|Introduction||Ralf Gering a.k.a. Mr_Mancala|
|Highlights||The Designer/Programmer Boundary|
|My Design Approach||The Players|
|How I Got Started|
Since I designed my first game in 1992 at the age of 32 a lot of interesting things have happened, almost all of which were exceedingly positive. Here I focus more on some of the negative events that transpired though. Why? Because it's more fun to write about and more entertaining to read about. I could bore you to tears describing the love fest that has taken place between me and the amazingly skilled programmers who put my games on the Internet. Instead I pluck a couple of representative topics from the dark side in my experience as a designer, and oh yes, there is a dark side. I'll start you off gently with some career highlights and design philosophy before easing you into the cold cesspool of depravity, the darkness in the world of abstract games.
Abstract game design has been a long and fascinating journey for me. Highlights along the
way have been:
OUST Oust has some of the best quality gameplay of all of my games. It isn't rich-get-richer or rich-get-poorer. One player can seize the advantage and hold onto it, or the advantage can gradually swing back and forth a few times during play. Every now and then there's an extreme comeback. There aren't a lot of "automatic" moves in Oust. It's a very thoughtful game.
The focus in designing Oust was not the mechanism. That was to be secondary. The focus was the overall structure of the game, the flow of the game. Seeking a radical new architecture, I realized that an unusual combination of starting and ending conditions would shake things up a little. Some games start with all the pieces of both colors on the board and end with all the pieces of one color off the board. Other games start with an empty board and end with pieces of both colors on the board. How about a game that starts with an empty board and ends with pieces of only one color on the board? Perfect. Almost done. I’d been designing games for a long time at this point, so it didn’t take me long to figure out the required mechanism. The details worked themselves out.
Oust earns high marks for bold engineering. It may prove to be one of my most robust games, i.e. resistant to the onset of move order advantage (first move advantage or second move advantage). Mirroring schemes are very easily thwarted at any time during play by either player. Any shape of board can be used for Oust, even bizarre shapes, with any number of cells, odd or even. A rectangular or hexagonal grid pattern can be used. Oust is an extremely scalable game.
REDSTONE I accidentally designed a Go variant, something I don't normally do. I almost didn't release it but I'm glad I did because it made a huge splash in the Go community.
Redstone review by a 2-dan Go player (Graham a.k.a. Topazg):
"My initial impression of Redstone, from having played it twice now, is one of interest. Strategically, it's basically Go, but with a few twists. Tactically, it has an inherent system that I'm inclined to believe increases the depth of complexity quite a bit. This will have an impact on strategy, but I'm not entirely sure what yet.
One thing I haven't analysed in enough detail is life and death common shapes. In Go, there are a number of sequences, shapes, and combinations that are known to be even or good for one side. Some of these retain their qualities more or less in Redstone, some are turned upside down. That has some interesting effects. In Go, having 4 or 5 options that you can pick based on whole board circumstances makes the game interesting, and one in which enhanced knowledge bears fruit. If 1 or 2 of those options become non-options, this adjusts the breadth of "good play options", which sounds like Redstone would risk becoming the strategically weaker game. However, coupled with this is life and death. When someone allows their opponent to live in the corner in return for outside thickness, that's a strategic decision based on balancing outcomes. If that corner is _also_ dead because of Redstones capture mechanics, it's an outright good result for the person developing the thickness. As a result, a few joseki ideas and invasion ideas will suddenly become non-viable, and I suspect some of the strategic depth will increase again, most likely balancing out some of the other decreases.
Until there's a reasonable understanding of living shapes and dead shapes and sekis (notice there are no ko shapes in Redstone), it will be easier to assess what Redstone's strategy is like, but we aren't there yet. My game against illluck was an eye-opener, as I fabricated a living group out of thin air inside my opponent's territory. There are a number of hane / crosscut situations which simply don't work in Go, but do in redstone, as you can end up with eyes appearing out of nowhere when red stones hit the board. It's also clear that two point eyes are frequently not eyes at all, and single stone self atari sacrifice play has gained a lot of leverage.
All of this impacts my feeling on the desired board size. A few days ago, I said 15x15 would probably be ideal, and I still feel it's well worth trying out. However, the reason for 19x19 in Go is that the corner sequences are well understood, and the results of the sequences reasonably closely theorised. Make the board too small, and the sides are not interesting enough once the corners are played out. Make the board too big, and no corner sequence can exert enough influence on the sides to make the balance between corners and sides interesting. It's a funny tightrope, and it's not clear whether 21x21 may end up superior, but current professional opinion is still that it wouldn't.
In Redstone, I suspect the nature of captures will expand the value of influential plays, as kills seem more common and playable on internal eye shapes, particularly bulky ones. As a result, it may be more viable on a 19x19 board to play 3-5, 4-5, and 4-4 stones than corner orientated ones, and as the cause of this change would be the size of a group required to feel confident of life, it's possible that would mean that there's still not enough scope for side play on a 19x19 board, and an ideal board size would be more like 23x23 to maintain the strategic depth that Go enjoys.
As with anything deep and interesting, there's more questions here than answers, but that's some of my thoughts so far.
It certainly feels a very interesting variant, and I'd happily put it alongside Go for depth and value, but how deep that rabbit hole goes is still unanswered."
My account of how I designed Redstone, posted in rec.games.abstract:
"I was driving home at night, after a lovely two hour massage from an
ape strong Chinese lady (when she laughs, you laugh) trying to push
through a long standing roadblock - the filament game - something like
Tanbo but more restricted in form. Different color "fill" stones were
used to fill in the places the filaments couldn't get to. At some
point in the design evolution, I stumbled onto something like the
cancer kill function. [I had originally called the game Cancer before I realized everyone liked it.] Pretty cool. Then, defensive after years of
being brutalized on the Internet, I knew people's first complaint
would be that this was a subset of fucking Go. Crap. I just created
a fucking Go variant. The roadblock still stands.
What the hell though. I'll post the rules, it'll be completely ignored, and that'll be the end of it. Obviously that didn't happen. I'm starting to warm up to the game though. Once I created the diagrams and played Luis, it started to dawn on me. Yes, this is actually pretty cool."
CEPHALOPOD Cephalopod represents one of my most inspired mechanisms, and I have a lot of inspired mechanisms. The focus
in designing Cephalopod was to come up with a radically new, fundamental capturing mechanism. No, not the Checkers jump with
sugar on top. I mean different. Let’s
Did Cephalopod’s dice mechanism just fall into my lap? In a sense, yes, but this was preceded by a really long period of enduring the ravages of failure, and having every now and then something fall into my lap which didn’t work as expected, or just wasn’t interesting enough to release.
TANBO Tanbo is the Japanese word for rice paddy. It's a game of roots – growing, getting constricted by surrounding roots, and dying. With its elegant equipment (Go board and stones) and its accidental but obvious similarity to a natural process, Tanbo exudes elegance. Tanbo was specifically and very successfully designed to be robust.
Tanbo was my second design, many years ago. The design process had to be purely cerebral. No notes. No drawings. No Go board. After weeks of pacing around in my robe staring at kitchen and bathroom tiles, peering into the cold emptiness of the unknown, Tanbo suddenly emerged. I instantly recognized what it was and a bomb of light went off in my head. It was not just success. It was utter triumph. No more pacing. Just glorifying. Tanbo was and still is a magnificent game, something to behold. It was now time to order a Go set. I had held off buying one until I had a game to play with it.
The appreciative Tanbo audience that I was sure would materialize was virtually non-existent - at first. You could hear a pin drop. Unbeknownst to me, Tanbo was gaining a toe hold in the real world. A small but very enthusiastic audience was forming. Eventually some programmers found out about Tanbo and programmed it for Internet play. Now there are innumerable die hard Tanbo fans all over the world, online and offline.
MY MOTIVATION My style of game design is something akin to engineering or architecture. My
motivation is the beauty of the game itself - the concept. The dynamics and
flow of the game are what interest me. Gameplay is a
process, an entity. It's not alive exactly but it's driven purely by the thoughts of the
players, taken in turn, according to the rules. When you've decided on a
move, you've advanced the play. The ensuing move of the game
piece reveals your change of the game's state to your opponent. The board and pieces only
comprise an adjustable display of the current state of the game. They're a visual aid to help the players keep track - nothing
I value my games not by their popularity, but by the structural beauty that I perceive. Byte is not ranked among my most popular games, but it has one of my favorite architectures. The underlying principle in Byte is that 3x8 = 24. It's really that simple. Notice that one of the numbers is odd - the 3. We've cracked the seemingly impenetrable symmetry of the Checkers set with a trivial algebraic equation. Players together form three mixed color stacks of eight checkers. The player who owns the majority of them wins. That was the premise of the design and the details worked themselves out. I won't make a case for the fabulous gameplay of Byte, but I prize it for its architecture.
MY SPECIALTY I tend to specialize in abstract games – essentially games that have simple boards and pieces, and short, simple rule sets. When designing a new game, I try to invent a unique rule mechanism or discover a new geometric principle to form the basis of the game. I then wrap that core mechanism or principle in a minimal rule set, having the least number of simple rules necessary to make the game playable.
The principle is the game. Once you have a solid game founding principle, the actual rules you use to embody it are secondary and can often be implemented in a variety of ways. Slightly different rule sets can be used to embody the same principle. I never select rules arbitrarily, as most game designers seemingly do. If there’s a design decision to be made, I carefully evaluate the options for simplicity, brevity, resistance to move order advantage, richness of play (game tree size), aesthetics of individual rules, etc. After sufficient consideration, one design option invariably emerges as the clear winner.
Clever designs are usually not merely the product of cleverness, at least not in my case. Ultimately, yes, there's a moment of inspiration. But that's preceded by hundreds of hours of fruitless effort, rewarded only by the occasional marginally inspired, utterly rejectable idea. Worse are the seemingly promising ideas that you waste a lot of time on only to arrive at a dead end. A game is functional art. You have to invent a device that serves its purpose well. It doesn't matter how long the design process takes, whether it's a few days, a few months, a few years. I won't release a game unless it meets my standards.
DRAWS I don’t believe in draws, especially the endless move cycle variety. The function of the game is to determine a winner and a loser, and the game should perform its function reliably, every time. The game is a judge. A judge doesn’t wimp out and say, “I don’t know, I just can’t decide. Everyone go home and just try to forget about it.” When you’re tasked with making a judgment you make a judgment. A game is tasked with making a judgment. Sure, a game is fun and entertaining, but there’s an overarching purpose – you’re fighting against your opponent and someone has to win.
When you know someone will win, that there can’t be a draw, there's a tension. There’s a vacant meat hook someone has to hang from. The more moves you make in a naturally finite game, the closer you get to the hook. Ratchet-click, ratchet-click. There's no turning back. For one of you there will be no escape. “Play for the sake of playing” while you can. At some point you’ll have to turn on your foe like a rabid dog, or face certain death. It’s kill or be killed, not Waltz or be Waltzed.
Games with high draw rates are so ho hum. Like “Well George. We’ve been chasing each other around the board for 90 minutes in what was supposed to be a half hour game. What do you say we forget this shit and go have a beer?” Weak. The game has failed them. Personally I’d rather lose than get caught in a move cycle - a cycle of boredom.
Some unscrupulous designers will create a tie prone game and then add a gimmick of some sort, like a rule that ties are a win for Player 1. Then they gleefully announce that they’ve designed a draw-free game. You need wings to stay above the asininity.
IMPERATIVES I have imperatives when I design games. If a design fails on any one of them it doesn't make the cut. None of my games have cumbersome move mechanisms for example. Such a game would never pass muster at MSG.
My imperatives comprise a very long list of "don'ts". Don't allow draws. Don't include cliche elements such as modified Checkers jumps, Reversi surrounds, n-in-a-row, etc. Some are aesthetic considerations. Don't gradually constrict the number of available moves until there are none left for either player, choking the life out of the gameplay, and leaving dead pieces of both colors scattered all over the board. Besides being deflating and anticlimactic, it's a complete mess. There's no sense of resolution. Only a sense that a weak game ran out of gas, randomly designated a winner, and left a big mess behind for the players to clean up.
When I see a game that makes my list of don'ts light up like a Christmas tree, to me it's an awful game. It may in fact be a fun, strategic, very popular game. But to me it's crap.
ORIGINALITY I try to make each new game as different as I can from other games, especially my own other games. That may in fact be the single most difficult thing about my design process. There's a strong tendency to gravitate toward earlier designs. I have to constantly derail myself from familiar paths. Tabla rasa is an unpleasant state to be in but ideally designs have to start there.
EGO There's only a handful of active designers in the world that I know of who can do exactly what I do as well as I do it, though none of them are nearly as prolific as I am. Is that egotistical? I certainly hope so. You have to believe in yourself to the utmost extent if you want to excell in this particular field. Self doubt is the enemy. You have to know you can do it, even if you've never done it before, even when weeks of relentless defeat turn into months of relentless defeat. If that's ego then that's exactly what you need to succeed. If you expect people to believe in you, you fucking better well believe in yourself. If not you're selling a lie.
I started abstract game design as an outsider. I'd played Chess in junior high school and then, after a lackluster track record, never played any games for about fifteen years. I had no knowledge of
games beyond Chess, Checkers, Backgammon and a couple of commercial games. Step one: In my early thirties I learned of two games, Reversi and Go.
I was starstruck with these two games. I had never played them
and had no desire to play them. The spledor of these elegant games captivated me independent of their gameplay. Step two: It occurred to me, fundamental
though these games were, that someone had invented each of them. All by itself, the knowledge that these games were the
inventions of two individuals was truly humbling. Who were these guys? Step three, and this is the important one: It
occurred to me that if anyone in the history of the world can discover a new, fundamental game mechanism, I can.
Enter Quadrature. Form a rectangle, where three of the corners are your pieces and one corner is your opponent’s piece, and convert your opponent’s piece into one of your own. Now all four corners are in your color. That’s the central mechanism in Quadrature.
One day I was playing Quadrature with a friend, and I started to suspect that we were engaged in an endless cycle of moves. The game seemed to be stagnating. My opponent was the first to mention it. This was a very unpleasant moment for me. It was embarrassing. It sucked participating in that age old, idiotic discussion of “are we really having a draw?”, then playing out a few more moves and finally realizing that yes, we were really having a draw.
The Quadrature draw happened about a year after Quadrature's release. This was a hard lesson for me, a lesson in what not to do. Never again. I then set about to design the perfect game (i.e. near zero move order advantage, even among experts). I ended up doing surprisingly well with Tanbo.
No game can be perfect. The abstract game, said to be devoid of luck, starts with a coin toss. The abstract game is no less a game of luck than Poker, with its initial random dealing of cards. It’s crucial to contain move order advantage. The only way for a game to be completely free of move order advantage is to require an infinite number of moves per game - but then it wouldn’t be a game. You give it your best shot and ultimately statistics is the judge.
"I admire Mark Steere. He is one of the most brilliant people who ever lived on our planet. He invented Impasse
and Tanbo. Tanbo is like a game from another universe, absolutely fascinating.
Now he has created Byte:
Ralf Gering, a.k.a. Mr_Mancala, posted these words in a public
discussion forum, the Yahoo group abstractgames in message #821 on November 11, 2005. Ralf later removed the message, but not
before it had been backed up by various Internet archiving services.
Later, in February 2009, Ralf Gering had this to say about
me and my games:
"His rising productivity is accompanied with the declining quality of his designs. (One could even postulate that his ever-accelerating pace is a symptom of his more and more deteriorating
As you read the scathing condemnation of me and my games, you begin to formulate a picture of the article's author, the emotionally unhinged Ralf Gering. The actual intent of the article, that I design terrible games, goes unnoticed. By the way, Tanbo is as fair as a game can possibly be. Move order advantage in Tanbo is statistically consistent with 0% as can be verified with data publicly available from megasite ItsYourTurn. Ralf Gering's analytical ability is commensurate with his grammatical ability.
In 2005 Ralf Gering was apparently an anonymous fan of mine. One day, out of the blue, he mustered the courage to invite me to join a discussion group for which he was an assistant moderator. At the time I had no idea who Ralf Gering was nor had I ever heard of said group. But he was very enthusiastic and seemed to have some connection to abstract games, so I accepted his offer. I would then behold the most dysfunctional discussion group I could have imagined at that time. Ralf Gering condescended to everyone in the group. But to question Ralf Gering's point of view on anything, no matter how diplomatically, was to risk censorship and banishment - after which Ralf Gering would forbid further discussion of the matter.
I don't like lording, even seeing it inflicted on others, and it didn't take long before I'd had about enough. Naturally I voiced my objection. I asked Ralf Gering to step down from his position as assistant moderator of the group. It wasn't even intended as an insult. I just wanted him to be able to freely join the debate without being compromised by his conflicting role as assistant moderator.
Here I was, an up and coming abstract game designer that Ralf Gering had made a big show of recruiting to his group two days earlier. And now I was doing the unthinkable - publicly calling Ralf Gering's ethical conflict into question. He couldn't very well censor and ban me at this point, but he couldn't let the insult to his authority stand either, so he blew a gasket. He angrily announced his resignation from the group and then vandalized the group, scrambling members' settings and deleting as many files as he could before the owner of the group caught on and kicked him out. This was the first of many game related groups that Ralf Gering would ultimately be ejected from.
I was still somewhat new to the discussion of abstract games on the Internet. Shortly after Ralf Gering sabotaged the aforementioned group I visited the Yahoo group abstractgames. I'd been a member of abstractgames since March 2005 but I'd never made a single post. Now, eight months later, I was confronted with a hysterical message calling for my ouster entitled "Byte / Joao, I ASK YOU TO HELP!" Ralf Gering was publicly imploring the owner of a group I'd never even posted in to toss me out. Incredibly, Ralf Gering announced to the group that it was his birthday, suggesting that my expulsion would make a fitting birthday present. Yahoo group abstractgames message #849, posted November 29, 2005 by Ralf Gering:
"If you don't remove Mark Steere from Yahoo!
Groups I will report his behavior to the police and also that Yahoo!
is tolerating criminal acts.
Joao, I ask you you to help [sic]. Any way It's my birthday today [sic].
Please understand that Ralf Gering was serious about this and that he was about 45
years old at the time. This message was actually fairly typical of Ralf Gering with the shrieking, threatening, sniveling,
and accusation of "criminal acts". It also typifies Ralf Gering's ongoing struggle with reality. Picture the police
officer who fields the complaint about Yahoo's toleration of criminal acts.
Ralf Gering is obviously not fluent in English. His writing is peppered with bad grammar. You don't have to look far to find such gems as "his ever-accelerating pace is a symptom of his more and more deteriorating health," and "His rising productivity is accompanied with the declining quality of his designs." Like I said, it's peppered. I don't fault Ralf Gering for his bad grammar, but please don't lecture me on the correct use of the English language.
Ralf Gering publicly demanded on various sites that Checkers must not be considered a stacking game, unbelievably. Equally absurd was his fanatical insistence that Mancala games should be considered stacking games. This is not a misprint. Ralf Gering had formulated a cockamamie, self-referential system that explained away all the bad English (with more bad English). The "true" definition of stacking was actually the topic of a public debate, instigated by a nitwit with a less than stellar command of the English language. Just for the record, Checkers was the original stacking game. Checkers (the pieces) have interlocking ridges for the sole purpose of making them precisely stackable. A stack of two checkers forms a single, independent unit with a unique function in the game. No game could possibly be more qualified as a stacking game than Checkers.
Moving on to Mancala games, bizarrely posited to be stacking games by the nitwit. Where do I even begin? This was the effect Ralf Gering had on the forums he attended. Obviously there are no stacks in Mancala games. Mancala stones are held in random piles within pits. A stack has structure. A stack has order. A stack has unobscured number. A big pile of formless, colorless Mancala stones has none of that.
Ralf Gering's stacking/piling nonsense was only a footnote in his ongoing campaign to establish new, wildly absurd definitions of common English words and phrases - new definitions that directly contradicted the existing definitions. Challenges to Ralf Gering's redefinitions were met with vitriolic temper tantrums. His frequent demands that native English speakers recognize his "alternative" definitions started to piss everyone off at Super Duper Games (see below) - even people who hadn't been paying much attention to Ralf Gering up until then. I believe that's what finally got him kicked out of SDG. The Ralf Gering lecture series on the correct use of the English language had to be stopped.
Back in 2005 a couple of my games were implemented on Super Duper Games, at the time a new game site. These were my first games on the web. I was inspired to invent more games that were also added to SDG. Ralf Gering would later have two of his Mancala games added to SDG. Typical Mancala gameplay is fast and carefree. It's a primitive game played in a primitive manner, but it's fun. It's entertaining. You quickly take turns, scooping and distributing stones, with little concern for the kind of accuracy you'd expect in a more civilized game such as Go.
In one of Ralf Gering's games, what should have been the simple, fun part of the game was instead an excruciating ritual of multiple stone placements to be carried out slowly and in synchrony with your opponent's corresponding move ritual, while simultaneously counting out loud. It was inconceivable that anyone other than Ralf Gering would find this type of gameplay entertaining. Ralf Gering stood by helplessly and watched his games drift out onto the sea of oblivion, caught in a riptide of disinterest. Soon he began feverishly modifying his creations, demanding that the programmer keep apace (publicly of course).
Eventually Ralf Gering came to suspect a conspiracy of some sort and lashed out at SDG's owner and many of the active members with accusations of unspecified "criminal activities". Ralf Gering whipped himself into such a lather it defies description. I'd never seen anything like it from anybody of any age. Second place goes to a four year old I once saw throwing a sustained, ear splitting temper tantrum in a library while his mother, seemingly oblivious, used the copier. Eventually Ralf Gering ground SDG to a halt with his frothing hysteria, much but not all of which was directed at me, calling for my ouster. But this time it was different. SDG was a site that I had enjoyed socially for some time before Ralf Gering arrived. At one point early on, long before Ralf Gering followed me there, about 75% of SDG's games were MSG games. The notion of Ralf Gering ousting me from SDG with a virulent tirade of hysterical spam, only a few days after his arrival, was phenomenally ludicrous.
In the end, the only feasible option was that Ralf Gering had to go. He became the only member, before or since, to be ejected from SDG, very publicly I might add. For a designer to be kicked out of a game site where his games are implemented is beyond unprecedented or unheard of. It's unimaginable. When it gets to that point, you know that every avenue of diplomacy has been explored and re-explored.
Later, after using other game related sites to conduct a smear campaign against SDG's proprietor, Ralf Gering was caught sneaking back into SDG under the guise of various aliases and awarding his own games the highest ratings. He had succeeded in raising his games' popularity rankings from the bottom 3% to the bottom 5% before getting caught. There's only one reason to involve oneself with game design. The love of design. Not the allure of popularity or professional recognition. In every art, including abstract game design, a sense of ethics is paramount.
I'm not the only person to have tangled with Ralf Gering. Far from it. Ralf Gering's only real talent that I know of is being a cyberbully with a penchant for making racial remarks. Here is a sampling taken from the Yahoo group abstractgames with the message numbers given in parentheses.
Ralf Gering to interrupt27 (#194): "Would you please stop to torture us [sic] with this pseudo-intellectual
Ralf Gering about Wayne Schmidttberger, senior editor of Games magazine and author of countless game books (#218): "I just said that this nonsense was first suggested by
Ralf Gering to markthomps, renowned author (#220): "My comments to all religious fantacis [sic] and white American racists: Would you please behave like a 'normal' person and not like the member of a brainwashed Christian cult or a Communist who is twisting words for reasons of propaganda?"
Ralf Gering about Wayne Schmidttberger (#221): "It would be good to correct Schmittberger's exaggerated reputation he has as a game expert."
Ralf Gering to markthomps (#496): "You are a very stupid person. The French players are just the strongest players around."
Ralf Gering humor (#497): "a
Ralf Gering on America, Nazis, and Jesus Christ (#502): "America has turned into a rogue state, the most dangerous threat for world
Ralf Gering to dtroyka, designer of the wildly popular Breakthrough (#505): "Another blind American. Too, sad!!!"
Ralf Gering to docreason, founder of IAGO [see below] (#1346): "It's very easy to proof [sic] that you supported criminal behavior. Come to Germany and I will sue you."
Do you see a pattern here, besides a burning hatred for America? The more accomplished, the more successful, the more revered the individual - the more vulnerable to
vicious attacks by Ralf Gering. Why is that, Ralf Gering, a.k.a. Mr_Mancala? I suppose I should be flattered by all the vitriol you've spewed at me over the years.
In 2007 a newly formed discussion site called IAGO (International Abstract Games Organization) preemptively banned Ralf Gering before he could even join. By this time Ralf Gering was well preceded by his reputation for flooding discussion groups with hysterical spam. IAGO was the only remaining relevant group that Ralf Gering could be banned from, at least that I know of. Apparently the proprietor of IAGO saw the writing on the wall and cut to the chase.
All in all, Ralf Gering has demonstrated a remarkable aptitude for getting himself tossed out of game related sites. Naturally he places the blame for his troubled existence squarely on my shoulders. But if I'm such an instigator, how come I never got banned? Like most decent, law abiding citizens, I've never been banned from anything in my life, online or offline, let alone a game site, of all things.
An obvious conclusion would be that Ralf Gering is narcissistic, paranoid and psychotic. But it's not even that complicated. Ralf Gering was simply born without a funny bone. In a discussion at Board Game Geek, a popular game database, Ralf Gering marked 17 of the messages as offensive, requiring management to investigate each of the marked messages. The response from Octavian, the administrator in charge of forum moderation: "The vast majority of posts you have flagged as being violations are in no way in violation of our posting guidelines. Please stop abusing the system." Ralf Gering then started a new discussion on BGG complaining about Octavian's lack of seriousness, and requesting thoughts from the membership. Almost all of the 100 responses denigrated Ralf as a self important oaf.
Here are some example comments from BGG members to Ralf Gering:
"You were completely off-base..." - BeyondMonopoly
"I entirely disagree with you." - boltongeordie
"How do you say "takes things too seriously" in german?" - hancock.tom
"This sight is not a militant information reporting site." - David Davies
"I think you need to unclench and get a sense of humor." - violentzen
"You must be alot of fun at partys. " - billyboy
"Lighten up if you are going to hang around here." - desertfox2004
"Go away and don't come back." - cbs42
"Some few people really deserve to be shown the door." - isaacc
The whole thread can be viewed here. Ralf Gering has accused me at various times of "defaming" him. Is it really possible to defame someone who's famous for being an asshole?
It's actually sad, looking back. I almost feel responsible somehow. But I didn't kick Ralf Gering out of any of these groups. I didn't have the authority or influence to do so. I wanted him kicked out of SDG as did many others. SDG was a harmonious site before Ralf Gering showed up and turned it on its end. Ultimately Ralf Gering's membership status was up to the proprietors of these groups who really had no other choice but to expel him. It was either that or tolerate his unrelenting, crazed rampages flooding their forums 24 hours a day.
Almost all of my dealings with programmers have been extraordinarily positive, with everyone happy all the way around – before,
during, after, and still to this day. There was a sense of camaraderie, a sense of excitement. I’d give the game
program a run-through with the game site owner and we’d have a lot of laughs. Then as time went by they might or might not add more
of my games.
A programmer made a zealous argument to me once many years ago that the root removal rules in Tanbo were not the simplest rules possible. He then excitedly went on to describe a flawed root removal system based on root color – a system I had considered during the design process before I realized it was flawed and rejected it. In the flawed root removal system, when you kill a number of roots simultaneously, you only remove the enemy roots from the board, not your own. The problem with this approach is that dead roots can be left on the board at the conclusion of your turn. I don’t allow dead things in my games. If something is dead, it’s carried off the battlefield and disposed of. After I explained this to the individual, his response was to add a secondary, as yet unspecified rule set in which you sweep the board for dead roots after the primary root removal, and then determine which of the remaining dead roots to remove - all of this while it’s still your turn. Keep in mind that this flawed root removal system was being touted as “simpler”. This gets blown out of the water twice – once on an additional rules charge and again on an aesthetics violation.
As the discussion wore on, the more I tried to explain the rationale of the existing root removal system, the more zealous the individual became about his “simplification” of my game. Finally I had to politely thank him in advance for not mutilating my game. Not that he had any intention of doing that. I just felt that this would be a good time to call into view the professional boundary line between game designer and game programmer. The existing, correct root removal rules in Tanbo are conceptually simple and never leave dead roots on the board of either color. This approach is indicated by anything resembling aesthetic consideration.
You’d think that mutual respect of the designer/programmer boundary would be covered by common decency, as it was in the preceding example and as it almost always is, but it’s not guaranteed to be. Sometimes a programmer will aimlessly wander over to the designer/programmer boundary. They get caught up in the excitement of a new game design, they want to be a part of it, and they end up a little too close to the line. It’s more of a complement than anything else. Usually at this point I reach out and lovingly swat them across the nose with a rolled up newspaper, shooing them back to their corner. No harm no foul.
In rare cases I’ve had to make a stink when my intellectual property rights were being trampled. There are some dark corners in the world of abstract games. How can that be? Aren’t games supposed to be fun? Yes, but they’re also supposed to be business. The abstract game designer doesn’t like to be effectively told, “Thanks for the free game, stupid. Now leave us alone while we mutilate it.” And no, he won’t leave you alone while you mutilate his game. That’s one dark corner of abstract game design, but not the only one.
I contacted the proprieter, call her Skunk, of a large, full featured game site, call it Game Site X, about adding Dipole. Skunk was very friendly, at least superficially so, and agreed to program my game. In fact Skunk unexpectedly promised to add all of my games. Wow! It seemed too easy, too good to be true - and it was.
The programming of Dipole went off without a hitch. Then the programmer at Game Site X (a volunteer, not the original proprietor/programmer who had founded and since sold Game Site X) wanted to program a four player version Dipole, so I said ok. In principle Dipole should effortlessly adapt from two players to four players - in principle. I didn’t write up a separate rule sheet for four player Dipole since he’d done the two player version correctly, and I naively thought I could trust him to consult with me on any implementation issues that might crop up with the four player version.
One day I’m reading through the forums on Game Site X, and I come across this post from the programmer soliciting input from the membership on rule design issues in the four player version of Dipole. Reading the ensuing discussion of butchery and mutilation among the inbred membership of Game Site X, my jaw was just hanging. That was simply the most piece of shit thing that has ever happened to me as a designer. Ironically, I had been in constant communication with the programmer - both at Game Site X and via email during this time period. Apparently he had firmly committed himself to never consulting with me on the four player adaptation of my game. This was only a crescendo in a brutal campaign of disrespect waged by Game Site X. As fucked as this was, I was later to find out that the programmer was merely carrying out company policy – quite possibly following direct orders. The real stinker was Skunk.
Sometimes minor design issues – rule design issues, not programming design issues – come up in adaptating a two player game to a multi player version. The programmer consults with me on the issue and sometimes suggests the obvious and correct way to handle it, wishing only to clear it with me first. But that didn’t happen at Game Site X. At some point the programmer added a rule to four player Dipole allowing dead armies to remain on the board if players left the game early. And then he went ahead and programmed it like that without ever telling me. What not to do: Add a fucked, asinine rule to one of my games, and program it like that without ever telling me.
Normally, when you see an MSG game, you feel confident that there won’t be dead things in it. That’s because you know I’m the only designer here at MSG and you’ve come to trust that I wouldn’t create an abomination, at least not knowingly.
I didn’t even know about this dead army shit until long after the seemingly normal four player Dipole program came online at Game Site X. You can imagine my surprise when I saw a dead army left on the board when one player quit early. When I pointed out the "bug" to the programmer I was informed that it was not in fact a bug. He had simply decided, independently, to leave dead armies on the board. It was no accident. An MSG design decision had been made independently by the programmer at Game Site X. I dubbed this mutilated variant of my game Zombie Dipole. The word zombie would soon find an additional application in describing Game Site X. Read on.
Apparently the programmer was unable to unfuck the program on his own since it would have involved delving a little deeper into the underlying programming of Game Site X, something beyond his pay grade. Naturally I complained to Skunk about Zombie Dipole. I was trying to convince Skunk as diplomatically as possible to unfuck my game. Weeks went by with no response from Skunk. Apparently she was actively involved in the day to day operations of the site at the time but was just as actively ignoring my messages. Eventually I got pissed off and decided to make a stink.
Game Site X has a Scrabble knockoff which they had named something that rhymed perfectly with Scrabble, damaging the Scrabble trademark. Of course there was some butt covering disclaimer. I hate the stink of trademark infringement. Get some God damn ethics! Normally I consider something like that to be none of my business but here I made it my business. I got onto the discussion group for said game and bluntly expressed my opinion on the matter. Of course this was met with outrage from the imbecilic membership, just as expected. In short order I received a response from Skunk about their mutilated four player Dipole program and it was essentially one of exasperation. How dare I interfere with their interpretation of my game’s rules? Here they had put all this energy into mutilating my game, and now they were supposed to expend even more energy unmutilating it? And of course Skunk was livid about the ruckus I had caused on her Scrabble knockoff discussion group, demanding that I maintain a higher standard of conduct. Imagine, a Scrabble infringer pontificating about standards.
I had naively expected that the programmer would be reprimanded for overstepping his bounds. Instead I was reprimanded. Skunk berated me for having berated the programmer. After all, the programmer was working for free. And I hadn’t written a separate rule sheet for four player Dipole. What a cunt. Early on Skunk had told me that she had to keep her geographic location a secret because Internet psychos were stalking her. One of them wanted to "beat [her] face in". Wow, I thought at the time, isn't that a little extreme? No, not really, now that I'd gotten to know Skunk a little better. In my case I had no desire to beat Skunk's face in, but it was no longer a mystery as to why someone would want to.
For years people have been making multiplayer versions of my games. Normally it's a piece of cake. I’m not going to drop what I’m doing and manufacture some big, illustrated rule addendum for you. If there’s a multiplayer version of an MSG game, it’s still an MSG game. Any design issues that crop up in the multiplayer adaptation of an MSG game will be resolved by me, MS. If, in a flash of inspiration, you envision dead armies populating my game left behind by long gone participants, you talk to me about it first. Wait a
Skunk also threatened to remove Dipole from the site altogether because of all the trouble I was causing. This was kind of a blow since initially I'd been really excited about having Dipole there. Game Site X was one of the first large game sites to implement one of my games. So I apologized for the disturbance and made nice, much as it killed me. I also made it clear that I wouldn't tolerate any further disrespect from Skunk or her sidekick, and that unfucking my game was not optional. If I'd known then how unbelievably stupid the membership of Game Site X would prove to be I would have said fine, pull Dipole from your site and spare me the gray hairs. Super Duper Games, with a membership only a small fraction the size of Game Site X's, had more skilled players. Game Site X members weren't even learning the rules of Dipole, never mind advancing the strategy (more on this below). Sure Dipole was getting a lot of exposure, but it was being exposed to idiots. What good does that do me? Skunk, by the way, was not above the idiocy. As the proprietor of an abstract games site, she was incredibly ignorant about modern abstract games. Her knowledge extended to variants of the well known classics and a couple of commercial games, as well as LOA and Reversi. And that was apparently the extent of it. Game Site X was like the Beverly fucking hillbillies - minus the humor.
A grandiose sense of entitlement permeated Game Site X – starting with Skunk and trickling downward. It was surreal – like a perverse Enchanted, the Disney fairytale. I’ve worked with many game site proprietors over the course of many years, and there was always an atmosphere of dignity and mutual respect. The complementary but independent arts of game design and program design were celebrated. Naturally, over time I became accustomed to the type of professional relationships that developed between me and the game site proprietors. That’s why I was so bowled over at Game Site X. How could such contempt of the art, of me, even be happening? How could Skunk grant her nitwit programmer free reign to take over the design of a world class abstract game? What galaxy were these people from!?
If any other programmer had been implementing four player Dipole, there wouldn’t have been any issues at all. No abstract game programmer says “Hey, I know! When players leave the game early, I’ll just leave their pieces on the board, dead!”, or so I thought. No abstract game programmer adds an asinine rule to your game and then programs it like that without ever telling you, or so I thought. The move order I had specified for four player Dipole was rejected in favor of the programmer’s preferred move order and implemented as such – need I say it? – without consulting me. Game Site X refused to correct this error, but fortunately it was of minor consequence. I was becoming numb to the pain by then anyway.
In summary, leave the abstract game design to the abstract game designer. Doesn’t that seem reasonable? When a programmer presumes to involve himself with the rules of my game, he firmly establishes a few things: First and foremost the sheer oafishness that goes along with wantonly abusing someone else’s property. A close second is the audacity. Here we had a programmer, whose only prior involvement with abstract game design had been selecting pretty colors for the board and pieces. And now he suddenly felt empowered to take over the design of a world class game. Why? Finally it’s the insult – the implication that your game is so uninspired and arbitrary that Aldo Asshole can jump in and make a worthwhile design contribution. Some creative individuals are simultaneously involved in game design, game programming, and graphic art. If that’s your true calling, don’t let me stand in your way. But please, don’t launch your career by fucking up my game.
Now that Game Site X's four player Dipole program has been corrected, am I glad Dipole is implemented there? I really don't give a fuck one way or the other. It's certainly not doing any harm. Three or four members have figured out the rules, and it gives them something to play other than Russian, French, Spanish, Italian, German, Swedish, Mexican, and Sub-Saharan Checkers. Would I go through it all again with Game Site X? Fuck No. Would I care if Dipole was no longer on Game Site X? Not in the least.
My bad experience with Game Site X transcended the context of game design. It was a bad experience in a more general sense. And I really didn’t need it either. That was the stupidest thing about it. I had already made a name for myself as a designer, and there would soon be an explosion of game sites adding my games. Dipole alone is programmed on nine game sites as of this writing and it's not even my most popular game.
Player talent in the world of abstract games fits neatly into a pyramid. There’s a select handful of unimaginably intelligent
players who reside in the top of the pyramid, an enormous population of unimaginably stupid players who form the
pyramid’s foundation, and of course a whole range of abilities in between.
There’s not much to say about the unimaginably intelligent players. They beat the crap out of you, you wonder why they never get tired of beating the crap out of you, you get tired of having the crap beaten out of you, and you quit playing them. I’m glad superior players exist because they advance the strategy of my games, but I don’t like to be pounded by them again and again. Sometimes I'll study a board position between two expert players like fritzd and jwvenus playing Atoll at Jijbent. Gradually it starts to dawn on me how far the strategy has come, not that I completely understand what they're doing.
Some of the best players can reliably be found at low tech Internet game sites. Why is that? Well, low tech game sites such as Richard Rognlie’s email based Gamerz Net, also happen to be the earliest existing game sites that are still there. Early on, all the MAG (modern abstract game) players were there, good and bad alike. They had nowhere else to go. Later, when more graphical, more user friendly, more socially oriented game sites came online, a lot of players abandoned the low tech sites for the more modern sites. But not the true gamer. No, the true gamer doesn’t abandon a known reserve of good players for the promise of pretty graphics, cheerful conversation, and cake recipes. For the true gamer, it’s not about the quality of the graphical interface. It’s about the quality of the players.
Usually the bigger, more professional sites have an inversely small proportion of good players. An exception to the rule is Jijbent.nl. It's a professional, full featured site with a huge membership, larger than Game Site X's, and yet it has an unusually large proportion of good players. Why is that? Because it's in The Netherlands, not in America. Am I suggesting that American players are fucking idiots? No, I'm not suggesting that. I'm telling you that from an abundance of first hand experience.
At the bottom of the player talent
I played Dipole with one Game Site X member about ten times. Dipole is a capturing game, but my opponent never once executed a capture – highly unusual play and a dead giveaway that a person has no knowledge of the rules. Such players find legal moves by sweeping the mouse cursor around the board and watching the cursor change appearance. Then they divine which of the legal moves is the right one, again having no knowledge of the rules. It’s the intellectual equivalent of an infant smacking two wood blocks together.
Just out of curiosity I checked this player’s stats and found that he had played Dipole several hundred times with a wide variety of other Game Site X members. Here the story takes a dark turn. This guy, who obviously didn’t know the rules of Dipole, and who never once made an offensive move, had won the vast majority of Dipole games that he had played. His particular style of totally passive, but otherwise random play was tactically superior to ordinary totally passive, but otherwise random play. It was so disheartening for me to discover that legions of brain dead people were going through the motions of playing my game while having no interest whatsoever in learning its rules of play. It was distressing, not just in relation to Game Site X, but in the name of humanity. These were Americans. These were my countrymen.
It gets worse. Even though Dipole is a game of obliteration, sometimes it can be advantageous to remove your own pieces from the board, and there are no rules preventing you from doing so. In fact, on your first turn of the game, you could remove all 12 of your own pieces if you wanted to and say “I lose”. You’d be safely within the confines of the rules in doing so. When I first saw Game Site X players removing their own pieces from the board on their first turn, I thought there must be something wrong with the program. Why was that happening? It wasn't like you could accidentally remove your own pieces. You had to go out of your way and specify how many of your pieces you wanted removed from the top of a stack, etc. Even someone with no knowledge of the rules wouldn’t do something that stupid – or so I assumed.
As old games ended and new ones started, a pattern began to emerge. Somewhere around ten percent of the players at Game Site X were removing some of their own pieces from the board on their first turn and also on later turns unnecessarily. For example one lady lost in two turns by removing eight of her pieces on her first turn, and the remaining four on her second turn. None of the other games sites that had Dipole were experiencing this phenomenon. Nobody was removing their own pieces on their first turn of the game anywhere except Game Site X. Eventually I started having fun with the retarded membership of Game Site X. It was the only way to maintain my dignity, my very sanity. I would tell them that by removing N of their own pieces on their first turn they had joined an “elite” group of players who had also done that. Sometimes, beaming with pride, they’d make the stunning admission that they had no idea what they were doing. They had stumbled into the ranks of the elite, guided only by instinct.
Who are these people? What’s wrong with them? Is it the methamphetamine blight sweeping America’s heartland? Is it mental retardation? Who supports them while they smack baby blocks together all day, every day, and tok baby tok with other babies? Who enables them? It was really disheartening. It was like a science fiction novel where vegetative humans are stored in massive banks, maintained in a reduced state of consciousness. I didn’t even know these people existed and now suddenly I had discovered that not only do they exist, but that they’re a force with strength in number. A comparison with zombies simply can’t be avoided - zombies standing outside a locked down mall, head butting thick glass doors smudged with rotten brain juice.
MARK STEERE GAMES
Copyright (c) by Mark Steere, October 2009