Monday, January 07, 2008

The Value of Risk

It's somewhat ironic that in my last post, I bring up the Prisoner's Dilemma. To recap, my personal feeling of PD is that, while it's an interesting game theory question within itself, it doesn't play out very well in real life, in that it doesn't take into much emotion, or the value of emotion too much, derived from the situation that the "player" may be in at any given time. Additionally, I'm not sure how you can truly test the game without a value of risk involved. Sure you can play the game repeatedly in your kitchen room, deciding "guess I'm going to jail for 5 years now!" because of your choice (and of the choice of your traitorous compatriot).

But it is a different situation entirely to be locked up in a police station, presented with the same choice FOR REAL, not knowing if your buddy is blabbing in the interview room next door.

I guess I should also note here that I am not a game theorist! I don't even play one on TV.

Another aspect is that I am very hard pressed to come up with a good game that employs PD. At the root of PD is this: in general, all players moderately "share a win" if they stick together; but at what point is one player willing to break ranks to heavily "win singularily" while tossing the other players into an abyss. Of course, each player knows this option exists, but they have no idea if any other player has taken the bait.

Negotiation games such as Diplomacy don't count, since usually games like this are targeted at having only one winner; it is inevitable that someone must do some backstabbing to get ahead, and there is no real sense of a shared win. Additionally, traitor games don't count either; while players cooperate against a hidden, single foe, players are given roles, and they must perform them as expected. Now, if all players started out co-operative, but were given a choice somewhere in the game to turn secretly bad, then we might have something! But I know of no such game currently out there, not to say that it doesn't exist.

And so, here's where the irony begins.

I've been reworking Doppleganger recently. Thematically, Doppleganger is about a team of UFO believers who have broken into a deserted Area 51 outpost in the Nevada Desert. And while they have found clear evidence of alien life that has visited Earth, their vehicles and communication equipment have been sabotaged. The players must work together to escape the desert to civilization.

(I hesitate to link Doppleganger to anything at the moment...I'm not quite prepared to release Doppleganger 2.0 to the wild, and the version of Doppleganger that is currently online is missing the key trait that I am discussing here. But you can view the old version on the list of links to the right.)

At it's heart, Doppleganger is a secret traitor game; the players are working together to overcome various desert obstacles. However, there may be an alien doppleganger in their midst, trying to make sure that the team does not reach civilization. Originally, as shown in version 1.0,there are two basic win conditions: if any amount of humans makes it to civilization, the humans win. If all human players expire in the desert, the alien wins. It's simple enough.

In re-working the game, I've thought about how to create a greater sense of paranoia amongst the players. Obviously, the alien player must be careful to hide his destructive action within the team, but how can the game system "help out" the alien by naturally creating a situation where human players can find EVERYONE suspicious?

The Prisoner's Dilemma offers an interesting solution to this. It's fairly simple; let the game give secret offers to the humans to let them have a large singular win at the expense of helping out the lesser shared win.

So, not only are the humans on the lookout for suspicious behaviors from an enemy alien, but they all know that the other players will be offered potential sweet deals during the game to break ranks for the fellowship. For a player to win the game, he must rely on his partners to work together, because if they don't work as a team, it is impossible to win individually.

Here's how it works.

As the team wanders the desert (tiles that are drawn and placed, creating a desert map), when a player moves the team to a Crash Site location, that player gets to distribute XX amount of Supply Cards as shown on the tile. Distributing a Supply Card works like this, the player draws 2, discards one (face down), and then can keep the remaining card, or give it to another player.

For the most part, the Supply Deck is primarily built of supply cards that can be used to overcome obstacles. But a small amount of cards are scoring cards, cards that score points at the end of the game ONLY if that player reaches civilization safely. The question becomes:

Is a player willing to keep a scoring card which provides no help to the team to reach it's goal, or "take one for the team" and keep a supply card that can be used to help overcome an obstacle?

Of course, the Alien player could simply hand over a Scoring card to a human to cause problems in the ranks. But won't the player who received the card now realize that the ONLY reason this card was passed to him would be that the player handing the card over is the alien for the sole purpose of messing with the team? Does this player now alert the team to the alien presence, at the risk of revealing that he now has a scoring card?

A lot of these decisions fall under the category of what the Value of Risk currently is in the game. Most likely, early in the game, humans will not want to have anything to do with the scoring cards; it is in their best interest to stockpile supply cards. But the value of the risk in terms of needing supply cards change as it becomes apparent that the team is having an easy time (or not) crossing the desert. Or at least, the risky visual appearance of a player stockpiling supply cards, but never playing them, because, most likely, they are worthless scoring cards when it comes to overcoming obstacles.

So, at some point, if the team members feel that they are close to escaping, it stops becoming a team effort, and instead becomes a secret individual effort to be the sole winner. But at what point does this become prudent? Each player is assumed to have their own value of this risk, and potentially understanding what the value of risk is for each player they are playing with.

Which I think captures the Prisoner's Dilemma nicely. In theory, anyway.

There's some amount of cleverness with the scoring cards themselves, actually, as each card has a different value of risk. There are simple cards, such as awarding points for each supply card that the escaping human holds at the game. This might be worth grabbing early if everyone is holding a handful of cards.

But the more complicated cards or more interesting.

One scoring card, "The Infection," actually lets the player switch sides to the alien side. This card is interesting in terms of when it's potentially kept. It's worth keeping later in the game if it appears that the humans are a part of a lost cause.

Even better, an alien can give this card to another player to "infect" him.

But the most creative use would be this:
There is a scoring card, known as "The Hunter." This human scores points if he survives AND if an alien has been killed off (yes, players can vote off other players to kill them). So, an interesting play would be to keep the Hunter card, and then, if you draw the Infection, "infect" another player, and then persuade the group kill off the infected player.

Other scoring cards include cards that score points for the number of players that survive, and it's ying-yang, for the number of players that died.

With a little hope, this should make for an interesting experience in growing paranoia of what everyone's motives really are. After all, everyone has a little villainy in them!

("alien shadow" image blatantly stolen from

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Blogger Jeremiah said...

Wow! This sounds like a lot of fun, I'd love to play this game.

I really enjoy the prisoner's dilemna, and I've been thinking about how to bring it into a game recently. Doppleganger does it very well, but adds to the paranoia by having more 'prisoners' and adding the alien theme.

5:00 AM  

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