The Novelty of Novelty

Biting the bottom of life.

At the start of a new year we tend to think about the future and decide what new things we would like to bring into our lives. In the spirit of this I have recently engaged in an activity that I had never partaken of before – that of removing an enraged kitten from my backside. While the experience did have a degree of originality and the je ne sais quoi of the truly unexpected, I nevertheless have to say that it was a somewhat one-dimensional piece of work, with little variation of theme and less nuance than I had hoped for. Overall I’m afraid that the result was both painful and more protracted than it needed to be, and merits at most four out of ten.

Regular readers might assume that I had brought this attack upon myself, perhaps through inappropriate use of twerking or by inviting the kitten in question to play a game of Points Salad. I can however honestly say that it was completely unprovoked – I was simply looking out of the window when a small object crashed into me and dug itself in place with four sets of rather sharp claws, before biting me determinedly in the centre of the left cheek.

This kitten is one of the happiest creatures I have ever encountered. It is continuously entertained and excited, by even the most mundane objects. Only this morning I saw it engaged in an epic battle with a bowler hat, which had deliberately provoked it by sitting quietly in a corner doing absolutely nothing (a highly suspicious activity). I suspect that the reason for its constant enthusiasm for life is that everything is new to it. Who else would not, on seeing a bowler hat for the first time in their lives, take a flying leap at it and sink their teeth into the rim? The kitten lives a life of constant novelty, and is consequently very happy.

One of the great things about being a boardgamer – particularly if you are a member of a club or are lucky enough to have lots of boardgaming friends – is the constant source of novelty provided by gaming. Whether through trying new games or simply playing old games with new strategies, gaming constantly stimulates the mind with new problems to be solved and new styles of play to be interpreted and understood.

I greatly enjoy this novelty, and most of my favourite games are those which introduce the most inter-game variation. I think that this is one of the reasons why I’m not a big fan of fully co-op games. A human opponent is simply so much more inventive than a pre-defined set of game mechanics, and semi-cooperative or fully competitive games tend not to stale as fast as a full co-op. I also think it is important that the variable elements in a game actually make a big enough change to the gameplay to force players to modify their entire strategy, and that the game is not built in such a way as to force any of the players into a specific pathway regardless of the conditions. An excellent example of this is the differences between Terra Mystica and its recent sequel Gaia Project.

In Terra Mystica the permanent inclusion of an extremely powerful scoring mechanic (the two points per dwelling favour tile) that can only be accessed by the first three players to get to it often forces a very specific set of opening moves. In addition, while the round bonuses received from the cult tracks can provide a small tactical advantage they are rarely significant enough to devise one’s entire strategy around. Both of these factors reduce inter-game variation, but are greatly improved upon in Gaia Project. Here there are enough technology tiles for all players to access, and no one tile is overwhelmingly dominant over the others in its power. Also, they are now arranged randomly under the strategically important science tracks, leading to potentially strategy-defining inter-game variability.

The surprising things that happen to me in showers…

Another recent source of novelty in my life, and one that I would recommend to boardgamers wanting to try something different, is washing. What it is about showers that makes them so difficult to construct properly is unclear to me. Considering that our engineers have mastered aeroplanes, skyscrapers, submarines and so forth the humble shower seems comparatively simple. Nevertheless, they never work properly. Each shower is a unique and unpredictable device, whose operation bears little, if any, relation to the settings of the power and temperature dials. I have endured chillingly cold showers only to be told that, for some reason, the water doesn’t heat up unless the flow rate is set above a certain threshold. I have scalded myself in showers where the function describing the relation between the water temperature and the position of the temperature dial contains a substantial discontinuity. In one hotel that I stayed in for work I spent some minutes wondering why there was no water coming out of the shower head, following which there was a sudden gurgling noise and I was shot in the side by a high-pressure jet of icy water from a previously unnoticed nozzle built into the side of the cubicle. To this day I have never learned what the alleged purpose of this nozzle was, and can only realistically see it being used as a booby-trap for unwary guests.

I suppose that the lesson to be learned from my experiences in showers is that novelty can be bad as well as good. Things can change for the worse as well as for the better, and because of the way we adapt our habits and environments to suit our needs sometimes even changes that would be good or neutral if we were prepared for them can be bad if we aren’t. It is important to remember this in the context of a boardgame – both when deciding how ambitious to be in uncertain circumstances and when deciding how best to disrupt your opponents. One must also avoid falling into the trap of ascribing whatever qualities we desire to the unknown and then taking these as definitive. This is an easy enough mistake to make in real life, but when constructing a strategy for a boardgame it is even easier. We are already coming at the problem from the perspective of trying to optimise everything and it is all too natural to extend this optimisation to the unknown factors that in reality are beyond our control. Some of the worst defeats I have ever experienced have been in games I really ought to have won if I hadn’t been arrogant and over-ambitious. For, is it not said that only the truly wise man is always ready to be bitten on the bottom?

The other important point is that unwanted novelty tends to come in showers. The first unexpected incident puts the rest of your plans out of kilter, leading to multiple instances of unwanted novelty. To avoid this in boardgames you can build in a bit of redundancy by having some spare resources, but often this makes you less efficient than your opponents. I prefer to try to have multiple possible pathways mapped out so that if forced off of one I can swap to another. You can also choose to take resources with inherent versatility, such as rubies in Caverna or power cycle in Terra Mystica, but I often find that you pay too heavy a price in terms of absolute value to make this worthwhile.

The age-old tradition of doing things differently.

So, we have established that there are both good and bad sides to novelty. As with so many things, classifying it as always positive or negative is far too simplistic. And this is a mistake that many people seem to make in many areas – in politics most people subscribe to either a left or right wing standpoint, seeming to adopt all the associated policies rather than treating each one individually. Those who like to think of themselves as alternative and always feel the need to rebel fail to realise that in doing so they are being controlled just as surely as if they always had to conform. These trivial real-world examples of the flaws in human psychology, while of no importance in their own right, can teach us valuable lessons about how to play strategic boardgames.

A good boardgame is all about NOT trying to over-generalise. Be opportunistic, and adapt to your specific circumstances on the fly. More than this though, even once you have established what the absolute best strategy is, you may sometimes want to deliberately deviate from it. This is because you have to balance making the strongest move against making your behaviour too easy for your opponent to predict. There is in fact a whole branch of mathematics (game theory) that deals specifically with this kind of situation, but for most boardgamers an intuitive feel for what is appropriate is probably sufficient. There are two main pieces of advice that I would give. Firstly, the more players there are in the game the less important it is to make your own behaviour unpredictable (as you personally account for a smaller fraction of the unpredictability your opponents have to deal with, and they will have less incentive to block you). Secondly, the more strongly your plans depend on hidden information available only to you the less you need to worry about being predictable.

Having taken some lessons from real life and applied them to boardgames, can we find any lessons in boardgames that can be applied to real life? This life-adjustment nonsense is something that people get very into at this time of year, and they make all kinds of grand plans for the future and go and sit in yurts in the west country smoking medicinal vegetables in order to connect with the psychic energies of the universe. So, my advice for the new year is to play life like a boardgame.

I don’t mean that you should always try to stand on the left of everyone (which can cause confusion if you try it in the wrong context), or even that you should always try to do as much family growth as is humanly possible. I certainly don’t mean that you should do what many “successful” people do and try to optimise your own score without the slightest regard for what happens to anyone else, with money apparently being the equivalent of victory points in most cases. What I mean is that you should apply your best strategic reasoning in order to work out what the best thing to do is, then do it.

In the spirit of doing what can rationally be seen to be sensible, readers will no doubt have noticed that I am starting to run out of general comments about boardgames and gaming, and so with the start of the new year I will begin writing posts on specific games, starting with Eclipse in two weeks’ time. As I have been recycling and paraphrasing my thoughts for some while already, I hope that this change will allow my readers to experience the novelty of novelty.

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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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