13 Game School: Sheriff of Nottingham and Growl!

This episode, we take a look at Sheriff of Nottingham and Growl, two fantastic games of fibs and falsehoods! Plus, we take a quick dive into Weber’s Law and the game theory of Machiavelli.

Watch live Sunday mornings at 11am PST at https://www.twitch.tv/richardmalena

12 Game School: Junk Orbit and Promenade!

This episode, we take a look at Junk Orbit and Promenade, two games with shifting utility values and strategies in constant flux!

Watch live Sunday mornings at 11am PST at https://www.twitch.tv/richardmalena

Get Ready for Game School!

Happy Tuesday, friends! I wanted to let you all know about my new Sunday show on Twitch, Game School! Every week, I’ll be bringing a new game to class to teach you how to play and how to win. We’ll dive deep into the strategy and tactics behind every game as we learn to be better game theorists! If you want to join in on the fun, meet me Sunday mornings at 11am PST on Twitch!

Looking for a preview? Here’s last week’s episode all about Shadows Over Camelot and the Art of Betrayal. My voice somehow missed my Yeti microphone and ran through my laptop instead, but I’ll officially be posting these on YouTube starting next week.


See you on Sunday! Time for the new incarnation of AGT!

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.