Improving Rock, Paper, Scissors

So, I run design teams as a hobby. It started in college, a way to simulate the professional production environments and practice our skills. We used to sink 30 hours a week into designing various board games, card games, tabletop rpgs and more.

Now I’m in the industry and working professionally, but I still love these side projects. They’re a great way to explore ideas, develop a portfolio and crank out closer to those ten thousand hours my copy of Outliers keeps sternly reminding me to dig in. My Skype contact list is a pool of designers, developers and various talents. Whenever I get an idea, or hear about a great one, I’ll run it by people in the pool and see who wants to join that team. We treat it like a professional freelance system, complete with hard deadlines and development meetings. It’s a blast.

Often a fan will want to contribute to on one of the projects I’ve led, or otherwise enter the design pool. That’s when I break out… THE TEST.

The Test is something I’ve developed to help me figure out what, if any, this prospective team member’s strengths are as a designer or developer. There are many harrowing stages to the Test. Most have been kept a closely guarded secret.

Until today.

One of the challenges I give the applicant is to improve the game of Rock, Paper, Scissors. While the game is a decent tool for settling arguments, it’s rarely played for fun.

Yes, I know there are tournaments for the game – there are tournaments for lots of games that aren’t that great. There are tournaments for Checkers too.

There’s no inherent difference between the signs in emotional tone, mechanical advantage or anything else but their names and the names of the signs they beat. There’s very little for you to latch onto as the basis of prediction. That makes for a pretty shallow mind game. The game claims to be about prediction, but it mostly just presents the illusion of outsmarting your opponent.

When everyone knows the rules and has the components literally on hand at all times but they still aren’t playing the game for fun… There’s room for improvement.

I’ve seen a lot of variants through these applications (the most common being giving you 3 points when you win with Rock, 2 if you win with paper and 1 if you win with scissors – playing to 10 points) but recently a prospective designer known to the internet as mjh6 submitted an interesting variation.

In this version, the signs became “Brick, Theft and Trap”. Two players were building towers, and the first to get 4 bricks won. If you played Brick, you’d gain a Brick. If you played Theft and your opponent played a Brick, you’d steal the brick they’d normally get. If you played Trap and your opponent played Theft – they’d get a ‘trap token’. If a player had 5 trap tokens, that player would instantly lose.

There are clearly some significant flaws in this core design (play a round or two if they’re not immediately apparent). However, the Theft and Trap concept made me very interested. If we were going to differentiate the signs, why not play with one sign being safe and the other side being high risk and high reward? I traded out bricks for gold, because it makes more sense for a theif to be stealing gold and players understand gold is a good thing to have, and streamlined the game to this…

Gold, Theft, Trap

The three signs here are Gold (represented by a closed fist), Theft (represented by holding your hand out palm down, as if grasping for something) and Trap (represented by holding your hand out, palm up).  The first player to acquire 5 Gold is the winner.

Whenever you choose Gold, you will immediately gain 1 Gold.

Whenever you choose Theft, you gain all the gold the opposing player has. Also, if they chose the Gold sign this round you get the Gold they would have gained from that too.

Whenever you choose Trap, it does nothing unless the opposing player played Theft. If they did, your trap kills them in the act of thieving and you instantly win the game.

What’s neat here is that all the options have a different psychological aspect to them. Gold is the simplest and safest way to work your way to winning. It has a simple attraction do it, little risk and little reward.

Theft, on the other hand, is an extremely powerful sign. If your opponent has even 2 gold, playing theft while they play the gold sign is like netting yourself six gold (because you gain 3 and they lose 3). This is clearly the most tempting sign for those seeking to earn gold.

However, it’s also the highest risk. The Trap sign has low risk but insanely high reward, because it can instantl win you the game when played, and the most you’ll ever lose when playing it is 1 gold (because your opponent might choose Gold that round).

Each sign feels very different to play, and the satisfaction of predicting when to play trap can make you feel like a genius. It also feels like karmic justice, because your opponent just tried to steal your hard-earned money.

The game also has an interesting decision engine, because the more gold your opponent has the more tempting it is to play Theft. Your opponent obviously knows this.

There’s also a clear catch-up mechanic built in, and a constant source of tension. 2/3 of the signs available to you have the potential to end in instant victory or defeat (if you’re playing theft or trap), and no matter how far ahead of you your opponent is in gold – you can risk trying to steal it all away in one go.

I’m sure the numbers on this version aren’t perfect, but the core seems to work very well. The options feel very different from one another, the mind game has enough information to feel like you’re reaching reasonable decisions, there are few enough options to keep from over-complicating a player’s mind and the results of your choices have a demonstrable impact on the game.

What’s Your Iteration?

So, how would you improve on Rock, Paper, Scissors? It’s great design exercise and can lead to some very interesting places. I recommend giving it a try, if you haven’t already.

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