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The Gamer’s Decathlon – 10 Games to Decide Ultimate Player

In light of the World Mind Games Championships, I thought it would be fun to host a hypothetical debate as to which ten games would do the best job as to determining the ultimate player. Feel free to post your ten in the comments section.

First of all, notice that I want to determine the ultimate player, and not gamer. What I mean by that is, I’m not looking for someone who has the most experience with these ten games and can clearly outperform others, rather I’d like to use the games to pinpoint the most versatile player in terms of strategy, cunning, perception, reaction, athleticism, and owning great heuristics and, of course, luck.

Without further adieu, my ten games:

1. Table Tennis: I want to begin my decathlon with a game that requires coordination, athleticism, and quick strategy. While this game does reward the person who grew up with it, arguably this can be said about any game with a certain amount of depth — and honestly, the learning curve is not steep for table tennis or ping pong. This game is all about recognizing and then exploiting your opponent’s weaknesses, understanding the physics of ball spin, and always keeping your eye on the ball.

2. Go: I’ll start by saying I don’t know how to play Go, and I feel like true appreciation comes only after knowing how to play. But I can appreciate a game from afar that demands pure heuristics of its players (and therefore can’t be programmed for computer AI), that offers enough player choices that guarantees the same match will never be played twice, and is deceptively simple. That’s why it has to be on the decathlon list. Where Chess is ultimately pattern recognition, Go seems to be the true art of player vs. player gaming war.

3. Geometry Wars: I wanted to include a single player game that requires a player to reach the zone for dominance. Man vs. machine. Making the controller an extension of the body. I also considered Guitar Hero for this one.

4. Backgammon: it’s a near perfect balance between luck, strategy, and gambling. For Backgammon to be played right, there must be money on the line and the betting die must be in play. To me, Backgammon is like good baseball: you strategize and plan, but ultimately it comes down to the luck of where the ball is hit. I also considered Settlers of Catan for this kind of game, but I’ve never played Catan for money.

5. Eucher: I have to include a card game that’s about planning and finishing. I considered 13 (an Asshole varient), Pooch, Spades… and of course Bridge — but Eucher is a partner game and not as complex as Bridge yet more complex than Spades.

6. Croquet: Milton Bradley’s “other” game, croquet is a really simple game where the complexities emerge from player interaction. Get your ball through the wickets first to become poison, then hunt down the other balls. It rewards hand-eye coordination as well as understanding spatial strategy.

7. Tetris: This is the second and last video game I included in my ten. Tetris takes an understanding of spatial strategy and planning like Croquet — but in a single player way. You are your own worst enemy in Tetris.

8. Risk: It’s sort of the ultimate board game. It asks you to form alliances, build resources, and think through the design of the board to strategize your attacks. The only draw back to this game is the use of the cards (meant to speed up the game), so in my decathlon the house rules would get rid of these.

9. Texas Hold’em Poker: Without money at stake, this is a relatively boring game in my opinion. But when there is money on the line, it becomes so fascinating that you don’t even need to be playing to become engrossed… as proven by the ratings for the World Series of Poker on television. In other words, the depth of this multiplayer game comes from the nuances with the betting.

10. Balderdash: Also known as the Dictionary Game, Balderdash fulfills the need for a game that focuses itself around creativity and cunning. The downfall to this one is that it clearly rewards those playing the game in their native language.


  1. Charles Joseph wrote:

    Picking Geometry Wars over Guitar Hero was a good choice.

    Monday, October 6, 2008 at 2:55 pm | Permalink
  2. Josh wrote:

    I’d replace Risk with Diplomacy, which disposes of almost all of the randomness and requires a much more sophisticated sort of negotiating skills.

    Also: For having “athleticism” as a criterion, you don’t have any running sports. What about football or soccer? I would replace table tennis with one of these.

    Maybe you left them off because “teamwork” wasn’t in your list of traits. But maybe it should be?

    Monday, October 6, 2008 at 10:43 pm | Permalink
  3. Good point about teamwork. The reason I left team sports off was because a great team player can be compromised by players who are not so… and therefore it’s a difficult element to recognize. As for table tennis, it’s a sport that equalize body type. You can be short, tall, skinny, fat, deaf and even blind (pretty sure I read about a blind guy who could play to some degree) to be able to handle it.

    On a side note: there’s a great Oliver Sachs New Yorker article from a few years back about how people afflicted with Tourette Syndrome process time in a different manner than most, and it leaves them with amazing reflexes making them pretty solid table tennis opponents.

    Tuesday, October 7, 2008 at 12:27 am | Permalink
  4. Darius K. wrote:

    Nice pick with Backgammon. It is possibly my favorite game, except I had no interest in it until I discovered the betting die!

    Wednesday, October 15, 2008 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

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