A dance with the devil: Jason Rohrer's Cordial Minuet

The iconoclastic indie (The Castle Doctrine) explains how his interest in real-money games and poker resulted in a betting game that pits players against each other in a purely skill-based contest.
"Learning how to play a new game is less like reading a new story or seeing a new movie, and more like learning a new language," says Jason Rohrer. "Games are interfaces between minds." Rohrer is perhaps best known as the developer of the contemplative Passage, but his work has more often turned toward multiplayer titles: The Castle Doctrine brutally pitted player against player; Sleep is Death was a contemplative role-playing tool. His latest work, Cordial Minuet, is a somewhat sinister attempt to create a "watertight simultaneous decision game," in his words, that pits two players against each other. It's a skill-based betting contest for real money rewards. Though Texas hold 'em poker and online gaming tournaments inspired Rohrer, Cordial Minuet has grown to be something very different. Two players are randomly matched; they have no way to communicate directly except via their bets and their moves. Each has a six-by-six grid of numbers -- the same grid, but offset by 90 degrees from each other. By weighing information and choosing columns, the players gradually eliminate possible outcomes -- until one wins, and one loses. It's a contest in which each player tries to grab the best possible score for herself while ensuring her opponent gets the worst possible score. Each is provided a carefully limited set of information, and with no way to communicate, must try to guess her opponent's strategy while also crafting one that obscures her own objective.

Designed "from the ground up" for real money betting

"Essentially, I've been thinking about games that are played for real money for a really long time," Rohrer told Gamasutra.
The latest iteration of Cordial Minuet
He took a look at online game tournaments that pitted players against each other for the best results in a single player game, and had this thought: "What if it was a game you designed to be played for real money? Where real money was not just hanging overhead as a prize for the outcome, but was integrated into the mechanics?" Rohrer decided to take a stab at "designing a game from the ground up for that idea." There's a great recap of a playtest over at Kotaku that walks you through a couple rounds of Cordial Minuet. In that article, Stephen Totilo writes, "... playing the game made my head hurt ... each decision I had to make was really tough, as I thought through layers of strategy about what my opponent might be thinking." That's just the feeling Rohrer wants to get at. Though he carefully obscures the data presented to players, by leaving so much information on the table Rohrer has carefully designed the game to avoid chance and rely on skill -- partially for legal reasons, since online betting is tightly regulated, but also because that's the game design he was most interested in.

A game "people just feel a knack for naturally"

Rohrer original idea was to create a "100 percent skill version of poker." In poker, Rohrer explains, "this random number generator hands you a score," and the real mechanics are "negotiation, all the way from top to bottom." "What sets people who won the World Series of Poker three or four times in their life apart is mostly their ability to read their opponent and make judgments," says Rohrer. "The betting mechanic is where all the reading and negotiation comes in." The rest is the random number generator of the cards dealt. So why didn't Rohrer strive to make a game like go or chess, ripe with strategic possibilities? That's because he wanted a game "people just feel a knack for naturally," he says -- one they feel like they can intuitively understand. Poker is popular because playing it well is "a skill we believe we could have," which is what Rohrer wants from Cordial Minuet, too. We know we could never beat a Grandmaster like Garry Kasparov at chess, because the game requires "so much deep study." In a game of poker, on the other hand, the player thinks, "I believe I could learn to read somebody" -- even when playing a champion. "35 percent of people play fantasy football every year," Rohrer says. "There's definitely rich skills there, but a skill more people feel like they can have. It's like picking in the stock market -- lots of people feel they can do it." It's "a human judgment kind of skill; that's what attracts so many people to poker." When it comes to poker, Rohrer loves its reliance on negotiation, and the fact that "the game doesn't really make sense without money... money is a move, money is a game mechanic." But the randomness and luck -- well, that had to go.

Taking the randomness out of poker

His first idea was to present players with a 52-by-52 grid of cards, which would give them total information access upon which to make informed decisions -- but while full-disclosure poker removed the luck factors, it was "totally overwhelming" to try and play. After doing some research, Rohrer hit on the idea of using a six-by-six grid -- a so-called "magic square," or a grid of numerals where each column and row adds up to the same number. The magic square fit from a gameplay perspective: "I wanted, potentially, each new game to have this fresh thing to study and look at," Rohrer says. "A six-by-six magic square is where it crosses that threshold." "It was this lightning bolt when I was sitting at the kitchen table playing around with it and doing the math," Rohrer says. "It's not like we can settle into an optimal rut, here. You keep cycling through the six columns that you can pick. The rabbit hole you get into with your opponent has no end." Rohrer describes that as "the hallmark of a game that's not broken." He kept working on Cordial Minuet until it "wasn't like any other game"; now, "nothing that smacked of chance" in theme or design remains. Speaking of theme, the magic square also dovetailed nicely with his desire "to make a game that somehow had to do with the occult" -- there's "all this connection to the history of astrology and numerology" baked into the very concept of the magic square throughout history. Its title (it's an anagram) as well as the aesthetics of the final version of the game will play into this.

Communicating through play

So, too, was he forced to jettison the idea of a game that has a large number of simultaneous players. "Initially, I was thinking about multiplayer games, where there could be a table of 10 players, and so on," says Rohrer. But there's a "a huge problem" with player collusion in online poker -- either players communicating secretly with each other, or one player taking up multiple spots at a single table, and simply controlling the game by having too much information. A one-on-one game avoids that problem. And players are "always engaged, and never just sitting there," as they might in a poker game. And they're communicating -- through play. "I wanted to build a game where there was more of that negotiation, and opponent reading is built into every aspect of the game," Rohrer says. Matches of Cordial Minuet are set up anonymously, with no way for players to communicate verbally; there's no means to identify your opponent, and also no way to badger them, like you might in a poker game. Making bets is "the real communication" between players, even in poker, Rohrer says. Rather than reading a player, like poker champions can, "learning to read those patterns" -- the ones derived from the bets laid, and the moves made -- "is a more relevant and interesting kind of reading, because you're reading something in the game itself." In fact, he says, the "core game mechanic of achieving your score in the first place has the same goal" -- mind-gaming your opponent. As the game progresses, each time the players are "betting on a little bit more information." As a player zeroes in on a final score and begins to understand the possible scores his opponent might end up with, the game becomes a battle of wits. Choosing the columns you want -- or want your opponent to think you want -- adds "extra layers of bluffing," says Rohrer. The player knows what he has, but can only guess what score his opponent has -- helped along by a graph which shows possible outcomes. By "collectively choosing our three hidden numbers," which add up to the final score, the two players become locked in a contest founded on mind-gaming each other. Because money is at stake, it's that much more tense. "Speaking to each other by making moves in the game" is an "interesting, powerful aspect of games," Rohrer says -- and that's what he wants to explore with Cordial Minuet.

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