Monday, April 11, 2022

Musings about optimal play

I’ve brought up the concept of optimal play, recently. Which brings up two points: Is it desirable and is it possible?

What is optimal play? I’m going with the act of consistently making decisions that have the greatest likelihood of resulting in the destined outcome. Which is probably winning the game, since we are talking about gaming, but not necessarily.

Frankly, I think that’s a more nuanced definition than ‘Making the best moves to win’

When I think of optimal play as a concept, I often think of a scene from the manga/anime Hikaru no Go, which proves that the game of Go is more thrilling than a light sabre duel over a pit filled with shogoth. When Touya is forced to play three games simultaneously with his back turned, his joseki is strong enough that he can pull it off.

Joseki, as I understand it, is the equivalent of Chess opening moves but involve a lot more moves and deal with smaller percentages of the board. Because a Go board is a HUGE piece of board game real estate. The Hikaru no Go example isn’t realistic but it does give an example of how understanding a game leads to optimal play.

Go may be the perfect example of a game for optimal play. Perfect information and no random elements. Go is all about the skill and Go has been researched for centuries with no final conclusion in sight.

With most other games, I think there are three elements that make me question optimal play as a viable concept. Random elements. Multiple paths to victory. Variable desired results. (Which is not the same as multiple paths to victories but can be related)

Random factors are the least important element. I mean, seeing as how most games have random factors, they are just something you have to factor in. Optimal play doesn’t mean a game is solved. Unless a game is solved. Then it’s not a game anymore. It’s a puzzle.

And while winning is kind of the core concept for most games, the nature of winning can be more complicated. There may be more than one way to win. And interactions with everyone else at the table can get affect how and what you do.

Ultimately, I think optimal play is a loaded term. I’m not saying that folks shouldn’t do their best to play their best. However, as much as games are about winning and losing, the process and experience just isn’t that binary. 

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