Pie Face (part 1)

An undisputed classic of the heavy strategy genre, the mechanics of Pie Face are notoriously difficult to master. Indeed the skill cap for this game is so high that even people who have played it many hundreds of times can still improve just as fast as complete novices. The (famously unpredictable) game dynamics can change completely in a single turn, and experts as well as beginners can suddenly find themselves in a very sticky situation. So, what is it that makes Pie Face one of the all-time greats of hardcore strategy gaming, and what is the best way to master the complex and game-changing decisions players have to make on every single turn? Let’s find out.

Before we examine the exact details of Pie Face itself, let’s consider some of the broader principles that it illustrates. One of the great things about Pie Face is the simplicity – some might even say the childishness – of the underlying principle. Sometimes however, something apparently simple can conceal a great deal of hidden complexity.

Take the BoardgameGeek entry for Pie Face, for example. Under the “Mechanisms” category it says “N/A”, presumably because even the basic mechanics of Pie Face are too complex to summarise concisely. It should, at the very least, say “spring-loaded lever arm”. There are numerous other examples within boardgaming – Go, Catan, Seven Wonders – so many games that have very simple rules or appear light and luck-based at first glance actually contain a great deal of complexity if you want to fully maximise your chances of winning. What is it about boardgaming that makes this the case?

Personally I think the answer can be found by considering conceptual art – the whole black dot on a white sheet of paper, filling a house with concrete, dropping litter which you later claim is art kind of thing. As some readers may have guessed, I have a fairly low opinion of most of this stuff. And yet many people have a lot to say about it. It sparks discussions, arguments, controversies – surely in order to do this it must be touching on something meaningful? Well, in a way, yes. By providing a message that is either non-existent or difficult to interpret it is forcing people to engage their own brains and create some kind of meaning for themselves.

This is exactly what a good boardgame should do. It shouldn’t try to give the whole experience to you purely using the built-in mechanics, but should aim to be a conduit through which players can engage with eachother’s minds. The interesting part of a game isn’t just the game itself, but the stuff that comes out of the brains of your opponents. This is why many competitive games are so interesting and have such a high degree of replayability.

Of course, the reason I still don’t like conceptual art is that people can simply choose to engage their brains whenever they like, without having to pay enormous sums of money to a bunch of… well, you get the idea. I’m not a big fan.

Of course, this does make it much more challenging to create a good solo game. Many games have solo variants, but they are generally considered to be both boring and easy. Usually the fact that there are no other players makes the game too predictable and consequently not challenging enough. Not so with Pie Face. The solo game of Pie Face not only retains the same unpredictability as the multiplayer variant, but rather than being easier it is in fact much harder. Despite knowing many keen boardgamers, I have never yet met anyone who has played solo Pie Face and not ultimately lost. Some of my friends have played very neat early games, but things have always got messy at the end. Indeed it is usually the very final move where players struggle the most. Somehow even the most masterful players seem to get a bit sloppy at this point.

This effect – the way in which a game like Pie Face humbles even the most expert gamers, teaches us an important point about both boardgames and life: sometimes you will be wrong. If there are any physicists reading I apologise for breaking it to you so abruptly, but alas it is true even in your case. There will be occasions when you will make mistakes and times when, even with perfect reasoning, you can’t figure out everything you’d like to. An examination of a game of 1 player Pie Face is an excellent way to confront this issue and discuss how to deal with it. So, come back in two weeks’ time for a detailed guide to the strategy of the Pie Face solo game. This could be the most demanding subject that I have tackled yet, and I only hope that I will be able to do it justice.

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I am a physicist who lives in Nottingham and I have been boardgaming for the last 10 years. My favourite boardgame is Agricola. I also enjoy playing the Yetis in Terra Mystica, hence the profile pic. I should also credit Sophie for drawing most of the cartoons that feature in the blog. Without her, there would be no grumpy oxen.

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