Last week I wrote about Broken Picture Telephone,
a site on which I wasted far too much time in June and July when I should have
been getting work done. I thought I'd follow that up with an article on
Kdice, a site on which I wasted far too much time in August when I should have
been getting work done. (As opposed to wasting it writing Calendar articles.)
I gave up on Broken Picture Telephone because the site was troll-ridden and
buggy even before it broke completely, and its absentee creator and sole
maintainer seems not to care. I gave up on Kdice because even though
the site seems like a solid piece of
programming, I eventually had to conclude that the game itself is fundamentally
flawed. But before I get to my objections, let me first describe the game and
the aspects of it that drew me to it in the first place.
Kdice is Ryan Dewsbury's multiplayer adaptation of Taro Ito's game Dicewars.
The site generates a map, as in the picture above. Territories are randomly
distributed among players, and each player's dice are randomly distributed among his
or her territories. The goal is to control every territory on the map. This
is achieved thusly: click the territory from which you wish to launch an
attack, then click your target. The dice in your territory and the dice in
the target territory are rolled; the highest total wins, with ties going to the
defender. Obviously, the more dice you have, the higher your total is likely
to be, but this isn't always the case; it's not uncommon for five dice to
successfully defend against an attack from eight, and technically, one die can
fend off an attack from a stack of six. (It's a 1-in-279936 chance, but if
the defender rolls a 6 and the attacker rolls six 1s, the defender wins.) If
you win, the enemy dice in that territory are removed, and the territory is
turned over to you; your dice automatically move into the targeted space, with
one left behind to hold down the fort. If you lose, your attacking stack is
knocked down to one die, and the enemy stack is unaffected.
At the end of your turn, the computer counts up your greatest number of
contiguous territories and adds that many dice to your forces. This is
one of the cleverest rules in Kdice (and in Dicewars before it), as it gives
you a clear goal early on: connect up your territories! And in so doing, you
will of course trample over some of your opponents and be trampled upon in
turn, giving you grudges that will shape your strategy for the rest of the
game. Note, however, that the dice you receive are added to your territories
randomly. You have to cross your fingers and hope that most of them
happen to wind up in a big stack next to an opponent you plan to attack.
Kdice's sister site is Gpokr, a fake-money
Texas hold-'em game, and the mix of luck and skill involved in the two games
is similar. Yes, the same people populate the leaderboard on Kdice month
after month, just as there are people who can compile a high enough win
percentage in poker to make an income at it. But the outcome of any given
game is largely a matter of chance. Let me put it this way. As a go player,
I am 5 kyu online (closer to 10 kyu over the table). This means that when
I play other 5 kyus, I have about a 50/50 chance of winning. (I'm a weaker
5 kyu, so maybe I win more like two games in five.) Against a 4 kyu, my
chances are much slimmer — maybe I win one game in ten. Against a
3 kyu, my guess would be one game in a hundred. Against a stronger player
than that I have basically no chance, short of my opponent suffering a midgame
stroke or something. Now, consider poker. I've never set foot inside a
casino, have never played a real game of poker in my life. I've watched it
on Youtube, and I've played a few hands on Gpokr but found it boring.
Nevertheless, in any given hand, I have a very good chance of being able to
beat the top player in the world. Sure, over a significant span of time he's
going to beat me. But in one hand, if I get A-J, he gets 7-4 offsuit, and the
flop comes down A-J-2 rainbow, I've got a 99.4% chance of victory. The way he
shows his skill is to fold quickly (and with a 7-4 he almost certainly
already has). Much the same is true with Kdice. Your initial position
is a matter of . In one game you might start off with four contiguous
territories and the first move; in another you might start off with four
disconnected 3-stacks, each of which is next to the 4-stack of someone
who moves before you. As in poker, the trick to sustained success is
maximizing the value of your lucky breaks and minimizing the damage from
your bad ones.
Kdice, you see, is not winner-take-all, which is the other thing I like
about it. The point distribution on the tables, for instance, is as follows: 1st place, +175 points;
2nd, +83; 3rd, +38; 4th, -8; 5th, -45; 6th, -72; 7th, -100. So you might well
look at your initial position and discover that you have no real shot at ever
taking over the entire map... but that's no reason to give up, because you can
still try to eke out 4th. The central strategical question Kdice players have
to confront is this: how ambitious should I be? Say two players have
distinguished themselves from the rest, with you in a distant third place,
three others reduced to one or two territories, and one already eliminated.
One of the juggernauts, fighting with the other, has left his border with you
sparsely defended. Do you attack, trying to grab first or second place at his
expense, and risk having him surrender to his main opponent in order to win the
freedom to knock you down to sixth in retribution? Or do you officially
declare that you're happy with third? And if you do, will the superpowers
respect your white flag and allow you to maintain the territory you've secured?
The answer to that last question is "usually, yes." For while the third major
element of Kdice, on top of luck and tactics, is diplomacy, conducted via a
chat window in the bottom right corner of the screen, Kdice isn't
The game Diplomacy contains no element of chance; the primary way you gain
an advantage over your opponents is to gain the trust of one of your neighbors
and then choose the perfect moment to stab your supposed ally in the back.
It's a vicious game, and bad feelings run high. The last game I played in real
life, back in college, ended with Turkey in tears and France ending the game by
flushing the German pieces down the toilet. The last game I played online
after Austria quit in a huff after Fall 1901 and France quit
in a huff after Spring 1903. In Kdice, by contrast, breaking your word is
generally considered a major breach of protocol. Sure, it happens —
on a regular basis, even — but even though the rules say that
respecting surrender flags is entirely optional, players tend not to accept
being attacked while flagged as part of the game. They complain about it
vociferously and litter each other's profile pages with reviews like, "Asshole!
Doesn't respect flags! KILL ON SIGHT!" The only practice that attracts more
scorn is the formation of pre-game alliances.
Aside from this difference, though, Kdice is quite similar to Diplomacy, and
that's not a compliment. I've told the following story before, but it's one
of the most memorable things I've ever observed, so here it is again: in my
ninth-grade history class, the teacher had us play a game that was supposed
to demonstrate how shifting alliances work. He divided the class into seven
groups — dubbed Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, Italy, Austria
and Russia — and, every few minutes, declared a "battle" between
two of the countries. Then there was a negotiation period, during which we
all were supposed to walk around the room making deals. Whichever warring
country collected the most allies would win the battle and a certain number
of points to divvy up with its allies. The idea, I think, was that countries
in a battle would try to win over the wavering countries by promising them
extra points to jump aboard. But that's not how it worked in practice. Three
or four guys decided among themselves during the first negotiation period what
the outcome would be, and told people whom to vote for. And the others just
shrugged and did as they were told. These guys had decided that Germany
would win, followed by France, Britain, Belgium, Austria, Italy and Russia.
The first battle was France vs. Russia. Germany and Britain both signed up on
the French side. Austria and Italy, realizing that if they just went along
with the plan they'd come in 5th and 6th, joined up with Russia. That left it
up to Belgium. I was on team Belgium. I voted to give our vote to the Russian
side, because that way at least we weren't doomed to come in 4th. And no one
else on my team went along. They meekly gave their points to the French side.
After that, there was no contest. Britain vs. Austria? 6-1, Britain.
Germany vs. Belgium? 6-1, Germany. (And we could have beaten them if we'd
just formed a bloc with the other three losers!) The teacher noticed that
Germany and France were always on the same side and declared Germany vs.
France. Outcome: 6-1, Germany. These three or four guys were able to just
impose their will on a class of 40 students. No carrots, no sticks, just
"here's what will happen" and everyone else nodding.
In Diplomacy the same sort of thing tends to happen, at least in the games
I've played. There always seems to be one player whom the others passively
obey. In 2001 I served as the moderator for an online game, and was astonished
to watch everyone just roll over for Germany. By the Spring 1903 turn Germany
was actually writing Italy's orders! In Fall 1903 Germany commanded France to
commit suicide by moving his units out of his supply centers, and he
did! It was ninth grade all over again, with people just falling in line.
After the game I asked France what he had been thinking. "I knew I wasn't
going to win, so I just wanted to have an effect on the game," he explained.
By helping the player who just treacherously attacked you defeat the player
trying to come to your aid? "I wanted to have an effect on the game."
Uh-huh. Researchers such as Michael Gazzaniga have demonstrated that the
brain contains elaborate mechanisms to rationalize the things we do. Show a
split-brain patient's right eye the word "laugh," and she'll do so; ask her
why she's laughing, and she'll smoothly come up with a spurious reason. "Oh,
it's funny that people make a living doing experiments like this." I have to
think France's explanation falls into the same category. Why did France
commit suicide on Germany's say-so? Hard-wired primate dominance behavior
strikes me as the much more likely answer. You know, the same sort of thing
that makes armies function. Marching off to your death on a commanding
officer's say-so is a big part of a soldier's job description.
The same sort of thing happens in Kdice. It manifests in two ways. One is
identical to how it works in Diplomacy: someone starts barking orders and
the others inexplicably follow them. But in addition to the informal dominance
hierarchy that seems to form whenever you put a bunch of animals together,
Kdice also supplies a formal hierarchy with its 1st-through-7th in-game
standings. And Kdice culture demands fealty to the hierarchy. There are
various customs that make up the generally accepted rules of fair play in
Kdice — don't attack people who have flagged to you, never
attack people to whom you have flagged, let lower-ranked players settle disputes
without interference, etc. But the number one rule is this: fair is whatever
#1 says it is. Say you're playing red. Blue owns about half the map and is
in first place, while green and brown are fighting on the other side of the
map from you, and the other three players have all been eliminated. In
theory, whichever player wins the green/brown war should take second, while
you automatically get third as the third surviving player. But say the war
begins to turn green's way. Brown isn't likely to fight to the bitter end;
he'll undoubtedly say, "Okay, I surrender to green and flag third." What's
your proper response? "No fair! That was clearly a battle for 2nd vs. 4th!"?
"No fair! At least let me fight brown for 3rd!"? Certainly you'll hear both
of these if you play for any length of time. But in the culture of Kdice,
the proper response is the following: "Blue won the board, so it's blue's
decision." Deference to hierarchy is the supreme virtue. This is one of
the things I dislike about Kdice.
Another is the game's propensity to produce stalemates of various sorts,
another fault it shares with Diplomacy (whose map is notoriously riddled with
stalemate lines). Consider the map above. Teal is in first place, purple in
second. But what about red vs. green? The doctrine of non-interference
says that they should settle 3rd vs. 4th between themselves. But this is
impossible. This puts teal in the position of having to decide. But teal
might be totally agnostic about red vs. green. One solution would be for
teal to allow red and green to advance towards each other across the top and
fight it out that way. But then teal would drop below purple in strength and
risk falling into second — or, hell, fourth! And the thing is, I
didn't have to look very hard for a map like this. I went to the Kdice site
looking for any kind of sample map to show off the graphics, and there it was.
A lot of games work out like this. And most games fall prey to
another kind of stalemate. See, as the map suggests, no space can hold more
than eight dice. Remember how I said that tactics don't play a huge role in
Kdice? In most games, players eliminate tactics entirely by dividing the map
up amongst themselves, letting every space "stack up" to the 8d6 maximum —
then waiting yet another few turns to build up some replacement dice —
and only then do they venture an attack. So, you capture an neighbor's
territory with an 8v8 attack... and he captures it back. You try again and
fail... he captures one of yours. You capture it back... you're back where
you started. Eventually someone will win a few 8v8s in a row, but that's just
luck. Incredibly tedious luck. Once the scramble to connect is over, Kdice
isn't actually, y'know, fun.
But even that isn't the main problem with the game. The main problem is the
same problem that plagues every unmoderated space on the Internet: people suck.
Now, let me be fair — are most people on Kdice unfit to interact
with others? Nah. But are enough people on Kdice unfit to interact with
others that, when you put seven of them together, at least one of them is
likely to make playing the game about as pleasant as scuba-diving in the
Pacific Trash Vortex? Yep. And it's not just the psychotic rage cases who
start screaming "FUCK YOU! YOU FUCKING ASSHOLE I AM GOING TO FUCKING RAPE YOU
FUCKING NIGGER FAGGOT!" as soon as the game turns against them. For every one
of those, there are several more who don't sound like Krieg Mockery but still
manage to pepper the chat window with casual racism, sexism, and homophobia —
more than anything else, I quit Kdice because I'd had my fill of seeing the
word "fag" thrown about more frequently than the word "the." Or they'll
clearly be using the game as a way of getting out their aggressions, declaring
"BAM! ha ha ha ha ha" because their imaginary dice just produced a higher
number than someone else's imaginary dice. Now, one interesting thing about
Kdice is that at the beginning of every month, everyone's score is set back to
zero. For a couple of days the chat windows are full of complaints from the
regulars about being sent back to the 0- and 100-level tables and how they
can't wait to escape the "noobs" and get back to playing with the regulars.
And for a short while I thought that maybe if I worked my score up high enough
I'd be able to escape the sort of junior high bullshit I've talked about above.
But then I did work my score up pretty high — as I mentioned in a
pop-up note, I even won one of the tournaments — and it turned out
that the objectionable players I'd been trying to escape were the
So with Broken Picture Telephone still broken and the appeal of Kdice having
faded, I need another game to waste time on. Hmmm, what's this? "Save your
lover"? Sounds promising...
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