Sunday, 1 November 2009

do computer versions spoil the game?

I'd like to talk about computer versions of boardgames which have AI's or computer opponents that you can play against. I'm not talking about computer interfaces for human vs human play, be it real-time or play-by-e-mail. I am of the opinion that these computer versions will generally spoil the game for you. In the past I have not really thought much about this, but now I'd like to look into why these computer versions spoil the original boardgames, at least for me.

The first time I noticed this happening was with St Petersburg. It was quite popular when it came out, and I think it even won the DSP award, probably the most prestigious gamer's game award. Then there was a computer version released. I played against the computer AI's a few times, not really a lot, and soon the game lost its shine. It became very mechanical to play.

Something similar happened to Yspahan, which I also own the physical boardgame of.

I learned to play Kingsburg solely from the computer version. I think I only played one game, and I was turned off by the experience. I had no urge to try again, or to try a physical copy.

Here are the reasons that I can think of that computer versions can spoil a game:

  1. Overdose - If you play too many times within a short period of time, you'll just tire of the game very quickly. Does this mean that if you only play the physical copy, you'll also tire of it after the same number of plays? E.g. by the 10th play of a game, you'd feel that you've explored all the strategies there are to the game. If so then it may be a problem of the game. But I think having too many plays within a short time can make you sick of a game. Overdose.

  2. "Solvable" - Now I don't mean solvable as in there is a sure-fire way to win a game given a certain start condition. I mean "solvable" as in at any point in a game, based on the information that you know, there is always one ideal move you should make. It may or may not be obvious, but of course if it is obvious, then the situation is even worse. If an AI can be programmed to play a game competently, then maybe there isn't really a lot of depth to the game. If it only take some calculations and some card-counting to write a competent AI, then it may mean the game can be easily analysed for ideal moves given any game situation. It may mean that there aren't really any meaningful choices to make. There is always a best move, even if sometimes it takes some time to work it out. That's no fun.

    There are good AI's for Chess. I don't think Chess is a game without depth. But I think some AI's written for some modern Eurogames are not as complex as Chess AI's.

    I have not looked at the program codes for the AI's, so I'm just making unfounded claims here. My gut feel is that generally the existance of a competent AI for a game (often Euro games) means that the game is actually not very deep. The shallowness of the game is exposed. I'm sorry to say this about Euro games, as I'm actually mainly a Euro game fan.

  3. Too fast - I'm not sure how to explain this. This may not make much sense. I think you will enjoy playing a game with 3 other human players for 1 hour, more than playing a game with 3 AI players for 15 minutes, even if every single move in these two games are exactly the same. Same setup, same results. This sounds absurd. You waste 45 minutes and you like that more?! Maybe it's the human touch, the human interaction. Maybe you feel you are playing against smart opponents and not dumb programs. You think about what your opponents are thinking, and not how the programs are written. Your human opponents can be more unpredictable. You spend more time, but you are enjoying the time exploring the possibilities in the game, not hurriedly trying to solve a math problem. Playing against AI's feels so mechanical.

Surprisingly, I could actually go back to playing the boardgame versions of St Petersburg and Yspahan and still enjoy myself. That was some time after my last vs-AI games, so I have pretty much forgotten most of the tactics and the bitter taste. I needed a little effort to remember the strategies and to rediscover the games, and I enjoyed these. The strategies came back easily, and I was soon playing quickly. And yet I still enjoyed the games. I wonder whether I am simply prejudiced against AI's.

There are counter examples. I have played Blue Moon against AI's, and it didn't sour the game for me at all. The AI is pretty good. I don't know how the programmer did it. I am quite impressed. Yet the AI's tactics didn't feel formulaic. Admittedly sometimes it makes strange moves or bad moves. At least them seemed so to me. But overall playing against the Blue Moon AI was challenging and enjoyable.

There is now an AI for Race for the Galaxy too. I have not tried it yet, and am hesitant, because Race for the Galaxy is one of my favourite games, and I don't want the AI experience to spoil it for me. I may never get around to trying this AI. Anyway, this is one game that my wife is usually willing to play.

Although I think computer versions of games (those with AI's) spoil the games for me, I think computer versions which just provide an interface for human vs human play are very handy. The Ticket to Ride implementation is done very well. It does all the tiresome train-placing, card-holding, card-shuffling, map-checking for you. You can play a game in less than a quarter of the time when playing a physical copy. Dominion is another good example. The computer takes care of all the card shuffling for you, which is a lot of effort saved.

So, computer good. AI bad. Not because they are incompetent (like many PC games AI's are), but because they expose how shallow some of our hobby games actually are, or because sometimes humans are just so hard to please.


Rob Cannon said...

I had the same problem with St. Petersburg. I love playing the computer game (great to pass time on a business flight). I purchased the real game and had it for a year before I finally got a chance to play. I felt the real game took to long to play and I ended up trading it.

As for Race for the Galaxy, the real game is one of my favorites. Playing the computer version afterwards has not ruined me on it.

Hiew Chok Sien said...

For me even playing the computer (AI) version of St Petersburg wasn't enjoyable after a while, which turned me off from the boardgame version. But later on, after quite some time, when I played the boardgame version again, I could still enjoy it. So, we saw the same effect, but for different reasons. :-)

wankongyew said...

I think that many games, Euros especially, are readily solvable by AIs. For games like Agricola, Through the Ages and Le Havre for example, I'm convinced that it should be relatively straightforward to write AIs to play the games many, many times and gradually refine a fixed path through the game to gain the maximum number of points under any given starting condition.

In that sense, yes, I agree that the playing computer versions of boardgames would spoil it quickly because the AI would already be playing the best possible strategy for the situation and the only thing you can do is to copy it as much as possible. However, the same effect would be achieved if you were to play against the world's best players of that game many times.

I also believe that many computer strategy games are far richer and more complex than even the most complex boardgames. A game like Civilization 4 takes place on a huge map by boardgame standards and has many more options and possible decisions, resulting in a combinatorial explosion of a scale that no boardgame can match. If the designers of these games can come up with a competent AI for them (and many don't, resorting to cheating AI instead), doing the same for most boardgames should be trivial.

Hiew Chok Sien said...

It would be quite sad for me if all our favourite Eurogames are actually "solvable", as in one can easily program an AI to play them competently. I'd like to think that they are deep enough to require human players to play well. Well, maybe the only advantage of human players is unpredictability. A human player may not always make the "best" move, and if an AI uses a rigid set of rules to play the game, and assumes that its opponents always make the "best" move, then its strategy may not quite work.

The other advantage of human players is the human touch. I prefer playing with human beings to fancy calculators.

I'm not sure whether most or all Eurogames are "solvable". Maybe it should not matter. I should not think of a game as a solvable puzzle, and think that it's only a matter of time to work out a set of rules to play it optimally. I should think of a game as an arena / setting / framework for a group of humans to compete, to have a battle of wits. It shouldn't matter even if the game is actually "solvable". I'm certainly not going to spend the effort to try to prove it one way or the other. :-) 不用钻牛角尖,哈哈。

wankongyew said...

Keep in mind that when playing boardgames, a lot of the fun lies in the company of those you play with, which is why the experience of playing a game can be different depending on who you play it with.

In other words, even if boardgames are readily solvable by AIs, and I believe that they are, it shouldn't matter if you play against or with an entertaining group of friends.

Notso said...

Another great blog post. I will agree that playing with AIs just does not sound like it may ever be a good option for online boardgames. I agree with the other comments that the social aspect is the biggest thing for boardgames. Online eliminates that to a certain extent, no reason to completely eliminate it. At least playing against a real person gives some sort of interaction with another human.

Hiew Chok Sien said...

I find playing against other players via the internet very exciting, nail-biting exciting in fact, because when you play on BSW ( against strangers, these guys are more often than not sharks (not in a negative sense, just that they are likely very good at the games). I don't play on BSW or other websites much, so I have never advanced to shark level myself.

Well, of course if you are playing with people you already know, then you can feel more relaxed. Once I played with a few friends in Hong Kong with Skype turned on, and it was quite enjoyable because we could chat and tease and laugh and taunt. Good way to spend some time with old friends who are far away.