Playing “Solved” Games

I don’t play card games with Kodra, a reality that I think makes him a bit sad. I’ve also tried, at the behest of a wide variety of friends, to play the Battlestar Galactica board game, which I’m told is a wonderful and amazingly fun experience but for me has been hours of misery as one or two experienced players dictate the entire game for everyone else.

I love the moment of stumbling into a new game experience entirely blind, and trying to make sense of it and turn confusion into victory. Stepping foot into a new dungeon in an MMO without knowing any of the mechanics of any of the encounters and figuring them out on the fly is amazing, thrilling, and magical. The magic evaporates instantly once even one person knows what’s up, because then you have the answer key.

High level play in a lot of games becomes a question of knowing the dominant metastrategy, and very rarely does it correlate to the intuitive choices being made by players learning the game. Once I know how to win a game, or beat an encounter, and can do so reliably, the game stops being fun. This is what’s called a “solved” game, and while there are often elements of randomness and uncertainty that prevent a game from being perfectly solved, there’s not a lot of fun left when a game is *almost* solved, enough so that there’s a clear right-way and wrong-way to play.

On the other hand, that learning process and the associated discovery that goes along with it is a true joy, and one that is all too often lost far too quickly.

One of the reason I like Infinity is that in three years of playing it rather heavily, and keeping up with all of the available information, a dominant, game-solivng metastrategy still hasn’t emerged, and the new releases continually stymie and obfuscate any attempts to create one. I wonder what that would be like in other types of games. I think I’d like PvP more if it were more common.

Diablo and other games of its type do a bit of this with randomized enemy generation and level layouts, and it keeps the game fresh for a lot longer than you might expect, lasting multiple playthroughs. I don’t think this is as big a deal, though, because when you’re not playing against other players the gap between having all the information and knowing all of the combos and not isn’t so stark. When the only point of comparison is how you perform relative to other players, one player having more information or a superior combo is a quick downward spiral.

I want games where I can continually strive to improve without ever reaching a solved state. I also want to have a metastrategy that’s either changing too rapidly for any player to get a solid, dominant foothold or that doesn’t have giant gaps between strategies. These gaps effectively shut out players who are learning from being relevant to the game as anything other than a resource to be exploited, and make for terribly unfun games. I don’t terribly enjoy games that are won or lost before the game even begins, just based on what the players already know/own.

I’m really excited by the potential of games like the new Fable, moving towards asymmetric PvP. I had a lot of hope for Netrunner, but my understanding is that the game devolves into the same “this combo wins” strategies that so many other card games do. I would like drafting in theory, except that most draft games (draft Magic, as an example) have a prevailing *draft* metastrategy that if you’re still learning and don’t have all of the cards in the set memorized, you will lose at– again, before you play the game.

I don’t know how alone I am in this feeling. I get the impression that many people prefer games, even PvP games, where they can use a dominant strategy and win continually without changing anything. Possibly I’m in the minority here, in wanting to be continually challenged and having the ground move underneath me?



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