Finalists of the Thousand-Year Game Design Challenge
Almost a year ago, I announced this challenge in the hopes that new classic games would be created and promoted by designers young and old. You all exceeded expectations. We've spent the past four months reviewing, playing and judging over fifty entrants to the challenge. In the process, we've discovered a few paradoxes in our judging criteria.
The Elegance Paradox
Elegance is a nebulous concept to judge, but we generally kept a mental ratio in mind. [How long it took to learn and understand the basic rules] : [How much we'd want to replay and explore the game further]. For example, you can use "flipping a coin" as a game with a 1:1 ratio. One bit of complexity : One bit of replay value.
Hypothetically, if you had a game with 1:100 ratio, that is a game a easy to learn as flipping a coin with a hundred-times the replay value. If a game had a 100:1 ratio, it would be a hundred times more difficult to learn than flipping a coin but have very little replay value. These are extreme hypotheticals. Most games fall somewhere in the middle, like 5:20, or a game that has enough depth that you're eager to play it for four times the amount of time it took to learn.
Now, before you go thinking we just favored easy games in general, I must confess that we discovered our first paradox in judging this criterion. We felt game that is too easy it didn't have enough depth to reward generations of continuous play. Perhaps those little bits of ambiguity and complexity in Go were what kept it alive for over a thousand years?
It seemed a game needed just enough complexity to make learning the game a meaningful effort without a too steep a learning curve. In repeated play, that initial effort would be rewarded with future skills and confidence.
The Accessibility Paradox
We had a number of entries that required few specialized components, or none at all. We had a couple that just required a pair of hands for each player. Therein lies one of the paradoxes.
For a game to survive a thousand years, does it need *some* degree of fetishism? The care and craftsmanship in a well-made Goban can give the game of Go immense appeal. At the very least, the crafting of specialized objects for gameplay leaves behind artifacts for future archeologists to discover, like the Senat boards discovered in Egyptian tombs.
Then again, Rock-Paper-Scissors and Tag leave behind no artifacts, but are each at least a thousand years old. So yeah, this whole "accessibility and sustainability" thing were more difficult to consider than we originally expected.
The Community Paradox
We both weighed the presence of an active community in our selections, but I think I considered it a little more highly. Even in games where Megan and I didn't really find much replay value, I did take note of how active a community surrounded some of the entries.
Herein lies the third paradox: How much community does a game need now to ensure it'll survive a thousand years from now? Certainly there are thousand-year traditional folk games today only played by specific cultures and rarely by outsiders. For example, Buzkashi in Afghanistan and the highland games in Scotland.
But who knows how many games are mostly lost to history because they never found exposure outside a single culture, like Ullamaliztli of the Aztecs? Thankfully we have the internet to give more exposure to cool unusual games, like Sepak Takraw. And there are even a handful of people in Mexico who still play the aztec ball game, after all.
All this to say that we considered our short list with very deep thought about the specifics of this challenge. We're not just judging a game on its design, nor on its popularity, nor on its elegance, but a combination of all three. We kept asking ourselves, "Of all the entries, is this a game that has the best chance of being played in a thousand years?"
Without further ado, here are the finalists. We each had our favorites, and this list represents a combination of our shortlists.
Take-Back-Toe by James Ernest
Again and again, we returned to Take-Back-Toe as the benchmark for the other entrants. We kept asking each other "Is this more elegant than Take-Back-Toe?" "Is this more accessible than Take-Back-Toe?" James Ernest's long design experience is quite obvious in this game and made it a clear contender. My only reluctance was that James is already a professional in the game industry (and a nice guy to boot), but I hoped to encourage some new designers to enter the field.
Kickbones by Frywire, LLC
Dice are clearly at least a thousand years old, but the history of games exclusively played with dice are a little more murky. At the very least, we had a lot of fun kicking and healing while playing Kickbones. The doubles reference sheet was the only thing that gave us pause and led us to discover the elegance paradox described above. Was that reference sheet a handicap or a boon to the game's longevity? Is the game fun enough to memorize those nuances? Important questions in our judgment.
Turning Points by Joseph Kisenwether
While we loved playing this game, we did have some concerns that its fiddliness could be better suited to a computer. Speaking as humans, we liked the unpredictability and advance-planning it takes to play this game effectively. While the game can sometimes fall into the trap of having one or two "correct" moves, it was great learning the game with Megan. Also, we appreciated Joseph depicting an example game with actual Stone Age components.
Catchup by Nick Bentley
One of the great surprises of running this contest is discovering the vibrant communities of abstract players and designers lurking in the far corners of the internet. Nick Bentley seems to be quite the celebrity among that community, too. We both really liked Catchup, especially since it could be played with pencil and paper or with the new board tracker Nick posted later in the year. Unfortunately, we both gave most of the entries with hexagonal boards low rankings in the "Accessibility/Sustainability" category. Hexagonal game boards seem to be more of a modern curiosity, with few examples in extant thousand-year games. Aside from the grid, the remaining components were simple enough and the game was fun enough that Catchup rose to the top position of all the hex game entries.
Zuniq by Marcos Donnantuoni
We had a handful of dots-and-lines games entered into the challenge. We did have some reservations about including any in the short list, though. The genre is so simple that it's hard to add any tweaks that make the game substantially different from its ancestors. Still, Marcos has done an admirable job of giving the old past-time much more interesting tactical choices. We also loved the portability. Megan and I played this at home, during evening walks and at restaurants. Indeed, we got more replays of Zuniq than any other entry. That being the case, we felt compelled to include it in our short list.
Neighbors by XiFeng
Megan looooved this game. She's a fan of rhythm games in general, while I always struggle with them. It seemed this game would be just fine without the rhythm element but we made sure to play each entry with the rules as written. As such, Megan played like a champ while I fumbled like a goof. Perhaps I had trouble learning the rhythm and hand gestures at the same time? If I practiced the gestures first, I might have had more success.
Numeria by Lloyd Krassner aka Warp Spawn Games
This is one of the few entries with specialized components that actually made me want to create or buy a set for myself. We both appreciated the potential for this game not just as an idle diversion, but as an actual tool for preserving knowledge of math across language and culture. That being said, there are some problems if players have different levels of knowledge of mathematical tropes. Alas, Megan didn't find the game as fascinating, but still give Numeria high praise.
I want to thank all the entrants for their creativity, effort and patience this year. We'll alert the winner in a day or two and make the public announcement on New Year's Day. Thanks so much!