Thursday, April 23, 2009

Day 2 of the Board Game Studies 2009 Colloquium

The Sessions

1. Uri Globus, Communication in Board Games

Uri plays Igowin on my laptop, vastly increasing my Go rating in a few minutes.

Uri is the founder of the Israeli Go institute, and a computer game researcher. Unfortunately, I missed all but the last five minutes of this lecture; it sounded very interesting.

Essentially, he said, drawing on his experience from the game of Go, that how a person plays in a game communicates something about the person. There was dissension from the audience: Uri thought that play brings out the real you, while the audience proposed that play allows people to play in ways that they wouldn't in real life. I think that they're both right.

Uri told me he would send me a summary of his lecture.

2. Ute Retteberg, The Game of Chaupad in India

Chaupad, aka Pachisi. Known by many different names around the world. With 64 squares around the outside, in the classic game you start at center, move down your home path, circle around the board counter-clockwise, and return back home.

Chaupad is not considered a children's game; it plays an important part in the marriage ceremonies and culture of Rajput families. Played on festivals. A new board is woven for the bride before the marriage, and the game is played by and among women, or by women with their spouse or brother. Stories about proper behavior with gods and so on playing the game are told before the marriage ceremony.

Apparently, there are complex variations to the game that can make a game last for 2-3 months. It is associated with sports like wrestling and hunting.

3. Irving Finkel, The Lewis Chessmen

The Lewis Chessmen were found on the Isle of Lewis in 1831, in circumstances unknown and subject to myth. They are carved walrus ivory and contain at least four complete sets of pieces. All the pieces are white, but some were originally stained a deep maroon (such as the white vs red chess in Indian). Faraday (the guy who invented electricity) might have been consulted in how to "clean" the pieces, resulting in their loss of color. Dr Finkel was much peeved at Faraday for this.

Additional pieces for other games were also found with the Chess pieces. For more on the topic, see the Wikipedia entry.

Irving is dynamic, passionate, sarcastic, and humorous in turn.

4. David Parlett, Hyde and seek

[Forgot to take a picture]

David's lecture in the previous colloquia was about Francis Willoughby, a game researcher from the 1600s. This lecture was about Thomas Hyde (1636-1703 who wrote The History of Chess (1689) (including Xiang-qi). In 1694 he wrote a history of other games, including backgammon, go, mandarin promotion game, dice, dice towers, knucklebones, checkers, nine-men's morris types (merels), mancala, and many others (Arabs, Persian, Indians, Chinese), civil and war games, Chinese backgammon, chaupar, and so on. Then he combined both books into one. He was also preparing a book on playing cards, but no notes exist.

These are obvious precursors to Murray's fantastic books on the same topics.

Hyde's books include quotes from poems about Chess written by the Ibn Ezra, a famous Jewish Rabbi. Victor Keats translated the poems into English and has written a few books on the topic of Chess in Jewish sources from the Talmud on.

David was also a good speaker. Later in the day, he also complimented me on my talk from the previous day, which was an unexpected thrill.

5. Ulrich Schaedler, Tric-Trac to Backgammon

Around early 1800s, Tric-Trac declined in France, and backgammon replaced it.

We're not sure when or where Tric-Trac originated. The object is not to bear pieces off the board, but to make points, which are scored with cribbage-like holes on the side of the board. Pieces not removed from the board. Points are scored if you "could" land on certain points with your dice throws, though you don't actually land on them, you just note them and score - these are conventions of gentility. Your opponent can score any points you forget to mark, like cut-throat cribbage.

Tric-Trac was criticized (compared to other games) as being embarrassing to players when they are not attentive. Also there is a long opening phase without any conflict, since all the pieces start bunched up on the far ends. Also, the French thought that Backgammon was too fast and not complicated enough for a "real" game.

A solid presentation that went over time.

6. Simon Cohen, Anti-Semitic Games

Simon Cohen sitting, after his lecture

Simon presented derogatory, caricature, or propaganda games and pictures from his collection, from "The New Game of the Jew" circa 1790, through to "Kaboom! The Suicide Bombing Game" circa 2001.

7. Gadi Kfir, Jerusalem in Games

Gadi presented pictures of Go Fish and other games and toy figurines with pictures of Jerusalem landmarks, such as the Tower of David, specific and general Jerusalem characters.

Then we took a trip to the Israel Museum, where we saw (among other things):

Note the black stereotype image on the top left card game

8. Prof Israel (Bob) Aumann, Games where the first player can always win but no one knows how

Waiting outside the locked auditorium

Prof Aumann was the recent winner of the Nobel prize in Economy for his work on game theory.

He showed existence proofs: proofs that show that there is an answer, but don't say what the answer is.

There are two games that fit this: Asymmetric Gnim and Hex.

Symmetric Gnim is played on a checker board, with the lower left corner removed (63 squares). On your turn, you pick a square and eliminate the square, as well as all squares above or to the right of the square. Turns alternate. The player to make the last move wins.

This game is a win for the first player, and the method is shown: First player chooses square 2,7 - that is, 2nd from the left, 2nd from the bottom. After his play, two equal length lines remain: a vertical line of 7 squares and a horizontal line of 7 squares. From this point on, the first player mirrors whatever the second player does on the other line, until he has removed the last square.

This method will not work in Asymmetric Gnim, which is the same game as Symmetric Gnim, but with an additional column of squares (lower left square of an 8x9 grid of squares is removed). We can prove that the first player can win, but we can't prove how. The first player takes 1,9, the top right corner. Now if the second player can force a win, he now takes the square that initiates his moving sequence. Whatever this move is, we restart the game and the first player now takes this winning move as his starting move, instead of the second player, thus proving that the first player can force the win.

He didn't go into proving how to prove a first player win for Hex.

Additional Notes

They say that an academic convention is about the connections, not the sessions. I sold a copy of my game to Piet to take back to his Belgium museum, and I will also be selling another one tomorrow. I will also be teaching the game to Gadi and Piet, so they can teach others how to play tomorrow night.

I've had brief conversations with a number of the other attendees, some of whom I have admired for years, and some of whom implied that they would like to see me make it to next year's colloquium (at least, I think so), which will be in Paris. I've had requests for my email and blog info from many of them, and for further information on Eurogames.

There was a reporter from the Jerusalem Post who sat through all the lectures until we left for the Israel museum.

There was a guy named Claude exhibiting hand-crafted wooden games of his own design. I got to play all of them, and they were all pretty nice abstracts, worthy of being published by someone. He asked me not to describe the rules here until he finds a publisher.

Claude exhibiting one of his games

Some handcrafted games from Goa


One more note about Fraenkel's lecture from yesterday: He mentioned an inverse relationship between board feel and solvability. In other words, NIM games, which are simple and possibly solvable, don't give a board game feel; you may be one or two moves away from winning or losing, and have no idea. On the other hand, complicated games like Chess and Go may be entirely unsolvable, yet they give a distinct impression that someone has a better or worse position, or that someone is winning or losing.

1 comment:

David Klein said...

I was going to type in the missing proof that Hex is a first player win, but then decided that a Wikipedia link would do at least as well.