Dwellings of Eldervale and the Perfect Mix

It isn’t much of a secret that I like epic games. I want a majestic experience that I can dig into on a game night, spending a few hours planning out vast strategies and fretting about each move from my canny opponents. I want to claw my way to victory and never quite know where I am on the road to success. I want a game that is too complex to analyze, yet begs me to try. Fortunately, like I said, this isn’t really a secret to those who know me.

A few months ago, I was given the opportunity to try out a new game prototype by a friend clearly rubbing his hands with absolute glee. I looked down at the table and saw a colorful array of resources, meeples, miniatures, and dice, all surrounding a hex grid revealing the land of Eldervale. I had eight elemental factions to choose from, each with unique abilities for my small army of meeples, and told that I was about to play a worker placement, area control, tableau-building game. Disbelieving, I sat down to my first game of Dwellings of Eldervale, by Luke Laurie and Breaking Games. I lost that game, but I won the next one. I’m about fifty percent in the ten or so games I’ve played since then as well, and I am hungry to play even more.

Think about how many games on your shelf have been played more than ten times? For me, it’s a short list: Betrayal at House on the Hill, Spirit Island, Codenames, Splendor, Lords of Waterdeep. Already, Dwellings of Eldervale has launched into the short list of my favorite games, which is pretty impressive for only having just launched on Kickstarter this week! (The conversation below might make a little more sense if you know more about the game, and this preview by Tantrum House is one of my favorites!)

So what exactly makes Dwellings of Eldervale satisfying for a game theorist?

1. Multiple Paths to Victory: The first thing a player has to do when they sit down for Dwellings of Eldervale is decide where in the world they’re going to try and focus. Dwellings of Eldervale has a wide variety of ways to gain victory points and each one is built around a different mechanic within the game. Placing workers in the elemental realms gives players the opportunity to dwell, gaining a permanent advantage and area control. Other players might instead focus on building their tableau, trading resources to gain unique powers and abilities. Some of these choices depend on a player’s personal taste, but some of the elemental factions have that might do better with one strategy than another.

Take one of my favorite factions, the Embercrush Ogres.

Each faction has four types of units, each with a different amount of dice in battle and two unique abilities!

Each faction has different abilities, and the Ogres have a powerful one. Each of their workers adds an extra die in combat, making them a constant worry for other players from the very first turn. Combat is another major way to gain victory points and control the board, so the Ogres have a huge ability to control the early game until other players can catch up to their battle prowess.

By giving players so many choices in how to initially approach the game, Dwellings of Eldervale becomes highly replayable. I still don’t have a favorite faction, nor do I have a favorite strategy. This game begs you to try new tactics in new ways in the constant quest for victory.

2. Resists Dominant Strategies: At its heart, Dwellings of Eldervale is about building an engine to generate victory points. However, it doesn’t feel like a race in the same way that a tableau-builder often feels. If a player seems to be doing too well, the other players can use the game board itself to start making damaging moves. No portion of the game exists in a vacuum, which leads to extreme competition throughout the game.

As your worker become a dwelling, they get their very own roof! Photo by Dwellings of Eldervale designer Luke Laurie.

A major part of the game is the regroup action, where a player removes their workers from the game board and returns them to their ready area. On their way back, a player uses each of these workers to activate their tableau abilities. The more workers a player has to regroup, the more they can do with their tableau. If a player is focused on building their tableau to the detriment of area control, then an opponent may be able to start battles and send those poor meeples to the Underworld before they can be regrouped.

Meanwhile, players also have the opportunity to gather cards from the magic deck, which are full of fun and interesting spells letting you wildly change the game. The deck is also filled with Quests and Prophecies, allowing you new ways to gain victory points, either at the beginning or end of the game. Even though each card may only offer limited amounts of points, completing many of them in a row can lead to a healthy swing by the end of the game.

As this long list of complications increases, it becomes almost impossible to determine an optimal strategy without trying to do a little bit of everything. I have to develop a mixed strategy if I have any hope of winning the game. In a mixed strategy, I am forced to constantly change my actions with the intent of forcing my opponents to mix theirs as well. If other players know my plans too well, they can try to place their workers in the perfect locations to thwart my every move.

3. Constantly Changing Game State: As a game of Dwellings of Eldervale continues, the board is constantly in flux. The hex grid expands as players explore the world, constantly adding new resources to gather, locations for dwelling, and even huge, terrifying monsters to battle. None of these things can be easily predicted, meaning a player’s strategy may shift at almost any time.

But even from the very first turn, a ton of variety comes from the eight decks of adventure cards.

Cards from the adventure decks are available for purchase, as long as a player has the proper resources. These are placed into a player’s tableau, granting them new abilities and options as the game progresses. However, the different elements don’t require entirely unique resources, so the potions a player gathers can be used to purchase cards from four different elements. Since only one adventure card is shown at a time from a given element, players can battle over specific elements and abilities throughout the game. The fun here is that by choosing an opponent’s elements, you limit their power in the game overall.

Sometimes, when I play a game, I just want to have a good time with my friends. But when it comes to an epic gaming session, I’m looking for the opportunity to test myself against my opponents. Dwellings of Eldervale gives me that chance in a way that I haven’t been excited about in a long time. Every game is a new experience, with factions and adventures I’ve still never tried, and I can’t wait to get out there and play again.

If this article got you even a little excited about Dwellings of Eldervale, check out the campaign before it leaves Kickstarter on July 25th!

Letting the App Drive

Anyone who knows me must be aware of my love of role-playing games. Besides writing my own D&D content on the Dungeon Masters’ Guild, I’ve also been telling my own stories in campaigns for decades. Getting a group of people in a room to collaboratively build a tale of heroics and derring-do? It’s an incredible feeling. And it really doesn’t matter if we’re running through a story of my own design or I’m getting to share in someone else’s playground. This is easily my favorite game of all time.

Art by Lindsay Smith!

Have you watched the incredible Xander Jeanneret lead his adventurous mother and her amazing friends through a story? It’s an absolute delight. 

These stories work so well because while most of the people at the table are embodying a single hero, one of them is playing the entire world. Imagine that. They have to hold together the strings of an entire populace filled with quirky characters, a landscape dotted with towns and dangerous dungeons to visit, an endless array of powerful foes, and the reins of a story leading a party throughout the world in an order that is fun, engaging, and narratively interesting. Yeah. Being a Dungeon Master is hard work. So what if a computer could do it for you?

Two years ago, I was introduced to a massive tabletop game called Mansions of Madness. Similar games, like Descent and Hero Quest, had a similar theme: a group of heroes battled to win against the vileness of the game itself. However, in order for the game to work, one player would have to switch teams and play as the game itself, running monsters and events to challenge the heroes in their quest. If the chosen player was particularly mean, the experience for the heroes could be dramatically different than if that player was being generous. (Look, I said I was sorry!)

This is an easy example of the Volunteer’s Dilemma, where one player must choose to play a slightly different game than everyone else for the good of the group. If the heroes win, the chosen player doesn’t necessarily gain the same sense of satisfaction. More than likely, a heroic victory is a result of the volunteer’s plans and resources falling through. In order to make the game a challenge, the volunteer has to truly try to win, meaning someone is going to lose this game.

A few games tried to break away from this trend, but were forced to design a fair mechanism to create a mysterious, changing game that wouldn’t be stale after a single play. Arkham Horror did this through a mountain of potential cards, locations, and choices that left players fundamentally unable to play the same game twice. Castle Ravenloft added a monster strategy system that forced players to choose the least damaging option from a short list. In a strategic sense, each of these systems can be broken by a player who studies the game and can find efficient and safe routes to victory. (Look, I said I was sorry!)

Mid-mission in Mansions of Madness, Second Edition with tons of exploring left to do!

Enter, the app.

The second edition of Mansions of Madness comes with a fantastic app, allowing everyone to play together while the pre-programmed adventures tell the story. Fantasy Flight Games has done an amazing job of creating a randomizer which mixes up the ways in which a skill test can be resolved. The app asks for a few inputs, like are you attacking the creature with a spell or with a bladed weapon? Once you type in the answer, you’re committed, and the app will ask you to make a specific check which might not be the one you’d expect.

Maybe you’re attacking nearby Deep One with a spell called Wrack, which is usually governed by your Lore ability. Rather than a Lore test, the app might ask you to make an Agility check to dodge out of the way of your opponent’s thrashing limbs during the casting process. If you are successful, the app then tells you how to deal damage to the creature.

Mid-mission in Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle-Earth, with so many places to search for the remaining tracks!

Suddenly, I’m engrossed in a game where I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen. The app has given me the illusion of a game master making a series of choices that I can’t quite predict! Sometimes the moment acts in my favor, but other times…

The new Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle Earth app acts in the same incredible way. While the games uses cards instead of dice, the app itself is a brilliant randomizer that gives keeps the game feeling fresh as it hands players new surprises every round. After playing the first adventure a number of times, each run has a similar goal, yet adds interesting and unique details to the map that add just enough mystery to keep me on my toes.

Video games and tabletop games allow for wildly disparate mechanics to take place in a single game. Learning how to make a hybrid game to find the best of both worlds is going to take some real effort, but Fantasy Flight Games is making huge strides with both Mansions and Journeys to build something incredible. As more and more game companies start building their own hybrids, I am hopeful that we’ll be able to bring the thrill of the roleplaying game experience to the regular tabletop game night!

When Stories Collide

With a full decade of teaching under my belt, I thought I had a handle on saying things out loud. I’ve tried to capture students by bringing the strange history of mathematicians to liven up even the driest of lessons. For the last few years, I’ve been presenting game theory ideas to packed houses at conventions across the country, and I’ve even performed with Gosh Darn Fiasco at even more. I mean, I’ve sat down at tables for years playing RPGs with total strangers and bringing to life weird and fantastical stories for hours at a time. I thought I had this.

I was not prepared to stand up and tell a story all about myself for Story Collider.

I really thought I was. I’d scripted out the entire ten minute story. I’d faithfully memorized the text and really annoyed my fellow teachers by closing my door and reciting between classes. But when it came down to it, I just wasn’t ready for the emotion that would come from talking about my own personal stories. By being open and honest about a pretty ridiculous time in my life, I felt a real sense of warmth and worth. The other speakers were also smart and charming and wonderful. Being part of Story Collider was an incredible experience, which was certainly helped by the fact that I made it all about game theory.

It’s difficult for me to think back to a time when my world did not revolve around the topics of mathematics and education. I’ve been a teacher for twelve years, so by this point, I feel like I confidently state that I have heard every single stereotypical story about math experiences. I’ve worked in schools specifically to help kids who have troubles in math. I’ve spoken to their parents. And their friends. And my friends. And complete strangers, because as I have learned, there are few things that unite us as a people quite as much the dislike of mathematics, either algebra or geometry, depending on the person. 

To break down the story, it’s often a deep and abiding love and/or hatred for a specific textbook or a lesson or a teacher, with a few variations. I’ve made bingo cards just for the first conversation I have with anyone after they learn that I am a math teacher. Surprise, everyone wins.

I’m here to say that, after years watching stories about school where the math teacher is a villain, I get it. We taught you the bad math. Please don’t tell anyone I called it the bad math. We’re trained to teach a very binary kind of math which must be taught in a specific sequence and is always right or wrong. It’s easy to teach and assign homework and test and grade. But it is hardly the math of our everyday lives.

For example, though I didn’t know it at the time, I had my first real mathematical breakthrough in middle school.

I grew up on the mean streets of Portland, Oregon. But then we packed up and moved to the suburbs. And then again out to the country.

So imagine this ten year old future math teacher, showing up in a new school and trying really hard to make a good first impression like he’s a cool kid from the city. Turns out, my first day was also school picture day and I doubt I had ever looked more pathetic. I have since, sure, but this may have been the first time I truly felt pathetic. My dad had passed away at the start of the summer, and I was trapped in this new terrible school without any friends at all. I was like a little sadness sponge, and if you pushed or squeezed me too much, a torrent of tears would just burst out. Which was often tested by my new classmates while playing football at recess.

And that was the start of my year as The Crying Kid. Every school seems to have one, and once upon a time, it was me.

Things got better over time, but then, in seventh grade, I found myself at a middle school dance. Even now, I feel a little ripple in my stomach just thinking about it. But these were the moments that could supposedly help a weird kid make friends, or at least that’s what my mom kept telling me as she pushed me out the door of our Jeep Cherokee.

I have no idea how to dance, so I find myself wandering the school. I enter a long, empty hallway, getting about halfway down when I see a familiar face come around the corner. She smiles, waves, and says “Hello.”

Here’s where my math brain kicked in for the first time. A basic social interaction.

Most likely, she was simply expecting me to respond in a normal way. You know, like a human. And yet, I wondered, what if she wasn’t talking to me? Sure, we were the only two people in the hallway, but consider this. Earlier, the hallway had zero people. Then there was just me. Now there were two people. Clearly, it was just as likely that a third person had stepped into the hall behind me because that’s how math works.

Does this guy even have a Fields Medal?

As the most famous mathematician in the world once said, “Life finds a way.” And yeah, it’s a little weird that the most famous mathematician in the world is Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.

Anyway, there I was, trapped in the middle of the hallway faced with a decision about whether to respond to a polite Hello with a Hello of my own. Perchance a Hi.

Very quickly, I built up a mental construct which could weigh the consequences of my possible choices in order to determine the best possible outcome. Also, like a human.

Overall, the best outcome is what you’d expect. Two young people being cautiously friendly. But if she was actually talking to someone else, then I was very eager to avoid the most embarrassing option which would be to give an enthusiastic HEYYYY…

So, if she were talking to someone else, my best outcome would be to assume that and stay quiet.

Taking a situation like this and applying a construct called a utility matrix to gauge decisions is a branch of mathematics called Game Theory. I love game theory! It was designed as a way to understand economics, but it can really be applied to any kind of conflict. By simulating an opposed set of actions, we can develop strategies that lead all players, or at least all friendly players, to their greatest reward.

One possible outcome of this hallway encounter was a happy, normal, human conversation. A solid outcome for a tortuous middle school dance. The second possibility is the one I feared the most; as I replied with hello, two people would start to laugh at me for thinking anyone might ever want to talk to me. I would live my life in shame, and my only friends would be the animals on our farm. We’d wander the forest together, solving forest crimes, whatever those might be.

The third outcome is the one I expected, where I’d be silent, and those two people would go be happy together. I would be ignored, but safe.

Of course what actually happened was the fourth option. Instead of replying, I turned around to see who she could actually be talking to, assuming that it wasn’t me. In that moment, I heard a noise that is clearly weighing on me almost three decades later. She said “Awwww. I was saying hi to you!”

The good news is that this meant that my mother was right and this dance might be some kind of transition from being the Crying Kid to maybe more like who I was going to be as a person.

Years later, I began studying Game Theory, and realized just how many of my personal interactions could have been simulated and analyzed.

One major game theory interaction is called Chicken. Traditionally, it’s Rebel Without A Cause, racing cars towards the edge of the cliff, each racer unwilling to be the chicken and swerve away first. However, if neither swerves away, they both die. And yet, the winning strategy is to continue towards the edge of the cliff! That’s wild to me. But since I’m not legally allowed to discuss my sordid cliff racing histories, let’s talk about my college roommates and our general disdain for common chores.

I don’t want to do my dishes, so I stack them by the sink. So does everyone else. We all know that the dish supply is limited, and we’ll soon be forced to eat our greasy delivery pizza right from the cardboard box. Eventually, Kim is going to call a house meeting and lay down some new rules, and I’m forced to nod and say sure, sure, I’ll do the dishes as long as everyone else around here pulls their weight too, and then Ryan is going to get those big wild eyes and demand an apology because he did the dishes last week and he will be damned before he does the dishes twice in a row, and soon enough everyone is way too mad to play Smash Brothers like we do every single night, or did before the dishes ruined our lives.

So I did some of the dishes. And then Ryan did some of the dishes. And then, we Smashed.

Anyway, that story is also the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Being able to relate a huge, global conflict to my college kitchen is what makes Game Theory so powerful. It’s about conflict, and humanity happens to be really, really good at conflict.

For example, I was once locked into an important conflict about llamas. We had a pair of them growing up, for important high-elevation backpacking reasons, but a fun moment happened right before my Senior Prom. My mom wanted me to take a picture standing in my tux, right next to Hobie the Wonder Llama. At the time, as one might imagine, I was not very excited about this particular photo shoot. I was worried that every single human in the world would laugh at me, and began to consider choosing my teenage dignity over my mom’s desires. On the other hand, my mom wanted us to work together to make something potentially amazing. But, she could have been wrong.

This is actually Mister Goodbar, but Hobie was always my favorite Wonder Llama.

So to break it down, I was worried that a large group experiment would fall through, and I was considering the option of backing out. This is a problem we call Stag Hunt. We can all play a fun game together, but if I take my ball and go home, at least I still have my ball while the rest of you have nothing.

Fortunately for me, when my mom has a plan, I try to cooperate. So now I have one of the greatest prom photos ever taken in a pasture in Oregon.

Looking back, I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if young me had been taught about game theory. What if I’d been taught to weigh the rewards and consequences of my choices and actually learn how to think in the moments before I act? It could have been transformative. Instead, I got an A in Pre-Algebra.

Let’s be honest, I got an A in every math class.

The best I can do these days is to help spread this knowledge to others because I want to make math relevant to our lives. And someday, I want to throw away those bingo cards as our experiences with math truly become something fun and personal and truly worth sharing in a positive way. It certainly isn’t just us weird kids and sadness sponges who need to think about conflict and choices.

Speaking of weird kids, my mom was right. The girl in the hallway and I did become friends. We ended up being dance partners and worked on the high school newspaper together, and she’s doing quite well today. I might even send her a copy of this story, after I complete a thorough analysis of the possible benefits and consequences, just like a real human.

Rise of Tribes and the Tragedy of the Commons

You know that feeling when you sit down to a play a game without really knowing what to expect, and then are immediately blown away by the cleverness of the mechanics, the scope of gameplay, and the overall experience you have that brings joy to your little tabletop gaming heart? I hope so. It feels pretty good and you each deserve that moment. To give you an example, you might want to check out Rise of Tribes by Brad Brooks and published by Breaking Games. I was introduced to both the game and designer at a local board game prototyping event, and I haven’t been able to shut my mouth about it since. Seriously, you should already be driving to your FLGS to pick up a copy.

Rise of Tribes is all about bringing your people to greatness. To begin, each player chooses one of the Tribes, and in the advanced game, picks one of that tribe’s two Leaders. You lay out a series of hexes representing Lakes, Forests, and Mountains, where your tribe members might gain Food, Wood, and Stone. You get two actions per turn, choosing to Grow your tribe, Move around the board, Gather new resources, or Lead your way to new opportunities. From there, you race against the other players to construct villages, research new technologies, and achieve goals for your tribe to do what every civilization in history has ever wanted to do—collect Fifteen Victory Points.

Okay, so you may think this sounds a lot like Twilight Imperium or Sid Meier’s Civilization or a host of other games with similar themes. What sets Rise of Tribes apart for me is a dedication to two particular mechanics. One makes the game infinitely more fun than any other area control game I’ve played, and the other is an intriguing twist on the Tragedy of the Commons.

Let’s start with fun! Have I mentioned how much I dislike Risk? It’s a game we all need to play, but the idea of moving huge units around and rolling dice in a very random way… you’ve heard the arguments before, I’m sure. It isn’t fun for me. In fact, I don’t really enjoy games where combat is a necessary path to victory, because I don’t think zero-sum games are a ton of fun for everyone throughout the game. If your gain comes from my loss, I’d rather play Scrabble. Scythe was a great example of a game where some battle was needed, but very quickly, players stopped gaining points for fighting! Two victories, and you could tell your military to take a nap.

In Rise of Tribes, players can be on the same hex space as much as they want. As they peacefully coexist in the same space, both players can utilize that hex just as if they were the only ones there. They couldn’t choose to attack each other, even if they wanted to, without a good reason. Which in this case is defined by population.

Each hex has a population limit of five tribe members. Which means that on this board, the Red and Blue players coexist in all spaces just fine, but someone messed up in the circled Forest space. Here, the population has hit a critical level and Mother Nature needs to step in.

Do we roll dice? Draw cards? Play Rock, Paper, Scissors? Slap Jack? Nay. Instead, every tribe loses one of their members in that hex, and that process continues until only one tribe remains. In this case, since the two sides are even, all six tribe members are lost. Welcome to the brutal truth that combat is bad for both sides. More importantly, combat itself is never worth Victory Points. It may help a tribe achieve its Goals, but combat for its own sake is never something that helps you progress.

By simplifying combat and making it such a huge penalty for both sides, players shy away from it unless they must battle to complete a goal. Even then, since all goals are public information, every player can see the battle coming and decide how they plan to respond.

I love the flow of combat, but what draws me to Rise of Tribes is an ingenious way to choose your actions each round.

Place your die to the left, push the action dice, remove the last one. This strategic planning mechanism is just so satisfying!

At the start of the game, you set three dice to specific faces above each potential action in the game—a Sun, then a Moon, and finally a Blank face. At the start of your turn, you roll the remaining two dice and consider your options. For your first action, you choose one of your dice and place it to the left side of the action’s dice. Then, you push them all to the right, putting your dice into the left-hand space, and removing the far right one from the action. Finally, you see how lucky your action is going to be. If the board shows two Suns, you get the best possible outcome. If it shows two Moons, you get the worst. Anything else is the normal action.

This means that on a lucky day, you grow your tribe by twice as many members than on an unlucky day. Your tribe can move farther and gather more, as long as that sun keeps shining down. It’s a beautiful, thematic mechanism that gives the game a healthy dose of intrigue and strategy.

As the game progresses, you soon begin to realize that your turns are affected by the players who have gone before. If everyone before me left Suns on an action, then no matter what I place, I’ll have a good day! Well, hold on. Doesn’t that mean that even if I place a Moon there, it won’t hurt me? And then the next player has to deal with my leftover Moon? What if they roll two Moons? How should I play best to help myself?

Welcome to the Tragedy of the Commons! You made it. Congratulations.

The Tragedy of the Commons is a game theory simulation of a common good and the problems that come when players are able to abuse that good. Imagine that you live in an apartment complex, and one mysterious tenant keeps filling up the shared dumpster with a ruined couch every single week. It’s funny the first time and nothing happens. But the next week, another tenant joins in. Soon enough, there are seven couches in the trash! Now, there’s no space for anyone else to put in their trash, and the garbage company is getting frustrated and responds by increasing their rates in your building.

What kind of responses happen when you, as the law-abiding tenant that you are, suddenly lose access to a common good through the actions of others? Do you bring a mob to the parking garage and lay in wait, preparing an ambush of suddenly screaming, angry tenants when that couch-ruiner walks in? Do you simply accept that bad things happen and pay the increased bill? Or maybe you decide that nothing matters at all, and you can join in the couch chaos too!

There’s a glorious moment in Rise of Tribes when everyone has been dropping Suns down on Gather so everyone can have a mountain of resources the entire game, and then, with a sudden grin, one player plops down a Moon. They’ve decided to throw a couch in the dumpster. Do you put down a Moon as well, sentencing the Gather action to unlucky doom and gloom for turns and turns to come? Do you fight back and try to salvage the situation with another Sun? Shrug your shoulders and drop a Blank? This might be my new favorite simulation of the Tragedy of the Commons!

Rise of Tribes is a fun, fantastic, civilization building game that plays in a relatively quick 30–60 minutes. With plenty of varied Leader abilities, a bunch of different options available in terms of Goals and Technologies, and a string of unique Events that shake things up completely, this is absolutely a game that’s going to show up at my game nights for a long time to come.

Required Reading: Game Theory in the Age of Chaos

Before you get started on this article, let me ask you two questions. Do you like game theory? Do you dislike what the current administration is doing to this country? Great. Get this book. With that out of the way, let’s get to a heartfelt blog post.

PAX Dev is an incredible opportunity for game designers and developers of all stripes to come together in a convention filled with great panels and workshops that really help build up our industry into the best thing it can be. I’d tell you more about it, but I can’t. It’s a black-box convention, which means that anything presented or discussed there is off-limits to the press or to the outside world. This safety measure is a huge benefit to making changes in the world of gaming. So while I can’t talk about much of what happened beyond my own presentations, I can mention one major event that took place during the closing panel of PAX Dev 2017. Mike Selinker led an incredible lineup of people in discussing the impact game creators can make in the world around us. I stood up and talked about how helping students learn about game theory and solve conflicts was something that felt more meaningful every day. I felt lucky to be part of it, both as a presenter and as a witness to that massive event.

With that in mind, Mike continued to write essays which attempted to explain the events of the day with his background in games and tactics in full force. His essays dug deep, explaining the antics of the current administration in terms that every game player could understand. Mike studied the politics behind the wall, nuclear standoffs, and reckless trade policies, each with in-depth research and analysis. Far too soon, Mike had more than enough material to publish the essays as single collection—a clear intersection between game theory and the political landscape we see every day. Each essay feels like a clarion call that breaks down the seeming chaos and attempts to find the underlying strategy and order.

As a game theorist, I’ve been keenly interested in these essays, so I’d tell you to grab a copy of Game Theory in the Age of Chaos for Mike’s words alone. However, each of these essays also includes a short section of my own, which helps to illuminate the game theory with a second voice. I’ve run through and explained important basics like utility theory and the volunteer’s dilemma, but also larger topics like veto power, armor theory, and the gambler’s fallacy. My hope is that you walk away from this book with not only a clearer understanding of the current administration, but also a great primer on some of the most important ideas in game theory. Both of these things feel more important every single day.

Sure, we’d love to just apply game theory to our favorite games, but the field was crafted specifically to explain situations in politics and economics. Mike has done heroic work binding the two together, and for a short time, you can get your own copy for one cent, as long as you donate $25 to the Democratic Party. It’s hard to imagine a better analysis and guide through the chaos that has become our everyday political lives.

Like Mike says, “It’s better than screaming all the time.”

The Symmetries of Asymmetric Play

A few years ago, I met up with a group of friends to playtest a groundbreaking new game. Everyone sat at the edge of our seats as we cut out cardstock tiles and reviewed the rules, because this was going to be the start of a new craze—the asymmetric game. Each of us would be playing the same game, but we’d have different goals and abilities as we battled for victory. Truth is, none of us really knew what that meant.

“So it’s like playing Tag, and one of us is It but the rest are all trying to run away?”

“What about Magic? Is it like you’re playing Big Green Monsters and I’m playing Blue-White Control?”

“Or maybe it’s like playing World of Warcraft or something? We’re all different classes but we all hit the same buttons to do things?”

“What exactly are we playing here?”

Since then, I’ve started to come up with some answers to these early questions. I’ve played a few, and generally an asymmetric game comes in one of a few categories. From games like World of Warcraft (cooperative games with similar goals but differing styles) to Tag (competitive gaming with very different goals and styles), asymmetry presents in a few different ways.

“May the odds be ever in your favor”

That playtest with the tiles in the basement? That was my first introduction to Vast: The Crystal Caverns, the new asymmetric hotness that was preparing to take over the gaming world. In Vast, each player gets their own role, pieces, player board, and their very own rulebook. That’s how crazy this game needed to be to make asymmetry work.

Here’s the brief rundown. The Knight is trying to kill the Dragon, who just wants to rise from its slumber and escape the Cave. The Goblins want to trap and kill the Knight, while the Cave wants to trap everyone inside for eternity. Then there’s the Thief who just wants to grab a bunch of treasure. At any moment, one player is closer to their own goal and needs to be reigned in by a team-up of the other players. This leads to a lot of temporary alliances as everyone jockeys for position and final victory.

Vast delved into asymmetry by also making the mechanics extremely different for each role. This makes each play a wildly different experience, but it also means that each time you play, you basically have to relearn the intricacies of the game from a new perspective. The Knight has to explore to gain items that increases their stats, but the Cave is choosing how to build the board in order to lay traps for the other players. For new players, this is very frustrating.

The team behind Vast is also working on two other games, Vast: The Mysterious Manor and Root. I’ve only played an early prototype of TMM, which continues the theme of its predecessor (playing the Manor is amazing), but Root has branched out into another path. Players in Root all have similar abilities, though different goals. Well, at the very least, each player is using a different kind of game mechanic and engine, but the specific details of battling around the map are very similar. This has the effect of making it easier to learn and play, but also muddies up the distinctions between player roles. I’m excited to try it out more to determine which game hits my table more often!

“It’s a race!”

When players aren’t directly competing, it becomes a little bit easier to give people wildly different gameplay. I was a little shocked at how much I enjoyed playing the new game Villainous, a game licensed right from Disney. In this game, each player has their own board as they take on the role of a famous Disney villain and attempt to play out their own evil plan. As the cunning Jafar, I searched for the Magic Lamp in the Cave of Wonders, using it to summon Genie, and then Hypnotized that magical being for my own nefarious goals back in my Palace. At the same time, the Queen of Hearts was trying to turn a bunch of Card Guards into Wickets for a wild game of croquet over on her own evil board.

As we battled our own tales, we sometimes had the option of adding some drama to our opponents’ stories. Each player had a Fate deck full of heroes and other acts of goodness which would make it that much harder for a Villain to succeed. The Villains would have to stop their plan to deal with this Fate in order to get back into the swing of evil.

What I enjoyed about this design was that even though each player had their own rulebook, they were trying to do things we, as Disney fans, already understood. The mechanism might be strange, but my goal was exactly the one I remembered from the movies. This led to an experience that was remarkably successful for a game that seemed to be built out of such disparate parts.

“With our powers combined…”

My favorite subset of asymmetric play is the one where everyone needs to hold up their end for the team to succeed. For example, I was obsessed for a long time with an MMO called Puzzle Pirates. As we sailed around on tiny little shipping runs, there were four different puzzles that kept a ship moving. My goal was always to be the best at the sailing game on the entire server. Did someone want me to do carpentry instead? Or bilge? Instant mutiny. I wasn’t bad at navigation, but sailing was the dream. And the better I sailed, the faster our ship soared across the sea.

A bad sailor set your ship adrift. But so did someone bad at bilging or carpentry. If your crew wasn’t the best at something, you’d put multiple players on the same task. And then, to make me feel incredible, individual results were posted every few minutes, just to keep us invested on being amazing.

That feeling is harder to apply to a board game, but easily the top of the pack is the fantastic Spirit Island. In this “Reverse-4X” game, you play one of the island’s spirits, fighting back against the colonialist invaders and sending them back into the sea. Each spirit plays in a totally different way, with some focused on creating Fear, some manipulating the beasts and native Dahan, and others simply burning those invaders to the ground. As the game progresses, each Spirit is capable of more and more, which makes it very important for each player to be on top of their game. The invaders are tough, and routing them is going to take a concerted effort.

In some cases, the game makes it impossible for certain spirits to affect certain spaces on the board. Without beasts to manifest from, Sharp Fangs Behind the Leaves is locked out of the more developed locations. A Spread of Rampant Green has the most impact in Marshes and Wetlands. Ocean’s Hungry Grasp is a coastal spirit, able to destroy invaders along the shoreline, but has little power to affect the interior. With wildly different spirit abilities, weaknesses, and a pile of invader scenarios and difficulties, Spirit Island is a true test of cooperation.

When it comes down to it, the weirdest thing about asymmetric games is that they’re the ones we’re really used to in the real world. We’re used to playing with different abilities, coming from different backgrounds, and with massively different goals in mind. We grew up with them. They resonate with the stories we tell. The strange idea is actually the one that says we’re all the same and all trying to get to the same place. Asymmetry is normal. It just took board games a while to catch up.

The Wedding Puzzle

Do you ever wish that strange and mysterious events would just… occur? As a lifelong fan of adventure stories, I certainly do. With that kind of heroic inspiration in mind, my partner Laser and I made an irrevocable decision. Exactly one year ago, in the warm, glowing moments directly after our space-themed wedding ceremony, we orchestrated a devious puzzle hunt for our completely surprised attendees. Because that’s how the Malena-Webbers plan their wedding.

Step 1: Honesty

Both of us love puzzles and games, and we wanted to make sure our entire day was infused with these ideas. We solved a puzzle during the ceremony and had board games available during the reception. Games are important to us both and as we started playing them together, we realized that we didn’t have as much fun when a game forced us to be dishonest. Even holding onto a secret was troubling. So as we planned out the game, we wanted to make sure that we wouldn’t have to lie to anyone for any reason—or force anyone else to lie! Honesty would be our credo. Which meant I had a lot of secret preparations and work to do.

I began writing the puzzles in December. They needed to be crafted for an audience of our friends, which includes both puzzle-masters and puzzle-phobes. So we wanted big, fun reveals and the ability to opt in or out as any guest saw fit. Multiple iterations later, we had our plan. We filmed an introductory video and I frantically built props that could be set throughout the wedding without any guests knowing or finding them in advance! I ended up setting many of the props around the room myself and decided “I can do this myself!” was as close as I’d get to crossing that honesty line, even to the members of our wedding party. It was a struggle. But we came, we saw, we… let’s just say it went pretty well.

Step 2: Learning Experiences

On April 1st, 2017, we walked back down the aisle after exchanging rings and vows to (of course) thunderous applause. We found a quiet hallway and hid, knowing that the puzzle was about to begin! Our guests found their tables, each with a perfect theme like Lord of the Rings, Dungeons and Dragons, or Tabletop Games. You know, the stuff we like.

After a few moments, our two Astronaut MCs took the stage and played our introduction: We’d already lost our rings! It was up to our gathered friends to find them. There might be some kind of note on the back of the placemats…

In this puzzle step, each placemat had a large letter written on the back. When kept in order, the set at each table formed a word, with one or two extra letters, but the word was for the theme at another table! So the Oregon table might have GOLLUM+RT, which meant they needed to team up with the Lord of the Rings table! As the tables formed into three groups, those extra letters would form a series of three words, revealing the next instruction.

We heard the ruckus begin as we hid, waiting for the climactic moment when they’d complete the puzzle. Time dragged on and eventually I had to peek. The crowd was stumped! I sat back, panicking and hoping for an update from a worried Astronaut. Eventually, we learned that one table had mixed up their letters and formed a word I hadn’t even considered! As confusion reigned, all of the placemats were removed from the tables and placed out in the floor for further public debate.

They got it eventually, but I certainly learned the value of being prepared for the unexpected.

This puzzle solved to RINGING PRESENT INTERIOR, and the guests quickly moved on to the next stage.

Step 3: The Hero Moment

A table had been set up in advance for wedding cards and gifts, including three that I’d planted there that morning. Two made silly sounds when shaken, but one had a bell that rang loudly! The guests looked at each other before tearing open the paper, ripping into the box, and finding a very special Rubik’s Cube covered in stickers.

Has there ever been a moment in your life when you wished that your particular set of skills might make the difference between life and death? Or the difference between your friends getting their rings back or not? I wanted to give one player that miraculous moment on a big stage, while at the same time hoping that anyone in the room could solve a Rubik’s Cube!

Thankfully, we’ve got the right kind of friends. When the Cube was solved, it read THE SECRET CODE BEHIND THE CONSTELLATIONS. The guests looked around and saw the beautiful constellation paintings that had been painted by the incredible Susan Webber and set around the room throughout the day and quickly wondered what was on the other side.

Step 4: Finding Joy in Challenges

The guests peered behind the paintings and didn’t see anything. Then they noticed that there was paper attached to the back of each painting, hiding the canvas beneath.

With quick sideways glances to make sure that decoration destruction was allowed in this puzzle, they eventually ripped through the paper and saw cards tacked to the inside.

These cards were collected, brought up to the mainstage, and assembled on the floor for everyone to see. Though the writing made it a little tough, they eventually found the final instruction—WHAT DID THAT HOBBITS ASK WHEN HE TRICKSED ME?

Our guests then went up to the Astronaut MCs who had been taunting them throughout the day and asked “What have I got in my pocket?” They said, “I don’t know what YOU have in YOUR pocket, but we have rings in ours!”

And like that, the rings were found. Marriage saved.

Step 5: It’s a Wonderful Life

In the year since we ran this puzzle, Laser and I have picked up and moved to a new city, found new jobs and new opportunities, and brought new friends into our lives. It has often been stressful and challenging, but we’ve made sure to spend time playing games, solving puzzles, and trying to maintain this constant sense of wonderment in our marriage and our lives. I think we both love the joy that comes from navigating a challenge and bringing it to successful and satisfying conclusion! All these puzzles and games and all the friends we’ve been fortunate enough to share these events with made our lives better and helped make our wedding the most wonderful day I’ve ever had.

To my favorite person in the world, Happy Anniversary! Here’s to many more games to come!

(The first anniversary is the Puzzle-Based Blog Post Anniversary, right?)