September 13, 2012

Modes of Thinking

This post remains one of my favorites, and presents a framework for understanding how different games make us think differently.  The logic of the "modes of thinking"  still holds up well (I think so anyway!) and I often circle back to the diagram when thinking about a new game and where it fits. Enjoy! (June 25, 2014)

Often I find that attempting to write a blog post about one thing ends up leading to half a dozen other lines of inquiry, muddling the whole intent and clarity of the initial proposition. Most recently, I’ve been struggling to write a post about game collections and ways in which one might define unique “niches” within their collection that satisfy the requirements of particular (and preferred) gaming situations.

While no doubt that magnum opus will land on my blog eventually, in the meantime I want to consider one of the side roads of inquiry I found myself rambling along; specifically, the idea of “modes of thinking” in games. By modes of thinking, I mean what kind of thoughts/decisions/considerations do players need to make in a game and what are the associated mental resources?
In part, this concept was attempt to combine two traits under consideration in the game genome project; genre (as defined and explored by Selywth’s alternative classification system) and player skills, the individual faculties that are called upon when playing a game. In exploring various ways of grouping genres/skills, I came upon the broad of idea of “modes of thinking” as a way to understand the relative balance of skills that are required in different types of games, and by association what typical genres tend to be aligned with a particular set of skills and mode of thinking.

The diagram below, a lovely 3-axis chart, identifies three key modes of thinking that I feel relate to most games; spatial, logistical, and intuitive.

Spatial thinking pertains to games with, not surprisingly, spatial aspects such as position, movement, placement, connections/networking, adjacencies, etc and relies heavily on pattern recognition skills.

Logistical thinking relates to the activities of optimization, allocation, efficiency, cost-benefit or risk-reward analysis and tends to require calculative faculties.

Intuitive thinking is about deduction, player psychology, bluffing, negotiation, meta-gaming, language, etc., all which often rely on external knowledge brought into the game environment.

Each dimension of the diagram ranges from 0% to 100%. The corners of the triangles are “pure” games where the predominant gameplay element falls entirely within one mode of thinking. I’m not sure such games exist. Even a pure spatial abstract like Chess incorporates some element of economic risk-reward calculation and knowledge of your opponent’s psychology and past history.

The key to understanding + using the diagram is to recognize that wherever a game falls in the diagram the resulting percentages should add up to 100%. Location “C” for example is a proposition for where Chess might land, at 70% spatial thinking, 20% intuitive thinking, and 10% logistical thinking. It is predominantly a spatial (and abstract game), so rightly we might place it within that category.

Location “A” is my estimate of where the partnership trick-taking game Euchre lands. Play is predominately intuitive, needing to read and guess your partners intentions and those of the opposing team, while also making gut decisions about card plays in the face of lots of hidden information; in other words, it is a highly deductive game. There are some elements of spatial thinking, primarily expressed through the impact of seat order and resulting play order. Likewise, there are risk-reward decisions that need to be made based on how many tricks you are trying to take in the round. Hence, Euchre is 70% intuitive, 20% logistical, and 10% spatial thinking.

Location “D” was my placeholder for Race for the Galaxy, which entirely lacks a spatial dimension, and falls out 60% logistical thinking (card play trade-offs, optimization) and 40% intuitive thinking (deducting other player’s role selections, timing, etc.).

Location “E” is filled by Glen More, which relies in majority on logistical thinking (50%) but with significant spatial implications of getting the economics to work out through the tile placement mechanics (40% spatial). It’s 10% intuitive, mostly in the tile selection mechanic and the need to recognize/deny opponent’s likely tiles and play off their strategy.

Location “F” is a hypothetical game with very strong logistical considerations, but few/no spatial elements and limited intuitive thinking. Maybe Container falls here (I don’t know for sure, just a thought about a strong economic focused game)? Through the Ages might also be an apt example?

Location “B”, and the whole middle ground, is largely applicable to games my mind that have significant cross genre thinking, most notably civilization/empire building type buildings games, but may also include 18xx games, Splottergames, and others where there tend to be many major facets to the game experience. In the case of Civ style games, empires are routinely spread across a map and the position of cities/forces is often a paramount concern. But so is the economic developments of your empire, as are the political negotiations and meta-game that is inevitably brought to bear.

So is this approach to thinking about games and the thinking they entail beneficial? I’m not sure yet, but I find the proposition intriguing. Perhaps more importantly it helps me see a framework for organizing game genres and bridging the gap between genres and associated player skills. To take a look at an abbreviated (somewhat aggregated) list of genres (from Selwth’s classification), we might consider the following:

Predominately Spatial Thinking Genres
- Tile Laying / Pattern Building [Carcassonne, Ingenious, Taluva, Set, Qwirkle, Kaliko]
- Network Building [Inca Empire, Roads and Boats, Through the Desert]
- Spatial conflict / tactical positioning + maneuvering [Go, Tigris & Euphrates, Chess]
- Area majority / influence (abstract) [El Grande, Small World, Pandemic]
- Tactical combat [Battletech, Necromunda]

Predominately Logistial Thinking Genres
- Engine / development building (optimization, action cost-benefit, timing, etc.) [Race for the Galaxy, Glen More, Caylus Magna Carta]
- “Economics” (investment, supply-demand, shared economies, payment timing) [Acquire, 18xx, Container]
- Risk management + valuation / “press your luck” / bidding [Roll through the Ages, Magnate]
- Adventure / character development [HeroQuest]

Predominately Intuitive Thinking Genres
- Negotiation / diplomacy (people-centric, raucous) [Lifeboats, Diplomacy, Munchkin, Illuminati]
- Psychology / Bluffing [The Resistance, Battlestar Galactica]
- Speed/Party [Pit]
- Trick taking / climbing / melding [Traditional Card Games, Decktet, Rook, Euchre]
- Deduction / Signaling
- Knowledge/Performance (memory, trivia, word, singing, etc.)

One thing that is interesting to consider are BGG’s domains and the types of players and their preferences that gave rise to them (let’s assume Strategy = euro, Thematic = Ameritrash). How might these different domains map onto the modes of thinking diagram? At the present time, this is difficult to tell because so many games are increasingly hybridizations of genres and mechanics. But if we were to look back 15 or 30 years ago, is it any clearer? What about mass market games? Where do they fit?

On some level I feel like the eurogame has promoted heavily logistical-oriented games, and most euro’s tend to fall in the high logistical thinking zones. Pure abstracts tend to move towards the high spatial thinking areas, although there are also abstracts (e.g. traditional card games) that don’t have spatial elements and fall heavily towards the intuitive pole. Ameritrash seems to be mostly a combination of spatial and intuitive thinking, whilst wargames are more about spatial and logistical thinking. Party games, word games, trivia games? These games are almost entirely intuitive thinking, relying on either outside knowledge (words, language, drawing, singing, etc.) or personal knowledge of other players.

Last, I wonder if there is validity in a fourth dimension; weight. Weight, in this instance, is a measure of “how much thinking” in-aggregate across all three modes a game requires. This quantity of thinking could be in terms of internalizing complex rules, or being faced with deep decisions, or both. But it is what separates a game like Connect 4 from Checkers, which might both have a similar position on diagram. Connect 4 is a simple, nearly non-game, while Checkers has significantly deeper gameplay. So games with high weight would fall higher up in the air above the diagram (if we envision it in 3D space), while a game of low weight it closer to the ground.

As a device for guiding a game collection (or selecting a game to play), the modes of thinking combined with weight may provide a useful framework for examining preferences and aligning them with potential games. So there you have it!

Questions? Thoughts? Reactions? Does this approach resonate with you? Are has it left you screaming and run in the other direction? Cheers!

Note: This article was revised with an updated diagram and use of the term "Logistical" in place of Economic

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