Drawing the Lines

I mentioned in an earlier comment that I found simpler, stripped down games to have more replay value, meaning games like Sudoku, Tetris, and Freecell, and the like.  Because the mechanics of the game are so simplistic and transparent, the game sort of fades to the background.  The competition is more between the players and themselves than it is between the players and the game.  As long as a competitor is interested in pouring himself into all the iterations that game’s rules allow, they can stay extremely involved for a long period of time.  This can mean that the simpler the game is, the better.

To a point.

There’s a line between a game setting small enough boundaries for a player to explore each bit of the area closely and a game leaving so little room for choice that it suffocates.  Tic-tac-toe crosses that line.

After learning the rules [once you get three in a row you win, and no you can’t draw in a picture of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson], there are three major points of development for a tic-tac-toe player.  The first is learning how to draw the game board correctly.  It’s tough to draw 4 straight, even lines when you’re just learning how to write.  Once that moment comes, though, the player is free to have any number of competitions with classmates, parents with senses of humor, and themself at a moment’s notice.  The world seems large.

The second point is when they find out that the corner is a better first move than the center.  This is the high point of a tic-tac-toe player’s career.  At this moment, they find out that they can guarantee a victory with all but two second-move replies, and even then there are two places for the opponent to slip-up on the fourth move and allow a win.  The world seems winnable.

The third point is when they realize that every single game, no matter, is probably going to end up a cat’s game.  Everyone knows the tricks, there’s no joy in beating the people that don’t, and no one really wants to play anymore.  The world seems small and meaningless.
This transition can happen at different rates for different people, but it’s still an inevitable liability.  There is a discrete number of distinct games that can be played.  Taking into account rotations and mirror images of final board positions, there are only 138 possible ways that a game of tic-tac-toe can end.  That is small enough for even a child to grasp and get bored of.

So I’m left wondering where the line is drawn between a game being too simple to matter and simple enough to still be transparent to the players.  Is it 4 X 4 tic tac toe?  Checkers?  Chess?  NBA Jam Tournament Edition?

I’d imagine the line is drawn in different places for different people, but I’d think it’s still there somewhere.  For many people, tic-tac-toe is just the first game to move from one side of it to the other.

Disclaimer: I do not like 4X4 tic tac toe.  It’s a needless expansion of an established concept that almost serves to discredit the original. I didn’t like Tetrisphere either.

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3 comments
  1. amiesi said:

    When I was younger I also thought tic-tac-toe was kind of a dumb game because whoever goes first always wins and that was obvious. But as I got older, tic-tac-toe moved from a fun childish game to a combinatorics nightmare. Defining the games with possible moves and statuses of moves is not a fun thing to do. But luckily, the possible number of games is a hygienic 9! once everything has been defined properly. If one bothers to slug through the math, if X goes first, there are actually a good amount of nontrivial possible sequences where O can win. But X still has the clear advantage with about 1.5 times more possible winning sequences of moves. The number of ties is also a substantial amount. And if one decides to go through some algebra, it can be irrefutably proved that the optimal place to put the X is in the corner. To my understanding, it does not matter in exactly what corner you place the X, but for me the top-left is preferred because it leads to a more intuitive notation for construction of optimal strategies.

  2. snbrown said:

    I have never thought about tic-tac-toe in this. As a child I played it but never thought much of it. It was one of those games that I played while bored with nothing better to do. I did not believe that real strategy was used to play the game, it was never challenging and brain wrecking, like Chess. I would have never thought there were rules and points to tic-tac-toe. I do not think there needs to be a line drawn between games that are too simple and are not. Regardless of a game’s difficulty level, I believe that people will play it one way of another. Tic-tac-toe may not be a game that peeks the interest of older people, but for young children it might be. In addition I do not believe that any game is too simple. One might feel that a game does not challenge them, and in that case they should move on to a more challenging game. Lastly, I believe that each game is designed with a purpose in mind and has a target audience, If you believe that a game is too simple, then maybe the game was not targeting you.

  3. springsteen1 said:

    I love the idea of simple lines and basic math causing the games. It’s very Jobs-ian; Steve Jobs, that is.
    The strategy involved in such games as Tic Tac Toe is not dissimilar to the discussions of the Rubik’s cube, and the like; it isn’t easy, but once discovered, these things can either make the games far more boring, or far more entertaining and exciting.

    I love that you disseminated the logic behind TTT and proved why it’s so necessary – innovative idea.

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