New Rules for Classic Games

Reposted from Gamelier

It’s a bit hard to find, but New Rules for Classic Games, by Wayne Schmittberger, is full of intriguing ideas and creative takes on well-known games. It was originally published back in 1992. As the subtitle says “Recycle those old boards for thousands of hours of fun with new rules for Monopoly, Scrabble, Risk, Go, Trivial Pursuit, and more.” In modern terms, these new rules are remixes of classic board games.

It delivers on what it promises, but I was delighted to find it more than just a catalogue of alternative game ideas. The author applies successful game mechanics taken from one game to another, and in doing explores the space of game design possibilities.

Already in Chapter 2 “Fixing a Flaw”, the goal is to create a better game by analysing a balancing problem with older board games and testing different solutions to it. In doing so, the author shows how approaches like the “pie rule”, the “bidding rule”, and playing multiple boards at once can be applied to almost any game of this type.

Chapter 4 “Changing the Number of Players” talks about the challenge of three-player games, which suffer from the “petty diplomacy” problem of 2 players easily being able to team up on a third. The author talks about an approach used by a three-player variant of Japanese chess in which the attacks from 2 players on a third is automatically detected by the game rules, at which point the 2 players must form a team, and the third player is given extra advantages that balances the match.

The discussion of handicapping (Chapter 6) is a mine of great ideas, taken from games like Go and Shogi that have elegant handicapping systems. The author has applied these principles to games as different as Trivial Pursuit and Monopoly, which demonstrates how general they are.

Hidden among the number of game variants of Checkers are some entirely new games like Fields of Action and Epaminodas, which use these cool mechanics of moving lines of checker pieces in order to battle each other. Emergo is another one, in which captured checker pieces are stacked on the bottom of the capturing piece, and the capturing player continues to move her stacks like a single piece. When a stack itself is captured, pieces are taken off the top, so that a player can get their pieces back again.

There are also some fantastic chess variants, such as Extinction Chess, in which you need to keep at least one of each type of piece in play, and Racing Kings, where the goal is to get your king to the other side of the board safely.

The book ends with a description of “postal play”, a practice that I had never heard of. Though I imagine it has since been replaced by the Internet, it was fun to hear how players used to send post cards back and forth to each other, making moves on several games at once in order to be more efficient. Apparently some players appreciated the slowness of process, beause it gave them more time to reflect without the pressure. POstal play posed challenges for simulating randomness (such as a dice rolls). The book proposes elegant solutions to these problems, based on using public, verifiable, but random information such as the daily temperature of London of the closing proce of the stock market. There is also the “diceless dice games”, in which players write down each possible dice roll, and get to use each exactly once during the game.

Finally, the book ends with a bunch of guidelines for “creating your own successful variants”, though I think of them as general game design principles as well. Here are some highlights:

  • Prefer rule changes that give players more choices
  • Improve offense, weaken defense
  • Experiment with changing the goal of the game, or the geometry of the space
  • Try simulaneous movement instead of sequential movement, or letting players do more than one thing on a turn
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Vehicles by Valentino Braitenberg

With the excitement and activity of A-MAZE calming down, I finally have a moment to write about a rich book that I will want to read again and again- Vehicles: Experiments in Synthetic Psychology by Valentino Braitenberg. Since it was written in 1984, I’m truly lucky that a colleague from the Gamelier recommended it to me, or else I doubt I would have ever discovered it.

The principle of “Synthetic Psychology” invoked in the title is that relatively simple machines can exhibit complex behavior that we would classify as “living”, “instinctive” ,” willful”, “smart”, “attentive”, etc. The author does this by setting up a series of thought experiments. He begins with a “vehicle” with a single motor activated by a sensor that is attuned to the temperature of its immediate surroundings.

Things get immediately more interesting in the next example, where a vehicle has a motor and a sensor on both sides. Depending how the connections are made between the motors and sensors (same side or crossed), and whether the connection is positive or negative, the vehicles would circle a source of heat, charge right at it, run away from it.


This is only the beginning. Each chapter introduces new layers of complexity into these simple vehicles and then explores how the vehicles would behave in such and such circumstances. He explores non-linear activation, thresholds, connections networks, selection, resistant connections, and many others. Some of these concepts reminded me of the little I learned about neural networks in school, but the author explains each wrinkle gently enough that I don’t believe any prior knowledge is necessary to enjoy it.

Ultimately, the book nicely sidesteps the question of “intelligence” that pollutes common discussions of artificial intelligence. By the time you are in the middle of the book, you have to admit that the machines behave in a way that you only associate with living things, and yet they are made only of sensors, motors, and wire.

The appendix to the book is filled with biological references for the mechanisms introduced as purely mechanical. Given that the book is now 30 years old, It would be interesting to know what new has been discovered since then.

Oh, and there are lovely line drawings placed in the middle of the book that evoke faraway worlds and fantastic machines. This reminds me of what an incredible video game it would make, especially the complex “social” aspects of having a world of such vehicles!

Capture d’écran 2014-05-01 à 17.48.00

Cross-posted from the Gamelier

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What Video Games have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy by James Paul Gee


“What Video Games have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy” is a book about how video games motivate players to learn how to play them, despite or even due to their complexity and difficulty. James Paul Gee compares how players learn video games to how people learn in school, and discusses how schools and other learning environments would benefit from imitating these aspects of video games.

In that way, the book reminds me of Jane McGonigal’s “Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World”, which also takes the tack of discussing how video games motivate players to take on difficult challenges, with the idea of applying these tactics to other domains (see my review of Reality is Broken). One difference is that where McGonigal focuses on forming personal habits (like weight loss or cleaning the house), James Paul Gee is more interested in school learning.

For me, the most interesting sections of this book dealt with the importance of identity. James Paul Gee argues that learners take on an identity with regards to a field of study. The identity can very well be positive- someone who is good at the subject, who learns quickly, performs well, etc. But they just as easily be negative, in which case the learner will be scared and put off by taking on the subject in the future. The author says that such a learner is “damaged”, and that such damage is difficult and time-consuming to repair.

This rings true of my own experience. I always did fine in school, but definitely formed negative relationships with certain subjects. In particular, despite five years of studying Spanish in junior-high and high school, I never really learned enough to converse. I therefore decided that I was a “language idiot”, and that I was forever handicapped in that area. I suppose that this demission was comforting, since it meant I didn’t have to try. When I ended up in France, it was so frustrating to not be able to understand and relate to those around me that I was extremely motived to learn. And the reality is that I can learn languages just fine. I still wouldn’t say that I’m “talented” in languages, but putting in hard work over a long enough period of time is likely the secret to learn anything at all.

The author show how the notion of identity extends to the people who work in the field. For example, doing science effectively makes the learner a scientist. The closer the learner associates themselves with the values of a scientist, the easier this learning becomes. Once again, the opposite is also true. A person could be easily put off a field by not wishing to associate themselves with the a negative identity they associate with it.

This now makes a few books that I’ve read which make this argument that school teaching techniques should import game design principles. But though I accept that video games mentioned do teach something, and may teach them very well, it is hard to find an example of an existing game that teaches something of value outside the game itself (besides side-benefits such as hand-eye coordination, willingness to experiment, or positive self-esteem). May it be that not enough games are built around real systems? Or is it fundamentally harder to get people to play a game about physics or language than it is to get them to jump on platforms, associate colors, and aim at zombies? Could it be that games mostly motivate people to learn intuitively, and not formally? Is school just not playful enough, or is it just harder to make certain subjects both playful and meaningful at the same time?

Ultimately, both educators and game designers are asking a person to invest their time and effort. If you don’t believe that the benefits are worth the investment, than why put in the time? Many (perhaps most) games offer some kind of immediate benefits of pleasure, both spectacular and of solving problems. Could school subjects offer the same?

Crossposted from the Gamelier

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