Friday, October 18, 2013

Classics Lecture Series: Introduction - Learning to Think Ahead - Tic Tac Toe, Checkers, and Connect Four

We are alpha board gamers.  Alpha gamers have grown beyond old standards with inferior mechanics.  We decry them as being poorly designed and loath the uninformed for still insisting we play these mass market "classics."
Well stop your loathing!  Today I kick off a new series called Classics Lecture Series where we look at the positives of classic games.  Classic games are "classic" because the designers did enough things right that people want to play these games even today.  Whether we like to admit or not, a number of us got into board gaming by playing these games.  Nor should we forget that classic games have inspired the mechanisms and qualities we cherish in today’s modern board games.
By breaking down the good parts of classic games I will be identifying the qualities and mechanics that we should be utilizing as modern board designers.  Where shall we start, well with the first game I ever learned...Tic Tac Toe.
I cannot estimate the countless hours my parents were spared trying to find a way to entertain my sister and me while we played with a simple piece of paper and a pen.  The classic knock against Tic Tac Toe is that if everyone plays the correct strategy then no one should ever win.  Well go try and tell that to a five year old.  Go ahead...I can wait...the article will still be here after you get back.
Don't believe you do they?  As a kid, predicting your opponents next move is like predicting what the stock market will do tomorrow.  Only through many...and I mean of Tic Tac Toe we learn no one should ever win the game.
Why does it take many games for little kids to realize the futility of playing Tic Tac Toe?  Because little kids are learning the skill of thinking ahead.  When kids first start playing Tic Tac Toe the game feels more like flipping a coin to see if the person who called heads wins.  I put an X in the left corner, my sister puts an O in the middle, neither of us are initially thinking about the next strategic move.  All we know is that sometimes something magical happens and one of us magically wins the game.
Instincts driven by sibling rivalry pushes us to start looking further ahead in game play to increase one's likelihood to win or at least prevent the other sibling form winning the game.  Trial and error will teach us that certain combinations of X's and 0's will ensure a victory over the inferior sibling.  But as soon as the other sibling learns to recognize our tactical secrete our competitive edge will be lost and every game will end in a tie.
By playing Tic Tac Toe and competing we learned our decisions have consequences and we need to think ahead in the game to ensure the game ends in a tie.  We are now ready for bigger and better games.
Depending on your household that game is either Checkers or Connect Four.  The drawback to both games is that the conclusion is pre-determined for perfect players.  The great thing for young board game players is that no matter what our parents may think, we are not yet perfect.
Like Tic Tac Toe, good Checker and Connect Four players look to set up traps that guarantees their victory no matter what move their opponent makes.  Achieving this requires thinking ahead and anticipating your opponent's moves.   Checker and Connect Four provide a whole new universe of traps to be sprung onto your opponent.
Traps that are discovered partly through trial and error, but partly through the lessons learned in Tic Tac Toe.  Once a player masters the concept of looking ahead, then players can start looking ahead in new surroundings like Checker and Connect Four without even playing their first game.  They start asking themselves before their turn what their opponent will do if they make a particular move.
Looking ahead is a key part of what makes any modern game fun.  Having a strategy to win a game of Agricola means that you are anticipating which resources your opponents are going to take before you make your move.  You, as well as your opponents are looking ahead.  In repeated play you are competing by seeing which one of you does the best job of reading the board and looking ahead.   Without looking ahead there is no strategy.  There is just a random dice roll to see who wins the game.  That is the lesson of Tic Tac Toe, Checkers, and Connect Four.

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