What would you rather play, Spectangle or Go?

My friend Andrew and I spent a recent afternoon reviewing the games he invented a decade ago. My favorite was Spectangle. You win by placing colored pieces on a geometrical board, and carving out piece of territory. I was drawn to the game’s heavy reliance on strategy, and its similarity to my favorite game, Go — a game that has both expanded and deepened my mind.

Most successful games rely on a combination of strategy, luck and secrecy. Children’s board games rely mostly on luck, with the role of dice or spin of a colorwheel determining moves. Think Candyland — no skill involved at all, and nothing hidden from any player. Simple card games (War, Go Fish, Uno) also involve luck, but add the dimension of secrecy — that is, players hold their cards so that they are secret from the other players. A few games (Stratego, Mastermind) rely on strategy and secrecy, but no luck — play revolves around trying to unveil the secret pattern or hidden pieces, but those hidden pieces are set by a player’s strategy, not by chance.

The most universally appealing games blend strategy, luck and secrecy in a fine balance. Think Settlers of Catan or Risk, which involve complex strategy and planning, but also feature hidden hands of cards and dice roles. I’m a huge fan of well balanced games like Settlers, which was the first of a series of “German style” games published largely by a company called Mayfair. Though I will admit, I was stymied by Mayfair’s Russian Rails, whose board full of similar-sounding cities ending in “-ostok” totally confused me.

At the far end of the strategy spectrum, there are the games with no luck at all, and nothing hidden from either player. These are pure strategy games, or in combinatorial game theory language, “zero sum, perfect-information, partisan, deterministic strategy games.” Checkers is a basic example of such a game. Play is entirely determined by strategy and choice; and the only thing hidden is the other player’s thoughts. If constructed elegantly, such games have simple rules and parameters. Certainly this is the case with checkers. However, checkers is considered a child’s game because it suffers from parameters that are too restrictive — the lines of play are quite limited, and only one of four or five moves are ever possible. (Think here also of Connect Four or Othello.)

In more “adult” games, elegant rules are combined with fewer parameters or more lines of play. This leads to complex scenarios with many possible choices. In the West, the king of elegant but extremely complex games is, of course, chess. After learning only nine possible kinds of moves (one each for six pieces, and the special moves of castling, en passant and pawn promotion), players can play out millions of possible games, all dependent entirely on their own choices. In such a scenario, players with better strategies will almost always win.

In the East, however, the champion of elegant strategy games is the ancient Chinese game of Go. If pitted against each other, I would argue that Go is the superior game. Developed more than 2,000 years before chess, it is both far simpler, and deeply more complex. It has four rules, total. There is only one possible kind of move — placing a colored stone on a 19×19 grid, one stone per grid intersection, once per turn. That’s it. Within these incredibly simple rules, Go allows for not millions, but billions of game permutations. Maybe even trillions, I don’t actually know that the number is calculable. The best chess computer programs can now consistently defeat the best human chess players; the best Go programs can only beat intermediate Go players, and human masters easily defeat the computers. Chess represents a medieval battle; Go represents the whole war.

I first started playing Go during the California Recall Circus of 2003. I was pulling 100 hour weeks campaigning for Arianna Huffington for Governor (quite a crazy game in itself). Between blasting out emails and launching viral videos, I learned Go alongside my co-workers in the San Francisco office, courtesy of smartMeme genius Patrick Reinsborough. In terms of pure fun, it was the best campaign I’ve ever been on (sidenote lesson: long-shot campaigns have a LOT more leeway to innovate with fun experiments). But largely because of Go, it was also the best learning experience I’ve ever had on a campaign.

Go’s lessons have helped define my strategic approach to politics, organizing, and in some ways, my whole life. After a week of mastering basic play, the lesson of Go suddenly popped out at me: Don’t sweat the small stuff. Or, more accurately, know when to dive into the small stuff and when to focus on the big picture.

In Go, it’s all too easy to get drawn into a small hand-to-hand combat battles. They happen constantly, and simultaneously, all over the board. But good players know when to abandon a close combat battle to take initiative on another part of the board. In Japanse terms, this concept is captured in the two opposing words “sente” (sen-tay) and “gote” (go-tay). Sente roughly translates to “initiative,” the ability to set the agenda and control the game flow. When you are playing sente, you force your opponent into gote, or defense. But when you are in a position of gote, you can often sacrifice a small battle to regain sente in another part of the board. And often, what seems like a sacrifice turns out to be a long term gain.

In my political organizing work, I always try to keep the sente / gote concept in mind. When hundreds of moves are possible but only one or two will produce the right outcome, the “players” with the best strategies will “win.” To be clear, I actually don’t subscribe to the popular metaphor of politics as a game. Campaigns have winners and losers, yes, but government isn’t sport. However, metaphors from games are often quite useful in navigating the irreducible complexity of real democracy, where real decisions affect real people. And Go’s metaphors are the best.

Which is why I’m excited about Andrew’s Spectangle. Like Go, the rules are fairly simple, but there’s no luck involved, nor hidden cards. The game play allows for millions of possible moves, in a way that would necessitate thoughtful strategies. Was it as fun as Go? Or as useful a metaphor? Unfortunately, I didn’t find out, because Andrew and I didn’t have time to play. We chose instead to have our scheduled discussion about political organizing and 4G technology. That seemed more “big picture” and “important” than playing a board game.

But was it? Given how much I’ve learned from Go, perhaps a game of Spectangle would have been the sente choice!