ABSTRACT 2-PLAYER GAMES
When talking about the games I have a passion for, I call them, for convenience sake, simply “abstract games”, though that covers far too large a spectrum. The term is commonly used by players, designers, publishers, reviewers, bloggers and so on, but without a consensus on its exact meaning. As many game features overlap each other to a certain extent, the specific characteristics of all that is called ‘abstract’ in the corridors of the game scene can be very diverse.
A more precise definition might be: a game without a theme, for two players and in which both parties have access to all available information – also claimed as ‘abstract perfect information 2-player games’. To narrow it down even more, the abstract game that really matters to me can be differentiated from any game:
- that is played by more than two players;
- that is a simulation of a concrete or made-up narrative context;
- with a random factor;
- in which players do not have access to all and the same information;
- that requires a certain amount of dexterity;
- in which memorization is a key requisite.
In my opinion, the presence of any one of these features implies that the respective game does not fit in the purely abstract game category. Why is it that I consider ‘an abstract, perfect information game for two players’ to be part of that category?
‘Abstract’ because this imposes for playing the game with only the bare necessities. There is no theme that might in any way influence the mechanisms – neither in the designing phase nor when playing. Players are only given the quintessence of the game and must make do with that alone.
For good measure: there are some abstract games that might contain references to a particular cultural or historical (or other) theme, but only in a secondary manner and only when the concept transcends the concrete. Mostly this concerns the application of a standard or symbol to determine a hierarchy. Chess is a good example of this. That is why the appellatives like ‘king’ and ‘queen’ are used in more abstract games.
‘Two players’ implies that each move is followed by only one move from the opposing party. If you play a game with more than two players, there is no way around the fact that you are facing superior numbers. Every move is followed by several moves from other players before your turn comes around again, which is an unequal ratio. Strategy and tactics are subject to the differences between majority and minority. A consequence of this is that it might be advisable not to play to the best of your abilities, particularly not at first, knowing that the other players are likely to join forces against the player with too strong a position. An additional complication is the so called ‘kingmaker problem’ – jargon for someone who no longer stands a chance of winning but still is in a position to determine the outcome of the game for the other players.
Pure luck, dexterity or hidden information are excluded because each one of these systems, each in its own way and on different levels, unfolds uncontrollable odds. Pure luck is entirely coincidental and leads merely to bluffing and/or speculation, which gets in the way of straight, analytical accuracy. ‘Perfect information’ because both players should have access to all the available facts from beginning to end; at each moment they should be privy to the same and complete sum of factual circumstances. The facts of the game are out in the open and each player has entirely equal opportunities to deal with these facts to the best of their ability.
It should be mentioned, though, that luck, dexterity and hidden information are nonetheless present in any abstract game: luck because in each move surprises may arise with either positive or negative consequences (think of blunders), dexterity in the associative sense of psychological attitude (including diversions and sacrifices), hidden information because, after all, one can’t know what is going on in the mind of the opponent. But in this case these aren’t external factors. All that can be said of it is: whatever happens is determined by the players.
A game that meets the above mentioned criteria, offers by all means the purest and fairest confrontation between players.