F:AT Looks Back: Fischer's Law

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fischerMy reading material at the moment is Daniel Dennett’s book on evolution – Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. It’s a fantastic book dealing with both the philosophical and scientific aspects of Darwinism and ought to be mandatory reading for anyone obtuse enough to doubt the very real fact of evolution, or to try and substitute some form of creationsim. But enough politics; in a footnote in the book I found, oddly enough, a very interesting gaming reference.

The author claims (with what veracity I do not know) that a popular tactic of the famous US chess Grandmaster Bobby Fischer was to deliberately make moves with no clear purpose in order to confuse and bamboozle his opponent. His hope was that by doing this, the other player would take much longer than normal in making his move whilst he puzzled over the meaning of Fischer’s’ play. This would eventually tell on the chess clock, either forcing rushed moves later in the game or even potentially run them out of time completely. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that for those of us who play chess at a less rarefied level, pulling off a stunt like this has the potential to yield rewards without having to rely on the artificial limitation of the clock.

What struck me about this particular piece of unorthodox genius is that there are a wide range of modern games in which this particular tactic wouldn’t work. Interestingly enough there is also an ancient game where it would have little or no application either – Go. Since many, many moves in a Go game have no obvious and apparent purpose anyway – I have been told that a good Go player should “feel” his moves as much as he thinks about them – trying to confuse an opponent with a random play is just wasting a stone.

On further reflection it occurred to me that allowing for the deliberate confusion tactics in the mechanics might actually be a worthwhile marker of what I would consider a game worth playing. I call this formulation “Fischer’s Law of Game Quality”. It can be crudely summarised thus – “Good games are those which allow a player to gain an advantage through making suboptimal moves by confusing his opponent(s)”. So what does it actually mean if a game doesn’t meet the rather rough specification of Fischer’s Law?

Firstly it means that the game has little, if any, social interaction associated with the game itself. Any game which has social elements combined with hidden information has set up bluffing as a viable strategy, and as long as bluffing is a viable strategy then the game obviously comes under auspices of Fischer’s Law. After all, what was Fischer attempting to pull off in his games if not a gigantic bluff?

Secondly it means that the game has to have limited player interaction. The definition of player interaction itself is pretty vague but for my purposes it usually means that a game has to have pieces on a board which manoeuvre and can contest control of board space with pieces from another player. The manoeuvre bit is important – Chess would qualify but Go would not – because without it it’s possible to be placing things on a board that don’t interact with those of your opponents. The vague definition of “control” is also important because it widens the definition beyond just direct confrontation combat games to include other mechanics such as area control and area majority. 

Thirdly it means that the game cannot be one in which making optimal moves at every turn is important for play balance. If that deliberately provocative move is obviously deliberately provocative or if, in a multiplayer scenario, it hands a clear advantage to another player down the line then you’re just going to end up losing and looking like an idiot. There are various ways for a game not to end up breaking this knock-on prediction of the law. One of them, clearly, is for the game to have enough random elements in it to make your sub-par move look like a gamble or an honest mistake instead of the clever sucker-punch it really is. Another is for the game to have a complex enough decision tree to make the analysis of whether it was really a poor move rather difficult and this of course is where chess falls in to line.

As I write this it’s suddenly occurred to me that what I’ve done is simply taken the three things I’ve previously identified as the markers which can differentiate a good Euro from a poor Euro and turned them on their head, identifying them from the other direction. However, Fischer’s law still serves a wider purpose. Firstly it encapsulates those principles much more neatly since from a one-line statement you can deduce the marginally more complex thoughts I had on the subject. Second it allows me to cast my net wider and identify bad Ameritrash games. The reason for this is that the law has a fourth aspect which I’ve yet to touch on – games with excessive random factors will fall foul of it because too much chaos means lack of meaningful strategy. And without a meaningful strategy it’s not possible to make a deliberately non-strategic move for the express purpose of confusing everyone else at the table. And of course, as I’ve long lamented, over-reliance on random factors is the biggest bane of the genre that we love.

There are also very important exceptions to Fischer’s Law. Dexterity games ought to be exempt, as should party games and games based almost entirely on gambling. We should recognise this because these sorts of games are often awesomely entertaining! The other exception is to recognise that there are certain games which can fail to meet the demands of Fischer’s Law and still be excellent games – Puerto Rico is a great example which escapes by virtue of it having made the branches of its fairly simple decision tree fiendishly difficult to pick and choose between (and that’s the unique virtue of the game if you ask me). But there’s always an exception that proves the rule.

At this point I probably ought to point out that I’ve taken a vague notion that occurred to me while reading a complicated book late at night after too much wine and spun it out to a quite ridiculous degree. There are obvious problems with it not covered by my exceptions above, such as the fact that it in no way relates to the way in which the inclusion of an appropriate level of randomness can vastly improve an otherwise dull game. So have I wasted blog space? I hope not. I think that even if the idea is fundamentally fairly unsound it’s kicked up a few issues worth mulling over.

So. Chess, anyone?

Apologies for lack of new material this week. Family & I have all been ill. But I'm glad I had the chance to dig this out: it was one of the better things I wrote on the old blog and I hadn't tagged it properly so it languished in obscurity for a while.

There Will Be Games
Matt Thrower
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Matt has been writing about tabletop games professional since 2012, blogging since 2006 and playing them since he could talk.


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