Hand Games and Mind Games

“Never go against a Sicilian when death is on the line.”

How would do you settle an arbitrary debate if there are no coins on hand to flip, and no straws nearby to pick? Most people will opt for Rock-Paper-Scissors. It’s quick, requires no special equipment and pretty much everyone knows how to play.

It’s not the perfect decision making game though. Since ties can occur, the game can end up taking longer than needed (though it does add tension when multiple ties occur in a row). Worse still, many people feel the need to play “best-two-out-of-three”, as though this somehow makes the random-decision-making more fair.

Hmmm... how about best 17 out of 33?

Hmmm… how about best 17 out of 33?

Consider instead the game of Odds and Evens. The two players first chose if they will be representing odd numbers or even ones. Then, like rock-paper-scissors, players count to three and ‘throw their hand’. Instead of three options, there are only two: your hand with one finger extended, or with two fingers extended.

The total number of fingers extended is tallied up, and if the tally comes out to an even number, the ‘even player’ wins, and likewise for the ‘odd player’ should an odd number of fingers be thrown. Both odd and even numbers have equal chances of occurring, and there can be no ties.

But while being less than ideal for making a decision, playing Rock-Paper-Scissors does have its own appeal. It may be that the winner gets to cover, smash or snip the loser’s hand. This adds a sense of ritual to the game, and makes the satisfaction of victory and the shame of defeat more personal and visceral.

Moreover, Rock-Paper-Scissors can contain strategy and mind-games. Yes, there’s no real way to know what your opponent will throw, but people, as much as they may try, cannot make decisions randomly. To begin playing mind-games all you need a starting point.

In some similar contests the starting point is implicit. Take the ‘game’ played by Roberts and the Sicilian in the film The Princess Bride. There are two cups of wine, one poisoned, one not. (I know it ended up that both cups were poisoned, but the concept is still sound). One player chooses which cup to poison, and the other must choose which to drink, and which his opponent must drink.

Maybe next week I'll discuss the game Risk, and the 'classic blunder' of getting involved in a land war in Asia.

Maybe next week I’ll discuss the game Risk, and the ‘classic blunder’ of getting involved in a land war in Asia.

The starting point is the ‘obvious’ situation, for the first player to have poisoned their opponent’s cup. But, knowing it to be obvious, they may have poisoned their own cup. Or seeing that to be obvious, they could have gone double-bluff and poisoned their opponents again. And so on. The mind-game is in trying to guess how far along the chain of bluffs your opponent ventured to think.

So how do we create a starting point in Rock-Paper-Scissors? One way is to state or imply what hand you will throw. Your opponent then begins, often in spite of themselves, to ponder if you are lying or not. And if you are lying, will you instead throw what your lie loses to or what it beats?

The classic example is to claim “Nothing beats Rock”, and then prove it. By playing these sort of mind-games, it’s possible to edge out a win rate significantly over 50%. (Another way is by having superhuman reflexes, as exhibited by this awesome robot.)

But there’s also a way to give the game an inherent starting point, so that mind games are always present. Try playing Rock-Paper-Scissors with a score board. But instead of all games being equal, winning with Rock earns a player 1 point, winning with paper earns 3 points, and winning with Scissors earns 9. First player to reach a set number of points (Maybe 28?) is the winner.

Sound strange? Perhaps, but it works wonders for mind-games. Since it offers the most points, the ‘obvious’ choice is to opt for Scissors. But both players will recognize this, and so will want to keep to Rock, and prevent the opponent from ever gaining that whopping 9 points. However, if anyone does keep to Rock, their opponent can slip in a Paper or two and make decent headway with 3 points per victory. But by throwing Paper you open yourself up to losing to Scissors, granting your opponent those coveted 9 points.

Instead of having to verbally establish a meta-game, the game now contains one inherently. Weighting the victories gives each hand its own level of risk and reward, and Rock-Paper-Scissors becomes more than dumb luck. But if you play against me, don’t bothering throwing Dynamite. I’ve spent the past few years building up an immunity to nitroglycerin powder.

Know any good decision-making games? Do you have your own variant of Rock-Paper-Scissors? Let me know in the comments.


10 thoughts on “Hand Games and Mind Games

  1. Tyrell

    Playing rock, paper, scissors for points sounds like fun. Except for having to keep track of the score. That’s hardly ever enjoyable.

    What do you think of the hand-shooting game? ie. reload, fire, fire, block, reload, block etc.

    1. zanderwarren Post author

      Well you can always use visual methods of score keeping, like advancing along a crib-board (or similar) or taking tokens out of a pile.

      And I think the hand-shooting game is a fun one for younger kids, good for rhythm and strategy. But it doesn’t really work if you play it seriously.
      Basically, the best strategy is to block constantly until your opponent uses all (or most) of their ammo. But as soon as both players realize this, it turns into a sort of cold war of indefinite blocking. It has the same problem as free-for-all games of MTG, in that whoever acts first is at a disadvantage. And while patience is a virtue, I don’t think it’s a very fun game mechanic. In fact, it usually pits your desire to have fun and your desire to win against each other, when really they should be working in concert.

      The other problem with the hand-shooting game is that it’s tough to keep track of your ammo, especially in longer or faster games. The game works on the honor system, which is okay, but not ideal. There’s probably some system that could be dreamt up to fix this… maybe you could keep one finger extended for each bullet or something. Anyway, the basic format of the game is neat, but the mechanics need some ironing out.

      And thanks for reading!

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