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Thoughts on GameTek: The Math and Science of Gaming


Earlier this year, I backed a Kickstarter project that had the goal of publishing the best GameTek segments of the Dice Tower podcast over ten years as a book. I didn't know what Dice Tower or GameTek was, and I still have listened to only a few of the GameTek segments for this 'review'. The GameTek segments don't review single games but often discuss general concepts relating to board games.

In October, I got the backer's eBook version (the hardcopy is hopefully still making its way here). Here's my thoughts on the book GameTek: The Math and Science of Gaming (Geoff Engelstein. BookBaby, 2017).

Caveats and disclaimers: I wouldn't call myself even a novice when it comes to board games, so I'm shooting well above my rank here. Second, I paid for the book and the ebook myself via the Kickstarter. My opinions in this blog are my own and I have no reason to expect to receive any monetary compensation for having written this. Even if I mention the book ought to be available on Amazon sooner or later.

It's appropriate that the author raises up Douglas Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid (1979). That book combines the logic of Gödel, the art of Escher and the music of Bach into one very in-depth book. In a more limited way, GameTek also covers various fields that overlap on (board) games, although the fields are nowhere near as varied, the concepts explored as thoroughly or one final synthesis extant. So if you took a look at the inside pages of GEB, shrieked and ran to cover behind the sofa, don't worry. There's very little content that abstract here and the chapters are usually independent segments.

The superficiality stems from the premise of the book: each of the roughly 70 chapters is close to 1,000 words in length and they were originally podcast segments. For comparison, this cblog is a bit shy of 1,200 words, so it's slightly longer than one chapter in the book. A few chapters have been given basic illustration, but those are typically diagrams or tables.

The writing itself is solid, or so a non-native English speaker like me would call it. The words used don't get overly technical, which probably also is due to the contents' origin as a podcast.

Most, if not all (I didn't check), of the podcasts the chapters in the book are based on can be downloaded as MP3s on the host's website. I've linked to a few of the chapters below, since they are very close to being audiobook versions of the chapters and give a good idea on what to expect from the book.

What are the chapters in the book about then? The chapters are divided between sections:

  • Game theory, which covers many topics one would expect to find on an entry-level game theory course, such as prisoner's dilemma in various games, and the Monty Hall problem which is a staple on courses on probability theory. 
  • Math with topics like how throwing more dice at once decreases the randomness, deck shuffling and graph theory (in relation to "train games" like TransAmerica). Even NP-completeness and how NP-complete problems like travelling salesperson's problem and the knapsack problem are used in various boardgames.
  • Psychology on how review texts and scores are perceived, on what affects how people may end up playing a game with the same strategy with little variation, appealing to the power fantasies (even when those involve breaking the rules of the game itself). Or even comparing colonoscopy experiences to how good a taste a game's ending leaves the player.
  • Science on noise (randomness -- also, a warning for earphone users for that segment!) and how it can describe the varying levels of upsets in a game, on chaos theory and how a small change at the start of a game may lead to a completely different endgame, and on evolution in games (or the opposite, such as making the environment fit the dinosaurs instead).
  • Game mechanics covers a number of "typical" game genres and their afflictions, such as trading, push-your-luck, dice decks (Settlers of Catan), "Werewolf" (one or more players is a secret antagonist), power creep (or codex creep, as I imagine one potential reader might know it as).
  • Psychology games discusses ultimatums and related experimental results, cheating and such.
  • History is not only about old games like backgammon but also concepts like liturgy in ancient Greece.

Except for Quantum Tic-Tac-Toe, the chapters are not centered around a single game but rather a concept (and it's arguable that even that chapter is based around a concept). Various games relevant to the topic at hand are often referred to and, when necessary, explained in sufficient detail for a newcomer to board games to understand the point.

While the topics themselves are explained only briefly and are conceivably what you may have learned on your first university courses, being pointed out the analogues may still be interesting. For instance, the Fire Emblem video game series has the rock-paper-scissors -type of weapon advantage scheme. Swords beat axes, axes beat spears, spears beat swords. But then describing rock, paper, scissors as how it is not a transitive relation might by itself be a worthwhile revelation. As an example, if we mark a transitive relation with the word "beats", then if A "beats" B and B "beats" C, then A "beats" C. Or you can replace "beats" just as well with "<", "=" or "<". (And somehow, there exist nontransitive dice where the sides have numbers but die A is more likely to roll higher than B, B is more likely to roll higher than C and C higher than A.)

Some of the analogues/chapter names are far-fetched, though -- for instance, comparing the body and the gastrointestinal microbiota to a game and its players and the aforementioned experience of colonoscopy. In videogames, the former is a bit like what happens to a multiplayer title whose playerbase dies out -- the game dies as well.

"But this is a video game site, not a board game site!", you cry. That is true, but some of the chapters describe concepts relevant for video games, especially the psychology section. For instance, if the game doesn't by (design) accident prohibit you from doing something, is it OK to use it, and how is this determined between the players? (Think the echidna's space jump in Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric (Big Red Button/SEGA, 2014) for a poor example, drawing a dungeon map in a dungeon crawler as a bit better one, and flipping the ball maze in Breath of the Wild for an even better one. And this topic actually ties to a cblog I wrote in early 2016.)

In conclusion... content-wise, I'd consider the book easy and light reading for people in college or university. For people in high school, I expect the probabilities be an obvious hurdle in the chapters involving them. The book scrapes many surfaces, but goes deeper in barely any of them, even though I can imagine writing a solid lengthy cblog wouldn't be impossible on many of the topics. I imagine those who haven't given much thought to why a board game works and why it was designed that way are likely to be the best audience for this book.

Or, since it's mostly just podcasts in text form, anyone can just go listen to the original podcasts.

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Anthony Marzano   19



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About Flegmaone of us since 11:34 PM on 01.17.2015

Very much unprofessional writer, don't take anything I write without a truckload of salt.

On a hopefully long-term break from saying anything.