fist directly above the first player's, who places his other fist above the second's, and so on until one player can no longer do so having run out of stick to grasp. The last to grasp the stick is the winner.

Ah, but how do you know which player tosses the stick? ;-)

Volley: Used in Ping Pong and other net games, this game is even more of a bootstrap problem than the last one. One player begins an easy serve over the net and the ball is volleyed a set minimum number of times. If one player wins the volley after the minimum number of returns were made, that player goes first.

Unlike the above games, this is a skill based game that also utilizes the skills required for the game itself. The person who wins the volley is most likely going to be the person who wins the game. Similarly, in billiards players shoot cue balls against a far cushion, and the player who does so most successfully starts the game.

Another method of deciding who goes first in a net game (other than by convention, such as whose field is being used) is to toss a racket up in the air. After it falls, the player toward whom the handle is pointing goes first.

Arm wrestling: This is a skill based game relying entirely on upper body strength and arm-wrestling technique. After coin flipping and Rock-Paper-Scissors (And possibly rolling a die), this game is most likely to be suggested as a means of settling a dispute, despite the fact that the victor is likely a foregone conclusion with two unequally skilled opponents. An arm wrestle only reveals how good the players are at arm wrestling, after all.

Other selection games of physical skill include staring your opponent down or racing toward some object.

Multi-player Selection Games

Dice rolling: This is certainly the most commonly used selection game when playing a game that already has dice. In which case, the selection game is often the official first step in the rules of the game.

Ties can often lead to an immediate fight. Do all players re-roll or just the tying players? After the re-roll, are the new rolls compared to previous rolls or only used as settling the tie between the two re-rolling players? Then, do the dice rolls indicate player order, or was the roll to determine the starting player, after which all other players play in clockwise order?

The validity of dice rolls is also a subject of discussion. Do rolls have to be on a flat surface or can they straddle the edge of the playing surface? Do they have to be in the box, on the table, on the board, or on anything flat? And if one die needs to be re-rolled, must (or may) all dice be re-rolled?

A growing number of people are capable of pretending to roll dice as if to obtain a random result but actually producing exactly or generally the numbers they like. Most people would agree that this is cheating, and that the very idea of dice rolling is to produce a random result.

What about "lucky dice" which seem to roll certain numbers with greater than average frequency? This may be all in the head of the player, but many dice may have a statistical bias of some kind. In order to alleviate this problem, all players could throw the same dice.

Dice are incredibly old; versions of dice date back several thousand years or more. In addition to being used for random results, some people enjoy using them in other ways, such as spinning, stacking, or for jewelery.

Games with other randomizers, such as a spinner, often use the randomizer in question to select a starting player.

Card draw: Before playing a game with cards, either the dealer or the teams can be settled by first drawing cards. For starting player, each player draws a card and the highest or lowest deals. Using this method you have the same problem resolving ties as you do for dice.

To select teams, the players with the two highest cards form one team and the two lowest another team. In some cases, four cards such as the four aces or two pairs of kings and queens, may be removed from the deck before this process. In this case, matching colors or pairs play together.

Playing cards date back for hundred of years, and are also used for many things other than playing games or drawing for first.

Drawing Straws: While most selection games are "won", i.e. winning the game indicates a beneficial outcome, this is an example of a selection game that can only be lost, i.e. the selected player is the only "loser" while all of the others have won. It is used to select someone to perform an unwanted chore or fill an undesired position. In classical literature, the results of drawing the short straw can lead to consequences as dire as death, often through being the one chosen to make some sort of noble sacrifice on behalf of the other players.

To play, you must find enough straws or strings for each player, where one is markedly shorter (or longer) than the others. One player arranges them all to be sticking through his fingers in such a way that the odd one out cannot be determined from looking at them from above. All players except the one holding the items select one, leaving the last one for the player who initially held all of them. The player with the short (or long) item is the one selected.

The Nose Game: This is a more devious version of the above, since the last one to know that he is playing loses automatically. In this game, an undesired task becomes known to one or more people, all in the same room, before it becomes known to the rest. Or, the fact that someone will have to attend to the task becomes known only gradually to each person.

The people who realize that some unlucky chap will have to deal with the problem touch their nose (or some equivalent gesture). As others realize that some people are touching their nose, and the implications thereof, they do the same. The last to realize what's going on is automatically the loser.

Of course, this is not properly a game at all, and patently unfair. And the "loser" is only bound to accept his fate if he buys into the spirit of the idea.

Counting Out Games: In this playground ritual, one player chants a well-known rhyme while pointing in turn for each syllable or word at players in a circle in succession. The person pointed to is selected, either as "it" or as "not it". In the latter case, the players are picked off one by one until the last remaining is "it".

The arrangement of the players in the circle, as well as the counting player, should be random, but this is generally overlooked. Furthermore, well-known rhymes have well-known numbers of words and syllables, making the person who will be selected a foregone conclusion before the game starts. Unless the first person pointed to is randomly selected and the rhyme also randomly selected, this is not properly a game but a good way of picking on people.

It tends to lead to arguments as to whether the counting should be done by word or syllable, which words actually belong to the rhyme, and how this whole thing is just so stupid until you've been excluded from playing in every game and have to spend all recess sitting and crying at the far side of the playground until you remember that you brought your mom's Robert Heinlein book with you and didn't really want to play that stupid game anyway. Or so I've heard.

In America, one popular example is Eeny Meeny Miney Moe.

Morra: Morra is a generalized version of Odds and Evens. All players in a circle throw out some number of fingers. Then teams, or a winner, is selected.

For instance, an odd number of fingers might mean one thing while an even something else. Or the player who guessed correctly how many fingers might win. Or all odds are on one team and evens on another. And so on.

Spin-4-It: Modern board gamers have created special devices such as this one to help them with the chronic problem of who goes first. This device is a small metal pointing hand balanced on a small round bump. Spin it to determine who starts the game.

If spun on a smooth, level surface, it can spin for some time before stopping.

Start Player: Not content with a simple spinning device, a gamer Geek named Ted Alspach created a collectible card game to determine the start player in any game that requires one. Each card has a ridiculous starting condition, such as "the player who owns the most boardgames is the Start Player".

To pick a starting player, shuffle the deck, pick the top most card, and determine the outcome.

Selection Methods entry on Wikipedia



Moshe Sambol said...

I'm trying to learn Go, motivated at least partially by your posts about it here. The mechanism used to decide who goes first in a roughly matched game of go (nigiri) is interesting and unique.

Yehuda Berlinger said...

Oh, yes, nigiri. That's a version of an odd-even game.