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Fri, Jan. 13th, 2006, 03:13 pm
Losing Games

Seeing as I’m ostensibly a game scholar (and not just a reader!), I should probably write about games occasionally, huh? Being on break and away from the lab, I’ve done a lot more reading than playing, but I still do play games just about every day. Mostly it’s for fun, right now, but I’m always on the lookout for interesting game properties that I might end up thinking and writing about.

Right now I’m playing Chuzzle, which is a game basically designed for OCD people like myself. It’s a standard casual game based on the Bejeweled model of making matches based on color. The twist here is that you can slide cute little fuzzy guys on either the horizontal or vertical axis to make groups of three or more instead of just swapping adjacent pieces. In other words, each Chuzzle moves like a rook in chess, but pushing all the other Chuzzles in its row or column ahead of it. This makes board position rather important, particularly as only getting “combos” (one or more groups of three with a single move) or “supers” (five or more Chuzzles in a group) can stave off the “locks” that prevent certain rows or columns from moving until they’re freed.

Of course, there’s a scoring mechanism - but besides a simple score, you can earn trophies for achieving particular in-game goals. For example, making a group of seven Chuzzles (not easy to do!) earned a trophy, as did popping four groups simultaneously. Well, I’ve earned all the easy trophies, and now I’m working on the harder ones. The most achievable seemed to be the “Flawless” trophy, which is earned by playing a whole game without making a false move, one that doesn’t result in a group of three or more Chuzzles. I figured, “No problem! I’ll start up the game on Expert level, play as badly as I can, and lose before I make a mistake!”

Well, I was wrong - but ironically, I’m having more fun playing to lose than I was when I was playing for a high score. What’s neat about the structure of Chuzzle is that the game is almost as hard to lose as it is to win. The “losing clock” doesn’t advance until you make a move, but each move potentially breaks a lock or sets back the timer by which new locks appear. It’s really quite interesting to try to decide what bad moves might be. Do you break up large blocks of one color? Do you try to avoid making combos at all costs? Do you try to keep your locks spaced widely around the board to lock up as much space as possible? It’s tough and interesting strategic questions for the trade-off!

I’m trying to think of other games that have the property of being hard to lose, and I’m not sure I can think of an awful lot. Time-based puzzle games, of course, can be lost simply by letting the clock run out. Adventure and narrative games can’t really be lost, only abandoned. Shooters, racers and fighters are ultimately about time and reaction speed, so losing there is quite easy. There aren’t an awful lot of game genres, other than puzzle genres, that force you to make a move but prevent you from making moves that are either game-ending or game-winning. Even chess can be lost much more easily than Chuzzle.

I’m trying to take the game apart and figure out exactly why it’s a hard game to lose - and then I think I’m going to challenge my students with questions of how they might take this formal feature and tie it to a different type of play. That’s a fruitful way of inventing new games, I’ve found, and that’s exactly what I want my students to do.