Pop-Dev – Pairs

For example, this ordinary reference Pear. Pair. Pears. DJAGETIT?!

When I started work at the Pew Charitable Trusts back in September, I was instantly concerned that I was entering a world of Serious People™ that do Serious Work™. It’s true that everyone there does Serious Work™ and they’re quite serious about it, but I think I was afraid of entering this glass chapel of high thought and being relegated to becoming a severe person. By the end of the first day, any such misapprehension had dissipated entirely, and by the third day I had made good acquaintance of a guy there called Zhalgas. He prefers Zee for a lot of reasons, so we’ll call him that for our purposes. Zee is another programmer and all around cool guy. His interests are wide-ranging and eclectic, but we share many, including, in all its forms sundry and less so, games.

Zee is a mechanics hound. He loves mechanics and rules in games, which I really dig, because I can tend to be a bit of a theme fiend (I’m American, after all) when it comes to board games. I love subtly constructed, artfully balanced Eurogames, but there is some appeal to the bright, gaudy nonsense of the “Ameritrash” board game set for me. Zee is not that guy – hand him a deck of unmarked, un- or under- designed cards and a fascinating rule pamphlet, and whammo, he’s a happy guy.So it should come as relatively no surprise that Zee introduced me to Pairs, a nice little card game number that he explained in a way that I would call “patently incorrect.” I linked it so you can read the real rules, but let me run you through what Zee explained to me. Pairs is a kind of push-your-luck, trick-taking card game. Given a deck of cards from 1 to 10 where the value corresponds to the number of cards (one 1, two 2s, three 3s…), players take turns drawing a card from the top of the deck. Based on the cards in your hand and the chances of drawing another of its type, you decide to hit (draw another card) or fold. If you hit and make a pair, you lose  the round and keep one of the cards you paired with. This is your score. The game then resets, with other drawn cards returning to the deck and a quick shuffle happening. If you fold, you take the lowest card value of the cards in play into your hand, so you still lose, but you theoretically don’t lose as bad as you might have if you had, say, a 10 and were afeared of drawing another 10. The game continues, playing rounds until someone reaches or exceeds a “bust” number in their pile of cards they’ve lost. The bust number changes based on how many players are present (60 / players + 1 is the formula for the bust number).

To stop card counters or people with exceptionally perceptive math brains (Chris.), Pairs has you “burn” the top 5 cards after shuffling, which are not revealed. This subtly changes the reality of the game so that you can’t say for certain that “all the 10s have been played” (well, you’re almost never going to get there) or “all the 5s have been played.” At least, you won’t be able to do that before someone inevitably catches a Pair.

Zee mostly got this part right in his verbal explanation. Then he told me “the cool part” of the game (even though that’s pretty good for a card game) – essentially, no one wins, but someone loses. In a two player game, that means someone wins, essentially, but in a three player game, there’s a weird contrivance of someone not winning or losing, and it gets more comradely the more people are Pairing. That part is also true, and a part of the original design. Then he told me something kookaburra, which is that the loser of the game then creates a new rule for the next game.

That sounds kind of bonkers. It’s sort of like Flux and an actual game had a baby and the result is this thing that Zee cooked up in his mind but then somehow supplanted the actual rules with. This isn’t maliciously stated at all – Zee and I suffer this exact same condition where our brains independently corroborate separate parts of data into something that seems, to our conscious thoughts, to be totally valid and absolutely factual and utterly without need to relate to anything in your stupid little thing  called “reality” so shutup.

Zee ran me through a few games of this, and I have to say, it was tons of fun with his specially modified version of this nonsense. On the spot, I made up a couple of good rules and some stinkers. My personal favorites were a rule where you forced a fold for the opponent if you made 13 and one where you could only pair with a given value once. If you paired with that value again, your opponent took the value. We called it “Shields,” because you sort of became protected from dangerous values.

Now, I didn’t do any fancy math to arrive at the number 13 for a “sweet spot,” and I’d be super interested in the maths behind where the sweet spot would be. 13 just felt right because it was prime.

If this version of Pairs is anything, it’s a ton of fun for potential game developers. Try out different rules with different sized groups and see what sticks and what doesn’t. Try to write down what need or desire within the game you think you might be satisfying – Shields provides a kind of comeback mechanic and causes the deck to cycle much faster, which makes the tension grow very, very quickly but sort of gets a little stuffier when you have 3 or 4 people, because then it’s easy to gang up on someone and make them bust. The trick we figured was that when you Paired on a Shield card, the card have to go to the player with the lowest score, which makes for better rubberbanding but tends to feel like crap for the person who has to, inevitably, take this drubbing from people who might have been too risky too early. It’s a great balancing act.

This is all predicated on the base conceit that you’re playing Pairs faceup, meaning there’s no hidden information. Some variants (in the rulebook) play things in your stack (where you track your points) facedown, and others have you play your hand facedown, so you only know what cards you’ve drawn and everyone else’s starting card. That relies on the honor system, and it wouldn’t be hard to construct a bullshit variant on that.

I really like the number of different ways you can play Pairs. Zee suggested something where you would use the Pairs mechanic, because it’s so fast, as conflict resolution in a larger game. I didn’t think this was a bad idea, but I’m wondering into what it could possibly fit. I thought of, potentially, a game inspired by action-drafting but instead you were trying to essentially draft a.) rules for the upcoming Pairs game and b.) various beneficial outcomes. A Scheme theme immediately jumped to mind, especially with “only one loser” concepts. I’m thinking of marrying this to some of the “in-decline” concepts from Smallworld, but that’s all still very early days.

For now, go play Pairs and try to make up some rules. And do some statistics and figure out where the spread falls such that you can commonly achieve a given number, but only have about a 40% chance of doing so. That seems to be some sort of magic number – it’s possible, eventually, but not so likely that you’re going to see it all the time. Also, it’ll have to be an odd number, because a Pair can’t create it, since that’s the lose case. I think I might have accidentally been brilliant on that one.