Deceptively simple games

There’s probably some alternate universe where Go didn’t catch on because people thought it was too simple and boring – a mistake that a lot of non-Go players still make. If we were in that alternative universe, we’d have lost out on all the knowledge we now have from studying Go for the past few centuries, a lot of which has benefited other fields (e.g. a lot of mathematical/technological innovations were born out of trying to study Go from a theoretical perspective as well as trying to get computers to play it well).

Is it possible that people have invented games like Go – in the “easy to learn, impossible to master” sense – but never thought deeply enough about it to realize their potential?


In my opinion you can generally get a feel pretty quickly for whether a game has interesting emergent behavior/strategy or not. Some brief examples of the idea I’m getting at:

  • Go, obviously, is “interesting”. Go if you switch the order of the “remove opponent stones without liberties” and “remove own stones without liberties” is, I think, easy to tell that it’s significantly less interesting, even though this is a perfectly natural ruleset - Capture Go, even, seems more fun!
  • Symple I haven’t played too much, but I get the feeling it has this sort of depth. Propose some Symple variant where growing instead adds a stone to every vacant group-adjacent intersection, this is again clearly less interesting of a game.

Another category of abstract game you might dismiss is those that are too “sharp” - there are very few possible good lines from any given position, so reading doesn’t help much for the average human. These sorts of games may have the sort of depth you want at the master level, but from a historical perspective they’re unlikely to gain a following and thus get masters in the first place because, for beginners, they don’t have this natural narrative structure of “I calculated/intuited this line correctly, gaining a decisive advantage” that makes playing rewarding.

I think Christian Freeling’s site, the BoardGameGeek abstract forums (related, an interesting video), and some other blogs I can’t think of right now may have material you may find interesting w/r/t thinking about board games from a historical/evolutionary perspective like this. @claire_yang on these forums also has lots of interesting go-origin-historical posts. Some threads from various users I have saved:

(Edit: so in summary, I think in almost any culture which has a concept of games where go is invented, it will be recognized as interesting; furthermore, it seems pretty natural that someone at some point in a game-playing culture would invent go. On the other hand, to go against the Lasker quote a bit, whether it sees mass adoption is a matter of historical contingency and I get the feeling we’re lucky it’s so popular in our world).


I am almost certain of it, especially from the games that appeared in combinatorial game theory contexts, where they were invented primarily for research into mathematical contexts but never given a serious study to create the wealth of knowledge we have for other games.

In fact, one can argue that the Pai Sho fan reconstructed variants could have this quality to society as a whole, left as very niche games without much time in the wider sun.

Of course, I’ve had a minor musing in other spaces about games being interesting decision spaces, and interesting decision spaces having similar qualities to mathematical chaos:
that being

  1. high sensitivity to small perturbations (via tactical possibilities)
  2. a “mixing” of these results such that different pathways can end up with similar seeming results (analogous to topological transitivity)
  3. the ability to find many “locally maximal” strategies that one can study and perfect without knowing if it’s truly a “best” strategy with any sureness (vaguely analogous to dense periodic orbits)

I hope any mathematicians reading this can spare me from the violence they may have in their heads upon reading this brazen analogy.

But the idea is that this vague chaotic-ness creates a sense in which one doesn’t simply follow a singular mechanism forward into further and further victory, as it becomes very hard to predict outcomes far into the future.

And like mathematical chaos, the creation of these situations doesn’t depend upon complex structuring rules, as there are likely many chaotic formulae that are relatively “simple”. So if this analogy holds, one might expect that to be true in the arena of games.

Plus of course there are culturally inspired ways of defining “simple”, where familiarity with concepts can turn complicated concepts into ones that are easily grasped intuitively, expanding the scope of “easy to learn” games.

Tack onto that the vast number of people who have ever lived and thought about games, even if a small fraction have thought about inventing them, surely only a small fraction of that went onto complete making them, a fraction of those games even surviving, a fraction of the variants of those games surviving from there, and there could be many, many games that were once invented in someone’s head with these properties and we can never discover that this happened


Or they never gained traction because they were played by few people around the area that they were invented. That makes the possibility of a lot of interesting games and ideas being lost an almost certainty.

Think of all the games the ancient Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Sumerians, Mayans, and so on, had invented, but whose rules just didn’t survive till this day. We are very fortunate that Go was invented in a place where it couldn’t easily be forgotten, due to the high number of people living there for millenia.

1 Like

I dunno. There is an asthounishing quantity of people in India, but till now India is not a so famous place for go activities.

1 Like
1 Like

@teapoweredrobot, Is it a deceptively simple game?

Back to topic, looks hard to explain why so few games survived through the milleniums.
Mass of people well, i would rather consider beliefs/religion and the existence of some groups of the society with enough free time. But that’d still very shortsighted.

1 Like

There are games with minimal rules that yield a lot of complexity. They also, like Go, do not require a lot of setup other than the stones and the board.

The one that comes to mind to me is Hex (which is relatively new, so there is no comparison in terms of history or culture). Maybe it will stand the test of time? Who knows.


Actually, come to think of it, there’s a game which is more widely known, which people often describe as a child’s game, yet it is completely inscrutable by humans (and also computers, as far as I know):

Dots and Boxes


Things just slip through the cracks of centuries, I guess. Nothing really sinister, just the passage of time. Here is an example: Πέττεια - Βικιπαίδεια

It has a grid and stones. Sadly, the article informs us that “the rules have not been saved/recorded” even though people like Homer and Plato mentioned it. I guess it is just a case of “everyone knows how this is played, I won’t bother recording it (let us not forget how expensive writing material was back then)” or as Raislyn in Dragonlance found the hard way about a piece of knowledge that was referenced everywhere but could be found nowhere: “everyone knew it, so noone recorded it”.


But this one is bit too easy on the strategic side

However, computer analysis has shown that Oware (or Awari) is a solved game for which, with best play, either player is able to force a drawn result. (From this article)(Oware - Wikipedia)

Fully solved for board size 5 afaik. On little golem (where I am a reasonable strong player, ranking pos 15 out of about 250, but not very active atm) we raised the default size to 6 for that reason.

1 Like