|No Thanks! (2004)
|Meeple Like Us
The games about which people often get the most excited are the ones that look substantial. Big, bold, beautiful games. Thematic monsters with miniatures and rulebooks thick enough to choke an otter. Complicated games are difficult to get right because they have so many different elements that need to be balanced against each other and a single blunder can lend a fragility to the whole. I’m full of endless admiration for people that can make large, blustering games that are fun. I’m convinced though that the path to genius lies in simplicity. If it’s difficult to make a good game when you give yourself room to use a whole toolbox of technique… imagine how tricky it is when you don’t. So today, let’s talk about No Thanks.
As is appropriate a game with a rules explanation you could fit on a postage stamp, let’s begin by talking about what games are, at least in their most stripped down, naked form. Imagine the set of all possible human experiences that any person could have. It includes ‘Being punched to death down a dark alleyway’, ‘Your first kiss’, ‘Making a cup of tea’, ‘Finding a really nice pair of slippers’, and so on and so on. Every definable human experience comes in a million different flavours and nuances. Finding slippers on a Sunday in a Tesco versus finding them on a Wednesday on Amazon. The set is genuinely, truly endless. Every scenario is a Mandlebrot that lets you drill further down into the infinity of experience. There are universes within the weave of every single tea bag.
Have you imagined that? Okay, that’s the possibility space.
Now imagine a set of interlocking systems that let you move from one location in this space to another. Those rules are basically physics. You can’t instantly move from ‘Being punched to death down a dark alleyway’ to ‘your first kiss’ unless life has taken a dramatically odd turn somewhere. More than this, the systems mean that certain things simply cannot happen because there’s no way to transition from a scenario to another. You can’t make your second cup of tea until you’ve made your first.
Imagined that? Those are the rules.
Bringing those two together is much of what a game involves, but that’s the easiest part. The part anyone can do. Roll six d6 dice. You have a possibility space of six dice, each of which may have the value between one and six. You roll once, reroll any duplicates. Your score is the sum of all those dice (it’ll be 21). Boom. There’s a game. I’m a game designer. Call this my first official print and play.
Obviously though nobody will ever want to play this game because it’s terrible. The trick in game design is that the rules should create and conserve a kind of momentum – the momentum of engagement. And, over the course of a game’s lifetime, the cumulative sum of that momentum should convert, alchemically, into enjoyment. That’s where the magic is in game design – creating rules that obey the thermodynamics of fun.
The smaller the possibility space, the more succinct the set of rules, the more intensely challenging that is.
I know it’s been a while since I mentioned No Thanks, so let’s rectify that here.
No Thanks is a game of brinksmanship. Each player gets a set of tokens that act as a kind of currency of disinterest. You spend them to avoid taking cards. A card is dealt from the deck and then players in turn decide whether to pass by placing one of their limited tokens on the card, or collect the card and its bounty of fungible reluctance. The winner of No Thanks is the player with the fewest points at the end, and points are awarded based on the face value of the cards minus the number of tokens you have in your possession. The only twist in the scoring is that you’re only scored on the lowest card you have in a sequence. If you have the 6, 7 and 8 then you only get the points for the six.
That’s every last bit of the game. It’s a masterpiece of brevity.
If it sounds like there’s nowhere in here for fun to survive, I understand. I completely understand. I thought that myself when I read through the rules. But here’s what I mean about genius lying in simplicity – this is more than enough to drive a whole game forward in a way that will keep everyone involved.
It’s best illustrated through example. Let’s say you’re all set up with your tokens, neatly arranged in front of you. The first card comes out and it’s a twenty-six. The cards go from three to thirty five, so this is a big opening card. You don’t want it, so you pass. Toss a token onto it, let some other yahoo deal with that hot nonsense.
Then the second player passes. Then the third. Then the fourth. Then… what, it’s back to you?
But with every rejection that the card suffers, the value judgement changes. Every token on that card is one you’ll claim, and you’re basically taking them from the pockets of your opponents. If you take the card now you’ll be able to pass more often and they’ll be able to pass less often. But also… there are a lot of cards in the deck and if you can build a sequence out of this nasty little blighter you’ll be able to nullify its influence. It’s theoretically possible, although functionally impossible, to eventually reduce the cost of this card all the way down to three. Theoretically. But certainly the option is wide open for you to reduce its cost later on.
But no, let some other fool ride that donkey. That’s a pipe dream. You pass. And so does everyone else…
Every token is a subsidy. A tax break. A transfer of wealth. When a 26 card comes your way with eight tokens on it… sure, it costs you twenty-six points but look what you could do with all that wealth when the real bad cards come around. So yeah, you take it because it’s a rich enough prize now that everyone will be making a similar calculation. You take it not so much because you want it… you take it because you don’t want anyone else to become the table’s 1%er.
See what I mean? There’s a lot of social energy around the table and it’s facilitated by the smallest set of rules I’ve seen in a long time.
This works really well from the first card, but it’s when things progress a little that things get interesting. No thanks doesn’t so much conserve the momentum of engagement as it does add acceleration with each turn.
Look at this clown. They have the 33, 34 and 35. And they also have the 31 and the 30. That’s 66 points. It’s super rough. That’s what happens when you take cards that nobody else wants because they’re brutally costly. Do you want to lose the game? Because this is how you lose the game.
It’s a risky strategy to wait for an ideal card to come out – not all cards are available in every game. But here the 32 would let our clown player bring both sets of cards into one set. Instead of having 66 points, they’d have 31 because they’d have an uninterrupted sequence from 31 to 35. So obviously everyone has to stop that happening.
Well, one of you has to stop that happening.
One of you has to take a thirty-two point penalty.
To stop someone else getting a thirty-four point reduction.
Yeah, someone definitely has to stop that happening.
Does it have to be you?
This is where the brinksmanship comes in. The clown player is going to take it regardless of how many tokens are on it, but unless they’re the one immediately after you it’s hard to see why you should be the one to take the brunt of it. You could just throw a coin on it and make it a problem for the next person. And maybe they do the same, until the card arrives at the person just before the clown. And they’ll have to take it, because otherwise the entire table suffers.
But… will they?
Three things kick in here. The first is that the player left with the fuzzy end of the lollipop will engage in an immediate ruthless calculation of relative benefit. It becomes an issue not for the rest of the table but for them – whether they benefit specifically from taking the card. Whether, in other words, it’s a good idea for them to suck the lollipop or piss in the communal pool. Even if they’re winning now they’ll be losing when they take the card anyway. If they’re already losing, then it doesn’t even matter. But if they’re winning now, they might be losing when the next player gets their massive discount. The truth is – when you’re in this circumstance there’s almost never a reason to not take the card, and if you’re in the minority circumstance where there’s a sensible reason to pass it on… well, that was everyone else’s fault for not thinking it through properly.
That’s one thing that kicks in. Arithmetic and the hard social calculus of game theory.
The second thing that kicks in is my favourite, and it requires us to take a little detour into economic psychology. Specifically, the ultimatum game.
Back in the early 80s, Werner Güth, Rolf Schmittberger and Bernd Schwarze developed an experiment to explore bargaining behaviour. It worked like this – a pool of money is to be distributed between two people. One player gets to pick the split, and the second player chooses whether to accept or reject it. If they accept, the money is distributed. If they reject, nobody gets anything.
In a lot of the experiments, people behaved fairly. Proposed a 50/50 split. Or perhaps a 60/40 split. And in these circumstances, the deal was almost always accepted because of course it was. Rationally, any deal short of a 100/0 split should be accepted because it is logically better to have some money than no money. The value of $10 in your pocket isn’t lessened because someone else has $90, right?
But of course that’s not what happened. When presented with obviously unfair deals, they’d usually be rejected because we seem to have an inbuilt justice trip-switch. I’ll burn $20 of mine to punish you for being greedy and trying to get $80 yourself. We’ll set ourselves on fire in the hope that we catch someone else in the flames.
I would recommend you read the actual paper because there’s a lot more to it than this. That’s just the nub that’s key to understanding how No Thanks works.
Sure, logically you should take that card. But on the other hand… screw those assholes. So you throw a coin and pass it to the person that is suddenly winning a game they were previously badly losing. Because, and I can’t emphasise this enough, screw those assholes.
It’s so good, because this kicks in the third thing. You thought I forgot about the third thing? No no, I was saving it for last.
The third thing that kicks in here is a kind of wary reluctance to put anyone in that position because their response is unknowable. What would otherwise be a simple decision of ‘pass it on down the line’ becomes more fraught because you need to consider whether you can afford for logic to be thrown out the window. And similarly, you need to work it out for every potentially vindictive player downstream of you. Instead of this being a formulaic process of kicking the problem down the path, it’s yet more brinksmanship poured liberally onto a game already full to the brim of it. Who is going to be the one to jump on the live grenade, or are you just going to all let it explode through collective inaction?
No Thanks, in other words, lets you know which of your friends you could rely on to take a bullet for you. Worthwhile information to have at your disposal.
This is what I mean by simplicity and genius. The designer takes a simple set of rules and manages to invest it with so much life that it’s hard to believe it’s even possible. Its very simplicity, the paucity of its possibility space, are the reasons why the social side shines so brightly. You wouldn’t have room to think about these things in a bigger, more complicated design. No thanks gives you only the rules needed and no more, and then constantly pulls depth upon depth out of its interior. It’s like a game created by the person that made Mary Poppins’ carpet bag.
This is a masterfully designed little game, but I also don’t want to over-egg it too much. It is, in the end, both elevated and constrained by its own gimmicks. Feeling out the psychology of other players is fun and interesting and gives you plenty to mull over in your turn. Once you’ve got a handle on the people around you though, it becomes more of a task of analytical optimisation as you work out each card on a purely mathematical basis. The thrill of No Thanks is a high that won’t last, but since few games deliver that high at all it’s difficult to be too critical.