Learning games

Last week I found the world of online board games at Brettspielwelt. I have mostly played a game called Thurn und Taxis, which is about making postal routes in the renaissance Germany. Players collect cards that represent cities, and then play those cards to build their routes on the board. The game is easy to learn, fast-paced and fun.

Thurn und Taxis

The learning of strategy in most light-weight board games revolves around determining the right value for each resource. In Thurn und Taxis, for instance, not all cards are of the same value. Some cities are in key points on the board, and acquiring those cards early is of high importance. It takes a few games to realize which of the cities are most important, and more games still to find more fine-grained distinctions between their values.

But the learning curve bends early and then falls flat. The resources are very concrete and obvious from the start, so it comes down to just learning the values of those resources. Once you’ve learned the values of different cards, the value of blocking opponent versus building your own routes, and the value of ending the game quickly, there is not much left. After that, the game is still a fun way to kill time, but it doesn’t bring the deep joy of learning.

Contrast this to a strategically more complex game, such as go. The rules of go are simple, and learning the game is easy. There are many strategic concepts that a player learns during his first few months. Much of the learning is finding the right balance between those concepts: When is influence more important than territory? When is shape more important than sente?


The difference to Thurn und Taxis is that these concepts are abstract. The Stuttgart card is a very concrete resource, and most of learning Thurn und Taxis is finding the right value for that card and its kin. It is obvious from the start that to play well, you have to know how much the Stuttgart card is worth. In contrast, looking at the rules of go, you would not guess that shape is a a useful strategic concept, or even that there is such a thing.

So there is only one class of learning in Thurn und Taxis, and that is learning the values of resources. There are two kinds of things you learn in go: the abstract concepts and their values.

(Okay, I am simplifying. In fact, there are useful abstract concepts in Thurn und Taxis, even one resembling the concept of shape in go. But there are not many of them, and their importance is less than the luck factor in a single game.)

The deepness of go is its width of abstract concepts. I have played go for years and cannot claim to understand concepts such as sabaki or tewari very well. There are probably concepts that are central to the professional players, but that I haven’t even heard of. That’s the reason go is so enjoyable: there is something new to learn at every level.

So what has this to do with software? That’s what I will talk about in the next post.

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