Greatest Games Ever

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This is about the games I consider to be the greatest games ever made by humans, and why they are so great.

Criteria

There are three criteria for a game to be one of the greatest ever:

  1. The rules are simple.
  2. The play is complex.
  3. There are tons of variants.

How simple do the rules need to be? Generally I would say that the rules need to fit on one page of paper.

How complex does the play have to be? This is harder to define. To me it's a combination of two things. First, there need to be multiple levels of players. At each level the players need to be able to easily and consistently beat the next lower level of players. For example, by my estimate Chess has eight or nine such levels. Second, there needs to be a lot of study involved in learning how to be good at the game. If a genius can look at the game and quickly become a top player, it's too simple a game. The need for study may be a consequence of having levels of players, but I include it just to be sure.

How many variants do there have to be? There could obviously be a clear criteria for this one. Since 108 is such a cool number, I could just say it needs at least that many variants. But then that criteria could be gamed. One guy could sit down and come up with 108 variants. I'm looking for a culture among the players of making up and playing variants, not just one obsessed guy in a basement.

The Games

There are, at the moment, only two games I consider to be the greatest ever: Chess and Poker. I also include some sections on possibilities and honorable mentions.

Chess

Chess is borderline on the rules criteria. You can just about fit all the rules onto one page, but it's tight. You may think the rules of chess are simpler than that, but when you get into all the odd cases of en passant, when exactly you can castle, and the various definitions of a draw, the rules get rather long. But not too long, I don't think.

The complexity of play is certainly there. If you look at the Chess rating system and the odds involved, you can certainly see the levels of play. And you could fill a library with all the Chess books out there.

The variants are certainly there, and have been for hundreds of years. Chess started out in India, possible similar to the modern Indian game of Chaturanga. From there it spread west to become Shantranj in Persia and eventually Chess in Europe; and it spread east to become Janggi in Korea, Xiangqi in China, and Shogi in Japan. Then there are the hundreds (thousands?) of more modern variants at ChessVariants.com.

Poker

Poker certainly fits the rules criteria. Even with basic betting structure and the definitions of the different types of hands, you can describe the rules on a page.

The complexity of play is harder to see. It is obscured a bit by the luck factor, but you have to understand that being a good Poker player is not about winning in the short term, it's about winning in the long term. It's also obscured by the major poker tournaments being designed to enhance the luck factor. Despite that, top players consistently do well in large fields. And there are certainly lots of books out there about playing poker. Once you get away from baby Poker games like Texas Hold'em, and get into the serious games like Seven Card Stud, the learning factor is definitely there.

As for variants, I've got 1,200 of them right here. Before the Texas Hold'em fad, dealer calls was the Poker playing culture for a lot of people. It still is for many.

Possibilities

Dominoes

Dominoes is certainly simple to explain. And there are different ways to play it. But it's not clear to me that it has the culture of variations or the depth of play. I open to the possibility that this is just lack of experience on my part.

Bridge

Bridge seems to have that depth of play. I don't know about the rules personally. And there are certainly a lot of trick taking games out there besides Bridge (Hearts, Zilch, Euchre, and so on). But whether those games constitute variants of the same game or a class of similar games is not clear to me.

I am hesitant to rule out Bridge and other trick taking games, mainly because I suck at them so I avoid playing them, and therefore don't have enough experience for an informed opinion.

Honorable Mentions

These are games that are great, but not among the greatest ever.

Go

Go certainly has the depth of play, as can be seen in the rated, professional players in Asia. It certainly meets the rules criteria, as it's rules are simpler than any other game mentioned here. However, I have looked for variants and found very few of them. And the ones I've found are maybe not an obsessed guy in a basement, but they don't seem to be much more than a few slightly obsessed guys in many different basements.

Some might argue that it's a cultural difference, but I don't buy that argument. For one thing, it seems rather paternalistic to me to say that Asian cultures aren't into creativity. For another, some of the insane Shogi variants out there contradict that argument, at least in Japan's case.

Settlers of Catan

Settlers of Catan is a favorite game of mine. It's got plenty of variants, and a game that is really designed for making variants of it. The rules generally take up a whole booklet, but I think you might be able to get them down to a page. However, I just don't think the depth of play is there. The luck factor is much higher than in Poker, and strategy for the game can be stated in a few sentences.