Can heuristics fun? – Building an approach to Splendor


I’ve been putting this off, because I’m not sure whether it applies to the mission of this blog. It’s hard to talk about personal approaches to puzzling out puzzles in a way that’s about the feelings of games, rather than the mechanics or actions, but I think it’s worth trying.

One of the core hidden pleasures of a boardgame is building heuristic approaches, testing them, and changing them.

A heuristic is just a systematic approach to a problem, a set of rules to follow. It’s the system of guesses you build up to solve a problem where you don’t know all the variables, and can’t accurately calculate what the best course of action is.

I think it’s often unconscious, but the state of flow certain games can induce is often about applying a way of thinking that deals with the uncertainty. It’s no surprise that one of the biggest bugbears of gamers can be waiting for people with ‘analysis paralysis’. This is a problem that steps in when enough information is available to a player for it to be possible (but difficult) to calculate ‘the best move’. It comes from trying to calculate every possible outcome as far as possible, and it’s painful to watch.

It’s why I don’t play Chess. I always feel like every mistake I make was just a lack of time spent thinking.

If someone is playing thoroughly and analytically, they need to run through every option. Someone with a heuristic though, has just decided a few simple rules they’ll follow that they intuit will help them. When things go off track, they adjust the heuristic

Let’s get concrete. Or rather, cardboard.

Splendor is a lovely little game, ostensibly about jewellery, but actually about collecting colours and numbers. It’s one of a subset of games I love that, rather than turning the table into a hubbub of chatter and drama, makes everyone stare silently at the table. It’s nearly impossible to tell the difference between someone having a whale of a time playing Splendor and someone who has just remembered that we’re all slowly dying.

Sorry about that.

I find it hard to recommend games like this, but they offer a pure sort of puzzle solving that is really fun. It’s a core part of games. Not every game is about chat and negotiation and drama, some are just ruthless little puzzles.

Anyway. In Splendor, it’s possible to plan ahead. You’re screwed every time someone takes a card, as it changes the shape of the plan,  but it has a clever counter to this, in that you can reserve a card. Of course, if you do, your plan is going to run less efficiently (it’ll take at least an extra turn to buy that card, and every turn counts), but at least you can’t be foiled (and you do get a lump of gold, a wild card, that can at least be intensely useful if your plan changes).

But I don’t think planning ahead is the way to win. It’s much better just to have an approximate plan and stick with it.

Common plans in Splendor are:

  • buy lots of cheap little cards, and just try and race to the nobles
  • always get anything that’s free
  • always take three different stones, so you’re getting the most out of a turn
  • pick a target card at the top level, and collect the cards and tokens that push towards that specific card…try not to get distracted

Now. These aren’t quite heuristics, but they aren’t far off. Some of them will work, some of them won’t, but they’re the sort of things people will do.

They’ll normally be doing a lot of this pretty unconsciously.

There’s a state of flow that can be found in a game like this, where you’re just automatically doing the thing that feels best. You won’t necessarily realise you’re doing this, but it happens quite a lot. It’s one of two reasons people are quiet during Splendor. The first is that they are trying to analyse everything and build a perfect set of turns, the second is that they’re in the zone, just allowing the options to wash over them, and trying to work out the underlying structures that encourage them to take certain choices.

The latter, I think, is happening all the time, but people don’t always notice.

It’s a really joyful way to play a game. Just letting it flow through you. Taking moves patiently, looking (not too closely) for an underlying pattern. It’s almost letting the game play you.

I don’t think many people would feel aware of it, but building up that personal set of rules, that you don’t necessarily explicitly state, is one of the great joys of becoming familiar with a game. It can put you into a rut, but it’s a legitimate pleasure.

I started thinking about this, though, when I spotted a problem in my play.

I’ve got a few games that I play in apps on my phone. Galaxy Trucker, Ticket to Ride and Splendor all have very well put together apps. It’s really satisfying to get to tuck into a quick ten minute game of something, even if it doesn’t have the simple joy of a table full of friends to make it really magic.

Unfortunately, because it’s only ten minutes (or even less), it’s quite easy to play a lot.

This means you build and test your unconscious heuristic much quicker. You learn your system, and then the next time you sit down to the table, you’re suddenly loads better, but also frustrated by how slow the process is. Each individual decision still takes you less time, but the gaps between decisions are suddenly spaced out by all these other (lovely, honestly) people.

The problem is different in Galaxy Trucker. The game is no slower, you’ll just be able to build quicker, and better, and suddenly you’re getting into port every time, while everyone else is even more haphazard, because you rushed them, and they get into a worse state. Galaxy Trucker is one of a very few games that get less enjoyable the better you get. It’s not really about winning, it’s about the chaos that happens on the (space) road.

The solution is the same both times. Just nudge yourself into a new pattern. Tell yourself you’re going to get way more guns this time, or you’re going to collect loads of tickets, then just hope for the best, or you’re going to go hell for leather for one particular colour gem.

Because even a little shakeup can really make a difference.

Just be careful not to think too closely about what you’re doing.

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