Smart Designers Create Imperfect Rules

Even the smartest designers can't anticipate all the flaws with the rules they write.

One of the regular topics of conversations here on Outside the Beltway is the imperfections of the US Constitution. During a recent conversation with Herr Professor Taylor, I realized that there’s a very useful parallel between constitutional design and game design.

Constitutional systems are a set of rules intended to create particular outcomes — just like games. As brilliant as the Framers were, they could not anticipate every way their set of rules might be used or abused — just like game designers. Badly intentioned parties might learn, over time, how to exploit the rules, not only to their advantage, but to undermine the whole point of the system — just like badly intentioned game players who get their jollies by ruining the game for everyone else.

I know both board games and game design pretty well. I own hundreds of games, and have owned many times more. I’ve also designed games, mostly for work, as for teaching, simulating, and decision-making tools. I’ve also had the pleasure of getting to know lots of professional game designers, far more capable than me, who have created some truly impressive board game experiences. Many of their creations are just plain fun. Others distill historical events into a simplified but credible narrative that you can play yourself.

One of my favorite game designers is Martin Wallace. His games resonate with me strongly. For example, Princes of the Renaissance is a fun early-modern competition among rival mercenary commanders, filled with intrigue and perverse incentives. God’s Playground is the rare great three-player game, with an interesting theme (the early history of Poland). A Study in Emerald is the game version of a neat Sherlock Holmes/Cthulhu Mythos mash-up, originally written by Alan Moore.

In 2011, he published A Few Acres of Snow, a game covering the French and Indian War (a.k.a. the part of the Seven Years War fought in the Americas). As is normal with game designers, he recruited volunteers to “playtest” his design before he published it. Playtesters provide critical feedback, telling the designer whether the game does what the designer intended it to do. Is the game fun? Does it give everyone a fair chance of winning (balance)? If it’s intended to be an historical simulation, does it give you that “you are there” verisimilitude that the history buff wants? The medium for playtesting is a physical prototype, sometimes provided by the designer with all the maps, cards, pieces, and other components needed to play the game. For the last couple of decades, the norm is to provide the “print and play” files instead, so that playtesters can create their own prototype copies.

All games need playtesting. Even the simplest games are systems of rules with unpredictable interactions. When your rules span a few pages, or a dozen pages, or a few dozen pages, the risk of unintended outcomes increases. Someone may discover a way to “break” the game, a dominant strategy that wins most or all of the time. No game designer, no matter how brilliant and experienced, is ever able to able to foresee all the game-breaking problems in the design. That principle is especially true, since anyone designing a game believes that there is a way that people should play the game. How people actually play it isn’t always predictable. (The same principle applies to software design, by the way. Those pesky users do things you never would have imagined.)

Wallace published his game just when tabletop simulators, Internet-based ways of playing board games, became popular among game hobbyists like myself. The tabletop simulator version of A Few Acres of Snow, post-publication, had hundreds of players and thousands of play sessions. In effect, it was a second playtest, far beyond the original playtest. And, as you probably already guessed, someone found a dominant strategy that “broke” the game. If the British player followed a particular sequence of decisions, the French player had a low chance of ever winning the game. As earnestly as Wallace designed his game to be fair, and as well as the playtesters took the game for a limited test drive, it took a while for someone to discover this weakness in the system.

Soon after the revelation of this dominant strategy, nicknamed “the Halifax Hammer,” Wallace published some rules updates that partially or wholly fixed the problem. Everyone, from Wallace to the owner of a copy of his game, had the same desire for a more balanced game, in which the right combination of wits and luck would give each player a fair chance of winning.

Now, substitute James Madison for Martin Wallace. Both men were extremely intelligent. Both were designing a set of rules designed to be fair to all contending parties. Both could not anticipate every way in which someone might break the rules system. But someone did, in less than a year for Wallace’s game, and a couple of centuries for Madison’s set of rules. (Of course, by Madison, I mean all the Framers, but I’m sure you got the point.)

The important difference, of course, isn’t as much between the designers, Madison and Wallace, but between the two sets of players. Everyone who owned a copy of Wallace’s creation, A Few Acres of Snow, wanted a more balanced game. Not everyone who has inherited our set of Constitutional rules wants a fair competition. The current mainstream of the Republican Party not only wants to bend the rules of the game — the Electoral College, gerrymandering, the filibuster, etc. etc. — to its advantage. It also wants to change the rules to make it even more unfair, through voter suppression laws and other measures. We live now in a country where a significant faction, at the level of elites and the electorate, do not share an investment in fair outcomes with the rest of the country. Proposals like making it easier for people to vote, ensuring that everyone has a fair chance to play the democratic game, are met with the cynical objection, “Why should we do something that makes the game more balanced?”

Nothing in this analogy between the Framers and game designers is intended to downplay their intelligence, their use of historical examples to inform constitutional design, their efforts to anticipate future problems, or any other aspects of themselves or their creation. Far from it. As I said already, even the best game designers can’t anticipated the game-breaking strategies that emerge only after many, many plays. Instead, we can use this analogy to help recognize why it’s necessary to remove any mythology or nostalgia that prevents us from making critical “rules updates.” Eliminating the filibuster, granting full representation to American citizens living in the District of Columbia and US territories, ending partisan-led re-districting…It would be amazing, after over 200 years, that there are not more significant tweaks to the rules that might be needed. (And perhaps they are. A real test of proportional representation might be timely.)

It’s also critical, through this analogy, to see how important it is to have a particular shared political culture, not just shared political rules. Without a common dedication to fairness, badly-intentioned players will eventually find some way to ruin the game for everyone else. It’s important for everyone involved to be honest about game-wrecking players, even when they were once your friends, or still are.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, General, U.S. Constitution, , ,
Kingdaddy
About Kingdaddy
Kingdaddy is returning to political blogging after a long hiatus. For several years, he wrote about national security affairs at his blog, Arms and Influence, under the same pseudonym. He currently lives in Colorado, where he is still awestruck at all the natural beauty here. He has a Ph.D in political science that is oddly useful in his day job.

Comments

  1. Barry says:

    I like this.

    10
  2. Kathy says:

    Casino games, which are simpler than board games, are mostly a matter of probability math, and can be easily adjusted to achieve the desired house edge (aka advantage). And still now and then some clever player finds a play that can net them, not the house, an advantage.

    A simple example is blackjack. Even playing with perfect strategy and the most player-favorable rules, the house retains a small edge. But this can be turned to a player advantage by keeping track of the cards played, and adjusting one’s bets accordingly (you bet more on a good count, basically). No one figured on card counting. The battle between counters and casinos rages to this day.

    Testing largely is a matter of determining the popularity of a game. Unpopular games are unprofitable.

    As to the Constitution, IMO it’s too hard to amend. There are reasons for this. But the impression is that the document is, like the calendar, nearly perfect as is, and does not require changes, except minor ones for procedural matters to cover unlikely situations.

    IMO, it’s so vague in points, and silent in others, that laws to cover its deficiencies can fit legally on the constitutional framework. But it needs an overhaul, which would be harder still.

    4
  3. Joe says:

    Unfortunately, one of the rules is that we can’t change the rules because the Madison, differing from Wallace (a) is dead and (b) turned over ownership anyway. So those gaming the game “deify” Madison and claim they know not only what he wrote down, but every underlying motivation necessary tin interpret it and, as it turns out, everything he put there must be for a reason to allow their undermining gamesmanship.

    3
  4. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    It’s also critical, through this analogy, to see how important it is to have a particular shared political culture, not just shared political rules. Without a common dedication to fairness, badly-intentioned players will eventually find some way to ruin the game for everyone else. It’s important for everyone involved to be honest about game-wrecking players, even when they were once your friends, or still are.

    I think this is a critically important point, reached in an…interesting…way. Ultimately the route doesn’t matter.
    Our system of Government has always relied on norms and traditions; it’s impossible to write a Constitution that covers every eventuality. When McConnell stole the Garland nomination from Obama, and then subsequently refused to allow the information about Russia’s collaboration with Trump to be disseminated, he abandoned those norms and traditions…quite possibly striking the death-knell of our Democratic Republic. Now, after a bloody coup attempt, the same man refuses to allow accountability for an insurrection his actions, at minimum, have played a role in. Indeed;

    badly-intentioned players will eventually find some way to ruin the game for everyone else.

    6
  5. gVOR08 says:

    @Joe:

    So those gaming the game “deify” Madison and claim they know not only what he wrote down, but every underlying motivation necessary tin interpret it and, as it turns out, everything he put there must be for a reason to allow their undermining gamesmanship.

    i.e. originalism.

    1
  6. gVOR08 says:

    Was the problem, perhaps, that the game was too accurate? I wonder if any military history types have looked at the “Halifax Hammer” and whether it would have worked for the British in the 1754-1763 prototype game.

    2
  7. Kingdaddy says:

    @Joe: Exactly. I wrote this, in part, to show how it’s possible to have immense respect for Madison without deifying him, or having so much awe for his creation that it’s impossible to imagine fixing it.

    3
  8. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Joe: I went a slightly different direction–imagine that instead of Wallace being able to rewrite the rules the players themselves must rewrite them and do it to the satisfaction of a supermajority of all the players (most likely including the creator of “the Halifax Hammer”). Where would they even start?

    2
  9. Michael Reynolds says:

    It’s a lot like world-building, which I do a fair bit of. I build a solid foundation, but it’s never meant to dot every i or cross every t. Rigid is brittle, loose can adapt. It’s like building a skyscraper in earthquake country: you build on springs or rollers.

  10. Mister Bluster says:

    Now, substitute James Madison for Martin Wallace.

    Is it coincidence that this post is made today?
    It was 234 years ago yesterday, Friday May 25 1787, that the Constitutional Convention began in Philadelphia after enough delegates had shown up for a quorum.
    Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787.

    1
  11. Kingdaddy says:

    @gVOR08: Since evenly balanced conflicts are rare, wargame designers have to contend with that issue. In most cases, they try to balance the game, not the conflict, through the victory conditions. The South might have had the odds stacked against it in the American Civil War, given the North’s greater industrial base, larger population, and other advantages, but can you stave off a Union victory in a game until a particular date?

    In other cases, designers don’t even worry about balancing the victory conditions. The play’s the thing, to the extent that the players can enjoy the historical simulation. An old wargame publisher, SPI, had this philosophy. It’s a minority view of hobby wargame, since most players want to feel that there’s a fair chance of winning. Hence the outcry when people discovered the Halifax Hammer that the game was “broken,” even if arguably, in actual history, the British might have had a built-in advantage over the French in that conflict.

    3
  12. David S. says:

    A slightly more salient difference is “instantiation”. People who play MMOs will be familiar with the term “instanced dungeon”. The problem is that the same people started, ended, and evaluated a game over the course of its entire playtime. With a government of any adequate standard, “shorter than a human lifespan” is a non-starter. It’s a major convenience to system designers (whether of games or software) that you can shut the system down, reset it back to initial conditions, and make modifications. Software designers have been straddling this line ever since hardware was stable enough to support long-running systems, and procedures for making changes to the system without denying service to users is a perennial field of study because it’s hard.

    The useful point of comparison, then, isn’t the single instance of the American Government as incorporated under the Constitution of 1787. It’s all the constitutions written since. Because there have been a lot of constitutions written, governments formed around them, and contexts and consequences to analyze. France is on their fifth constitution, for instance. What kinds of dominant strategies exist in other countries? How have those countries responded to them? Do we deem those responses successful? And so on.

    Even then, it’s an uncontrolled experiment at best. Not only do all the players change (as they would in playtests), but the rules and the board all change, too. All of which makes it impossible to really nail down any single rule, or cluster of rules, as having causal significance.

    2
  13. Nightcrawler says:

    @Kathy:

    As to the Constitution, IMO it’s too hard to amend. There are reasons for this. But the impression is that the document is, like the calendar, nearly perfect as is, and does not require changes, except minor ones for procedural matters to cover unlikely situations.

    It’s worse than that. Right-wingers treat the Constitution like it’s the BIBLE, a sacrosanct holy book handed down by literal gods, instead of a set of rules written by humans. Gods, of course, are perfect and never, ever make mistakes. Humans do, especially when it comes to trying to predict the future.

    The problem doesn’t lie with the Constitution, the men who wrote it, or how difficult it is to amend. The problem is with the right-wingers who worship the Constitution’s authors the way the Vorta on DS9 worshiped the Changelings.

    1
  14. Stormy Dragon says:

    This never@Kingdaddy:

    Since evenly balanced conflicts are rare, wargame designers have to contend with that issue.

    One thing that keeps coming up in strategy video games every 10 years or so is that someone goes “hey, people like grand strategy games and people like tactical games, why not make a game where you play grand strategy, but then also tactically simulate the individual battles and play all of those too?”

    This always ends up a disaster in practice because at the grand strategy level, the players are trying to avoid even tactical fights, so 95% of tactical games are ridiculously unbalanced for one of the two sides and playing them quickly becomes a chore rather than entertainment.

    1
  15. Kathy says:

    I wonder whether the ideal strategy board game is chess.

    The rules are relatively simple and brief, players are matched on skill, and no one has found a way to implement a sure-fire winning strategy.

    Other than getting computer to beat all human players silly, that is.

  16. Paine says:

    Good analogy, Kingdaddy, and I enjoyed your review of Labyrinth over at BBG.

    I played A Few Acres of Snow a few times when it first came out. Like a lot of MW’s games, I found it rather dry.

    One of the problems is that the Democratic party doesn’t seem to be recognizing what it is up against. They maintain “hopeful” and believe that the GOP will come to their senses at some point. Instead, they need to make clear that they are prepared to overturn the table and take their dice home, so to speak. There’s no point in playing games with or engaging with people so intent on bad faith and cheating.

    1
  17. JohnSF says:

    @Kingdaddy:

    “…British might have had a built-in advantage over the French in that conflict.”

    a.k.a. the Royal Navy. 🙂

  18. Just Another Ex-Republican says:

    @Stormy Dragon: Yeah, the problem with historical battles as games is that historically, no one was LOOKING for a fair fight. Some happened accidentally, but for the most part everyone was doing their best to make sure the fight was completely unfair in their favor. And rightly so when actual lives are on the line.

    1
  19. Jay L Gischer says:

    @Kathy: Chess is a very highly refined board game, in part because it’s so old, and has had lots of revisions to its rules. Those revisions are in some sense, still going on.

    For instance, at some point clocks got added to competitive chess. This is a fairly recent development. This would prevent people from taking days to complete a game, or wandering off and getting advice, or just working things out using another board and pieces.

    And even more recently, tournament play would allow for an adjournment to the next day, where one player sealed a move, which would be opened the next day when play would recommence.

    And yet nowadays, there are no adjournments, because the computer analysis is too good, and would remove the human element from the game. This is a recent adjustment to the “rules” of chess. So, as perfect as chess is, it still needs adjustment to the environment it exists in.

    2
  20. George says:

    @Kathy:

    Or Go, which is even simpler in its rules and pieces.

    1
  21. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Jay L Gischer:

    Chess is a very highly refined board game, in part because it’s so old, and has had lots of revisions to its rules. Those revisions are in some sense, still going on.

    If you like “big brain” games, there’s a relatively cheap one out there called “5D Chess with Multiverse Time Travel” that I highly recommend for a really fun if brain melting variation on chess.

    1
  22. Kathy says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    I’d like to see a real version of Sheldon’s 3 person chess. It had a time machine, the Pope, a golf cart, and a spinning wheel.

    1
  23. Kurtz says:

    @Kingdaddy:

    I just lost my post somehow. Anyway, scrolling back up, I saw you reviewed Labyrinth on BGG. Have you played the PC port?

    I had a good game group for a few years, but I haven’t been able to get much on the table other than medium complexity Eurogames. And now the group has pretty much broken. So I’ve missed out on most of the good wargames. I can’t even find anyone willing to play Twilight Struggle in hotseat mode on the phone. 🙁

    To your point, one need only look at the rulebooks and errata for GMT’s games. Or compare rules for first and second editions to see that setting clear rules encounters a significant difficulty spike as complexity goes up.

    I’ve been getting (or trying to get into) Paradox’s grand strategy games. As a longtime Civ player, I expected to be able to pick it up somewhat easily. But even Stellaris, more akin to Civ, is much more complex. But I never expected to be staring at a map for hours on end.

    1
  24. Kurtz says:

    Oh if anyone wants a steam key for Victoria 2, I have a couple.

  25. Paine says:

    I’ll take a Steam key for Victoria 2.

  26. Kurtz says:

    @Paine:

    K. You have discord or twitch so I can send it without publishing it here?

    Twitch: kolonalkurtz_
    Discord: kolonalkurtz_#2599

  27. Paine says:

    Sending Discord DM now.

  28. Kingdaddy says:

    @Nightcrawler: A great analogy on many levels.

  29. Kingdaddy says:

    @Stormy Dragon: An excellent point. The Total War series is predicated on this assumption. While it works against AI opponents, since they’re not terribly smart, I can’t imagine that the imbalances in orders of battle between human opponents wouldn’t make the battles terribly unfun. Haven’t tried it, so I can’t say for sure.

  30. Kingdaddy says:

    @Kurtz: No, I haven’t played the PC port, mostly because I’m still unenthusiastic about the game.

    By the way, the designer, Volko Ruhkne, is an incredible gentleman. He took my criticisms well. I got acquainted with him while I lived in DC, and had the good fortune to game with him on several occasions. One of my favorite people in the hobby.

    As for wargames, there’s always online play, both synchronous and asynchronous. I’ve played wargames via Vassal and Tabletop Simulator, both of which work fairly well. A little clunkier than live play, but clunky games are better than no games.

    Speaking of both Euros and wargames, have you tried Root? I’ve played it live a couple of times and enjoyed it. There’s an electronic port, too.

  31. Kingdaddy says:
  32. Kurtz says:

    @Kingdaddy:

    Since my gaming group broke up, I hadn’t really been looking much. I saw Root on Steam and added it to my wishlist. So, I will play it soon.

  33. de stijl says:

    There is a huge disparity between board games and video games.

    Both nudge you into gameplay styles based on rules, but (poorly) designed gameplay in video games is forced by the AI.

    You cannot defeat this enemy with melee. You must use the ballistic weapons we just provided you, and ammo for them, and the healing items we presented to you at the entry to this obvious doom arena structure.

    Board games as a general rule do not force you to choose a path so forcefully with meat gates only beatable with x type weapon.

  34. de stijl says:

    @George:

    I love Go.

    I’m really bad at it, but I enjoy trying to get better.