Benefiting from Board Games

November 5, 2012

Playing the Ticket to Ride board game

I’m a big fan of board games, especially the newer German-style board games, which are far superior to the games of my youth. This book argues the benefit of modern board games for learning and teaching, highlighting some of my favourites.

Board games are more than just entertainment. According to a press release, a lecturer at the University of Tennessee has won an award for using the Ticket to Ride board game to teach operations research to students. This makes good sense, since German-style board games tend to involve complex optimisation decisions.


Some Dominion cards (photo: Shannon Prickett)

Consider a massively simplified version of the enjoyable game of Dominion, for example. There are six kinds of card: copper money (costs $0, worth $1), silver money (costs $3, worth $2), gold money (costs $6, worth $3), estates (cost $2, worth 1 point), duchies (cost $5, worth 3 points), and provinces (cost $8, worth 6 points). The real game has many other interesting cards, but even this simple parody is non-trivial.

At each turn, the player draws a hand of five cards (from a deck of initially ten), purchases a new card, and discards the hand. When the deck is empty, the discard pile is shuffled to form a new deck, so each purchased card will be “used” multiple times (which is why it’s sensible to spend $6 on a gold card worth $3). However, only the green cards are worth points – as with many German-style games, the money does not directly contribute to winning the game. On the other hand, purchasing many green cards reduces the chance of a five-card hand containing much money.

One strategy is to only purchase money or the valuable province cards. A simple simulation of the game shows that, after 50 turns, this results in an average score of 112 points. In contrast, a strategy of preferring to buy green cards gives an average score of only 39. However, “switching” from one strategy to the other does best of all, with an average score of 128 when the “switch” is made at turn 35 (and an average score of at least 120 when the “switch” is made somewhere between turns 25 and 45). In other words, winning requires optimising when the strategic “switch” is made.


Average scores, as a function of when the strategic “switch” is made. Switching at turn 35 is best.

For full-blown German-style games, the optimisation problems are more difficult. As this podcast argues, they are often in the difficult class of problem called NP-complete. These are hard enough to challenge both a human and a computer.

As I’ve said before, I also have a long-standing interest in collaborative board games, such as Arkham Horror, Pandemic, and Lord of the Rings (for fans of Arkham Horror, here is one of my custom characters, with back story and marker). Collaborative board games offer an excellent way of both exploring and teaching teamwork, and a 2006 paper by José Zagal and others explores Lord of the Rings in this context.


Reiner Knizia’s Lord of the Rings collaborative board game

Good board games generate the level of engagement that makes wargaming work. When the team is attempting to solve a difficult optimisation or decision problem (as in SCUDHunt), things can get very interesting indeed.

– Tony

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The rise of the drones

September 17, 2012
Kawasaki KAQ-1 Drone at Castle Air Museum

Kawasaki KAQ-1 Drone at Castle Air Museum (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The ever increasing ability and availability of drone technology will have a major impact on defence and law-enforcement operations in the future.  Where capabilities of platforms used to be defined by the ability to deploy various assets within the capability of a class or type of vessel ( in naval operations for example, a carrier vs an offshore combatant vessel), the latter smaller platforms may soon be able to deploy an aerial capability which could previously only be provided by the larger and far more expensive vessels.

As noted in the article, this can have far-reaching consequences for navies where the majority of tasks are routine patrol and ‘constabulary’ operations of protecting sea lanes and territorial integrity.  With drone technology, a single smaller platform could perform tasks which currently require several more capable and expensive assets (for example, the patrol of a shipping route subject to piracy).

A telling point made in the article is the close involvement of the human in the loop.  Similar to other advances in automation, the command and control function remains within the human domain.  As stated “…there will inevitably be a human in the operational Observe, Orient, Decide and Act (OODA) loop – be they a remote operator, data handler oFull diagram originally drawn by John Boyd for...r decision maker within any of a number of mission sets.”

So the design of the HMI will determine how successful this shift in technology will be.  As has been seen in Afghanistan, the ability of the remote operator of a drone aircraft to gain and maintain situational awareness to perform their mission without unintended consequences will greatly depend on the amount, type and quality of information available to them and what range of tasks they need to perform.  Many combat aircraft have a crew of two due to the separate and demanding pilot and SA/engagement tasks, and military drone strike operations seem to reflect this crewing model. Perhaps this model is a historical legacy which may also change in the future as drones dispense with the constraint of having to fit the aircrew into the platform.

This may cause a shift in emphasis of the Human Factors and Ergonomics discipline.  A lot of effort was traditionally expended in the physical anthropometric ergonomics aspect of the human in the loop probably because it was so obvious. For example, range of movement, posture etc within a cockpit could be calculated and the 95thpercentile adopted as a standard which could then be used to determine interaction within the crew space available in the airframe. As we all know, engineers love standards, so perhaps this aspect was pursued to the detriment of equally or possibly more important aspects of the human/machine interface.

Computer Workstation Variables

Similar adoption of standards cannot be readily applied to much more esoteric aspect of neurological interaction with a system. For example, although it provides a very good framework to predict and test how an operator will interface with a HMI, Multiple Resource Theory doesn’t provide the level of certainty available from physical ergonomic models. Each aspect needs to be tested according to the many variables which could arise and the neural adaptability inherent in the human which makes them so important to the command and control function.  That’s why the non-physical human interaction field is so interesting to us practitioners (and perhaps perplexes many physical scientists who cannot seem to grasp the notion that humans cannot be treated as a simple probability or linear contributor in their decision models).

So while drone technology will enhance capability, it will only do so effectively if there is a requisite paradigm shift in how the interface is designed to incorporate the more difficult ‘neural ergonomic’ aspects described above.  Perhaps we can finally move away from the tyranny of standards which are sometimes adopted without further thought for the equally important sensory, perceptual and cognitive aspects which we pesky Human Factors types are constantly trying to highlight to our seemingly dullard peers in other fields, sometimes with, but unfortunately many times without success.