What's that? You want me to recommend a new game that you might like? How can I possibly do that? How am I supposed to know what kind of games you like? I'm not psychic!
Or am I?
This week, I want to introduce you to a game of simplicity and beauty. A game called Divinare!
Sometimes, a game comes along that gives you a cuddle. It gives you a lovely hug and whispers into your ear - “I am why you love games. Look at me. Play with me. Kill everyone.” Divinare (pronounced DIH-VIH-NAH-RAY) is one of those games. It is a beautiful thing, from the rules up. It's so simple it can be learned in minutes, but you will find depth in every part of it and a poetry in how it all hangs together. This feels like a light game (it can play in fifteen minutes) but only a fool would think of it as “light”. There is so much going on in here.
Divinare also has a terrific theme. In a break away from the usual farming, trading, dungeon-crawling, space-exploration paintjobs most games get, Divinare has its players as competitors in an International Contest of Mediums! Yes, you're a psychic medium, and you're making predictions for a grand prize of ONE THOUSAND POUNDS! (This is 1896, by the way, before you start complaining that this isn't even enough money to buy a high-end PC with.)
So here's how it all works. There are 36 beautiful cards, made up of 6 red chiromancy cards, 8 blue crystallomancy cards, 10 green tasseomancy cards and 12 yellow astromancy cards. These are all shuffled together, and 6 are dealt to each player. The rest of the cards are removed from the game. So there's your first bit of information. 12 of these cards are GONE.
You must now start to make your predictions about how many of each type of card will be played by the end of the round. You are essentially predicting which cards are left in the game, because every card now in hand WILL be played onto the table. How can you possibly make this prediction? You're not psychic! Or are you?
Now, before the game starts properly, you must look at your 6 cards. Then, you choose 3 and pass them to your right. The person to your left will, of course, pass 3 to you. And now you have more information! You know what 9 of the cards in the game are! (If you remember to remember the three you just passed, idiot.)
And now, the predictions begin. Each player has a token in the centre space of four boards representing chiromancy, crystallomancy, tasseomancy and astromancy. You must play one card from your hand, and move it to the corresponding board. When you do this, you MUST move your token. Your token will move from the centre of the board to any other space on the same board. These other spaces? Numbered prediction spots, signifying your prediction as to how many of that type of card is in the game. Nice! Let me show you an example in case this all sounds confusing.
“Robert decides to play a green tasseomancy card. His token is currently sitting on the centre of the Teacup Board. He places his card by it, and moves his token. He moves it to the space with a 5 on it. Robert has predicted that there are 5 tasseomancy cards in the game. But how can he know this? He's not psychic! Or is he?”
If a player plays another card to the same board, they still MUST move their token. You can move it back to the centre space (which means you make no prediction) or to a different numbered space. And you must, ultimately, play EVERY card in your hand. Oh man. Loving this yet?
After every player is down to 4 cards, you pass 2 to your right. And when you are down to 2, you pass 1. So, more information about cards in hand is coming to light as the game progresses. And you can openly see the cards that are on the table. Your guesses start to improve in accuracy as you start to build a picture of the cards that are in play. It's almost like you're psychic! But you're not. Or are you?
But here's the tasty part. When you know that you MUST change your prediction every time you place a card, then you have to start manipulating the card play to suit your predictions.
“Robert is convinced that there are 7 crystallomancy cards in play. And his token is currently sitting on that 7 space. But he has a blue crystallomancy card in his hand. If he plays it, he has to move away from that 7 spot. Robert is determined to pass along that card, and must make sure that no-one else gets the idea to pass a blue back to him.”
At the end of the round, points are awarded based on the predictions made. If you get the prediction exactly right, you get 3 points. If you were out by one space, you get one point. And if you were completely wrong you get points taken from you. There are bonus spaces too, awarding extra points for “extreme predictions” towards the unlikeliest totals – these spaces will take extra points away from you if you're wrong though. Risky.
Divinare looks, on the surface, like a beautiful guessing game. But it's actually a game of bluffing and manipulation and memory. A successful player will have to focus on everything that is happening at the table, keep an eye on the cards played and predictions made, memorise the cards that pass through his hands, and try to read the bluffs and manipulations of other players.
The theme is captured perfectly. A winner at Divinare might seem to be someone who is spookily great a guessing a number – but they've actually, secretly, been a master of concentration and focus, bending the flow of the game to their own ends. I can't recommend this elegant, gorgeous little game enough. It's great, but will you like it? I don't know! I'm not psychic!
Or am I?
DR PAUL MAWHIRE
And now, I'd like to introduce you to a friend from the States who contacted me last year asking for a place to talk about game theory. I'll hand you right over.
“Hello, my name is Dr Paul Mawhire, and I'm a Professor of Economics at Ohio University. I'm honoured that Robert has allowed me to step onto his podium to talk about Game Theory and its application in the modern world, as refracted through the lens of modern board gaming.
I was introduced to board games by my father, on one of our many camping trips. My father loved the old Avalon Hill classics, and we played many a game of Magic Realm by the fire as we skinned a stag. Those clunky old Avalon Hill games sparked my young imagination, and I spent my childhood dreaming of riding magical unicorns and slaying my mother's midnight visitors with an obsidian blade.
How then did I end up studying economics?! Well, in my teenage years I felt very awkward around girls, and so I fell naturally into those classes that had the least amount of female students. I have no real love for economics, but it found me and gave me comfort. There is comfort in numbers, for sure. Ask Reiner Knizia!
At Ohio U, I hold a weekly Game Theory session, where students can come together to play board games and think deeply about the meaning behind the mechanics within. This week we played Castle Panic, and we had a very heated debate afterwards (the police were called!)
Castle Panic is very much like a tower defense game. The players have to defend a castle in the centre of the board from the onslaught of all kinds of midnight visitors. Orcs, goblins and nasty Bosses emerge from the forest on the board edge, and move towards the castle. The players CO-OPERATE to beat back the enemy and stop the castle's walls from falling. Each player has a hand of cards, and they must play them and trade them to maximise the defense potential of the team. Go take a look at the game's rules. You can read them right here - http://www.firesidegames.com/downloads/CP_Rulesweb.pdf
Wow! This is a fun game. I really think you should check it out. But I want to focus specifically on one aspect of the game's mechanics. It's that trading cards thing. It's something I like to call SWAPPING IS GOOD.
SWAPPING IS GOOD is a key component of my personal Game Theory. In Castle Panic, you might need a Blue Knight card to attack the bad guy who is standing in the Blue Knight section of the board. Now, you have a Red Knight card. You see that, in the next turn, a bad guy will have moved into the Red Knight section of the board. The person to your left, who will deal with that threat, has no Red Knight! But she does have a Blue Knight! This is where SWAPPING IS GOOD kicks in. The game allows you to trade a card with a team-mate. So, what makes sense at this point?
Exactly. You swap your Blue Knight with your friend's Red Knight. This means that you can deal with this dastardly “New Uncle” on your turn, and your friend can deal with the newly advanced enemy on the next! You, your friend, and the entire team benefits from this. SWAPPING. IS. GOOD. In gaming, this kind of sharing is always fun. It feels like HIGH LEVEL INTERACTION. It's not just a cosmetic kind of interaction, or an interaction that happens on the “meta-plane”, it's a deep and meaningful interaction that has a profound effect upon the dynamic of the game. The success of the game Settlers of Catan is, in my opinion, entirely because of the SWAPPING IS GOOD factor in full effect. People like to swap and make deals, whether those people are in competition or in co-operation.
How does this apply to life? People love to share and swap in life too. For example, my father would swap animal meat with me. I might start with the raccoon meat and he might start with the squirrel meat, but you better believe that by the end I'd be picking squirrel jawbones out of my teeth! And my mother would swap polaroid photographs with our neighbour's elderly father. And I am swapping stories of my life with you – I'd love to hear yours too! If you want my phone number just ask, I can get it to you!
When you have something another person would like, and they have something that you would like, it is good to swap! IT'S THAT SIMPLE! IT IS THAT SIMPLE!
(I should clarify that, in the game we played this week, Emma wouldn't swap her Red Knight with me. She believed that she could take out the bad guy in another way and wanted to hold onto the Red Knight for another bad guy who had just come out of the forest. I found this extremely selfish and stupid, and I warned Emma that I would be exposing her short-sightedness on a website with TWO MILLION unique users. Her language was vile. Her language was shocking, vile and profane. As my father once said to me “Better off putting on some lipstick and chatting to a dead owl.”)
I'll see you next time, and remember: Game Theory is a Cheery Theory!”
Thanks to Dr Paul for that, and I'd like to add that Castle Panic IS indeed a fun little game. It's also fantastic to play with kids. I play it with my five year old daughter and she totally gets it. There's an expansion too, called “The Wizard's Tower”, and it makes the game even better. Spells, tougher enemies, and greater difficulty. Good fun.
I'll see you all next week, when I'll be blasting another recommendation down your willing throat. Until then, stay dicey! (That's an awful catchphrase. Might keep using it.)