Daniel P. Barron

Play To Lose

Thursday, July 14, 2016

I’ve been playing Settlers of Catan quite a bit recently — although it is not a new game, it only came to my attention a few months ago. It’s like a cross between Monopoly and Starcraft,i in that you take turns rolling dice and building things with the resources you have acquired since your last turn.

Here’s a screenshot from my phone of a finished game which I had won. In this case, I acquired the necessary 10 “victory points” from having the “longest road,” in addition to the 3 points I got from settlements and 4 from cities, and one development card. But today I had an idea: is it possible to intentionally lose a game of Catan? Obviously if your opponent doesn’t realize you’re trying to lose, it is very possible. But suppose you started the game with the premise that a loss is a win. It should be clear that this is not possible;ii the game would go nowhere, eventually ending in a stalemate.

Are there any games that can be played with a loss as the goal? The first game that came to my mind was chess. At first glance it should be possible: you are required to make a move each turn. Perhaps you could move your pieces in such a way as to compel your opponent to capture them, and eventually leave him with no other choice but to put you in checkmate. It turns out this is already a thing, although not exactly what I had in mind — the rules diverge significantly from the original.

  • Capturing is compulsory. When a player can capture, but has different choices to capture a piece, he may choose which piece to capture.
  • There is no check or checkmate. The king plays no special role in the game, and can be taken as any other piece.
  • Pawns may also promote to Kings.
  • Castling is not allowed.

What else can I intentionally lose? Maybe poker. Of course it wouldn’t work in a cash game — but tournament style seems promising. The goal is simply to lose all your chips; how hard could that be? Except that in poker it’s a perfectly valid play to muckiii at any time. It turns out we would have to make a new rule: players are not allowed to muck. This isn’t nearly as bad as the chess modifications. The ability to muck doesn’t really effect game play and exists mostly to deny other players knowledge of your play style. But wait! It’s also possible to foldiv whenever it is your turn to act. We can’t deny players the ability to fold without totally changing the game. What’s left isn’t much of a challenge: a game of chicken to see who will fold first.

I’ll end this article with a question for the reader: what games could be played for the loss? I’m particularly interested in examples that work with the same set of rules as their standard counterpart; the only difference being that a win is considered a loss and vice-versa. Or perhaps even more interesting, a generalized theory explaining why rules will always need to be modified in order to achieve this end-state.

  1. For lack of a better comparison. Really any real-time strategy in which you fight for control over resources that steadily stream into your coffers.
  2. Although you are compelled to roll the dice each turn, you are not required to actually build anything. You can let your resource cards build up and nothing else happens.
  3. That is, discard your hand, voiding any chance of winning the pot.
  4. Similar to mucking, except that it’s usually done in response to a bet — a bet that you don’t want to call.

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