a rickety bridge of impossible crossing

nothing concrete can stay, donkeyboy

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josef (jk@mastodon) made some posts about chess and competitive games that resonated with me this morning:

i have zero competitive instinct of any kind, the idea of tactical thinking is profoundly boring to me, and however much i attempt to think ahead or counter my opponent in some way, my brain is much more interested in stuff like: whether the chess pieces make a visually satisfying pattern, trying to work out which of my pieces can currently move the furthest number of squares, whether i can make my pieces mirror the opponent, what tweaks can be made to chess to change it into a game i enjoy, etc

i think whenever i'm playing a 1-on-1 game, and i lose, i get a negative feeling in my brain from seeing my lack of ability demonstrated. but when i win, i also get a negative feeling in my brain, because i'm imagining the negative feeling the other person must be experiencing from having lost

I wanted to expand on that second one a bit, but not like as a reply, because that would be weird, because our weird brains are surely weird in different ways. But I wanted to talk about how I only like competitive games if there's some element of randomness.

If I play a zero-chance, full information game like chess or go as well as I possibly can, and I lose, which I definitely will, I have no one to blame but myself. I did my best, and my best wasn't good enough. This is a profoundly negative feeling, and I don't want to experience that feeling myself or vicariously if it's a game I happen to win.

But if there's an element of randomness, I can shrug it off. "Well, I did my best, but the dice or the cards weren't in my favor this time." I can still be proud of making a good effort. If I win, it feels as good as winning a game that consists of pure skill, because I can convince myself that I judged the odds correctly and made the optimal moves given the cards or dice that I had to work with. But I don't feel bad for my opponent, because they just hit some bad luck.

I don't want to play a game that's completely random, Snakes and Ladders being the classic example. I talked about this a little bit in i'm making a new game with respect to I Do Not Want a Mastodon, a one-page "RPG" where the outcome is completely stochastic. A game where the outcome is determined solely by a series of die rolls is good for teaching kids how to follow rules and play games. But once you get past that point, winning or losing a game like that doesn't make you feel anything.

No, the best games feature some combination of player agency and randomness. Of course, some people are so competitive that losing a game because of bad luck makes them feel bad anyway. I'm not sure what to tell those people. Maybe competitive games just aren't for them. It's all about figuring out what you want out of a game, and finding other players who want the same thing. If your game values aren't aligned, you're not going to have a good time.

I guess that's why I focus mainly on playing and making single-player games: it's just not easy to find people who enjoy games the same way I do.

My favorite experience with a competitive online game was Worms Armageddon, a PC game from 1999. The Worms games are turn-based action artillery games. Your worms have a wider range of movement than the tanks in a typical artillery game, especially the entries in the late 90s that introduced the ninja rope.

The ninja rope was a very fun and satisfying grappling hook that, once mastered, allowed your little worms to fly around the huge maps with ease. My favorite game mode in Worms Armageddon was the "rope shopper", a rule set that wasn't included in the game but invented by the player community. In a shopper, all of your worms start out with no weapons but an infinite supply of ninja ropes. The rules were tweaked so that a weapon-containing crate will drop every turn. Your objective in a shopper is to use your ninja rope to navigate to the crate, pick up the weapon, and fire on an enemy worm before time runs out. 30 seconds per turn was usually enough, but if you had players that weren't as good at roping and needed more time, you could bump it up to 45.


dOgMa city shopping, one of the first and most-played-on shopping maps. Perfect for beginning ropers and a chill time for everyone

The weapon you get from a crate is random. Worms Armageddon features a variety of "super weapons" meant to be extremely rare, like the Banana Bomb, which split off into multiple bombs that can easily destroy an entire enemy team, if they're unlucky enough to be all clustered together. Most of the time you get a normal weapon, like a grenade or a bazooka, but with the frequency of crates turned up to once per turn instead of two or three per game, you see the super weapons a lot more often. You do have the option to turn super weapons off, if you hate fun. The game was incredibly customizable. We always left them on.

If it happens that your opponent gets a banana bomb and is able to knock you out of the game before you even get a turn? You laugh about it. You congratulate them. You chat with your friends --- since the game is turn-based, everyone is hanging out and shooting the breeze when it's not their turn anyway. The game will be over in 10 or 15 minutes, and in the rematch, you may be the one to get the banana bomb. Or you may play on a map that's shaped completely differently and there's no good place for a banana bomb. Or you may get some other ridiculous weapon. Or you may completely flub your roping and fail to get any good attacks in --- this was more frustrating than being wiped out by a banana bomb.1


For advanced players, there was the "fly shopper", in which players are obliged to make their worms bounce off a wall and fly over the central obstacle before they can attack

There are no in-game rules forcing you to pick up a crate before you attack: if you picked up a weapon on a previous turn, the game allows you to use it. But this was against the rules of a shopper, and if you don't follow the rules, that makes you a "cow". If it was an honest mistake, you can offer to skip your next turn; but if you show no remorse and no intention of playing by the rules, then "kill the cow" comes into effect: every other player focuses all of their attacks on eliminating the cow, then once that player is out of the game, normal play resumes.

There was also an informal rule that you don't directly attack the player in last place. A rando joins your game and goes against the covenant? Kill the cow. The person hosting the game lays out the rules in the lobby, before the game starts. Everyone agrees to the rules beforehand, everyone knows what they're getting into.2 Known cows would be kicked out of any future games. We rarely had to resort to "kill the cow".

We had clans, and tournaments. I was part of "clan 042", and our motto was "Win Or Lose, Who Cares". Everyone in my clan was there to hang out and have a good time. Anyone who wasn't into that could play their own games, by their own rules. It was a lovely little anarchy we formed. Of course, this couldn't last forever. The early 2000s eventually turned into the mid 2000s, then the late 2000s, life happened, and we all moved on for one reason or another. But for a brief beautiful moment in time, my friends and I played a game to have fun, for years, and no one got mad.

Anyway, that's one reason I don't like chess that much 🦝

  1. but sometimes you accidentally blow yourself up in a spectacular way that makes your friends crack up, and that feels better than winning.↩

  2. common abbreviations for player-imposed rules were "abl" for "all but last", "cba" for "crate before attack", and "ktc" for "kill the cow". Of course, if there were new players, we'd explain the rules in detail if they didn't know the abbreviations.

    There was also "afr" for "attack from rope", which I never cared for, but was increasingly common in shoppers just before I stopped playing. There was another kind of player-created ruleset called "pro roper" or "proper" (pronounced with a long O) that was similar to a shopper, but it had to be played on a very specific and boring type of map, turns were only 15 seconds long, and the only type of weapon that appeared in crates were grenades and bazookas. In a proper, you had to attack from the rope, meaning instead of standing in one place and aiming an attack, you had to use the physics of the rope to propel your attack in the right direction. It was an interesting kind of game in its own right, and I did enjoy the occasional proper, but I was firmly opposed to afr making its way into casual shoppers. I had randos yell at me because of it, but the host makes the rules. Eat it, randos↩