Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Rooting for Chaos

It’s time for my annual mid-November guide to watching the rest of the college football season.  As usual, I’m rooting for chaos – not because I hate the BCS (that’s a moot point, anyway), but because I like for as many games as possible to have a bearing on the debate that makes looking at “the big picture” so much fun.

The best thing that can happen would be for Auburn to keep winning, and then upset Alabama on Thanksgiving weekend.    That opens up all kinds of possibilities; including, unfortunately, the possibility of Alabama going to the national championship game anyway.  That would be absurd and chaotic.   So that’s another reason to root for it.

If the goal is to keep Alabama out of the championship, then we need for Missouri to win out as well.  That way, the winner of the SEC championship game – Missouri or Auburn (who would have predicted THAT in August?) will be 12-1.  No way an 11-1 Alabama team that didn’t make the league title game leapfrogs that winner.  On the other hand, if Missouri loses to Texas A&M, and South Carolina wins the SEC East and then beats Auburn in Atlanta, so that both those two teams end up 11-2 … which SEC team has the best shot at a national title invitation?  Sure enough, it would be “third place,”  11-1 ‘Bama.   Bet on it.  And wouldn’t that piss off fans of every other team in the top ten?

This year, I don’t think that a one-loss SEC  team will get to jump over an undefeated team from another “power conference” – and it’s frankly hard to see Florida State losing a game at this point.   Unless Ohio State turns the ball over four times and loses to Indiana 67-63, the Buckeyes aren’t going to be tested until the Big Ten title game against Michigan State.  But we’re rooting for chaos, so give that one to Sparty.

Baylor’s a great story, but they still have three of their toughest games ahead of them … and even if they win them all (against Texas Tech, Oklahoma State, and Texas), those teams all still play each other, too … so Baylor NEEDS to win out to make the championship game; because otherwise, they could be an 11-1 team with no wins against anyone who finished in the top 25.    But, undefeated Baylor vs. undefeated Florida State for the national championship?   Yeah, I’d watch.

But I’d rather root for chaos.  So, sorry, Baylor.  You’ll need to lose one.  How about to Oklahoma State, so you both end up 11-1?   Along with Oregon, Clemson, Central Florida,  Louisville, and Alabama?  Tucked right in behind 12-1 Stanford, Ohio State, Michigan State, and either Missouri or Auburn!   And, oh yeah, let’s let Fresno State and Northern Illinois finish undefeated, just to tie up some BCS game slots and make it more chaotic.

Oh, what the heck.  While we’re trying to make all this happen, let’s go ahead and imagine Florida State losing an ACC title game rematch against Miami.   Now we’ve got chaos!

Think next year’s four-team playoff system would take care of this mess?   Nope.  I think we’ll always have debates about national championships settled the old-fashioned way:  by drunks arguing in bars!

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Why Settlers of Catan trumps Risk and Monopoly

Remember board games?  I have fond but distant memories from my younger days of Monopoly and Risk marathons with friends and cousins.   Fond because it was fun.  Distant because, who has eight hours to play a board game these days?

I spent much of a recent three-day weekend playing Settlers of Catan, a game that my household discovered at a Thanksgiving family reunion, and which quickly surged to number two (behind an iPod) on my 12-year-old’s Christmas wish list.  Now it’s my favorite as well.

Catan is often described as a cross between Risk and Monopoly, and those are understandable comparisons, although it has dawned on me that the contrasts with those two games are just what I like most about Catan.    Here’s what makes Catan superior to Risk and Monopoly:

Literally, no two games are the same -- the board is assembled in a different random order for every game.

It doesn’t take eight hours to play a game.  The games I’ve played have lasted one to two hours.

You can still play it for eight straight hours if you want to.   But that consists of five or six separate consecutive games, after each of which every player enthusiastically says, “Want to play another round?” 

Because you win by assembling natural resources from a randomly-generated landscape that can make some products ridiculously abundant or scarce, Catan teaches great economic lessons about supply and demand.  Players can’t win without mastering the concept of trade – with the mainland "bank," or even with each other. 

You get points for the largest army, but also for building a market, a library, or a university.

Yes, there is a military aspect to the game.  But it’s more like a Viking raid (or maybe modern guerilla warfare; but Catan is set in the Bronze  Age) than a war of occupation.   Playing the “knight” card involves stealing a resource from an opponent and disrupting natural resource production in the affected region for a few turns – not destroying his army, removing his cities from the map, sowing salt into the earth, or even hearing the lamentation of his women. 

But there is no conquering of someone else’s territory.  What an amazing respect for property rights!  You win this game by expanding your territory more successfully than your opponent, not by driving her from her home.  How American!  Or maybe how un-American.  I’m getting confused.   I grew up playing Monopoly and Risk, driving people from their homes and into the sea …

That’s not to say Catan is not cut-throat competitive.  There’s nothing more brutal than spending eight turns building a road to the last ore deposit, for example, and then having your opponent beat you to it on the ninth turn. 

Ultimately, the best thing about Catan is that the end of a game tends to be a race to the (arbitrary, point-based) finish between growing “empires,” rather than a two-hour Sherman’s March through Georgia.   At the end of almost every game, the “losers” are one or two acquisitions away from winning themselves, rather than having spent the last two hours downsizing or burying their dead in a lost cause.  

The difference in the definition of success is not subtle at all … you can play a game based on competition, free markets, trade, property rights, territorial expansion, and even military intervention – and not have success defined as the extermination of your opponents.   How interesting that Monopoly was developed in America in the 1930s; Risk in France in the 1950s … and Catan in Germany in 1995. 

It’s not surprising that our society’s games are based on hundred- and thousand-year-old economic and military philosophies.  But our real-life  economic and foreign policies don’t have to reflect 50- and 80-year-old games.  I think all of us need to play a whole lot of Settlers of Catan with our kids, and soon.  Fortunately, it’s a much quicker game than its predecessors.