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Learning to Cheat Without Breaking the Rules, Part 3: Schooner or Later

[After a 2 year gap, this finally concludes the story begun in part 1 and part 2 …]

When I was a kid, I couldn’t lie, I was terrified of breaking rules, and I was determined to be perfectly honest and perfectly trustworthy, not realising the two are incompatible. Years passed, and then in October 2011 I played Schooner or Later, and I flagrantly cheated and betrayed a complete stranger, much to my own surprise. Perhaps even more surprising, I found that I was actually okay with this.

Right after that I started a series of posts on the subject of lying and cheating, how both are important and justified in some situations, and how games helped me learn to do those things when necessary. But I stalled on the final post, which was intended to examine the specifics of my betrayal in Schooner or Later. This is hardly satisfactory, especially considering I actually interviewed one of the main creators of the game, Josh Hadley, for the purposes of that write-up.

So, it’s time to face up to my past: this is the final part in the series, describing what happened that night, alongside commentary from Josh, which I think endorses my actions.

Of course, I may be wrong about that.

So, long ago, on the 13th October 2011, there was a Sandpit event at the National Maritime Museum, with a bunch of maritime-related games.

One of these was a variant of Perudo (called Filthy Lying Liar’s Dice, by Gareth Briggs), in which everyone rolls their dice (which in this case corresponded to parts of a pirate ship), and then plays a kind of cumulative variant of Cheat. Losing a round means you lose a die, reducing your ability to understand the state of the game. Thanks to my training in lying-related games (as detailed in part 1), I did pretty well, making it to the final showdown, albeit with a single die.

Playing the game with strangers, I noticed something I hadn’t seen before when playing similar things with friends: despite everyone bluffing / lying and generally trying to harm everyone else’s chances of winning, a sort of camaraderie developed, and by the end we felt somehow unified. If you administered some sort of trust test, I imagine we would all trust one another much more than we had at the start, despite playing a game that hinged on misleading one another. Perhaps this is related to the fact that you can only trust someone with a secret if you know they can lie if asked about it.

Anyway, at the end of the evening, most of the players (about 35 of us) were funnelled into the final game: Schooner or Later (SoL) by The Haberdashery, in particular by Josh Hadley and Casey Middaugh. In part 2 of this series, I argued that moderated games played for fun were the best type to let players explore cheating. Various aspects of the game design and the running of SoL meant an entire spectrum of cheating was available, and even implicitly encouraged. By my count, we saw 7 levels of cheating that night, each more flagrant than the last – and when I asked him about it later, Josh said he was happy with all of these bar one.

Schooner or Later – the basics

At a base level, SoL is a trading game. Players travel between three ports – England, India, China – buying and selling commodities and trying to turn the greatest profit within the set time limit. But that’s just the framework: the actual execution of the game encouraged cheating of every type.

Josh on cheating

When I asked Josh his thoughts on cheating, he answered immediately: “I try to make games where cheating is an interesting and viable approach – it’s something I consciously try to involve in every game that I game.”

He dates this back to when his family used to play Monopoly (which he characterised as “the worst game ever inflicted on humanity”), in which the only way they could make it tolerable was by introducing a house rule: “anything is permitted so long as you don’t get caught out” – just like “Extreme Cheat” that I mentioned in part I.

(Incidentally, the history of Monopoly’s development is quite illuminating).

Even against this backdrop, Josh thought SoL was special: “This game encouraged cheating, almost as a design principle.”

He also thought the theme was appropriate, and was what encouraged him to add in ‘cheating’ elements: as part of the East India Trading Company, “everyone was a gigantic bastard”.

I think that’s very interesting. How do you make a game in which everyone is supposed to be some kind of oversized bastard, given that it will be played by players who may not personally be any kind of bastard at all? Here’s how.

SoL Cheating, Level 1: Opium smuggling

The primary twist on basic trading in SoL is a mechanic that feels illicit, but you are expected to do it (like lying in werewolf). Players can choose to ‘smuggle’ opium, manifested in-game as balloons, from India to China. Two moderators took the role of coast guards trying to prevent the opium trade by popping the balloons of players they could catch.

The layout was excellent for this: there were three smuggling routes to choose from, and two coast guards, so you could usually find a way.

Because of the sneaking necessary, and the compelling stand-in for real violence of balloon popping, choosing to smuggle had the feel of being illicit – but the rewards for success were so substantial that it was hard to resist. Besides, when playing for fun, you want to try everything out. Perhaps at the start of my personal journey – before I had played Extreme Cheat – I might have tried to go ‘legit’ and trade only the regular goods. But as a result I wouldn’t have stood a chance of winning, and I certainly wouldn’t have had as much fun.

Josh noted that there is supposed to be a tension between the opium and standard economic game, with an emergent strategy on when to switch – but he was also curious: as a player, do you think about what you’re doing, in an ethical sense?

With opium trading explicitly written into the rules and briefed, I’m not sure many players spent that much time worrying about this. However, that ambiguity is certainly present in the many further layers of cheating that the game’s design encouraged. For example…

SoL Cheating, Level 2: Cotton dumping

The second twist was somewhat surreal. England wanted to trade cotton (represented by cotton wool balls), and any time you made a trade of goods there, they would insist that you take a handful of cotton wool and try to sell it to India or China. Furthermore, any cotton you were left with at the end of the game would count against your score.

But India and China didn’t want the cotton – they certainly wouldn’t give you money for it, at best they might grudgingly accept it. The cotton wool balls also take up room in your hands, making it harder to get on with the real business of trading tea and pepper, or smuggling Opium.

This means you’re incentivised to “lose” your cotton en route – but the rules don’t say anything about that. Can you just drop it? Do you have to hide it? Give it away to non-players? Having a quirk like this built into the rules is an effective way of making the players aware that they should be creative.

Josh confessed that this broke the rules for a Sandpit game, in that the game design encouraged littering (“I’m fairly sure there’s still wads of cotton wool bunched up behind exhibits in the National Maritime Museum”), and while they paid lip service towards telling people not to do it, they knew it was inevitable.

As well as meeting his goal of encouraging ‘cheating’, Josh also noted that this is actually a historic truth – the majority of the captains did pitch their cotton overboard because they had the same incentives as us! (I’ve not found a good citation for this, sadly).

SoL Cheating, Level 3: Haggling

Haggling was not mentioned in the verbal briefing, but explicitly encouraged in the instructions. Any player not noticing this would quickly cotton on (ho ho) once they heard the haggles going on at the various ports.

What are the rules of haggling? Only what you can propose, and what the other will agree to. There seemed to be a little flexibility in the price, but it seemed you would do a lot better with a more creative approach – for example, pointing out that making it a round 100 would mean they could hand over a single 100-worth token instead of counting out the 90 in the asking price. In this way, the moderators (as the operators of the ports) were actively giving the players cues on how to play, and proving that the game was flexible.

SoL Cheating, Level 4: Co-operation

The fourth twist (in my somewhat arbitrary ordering) was co-operation. The results of haggling suggested that greater quantities of a good yielded bigger discounts. This created an incentive for players to work together, pooling their resources to get a bigger pay-off. Of course, where co-operation is possible, so too is defection.

Why I’m a big cheater, and that’s okay

Having enjoyed the “cheating” of dumping cotton wool (I bestowed it upon a friend who wasn’t playing), smuggling opium (surprisingly frightening but very rewarding), and haggling, I was getting the feeling that the boundaries of the game were open to question.

When I realized both I and another player at port in China had 47 gold and we would each be offered 6 tea in exchange, I proposed we pool our resources to better haggle for more. With this plan agreed spontaneously in front of the port moderator, we were offered 13 tea rather than 12. We pointed out that 14 would be much fairer as then we could divide it by two.

“Not my problem,” came the reply. “You’ll have to work it out between you.” We looked doubtful, not sure how to resolve this fairly.

“Put your hands out, ” said the moderator, and I did. He put the 13 tea bags in my hands.

Then he looked me in the eye and said: “Run!”

This was the magic moment for me. When you’re playing for fun, and taking your cue from the moderators as to what’s allowed, how do you react to a direct prompt like that? How would I?

I said “I wouldn’t do that, I’m an honourable trader,” and turned to my compatriot: “Here’s 3 tea for you. Bye!” and to my own surprise, I made off with the other 10. “That’s not honourable!” my former compatriot replied, “Come back here!”

We both made port at England, at which point my former compatriot attempted to seek restitution from the authority there. Upon understanding the situation, England’s port moderator simply said “I’m sorry, this is clearly an internal matter. I can’t help. I’ll give you 95 for your 10 tea.” Another endorsement – I felt like I’d been bad (which I had), but somehow within the spirit of the game, if not within the letter of the rules.

As I wrote in part 1, I started out in life so determined to be a ‘good’ person, I wouldn’t cheat even in games where cheating was the point (like “Cheat”). The fact that I cheated another player so brazenly here really shocked me, and that’s why I started writing this series of posts: to understand what sequence of events – actually, games – brought me to this place.

But given that I also interviewed one of the key designers of the game, and that I put off writing this particular moment up for 2 years, I’m suspicious of my own motives. These posts could all be read as one big attempt to excuse my decision that day, and talking to Josh may just have been a subconscious attempt to have my actions endorsed.

Fortunately for me, that is exactly what happened.

Josh’s comment was “That’s a great story – I’m really pleased by that!” – and he reaffirmed that he had hoped players would think about the ethics of what they were doing, and question their decisions in just this sort of way.

He also particularly praised the Haberdashery crew for creating the environment that made this work: “We could only give the players freedom if we also gave the crew freedom. So long as you have a good crew – and we had an amazing crew – you have a huge amount of leniency to encourage and permit that kind of behaviour.” Crucially, he pointed out, the Haberdashery crew know how to “manipulate rules without necessarily breaking the game.”

But cheating in SoL didn’t stop there.

SoL Cheating, Level 5: Syndicates

Other players went much further. Beyond short-term co-operation, a few players actually formed syndicates: they pooled their resources, ran interference to facilitate smuggling, and declared a collective score at the end rather than an individual one.

I had the impression that the players that did this already knew (and trusted) one another outside of the game, but I didn’t feel hard done by: it felt like a logical extension to the game. Josh in particular was really pleased by this development – it’s something he had hoped would emerge, and this was the first run of the game where it actually happened (perhaps because the scale was so large, with 35 players).

SoL Cheating, Level 6: Role-play

As another clue that this was no ordinary trading game, one of the moderators running trade at China began to act as if she was succumbing to an opium addiction. I heard from Josh that a player took advantage of this by withholding opium in order to secure a ridiculous bulk discount on tea, allowing them to actually buy All the Tea in China. When the player presented this haul to England, they received what Josh described as a “frankly insulting amount of money”, but nonetheless profited from their wilyness.

Josh considered this another example of the Haberdashery moderators knowing just how much they could bend the rules: they had been specifically briefed that they were empowered to deliver whatever they thought was a good experience, so long as it didn’t break the game. In particular, he admired the way the moderator at India (Ruth) could appear out of control while actually being fully in control, and the moderator at England (Nick) could give the appearance of being inflexible while actually bending the rules as much as anyone. This extreme event briefly impeded normal trading of tea, but this was swiftly fixed.

SoL Cheating, Level 7: Stealing!

The final level of cheating was achieved by a player who flat-out stole some pepper from India when the moderators were distracted. I’m not sure Sandpit players would usually stoop to that sort of behaviour, but in the context of everything else that was going on it must have seemed reasonable.

But this was where Josh drew the line – crucially, with this type of cheating, the moderators were no longer in control of the game. When this happens, “it stops being a game, and becomes a free-for-all”. Fortunately, this didn’t generate a substantial advantage, unlike the syndicate of three players running their Opium smuggling ring who ultimately “won” the game.

Epilogue(s)

One player decided to “corner the market” in cotton wool, and had been collecting it at every available opportunity, storing it in his hat:

He was duly congratulated as the “true winner” and received a round of applause. After all, he had played for fun, and he had certainly succeeded at that.

While the scores were being collected, I overheard one player lamenting how it could be a perfectly reasonable game if it weren’t for all this “cheating”, and that people should just trade according to the rules. Most unfortunately, this turned out to be the very player I had betrayed earlier. I introduced myself, and apologised, but tried to defend myself by saying “Of course, once you saw how the game could be played, I’m sure you went ahead and did similar things yourself,” to which he replied “No, I traded entirely by the rules.”

This was difficult. I felt as if I had to justify my decision somehow, but rather than try to explain the entire argument put forth in this series of posts (which I was only vaguely perceiving), I simply passed the buck: “Well, you saw what happened – I was encouraged to do it. He just shoved the tea in my hand and told me to run. At least I gave you some.” At this he grudgingly admitted that that was true. Only at this point does the role of the moderator end: when their judgements are used by players to justify their decisions.

Finally, one pair of players had to leave before the final scores were counted up – and they happened to have been playing the Liar’s Dice variant with me earlier that evening. For whatever reason, they chose to bequeath their accumulated in-game wealth to me.

I like to think that they felt they could trust me, even though I’d been proved a liar.

Of course, I may be wrong about that.

Tim Mannveille tweets as @metatim, and has previously managed to blog about a sandpit event much more quickly than this.

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Playing Urban Nightmare: A live-action thirty-player semi-co-op zombie-outbreak simulation game

“So let me get this straight, chief,” I said, 5 minutes in to my first day as the Chief of Staff at the State Police, “you’ve had no formal training and have only been in the job for a month; and the only reason you hired me and the deputy is because nobody with any real experience actually applied.”

“That’s about right. But things are pretty quiet round here! We’ll have plenty of time to pick things up as we go along.”

Little did they realise that in nearby Romero City, a zombie outbreak was already beginning…

***

This was no ordinary game. This was Urban Nightmare, a Megagame with 30 odd players representing 8 key organisations, simulating a realistic official response to a zombie outbreak over 6 hours, representing 3 days of time in the game. It was intense, challenging, and eye-opening in so many ways.

At the time of writing, another run of this game is planned for Leeds on Saturday 17th November 2012 – you can read about it and sign up here (although you’ll need to do so pretty quickly). I’ll give an overview of what Megagames are, and write up my experience of Urban Nightmare below – keeping spoilers to a minimum.

What are Megagames?

The strapline of the Megagame Makers website calls them ‘multi-team multi-player wargames’. The closest similar game I’ve seen is Diplomacy, but megagames investigate the mechanics of conflict and co-operation at a much deeper level. They are large (20-50 players), and long (lasting one or two days).

I first came across the idea through a friend-of-a-friend, who described a megagame he’d designed to recreate the key factions and power mechanics of a certain period of Anglo-French history. He was particularly excited that at one point some players tried to stage a coup, but it failed – and this was exactly what happened in the actual historical period!

Obviously, I found that idea very exciting.

Megagames explore a whole area of gameplay I’ve never seen before: a very large number of players making a lot of tactical and strategic decisions, over a long period of time.

It seems like a way to gain genuine understanding of how organisations and society work. If a historically accurate failed coup can naturally arise with the right starting conditions and game mechanics, this seems like a genuinely powerful way to simulate and understand such systems.

Unsurprisingly, this is not a new idea: it’s part of the spectrum of military simulations which have been tried in one form or another for as long as humans have been making war.

On the downside, it superficially sounds a bit dry and difficult for the players. The introductory leaflet I received upon registration listed some of the key things players enjoy about these games:

  • There’s no score, which is great for players that are averse to highly competitive games
  • To a large extent you set your own goals – you may want to try to do outdo your historical counterpart, or just find out what happens if you stick to a particular strategy that you’re curious about
  • You feel like you’re part of momentous events, in a way that smaller scale games with momentous event themes (like Pandemic) can’t achieve.

***

“Was that someone from the city police? What did he want?”

“They had a few trouble-makers this morning, sounds like they were high on something. Took a surprising amount of effort to contain them, apparently.”

“Why are they telling us this?”

“No idea.”

***

How is Urban Nightmare different?

This particular Megagame, being concerned with a zombie outbreak, does not in fact directly reflect an actual historical event. The designer, Jim Wallman, observed that in most zombie fiction, the focus is on individuals, and the government seems largely useless – until towards the end, when the military usually comes in. He wanted to know: how does that happen exactly?

Brilliantly, he used as a starting point a megagame he’d made earlier that dealt with a similar issue (in terms of official response to an unexpectedly large scale civic problem), although I won’t reveal what it is because I think it’s best for players to be as unprepared as possible. However, there were quite a few key changes, and the version I attended (Saturday 17th March 2012) was the first time it had been run.

Urban Nightmare in brief

Players could select from one of the following teams: the City Police, State Police or National Guard; the Emergency Services, City Hall (Democrat) or State Governor’s Office (Republican); The Press, or an intriguing corporation with a major research office in the city called Necrotech. There was also a fairly large Control team, who ensure the smooth running of the game.

Brilliantly, through a mix of self-selection and active choice on the part of the designer working with the regular players, many of the roles were extremely well cast. In this case, the state governor and city mayor roles were taken on by people that seemed like they could have legitimately held those jobs in real life (as opposed to twenty-somethings with an abnormally large sense of entitlement), and three key roles at Necrotech were taken up by a trio of players notorious within the Megagame player base as being somewhat shifty and traitorous, who all turned up wearing suits and suitably sinister shades.

The game was planned to take place over 6 hours, with each ‘turn’ (in which each team collects information and makes decisions) taking 20 minutes of real time and representing 4 hours of in-game time. In total, 18 turns would represent the first 3 days of the outbreak.

My experience: briefing

After registering, I received a comprehensive briefing pack in the post consisting of:

  • Cover letter
  • Maps
  • Newbie Guide
  • Overview of Urban Nightmare
  • Team Briefing (state police)
  • Attendee/Cast List

I diligently read through all this material, and was only slightly alarmed by the repeated reminders in the newbie guide that it was only a game and some people might come across as surprisingly abrasive while playing, but this isn’t personal and in reality everyone is definitely really friendly.

I wasn’t too worried as I’d signed up with a friend (albeit one who hadn’t played a megagame before either), and we chose junior roles in the State Police, a team we anticipated wouldn’t be as critical to the co-operative zombie-fighting effort as most of the others.

The instructions also said that although we knew going in that the game was about ‘zombies’, we should try not to use this unnatural precognition in our initial choices in the game, and in particular we shouldn’t make any assumptions about the nature of the infection (if it was an infection) or how it was transmitted (if it was transmitted). I was very happy to do that, because I was really interested in the premise of the game: realistically, how would a zombie invasion play out? Quite obviously, in the initial stages, there would be a big barrier of disbelief. How does that barrier eventually get overcome?

My experience: On the day

I got to Anerley Town Hall at 9am, and relatively few others had arrived. I was welcomed by Jim Wallman, the game’s designer, I bought myself an all-day tea subscription from the service hatch, and started to put some faces to the names I’d already seen on the roles sheet that came with the welcome pack.

It wasn’t long before we had our whole State Police team together: myself as Chief of Staff, my friend as the Deputy, and a guy who had played one megagame before as the Chief – a quite significantly inexperienced team. Our table was set up with a state map, a city map, and and an overwhelming stack of counters representing our units.

***

“That was the city police again – er, apparently their HQ is under seige and they’ve lost several units.”

“Lost? As in killed?”

“Yep”

“What on earth is going on?”

“I have no idea. But we should probably send in a few units to see if we can assist. Not too many though, we’ve got a state to look after here.”

***

The first few turns played out much as I’ve described in the fictionalised interludes so far. The game then began to switch gear (for us), and it felt like we were receiving new information, discussing plans, writing out orders, liaising, and most exhaustingly making decisions just about constantly after that. Occasionally there would be a brief lull, during which time I could take advantage of my tea subscription.

Brilliantly, one of the ways we became aware of developments was through the media – a one-page ‘newspaper’ was distributed every hour, and occasionally press conferences were held in which key figures put out their official story (to some heckling).

I remembered that the instructions had warned: “The game can get very complex, try to remember that it’s just as tough for everyone” – and that was a useful idea to cling on to when it started to feel overwhelming.

If you want to attend the upcoming run and avoid any spoilers, you should probably stop reading now, but in any case I won’t reveal much more other than my favourite moment, when my friend said…

***

“If what we’re hearing is right, the City Police have lost half their units in the last 24 hours.”

“That’s… very serious.”

“I’m taking this straight to the governor.”

***

My Observations

Maps Maps Maps
I remember once reading somewhere “the map is not the territory,” which sounded like good general advice, but through my experience of video games where the map really is the territory, I didn’t internalise it. Here, the map only updates when you yourself update it, and you have partial or even incorrect information on how to do that. This was a fascinating problem, made slightly more difficult by the fact that our city map really wasn’t big enough to arrange the counters on it clearly.

Pacing
Once things took hold, it was incredibly hectic – more hectic, Jim later revealed, than he had anticipated. This created its own problems: the Control team had a hard time keeping up, and as a result turns began to start later and later, but with no big public announcement of when they were, so we had to frequently find someone to tell us what turn we were in right now. It seems like turns could be more efficiently communicated – if nothing else with a big flip chart with the current turn number indicated at one end of the hall (and ideally someone ringing a giant gong to announce the end of a turn).

A second problem is that I think you’re generally supposed to hear back from Control what happened to your units as a result of the instructions you issued. But they had such a hard time keeping up with everything that very often we’d hear nothing back, making it much harder to understand what was happening. Eventually I found I would more reliably get some feedback if I livened the instructions up a bit with phrases like “for the love of God” and “try to do [x]… if that fails, pray.”

Scale
Due to the above issues, it felt like the game was at the limit of its scale, but if they could be addressed (and if players could be found) it could get even bigger. In particular, just from the cast list and arrangement of the hall, we knew the game couldn’t really accommodate a major outbreak in another city within the State. But because we were interested in a realistic simulation, we as the State Police considered that a real possibility, and held units in reserve just in case. (That did come in handy later for another reason, but probably wasn’t a good strategic decision).

I really liked the idea of introducing a surprise element of the game though – a secret part of the hall we were playing in being revealed to have players and a map representing another city at the moment it starts to get zombied up – or maybe towards the end when/if our containment attempts have failed, a bunch of people in zombie makeup run into the hall and start trashing the place. But that’s probably just me.

Conclusion

I had read before about decision fatigue, in which it becomes hard to make decisions if you have recently made a bunch of other (not necessarily related) choices. This aspect of the game was so intense and so prolonged (near-constant decision making for around 6 hours) that I found myself unable to cope with most decisions for the next two days, which was a bit inconvenient, but also, fascinating!

If you have an interest in large-scale games, human-based simulations, or a very practical approach to zombies, I would highly recommend taking part. As I mentioned at the start, another run of the game is due to take place in Leeds this Saturday 17th November. You can find out more about other upcoming megagames, or megagames in general, at their site.

UPDATE! (13th April 2014)
I didn’t realise this at the time, but James Kemp commented on the progress of the outbreak from his perspective with the emergency services team in real time. So if you want to get an idea of how the outbreak played out, you should check that out! Follow that up with his post-script in which he switched to a Federal role and had a very different set of concerns.

Tim Mannveille, of Octopus Fruitbat

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Learning to Cheat Without Breaking the Rules, Part 1: Games about Lying

For no particular reason, these posts are illustrated using the Hand of Fate: Comic Strip Playing Cards by Karen Rubins.

At the recent Sandpit event at the National Maritime Museum, I played a game called Schooner or Later by The Haberdashery. A good game begets stories. This one begat many. In my case, it led me to an act of betrayal I didn’t even realise I was capable of. But to understand that, you need some back story.

As a child growing up in the late 80’s / early 90’s, TV shows like ‘Allo ‘Allo, Dad’s Army, and Frasier taught me that you should never lie, because if you do, you will be forced to lie about the lie in ever larger ways, people start opening doors at unexpected times and asking you ever more difficult questions, and, inevitably, hilarity ensues at your own expense, and then you have to admit that you forgot their birthday / ruined the dinner / taught the parrot to swear.

In some part due to these chilling fables, I grew up determined to always tell the truth and to be totally trustworthy. But that turns out to be impossible. So this is the story of how games taught me to get comfortable with that.

Cheat
In the card game Cheat, players take it in turns to lay groups of cards from their hand face down while declaring what those cards are. The following player can instead choose to call ‘cheat’ on the previous player, in which case the cards are checked, and the loser picks up the cards played so far. There is a restriction: you can only lay down cards (or claim to do so) that are adjacent to the most recent set played, so 2’s or 4’s can be played on 3’s, and so on.

While I understood what the game was about, I literally could not bring myself to ‘cheat’, even though it was part of the rules. If I ever found myself in a situation in which I had no valid cards to play, I would always choose to call ‘cheat’ on the most recent player rather than bluff myself. After all, if I started lying, people might start bursting out of doors and asking how the dinner was going, or something. Needless to say, I didn’t tend to do very well. But I felt as if I was playing honourably, and hilarity would certainly never ensue at my expense.

Extreme Cheat
On a sixth form school trip, we played a variant: instead of being restricted to cards adjacent to those most recently played, players could only ever play (or claim to play) 2’s. We played with two decks, and jokers were wild, so there were twelve 2’s in play, but nonetheless it was abundantly clear that players would have to cheat most of the time just to get anywhere. My never-cheat strategy was clearly going to backfire very badly here.

But something very interesting happened. One player, let’s call him Zippy, put down eight cards and said “Four 2’s”. The next player, who I’ll call George, called ‘cheat’, and turned over the top four cards, which turned out to be 2’s. George accepted his fate and picked up the whole pile.

I looked around at the other players – about eight of us. Almost everyone else seemed to know what Zippy had got away with, and nobody said anything about it. The game was called ‘Cheat’, after all, and apparently that meant that actual cheating was fine. With the bar raised in this way, I no longer had a problem claiming to play 2’s every time – but I never “really” cheated like Zippy did (or like others did later, by hiding some of their cards when no one was looking). Still, I had crossed an important threshold.

Poker (Texas Hold ‘em)
On that same sixth-form trip I played my first game of Texas Hold ‘Em, betting with monopoly money. I had a good feel for the probabilities, and with a little luck actually made it all the way to the showdown – me and one other guy, a guy who knew how to play poker properly. Whenever I had good cards he somehow knew it and folded. Whenever we were both in the pot he would win. I rapidly lost my remaining stake. I was playing half the game he was.

A few years passed and I next played Texas Hold ‘em at university for £1 stakes. The lesson had sunk in. I understood that everyone else playing understood that what you bid was only partially related to what you had; it also related to the impression you wanted to create about your hand, and even yourself as a player – perhaps you were trying to build a reputation as a certain kind of player that would influence your success much later in the game, or even a later game with the same players.

But here was the crucial part – you can always fold. I could ‘play’ with bluffing as much as I liked, but if it ever looked like I was going to be found out I could fold and no one would know I had ‘lied’ about my hand. Again, I didn’t do that well, but I got comfortable with the idea of bluffing – especially on those rare occasions when everyone folded and I took the pot with a losing hand, and somehow people failed to start appearing out of doors asking those difficult questions. It turns out that real life is not a sitcom.

The Turn
Around this time, I had an epiphany. I wanted to be 100% honest and 100% trustworthy. Then I realised that this was impossible. To be trustworthy, you have to be able to lie. If one person trusts you to keep something secret (“Don’t tell him we were talking about his surprise party”), and another person asks direct questions about it (“What were you guys talking about?”), at some point you will have to either lie or betray that trust.

Really, my sitcom training should have taught me this. ‘Allo ‘Allo has just about the most obvious example you could think of where lying is justified: resisting Nazi occupation! And if it’s legitimate there, then maybe it could also be the right thing to do in less extreme situations.

After some consideration I decided to go with being trustworthy, which meant I had better learn to get comfortable with lying.

Werewolf
In Werewolf (and its variants), players are secretly either villagers or werewolves. In the night phase werewolves secretly choose a villager to “kill” – to take out of the game. In the day phase, everyone argues about who they think is a werewolf, and they choose someone to lynch (take out of the game) on that basis. The phases and player killings continue until only villagers or werewolves remain.

Arguably even more so than Cheat, this is a game which depends on lying. The werewolves must claim to be villagers during the day phase to avoid being lynched, otherwise the game falls apart. It’s also a step up from poker when it comes to being perceived as a liar: instead of hiding behind folded cards, at the end of the game all will be revealed. Hilarity may well ensue.

In this context, with my training in Cheat and Poker, and thanks to my earlier epiphany, I finally realised I was willing and able to lie when necessary, and even got moderately capable at it.

I learned I needed to lie, and games gave me the opportunity to learn how.

But by a similar token, I could understand that sometimes in life you might have to break “the rules”. Clearly games can be designed around the idea of lying. What kind of game can actually teach you to cheat, or at least encourage you to bend the rules?

That’s what I’ll take a look at in the next post.

Tim Mannveille tweets as @metatim, and has previously written about Sandpit game experiences and a game based on cheese sandwiches.

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participant

Sandpit 13: The Postman, Free London’s Monsters

(Continuing from my first post introducing Sandpit 13, which took place on the 24th June 2009, and the next which described The Following)

The Postman

This was unlike other games in one particularly interesting regard: it did not have a beginning or, apparently, an end.

It began when we noticed that scattered around the Spirit Level in the Southbank Centre were cards with a simple warning written on them: “Watch out for the Whistling Postman”. A while later, when we found ourselves between games, we noticed a strange man whistling ostentatiously and clutching a set of envelopes – and when approached, he looked through these envelopes, and found one apparently addressed to each of us. (Mine was addressed “You Here Now SBC”).

These envelopes contained cryptic messages, which eventually led us to another strange fellow sitting outside, who in turn directed us to search for ribbons in a certain place, where no ribbons could be found, but there were a handful of other people looking for red ribbons.

Such was the nature of the game. Strange clues and apparently broken mechanisms, which nonetheless led to gradually larger groups of people teaming up to work together on whatever it was that we were doing, without having any idea what that was. This strange process reached a fantastically surreal climax when our group (now numbering ten, and each with a red ribbon) converged on a phone box just as another group of ten (with white ribbons!) did the same, and then the phone rang.

There was then a brief period of sanity as a recognisable structure had emerged: two teams, following clues and interacting with strange characters to progress towards the unknown end – which a short time later we appeared to reach, in the form of a website: FruitsOfTheHeart.co.uk, which had only a countdown timer to a point some 7 days hence.

I was fascinated, but the other players seemed disappointed. They followed the last stooge we had interacted with to see if anything else would happen. It didn’t seem to.

As far as I can tell, it seems it was all part of a larger Alternate Reality Game, some part of which it appears was being played out at the subsequent Edinburgh Fringe festival, but other parts seem (at the time of writing) to be ongoing, possibly making much of today’s aesthetically pleasing date. (I particularly liked a comment on the website from ‘A Critic’ that simply read “This isn’t really theatre any more”. I hope they take that as a compliment).

I like that this kind of thing goes on, even if I don’t feel driven to fully engage with it; crucially, dabbling was still fun. However, in the context of an evening of games, there’s no doubt some people found the open-ended nature of the thing frustrating, and the actors/stooges didn’t seem quite prepared for the barrage of questions put to them by the players. There’s often a barrier to entry of ARG’s in terms of catching up with back-story, so I would be interested to see someone tackle the challenge of creating a similar experience that was firmly bounded within a single evening.

Free London’s Monsters

Having played and indeed designed mobile GPS games before, we knew more than most others when we stepped up to deposit a credit card and pick up a smartphone in order to play Free London’s Monsters, by (?) Fish Are People Too.

“It uses GPS, right?” we asked; yes, it did.

“Does it work?”

They smiled. “Clearly you are familiar with this sort of thing.”

The game, it turns out, was smartly simple. (Much like early video games, this is generally the best recipe for success in a new medium). Given a piece of paper with photos of scenery from around the Southbank area, the task is to locate the locations from which the images were taken. Through the miracle of GPS, upon reaching one of these locations the smartphone would emit a wonderfully laid-back warning: “Monster. Monster. Monster. Monster”, and indeed if you held the phone up, the screen showed the scenery around you (through the phone’s camera) and some surreal kind of monster lurking on top of it (actually just a floating 2D image). To prove your successful finding of the monster it was necessary to answer a question about it on the sheet of paper, such as “How many teeth does it have” or “what colour are its dogs”.

This happily transformed what seemed to be a flaw in the design into a fun feature. Given the current accuracy of GPS, hotspots must necessarily be large (the Mscape Experience Design Guidelines [pdf] recommend a diameter of 20 meters), and this meant we would often bump into a monster before we expected to, or even one we weren’t expecting to see at all. We would then use a combination of the pictures on the paper and the context of the question to work out which monster we were actually looking at.

The problems alluded to in our opening conversation seemed to hinge on the time it takes for the GPS navigational signals to be received before the device can understand and begin to track its location. I have found myself that GPS devices sometimes need several minutes with a clear view of the sky before this modern equivalent of the modem handshake can be completed, and given these devices were being handed out from an indoor location it came as little surprise that many would-be monster hunters had trouble getting enough ‘Captoplasm’ (a nice in-game analogue of the satellite signal level) in order to play successfully.

Returning with a goodly haul of monsters, we discussed the game with the creators, who evidently have an excellent grasp of the technical and gameplay mechanics they are wrestling with. In particular, I think it’s very sensible to combine a pen-and-paper mechanic with the location-based technology, combining the strengths of each.

There will be an opportunity to Free Bristol’s Monsters at the imminent Igfest, which starts tomorrow and is highly recommended. The Sandpit concept itself is currently on tour until 12th November 2009, with forthcoming visits to Bristol, Liverpool, Southend, Stratford-Upon-Avon, Nottingham, Sheffield and Newcastle Upon Tyne planned, so be sure to check it out if you find yourself in the vicinity.

-metatim