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The Freakonomics of Winning Board Games

The Freakonomics of Winning Board Games

Folks looking for a leg up at their next board game night may want to listen to the most recent Freakonomics Radio podcast entitled “How to Win Games and Beat People.” The title is derived from a book of the same name (which is, in itself, derived from another book called How to Win Friends and Influence People). Podcast host Stephen Dubner sits down with the book’s author, Tom Whipple, to discuss games, game theory, and winning. The book is a collection of winning strategies for 30 different games which Whipple collected from experts all around the world. In the podcast, Whipple and Dubner play 4 of these games while discussing the concepts of this book.

I should say here that what follows are essentially spoilers for the episode, and if you want to listen for yourself unspoiled, read no further.

Jenga is not one of the games Dubner and Whipple play but it is mentioned. Whipple recounts his interview with its creator, Leslie Scott, who told him about the two ways she plays the game that she feels are completely legal, but often get her flack from other players. First she uses her elbow to brace the tower as she takes out the piece. It’s not clear exactly how this is employed but I imagine a graceful swanlike arch. More interestingly, when someone has removed the middle piece of a level, she pinches the two outside pieces together so that she can remove one of them as well. She considers both tactics legal and she created the game, so we’re taking her word on it. That alone is worth the time listening to the podcast, and might even have sold me the book.

The games actually played during the podcast, as well as those in the book, are all of the family game variety, like Connect Four, Battleship, Hangman, and Rock, Paper, Scissors. During each game, they discussed some optimal strategies after they played, but not before. In doing so, they put Whipple’s mastery to the test. He won two of the four games and forced a draw on a third. Not bad.

All of Whipple’s strategies were some combination of statistical probability and human psychology. For example, in  Rock, Paper, Scissors they discussed actual Chinese studies that indicate some surprising psychological biases seen in many players. Whipple explains:

“So if you lose, if say, my rock beats your scissors, then you’ll think, ‘right, I need to make these scissors more powerful. I’m going to go to a more powerful thing, so I’m going to go to rock.’ So if you lose, then I have to think, next time, if you lost on scissors, you’re going to play rock, so I need to shift up to paper. And if you win, then you think, ‘well that went well. I think I’ll stick with that one.’ So if you won on rock, then you would be likely to stay on rock, and so I should go on paper. It gives you an edge.”

Whipple is quick to point out that this is not always true, but it serves as yet another weapon in your arsenal when playing the game. Other statistics, like that scissors are the least called choice, and thus paper is a good first move, are in the same boat. They are true to a point, but any given player may act differently.

While there are a few great tips in this podcast/book to play your games better, the real lesson seems to be examining how you think about games. Whipple’s research and Dubner’s insightful questions should get your mind moving. For those wondering if the book has any more modern tabletop options, the short answer is no. There are games like Risk and Monopoly (and oddly enough, “Six Degrees Of Kevin Bacon”) but nothing like Settlers of Catan, even if the podcast does mention it. Perhaps we’ve already found a subject for Whipple’s new book.

Where do you go to find strategy for your games? Do you put faith in things like statistics and psychological studies? Seriously, how cool are those Jenga moves? Leave your comments in the.. well… comments.

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