Bryan Caplan  

The Secret of Good Games

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Next week, I'll be in Indianapolis for GenCon, the world's biggest gaming convention. Which reminds me of one of my pet theories: The best games are inter-disciplinary, combining economics and psychology. Games of pure strategic reasoning like chess are dry. Games of pure social interaction are a little silly. But games that bring together strategic reasoning and social interaction are a joy for heart and mind.

A few of my favorites:

1. Diplomacy. This is a classic World War I strategy game, with a twist: To get ahead, you need allies; but you don't know who your allies are until you turn in your orders. The core of the game is talking to other players, trying to discern their intentions, and then using your knowledge of the rules to get ahead while protecting your backside.

2. Kremlin. This game brilliantly spoofs the late Soviet Union - the mechanics are designed to put a series of sick, decrepit apparatchiks into the General Secretary's chair. Each player runs a faction (not a particular politician) vying for control of the Politburo. The twist is that everyone has a secret budget of influence over the pool of politicians, so you often wind up helping someone's career under the false impression that they work for you.

3. Story-rich role-playing games. Many role-playing games are purely strategic - players play a group of characters killing stuff. But the RPGs that I enjoy (which include the Hero System and Pandaemonium, but what counts is the game master, not the system) are character-driven and plot-heavy - half or more of the fun is figuring out what the relevant conflict is.

The key to a good RPG is the norm of "staying in character" - it's often bad sportsmanship to play the strategically best move because doing so would be psychologically inappropriate. For example, in a superhero game, just killing the villain might be strategically optimal, but that's not the superhero way. A good player figures out a way to save the day while staying in character. Similarly, if you're in a horror game, you have to wait for some evidence of danger to run away; it's bad form to use your meta-game knowledge that you're in a horror story.

Admittedly, I may just be describing my personal tastes. But I really do think that games that combine economics and psychology can teach us a lot about the world. Laugh if you must, but we'd be better social scientists if we practiced our role-playing skills. Consider: How many people will admit that they would practice statistical discrimination if they ran a business? But if you get in character - if you vividly imagine your position as a business owner with your life savings on the line - it's much easier to understand why you might not want to judge everyone as an individual.

P.S. The two games I'm officially running ("Punctuated Equilibrium" and "Juche") are booked solid, but if you want to meet up at GenCon, email me.


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COMMENTS (15 to date)
R. Pointer writes:

Only classical chess displays this dry quality. Street blitz or bullet chess, especially among a group with differing socio-economic background, can be quite psychological. Half the game is played with smack talk flowing back and forth.

Sol writes:

Are all your games pre-gens with 4 characters? The ongoing campaign I run only has four players, but that's because two moved away and we haven't gotten replacements yet. It's been years since I was able to get away with running a con game with fewer than 5 players -- every time I try the organizers ask me to let more play. And I gave up creating pre-gens years ago -- too much work for too little benefit, IMO.

giesen writes:

Do successful adults play games like this? I loved these kind of games up through high school, but as an adult it's not very socially acceptable to do so. Video games are at least a private indulgence.

jurisnaturalist writes:

More importantly, do GMU Econ grad students play these kinds of games? If so, when and where? As if we will have the time....

Joe writes:

Don't forget poker. It's a little more abstract than the examples given here, but combines economics and psychology wonderfully.

Jeff H. writes:

Summary:

Good games build empathy.

Ben Kalafut writes:

It would seem as though your "pet theory" explains why Settlers of Catan is so widely loved.

Some of us consider playing go a form of social interaction, but then again, some of us are also physicists :-)

Sol writes:

giesen: yes. At least, more than half the people I game with are happily married over-30 professionals.

John Fast writes:
More importantly, do GMU Econ grad students play these kinds of games? If so, when and where? As if we will have the time....

I'm going to run at The Game Parlor in Chantilly. Right now it looks like it will be D&D on Fridays and Sundays, and (old) World of Darkness on Tuesdays and Saturdays.

As for having enough time to game, as far as I can tell there is only one short paper required during the entire first semester.

John Fast writes:

Bryan: I can think of a lot of other games which have the characteristics you describe: Cosmic Encounter, Junta, Kingmaker, Warrior Knights, Empires of the Middle Ages, The Sword and the Stars, Talisman, Runebound, Supremacy, Rollout, After the Holocaust, Shattered States, Bohnanza, Puerto Rico, Game of Thrones, Empire Builder and the rest of the "Rails" series, the "18xx" series including 2038, Lords of the High Frontier, Belter, Lords of the Sierra Madre, and Lords of the Middle Sea.

By the most amazing coincidence, all those games are on my bookshelf (or already packed to go to GMU).

flix writes:

Settlers of Catan - the best econ. game around... perfect combination of trade, social interaction and strategy..

Buckland writes:

I'll be there playing several games:

Poker -- However it looks like the tournaments there is lacking in the way they're running it. Rebuys? yuck.

Magic: The Gathering. I try to catch up on the new sets every year. I'll probably play in a few Friday Night Magic tourney this week to get ready.

I also like to check out the new vendors in the hall to see any interesting new game.

liberty writes:

Too much luck, and little strategy (at least unless you play a whole tournament with the advanced rules) but otherwise Class Struggle fits. I'd love a night of Kremlin and Class Struggle with a GMU crowd.

hederman writes:

Dune is the classic boardgame that is heavy on strategy with some clever diplomacy.

For a computer games, Dominions 3 multiplayer rocks.

Kremlin feels a bit dated, but what can be more frustrating that seeing your politician in the hole die of old age when he's almost at the top? Still a great game.

Junta is a bit more diplomacy based than strategy.
Diplomacy is tough to play with folks. Have to play with individuals who don't mind getting royally screwed by a friend in the game.

Scott writes:

I agree with those mentioning The Settlers of Catan as a great game for economists. The expansion packs add some nice elements, but nothing beats the original for teaching

1. the importance of relative prices
2. the difficulty of exchange in a barter economy
3. price changes directly in accordance with S&D
4. closed economies suck.
5. nothing beats a good, old fashioned monopoly.

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