What Is Skill, Anyway?

If you’ve read any of my reviews, you know that one of the categories I consider when ranking a game is “depth”. What the crap does that mean? We often talk about “depth” and “skill” in gaming using horribly vague language where everyone only pretends like they understand the words coming out of their own mouth. We know the ideas are there – we all intrinsically understand that Chess and Go are more skill-intensive than LCR – but we’re terrible at quantifying it, and that’s something unacceptable to a mathematician like myself. I’m not about to say that I know exactly how to do it, but I think that if you’re going to put a number on the skill level of a game, the first step is to clarify what constitutes “skill”… and perhaps I should be using the plural of that word, because “mathing things out” isn’t the only key to victory. Here’s a few skills that I think a game can test you on:

1. Memory. Everyone knows that the more you play a game, the better you become at it. Memory is one reason for that. Not only do you begin to further understand the mechanics of the game, but you’ll also begin to memorize the contents of the game, whether you wanted to or not. I’ve had my share of gamers call that kind of knowledge unfair, but their arguments are irrelevant – memorization is definitely a skill, and using it will make you win the game more often. You’ll be able to plan more carefully not only around your future turns, but about what you can expect from your opponents. I won a game of Cyclades against a friend who was not aware of the Pegasus card (it lets you attack anywhere on the board) and had placed all his wealth on one island far from my troops – you can bet that he has memorized the existence of that card now, and will play around it more carefully. And it’s not just long-term memorization of the contents of hidden cards and effects in a game – simply remembering the current contents of your deck (or your opponent’s) in Dominion or any other deck-building game can be a great advantage in planning for your subsequent turns.

2. Psychology. Not every game will have this skill in noticeable amounts, but even those with very indirect interaction can still benefit. However, what you expect here really depends on the setting of the gaming you’re doing. In a casual setting, there is still much to be gained without any douchebaggery, and possibly more to gain if you know your friends well. Being able to predict your opponents’ likely moves can be a great advantage. If I sit next to my wife in a game of 7 Wonders, I know she’ll probably go for military, and nothing in that game is worse than getting in an arms race. Any game of blind bidding is almost all psychology, and even normal auctions have a fair amount of psychology to them – some players give up early simply because they get sick of the bidding war. On the flip side, being able to bluff your opponents and keep them on their toes is a great advantage when you have plans that are best kept secret. Sometimes it’s done by an early move that paints a characterization of your intentions for the game – if I’m the traitor in Shadows over Camelot, I tend to start out by acting like a hero. Sometimes it means staying out of the spotlight until your moment of glory arrives, which is how I was crushed in my most recent game of Power Grid. Table talk is a great way to work in some bluff, or to find a tell in your opponents’ comments, but the appropriateness depends on both the game and the group.

Psychology is even more of a boon in a tournament setting though, so you have to be prepared not only to utilize it but to defend against it. There are plenty of perfectly “legal” ways to get an edge in a face-to-face tournament game that you wouldn’t want to do to your friends, some more questionable than others, but something as simple as playing extremely fast can put other players on tilt. Bluffing becomes more important as well; just asking anyone who’s played competitive Magic, or, you know, Poker. When the competition is serious, gaming transforms into something entirely different, a contest of wills where psychology is a huge factor… but that’s an article for another time.

The hard part about psychology is judging the game design’s involvement with the psychological aspects of the game and working that in to your understanding of just how skill-intensive a game is. A game like Citadels with its hidden roles is obviously meant to test your bluffing skills more than anything else, but I doubt Alan Moon was taking into account the possible mind games of a tournament setting when he designed Ticket to Ride.

3. Diplomacy. Again, this is not a skill present in all games, but since so many games are 3-or-more-player games where all players are opponents, this is certainly an important aspect of gaming, so much so that obvious diplomatic tools are frequently worked into game design. I wonder if Klaus Teuber included the robber in Settlers of Catan simply to see if you would be nice enough to move it away from everyone, rather than risk a trade embargo to snatch a resource and cripple the current leader. Players associate diplomacy with American-style conquest games, and although it’s more transparent there, the skill is found everywhere, though its use largely depends on the crowd. When my friends come over for game nights, because I’ve played the most and know the games best, they make sure to make a little tough on me, forming alliances against me in Small World and hiding my precious science cards under their wonder boards in 7 Wonders. Table talk is at its finest here, or maybe I should say at its worst – I know one player who will attack me if I even open my mouth during a game, because he assumes I’ll be pulling the puppet strings.

However, not all of diplomacy is about the game outside the game. Sometimes you can generate goodwill for yourself within the game, by coming to the defense of another player or making an actually-small sacrifice with an overly grand gesture. Sometimes games hinge almost entirely on diplomacy (Cosmic Encounter, Diplomacy – duh), and those games won’t work with the wrong audience. Some will say the games are entirely lacking in “skill” – when in fact they have simply given “skill” too narrow a definition. In any game where players have the authority to make life harder on anyone they want, diplomacy is a hugely important skill, even when you don’t find mention of it in the rules.

4. Risk Assessment / Luck Mitigation. The simple concept of “pushing your luck” found in Blackjack or many dice games has created entire genres of gaming, but it’s part of any game that isn’t completely open information. When you are deciding your move for the turn, you are gambling on many things going the way you anticipate, because you aren’t yet aware of the results of the randomized parts of the game (dice rolls, shuffled cards) or of the future decisions of your opponents. While this is more obvious in dice games like Yahtzee (do I reroll or not?) or “stay or go” exercises like Incan Gold, it’s not just found there. When you stay in a bidding war in Power Grid, you’re gambling that the next plant revealed won’t be a better plant for a cheaper price. Every time you draw off the top in Ticket to Ride, you’re betting that you want that card more than any currently in the tableau.

Many players will complain about games that leave too many things to chance, and it’s often a valid complaint – if everything is random, then there are no interesting decisions to make. However, most games have a random element not only to keep things fresh and give new players a chance, but also to test your ability to mitigate that randomness. Sometimes the odds will still beat you; you’ll throw your weight at the 90% likely scenario and the other 10% will slap you in the face. Or sometimes you’ll go for that 10% because it’s your Hail Mary pass – if I know I’m losing a game of Ticket to Ride you can be sure I’ll end with some desperate ticket diving. Being skilled at a game is hardly about winning every game, though – no one is really capable of that, especially in games with the kind of randomization featured in most board games. But being aware of the odds and making the better bets will still go a long way.

5. Evaluation. This is probably the most common example of what people think of when they think of “skill” in a board game. You’re looking at a hand in 7 Wonders or all of the Supply piles in Dominion, and you’re deciding what to pick. It’s a straightforward idea – how do you understand which option is the best for you at that point in the game? You think about what the card can do for you, both in terms of its immediate in-game value as well as the value it can have for the rest of the game, in the context of what you’ve already built/purchased. This is the basic thing you do at the start of your turn in any game – you have all these choices available for the turn, but which is the best? When you think of this skill, you initially think of it in a vacuum, where it’s simply your judgment of the current in-game options and your understanding of the benefits – you don’t have any settlements on wheat in Settlers of Catan so you build there even though you’re building on an unlikely number, or you just understand that Chapel is a flat-out good card in Dominion. But none of these skills are isolated, and memory, for example, plays a large role in evaluation. Ever since I (inadvertently) memorized the resource costs to every single card in 7 Wonders, I’ve had a much easier time estimating what resources I need to actually build and what I can ignore. In the case of Settlers, diplomacy also affects your evaluation – if you think you can trade for wheat when you need it, then there’s no need to build a settlement in a poor spot just to get some. In a way, evaluation really isn’t a separate skill, but the culmination of all the skills I’ve listed, together with others that haven’t occurred to me yet.

So what do I mean when I give a “depth” rating for a game? Well, the diplomatic and psychological skills of a game depend largely on the group and each individual play. On the other hand, the skills of long-term memory and risk management come only after a long time with the game, but no one waits for 300 plays to do a game review. Long before that, though, it should (hopefully) become clear when a game is able to present with you several options that all seem highly logical and valid. That’s when it gets tough, when these skills become important to win, when you dig in your feet and get a kind of satisfaction you can only get from competition. That’s depth.

9 comments to What Is Skill, Anyway?

  • You use “depth” and “skill” interchangeably in this article, and I disagree entirely with that. It is a prerequisite that a game involve skill in order for it to have any depth, but not all games of skill have much depth.

    I would define depth as the number of layers of skill a game contains. Tic-Tac-Toe, for instance, is a game of pure skill – there is no luck component, except for determining who plays first, and that could be resolved by the pie rule – but it is incredibly shallow, in that anyone who cares to can work out and memorize the optimal play in every situation without too much effort. Go, at the other extreme, is incredibly deep, in that you have an epiphany after about 20 games and realize that you really didn’t get it at all until then… then you have the same experience after 100 games, and after 500 games, and after 2000 games. Even one of the pros who’s spent his life studying the game (can’t remember who offhand) famously said “I don’t really know much about Go.”

    You can’t actually count the “number” of layers a game has, though, since your skill doesn’t increase in discrete jumps, but rather continuously. So maybe a better way to look at it is how many games you can play, and still continue to improve your skills noticeably.

    Since you mentioned Dominion, it’s obviously somewhere in between Tic-Tac-Toe and Go (pretty much all games are). Players tend to start off with an action-heavy strategy, then learn the value of just buying money, then they learn about deck culling, and start picking up on the interactions between different cards and so forth. But after a few hundred games, I think my skill has started to plateau, whereas it took six years of playing and studying 10-20 hours a week before I started feeling my Go skills were about as good as I’d ever get them (and that’s a personal limitation – obviously the pros are far, far better).

    Like you say, though, no one’s going to play a game 300 times just to write a review of it. So I think it’s hard to talk about depth in a normal review. Sure, you can separate out the shallowest of games, saying that you felt you’d mastered them after half a dozen plays, and you may have a gut feeling that one game is going to turn out to go a whole lot deeper than another. But depth can be a subtle thing… poker is a great example of a game that many people feel they’ve mastered when they haven’t even scratched the surface. I feel like you pretty much need to have played a game for years before you can really say how much depth it has.

  • Actually, here’s a perhaps theoretically better, though far more impractical way to quantize depth:

    1) Start by quantizing variance: pit several recognized experts in the game against complete beginners and see how much more often than 50% the experts win. For a game of little or no luck, it should be +50% (i.e. they win 100% of the time). For a game with a significant luck component, maybe 80% or whatever.

    2) Via some mathematical operation, use this to establish an advantage equal to one “skill level.” Simplest (but far from mathematically ideal) thing would just be to divide the amount over 50% by two, i.e. for a game where the experts win 100% of the time against a beginner, a player who wins 75% of the time against another is one skill level better than the latter.

    3) Now, find some players who can beat random beginners that percentage of the time. Then find some others who can beat that first group the same percentage of the time. And so on.

    4) Once you’ve reached the best players in the world, then you know how many skill levels the game contains, which is a decent measure of depth.

    Taking Go as an example, a 75% win ratio is about 2 kyu/amateur dan ranks difference. There are 37 amateur ranks, and the very best pros are 2-3 stones better than the worst, so let’s call it a total of 40 traditional ranks, or 20 “skill levels” by this system.

    I’d estimate that most commercial games range between 3 and 15, maybe, but that’s just an off-the-cuff guess.

  • Christian Wilson

    I’ve found that skill is not always directly related to depth, but in most cases a deeper play experience allows for more situations where player skill becomes a determining factor in both winning and enjoying the game.

    As reviewers, we are not trying to create a unified, objective quantitative measurement for every possible aspect of a game. Here’s the thing: Every reviewer is unique. If I give a high score to an Ameritrash dice-fest, that’s a very different thing from Derek giving that exact same score to the same game. As we build a history of articles, I hope that the MeepleTown community will get to know the staff. My ultimate goal is for a regular reader to be able to say “Hey, Christian liked that game, and he tends to like the same kind of games I do, so I’ll try it out.” Heck, if you buy a game BECAUSE one of us reviewed it negatively (owing to the fact that you’ve become familiar with our likes and dislikes through our other reviews and articles), I feel that we’ve done our job.

  • yeah, my measure of skill and depth is more along the lines of “how hard do you have to think” and how many “layers” are there to the game combined? Some games have a lot of options or layers but aren’t really that deep (roll through the ages comes to mind) and some games make my brain hurt but aren’t particularly deep. For example, I have to think pretty hard about code 777 but I wouldn’t call it an extremely deep game just because there are only a few factors and no variance at all. Whereas Deduce or die, I would consider a somewhat deep game because of all the possibilities and all the ways you can possibly ask things to get to those possibilities. To me, the more you have to figure out and the more options you have to figure them out, the deeper the game (generally) is.
    I agree with christian that skill and depth are not always directly related. Take my example of roll through the ages… It doesn’t require a lot of skill, but I would consider it reasonably deep (for a simple dice game) just because you do have a lot of options to consider. Another (better) example would be Arkham Horror. I would consider that to be an extremely deep game, but I can’t name a specific skill that you need to beat it. You need good die rolls, good ideas, a good team of players and a lot of prayer to whatever deity will listen. Sure, creative problem solving and working with others are skills, but it’s not something where you hunker down and burn brain cells like macao or karnaxis where good valuation skills and the ability to see several steps in advance are paramount. That’s not to say that anything other than math and engineering are not skills – of course they are (in fact, my favorite games are the ones that heavily use psychological skills like battlestar, bang and resistance), but some games just don’t feel like they require any specific skills but are still very deep.

    Also, I understand where memory can feel unfair in a game where memorization is not the primary mechanic (like the example given about the pegasus in cyclades) but it happens naturally as you play the game. IF your memory is bad, but you really like a game where it behooves you to remember all the cards, read the rules every couple of weeks or make a player guide/cheat sheet, etc. My memory is awful, and, while I do get frustrated when I lose a game or take a penalty due to forgetting a rule, after about the 4th time, I figure i should know the rules or take it upon myself to look them up (i actually declined to play a game of battlestar because the previous game had been spent taking penalties due to forgetting rules and not making good plays because i couldn’t remember rules and couldn’t ask).
    To help with the memory issue, most of the people I know will explain important cards to new players during rules explanation. They may not be 150% thorough, but they would say things like “there are cards in here that can destroy boats, there are cards that can move buildings, there are cards that can give you cheap monsters… etc.” A lot of the players I know will also announce anything they know due to memory. Christian often tells us which creatures are left in dungeon lords and usually if someone asks something like “have we seen the pegasus yet and, if so, have we re-shuffled?” an honest answer will come forth.

  • I didn’t mean to criticize the reviews on this site – not at all. I was just pointing out that “skill factor” and “depth” don’t mean the same thing… the article starts off with the question “What is skill?” but ends up using the word “depth” at the end, while still apparently talking about skill.

    Hillary seems to see the two as even less related… reading her comment, it seems she’d define depth as having to do with the variety of qualitatively different situations that can arise.

  • Derek Thompson

    I didn’t use them interchangeably, but I should have been more clear on how I see their relation. My point of view is that depth is, essentially, a measure of how important skill is to win. A game with zero depth has a purely random outcome (War, high-roll, etc.) To even begin exploring what depth means, you have to know what skill is, if your definition of depth is, as mine is, the importance of skill. Let’s pretend I wrote all of that in the article. 🙂 I see them as directly related, but that’s just my opinion, of course.

    I feel like Hillary’s first paragraph is contrasting depth and -complexity-, but later in her post I can see the point where a game tests skill but not a certain one – but it’s not as if games need be classified by a specific requisite skill, and certainly a game can run the full gamut of combined skills needed – maybe this one is 40% psychology, 50% diplomacy, 10% memorization, so on and so forth.

  • Derek Thompson

    Thinking about it some more, I do see the difference between two aspects of depth – dependence on skill, and replayability/variety, as in Alex’s Tic Tac Toe example. Dependence on skill is of course always going to be a component, and the first step to understanding that component is exploring what “skill” means.

  • Yeah, it’s a tricky thing to pin down. Obviously “skill” and “depth” aren’t synonymous, as one is a quality of the player and the other is a quality of the game. What I meant to say is that it seemed like you were treating “skill factor” and “depth” interchangeably.

    But I’m glad you’re seeing the point… yes, we can all agree that skill factor is a prerequisite for depth, it’s just not the entirety of it. As far as defining “depth” goes, it’s probably impossible to do so rigorously, because it’s clear that everyone understands it a little differently.

    Basically, I think what “depth” means to any given person is some combination of: skill factor, varied gameplay, the variety of skills needed to play, how heavily the decision tree branches (and how prunable it is), and how much one can play and/or study the game and still be learning new things. But the relative importance of those factors is going to depend on who you ask.

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>