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    Cordial Minuet: A Real Money Game Designed Around UIGEA

    Posted by Matt Kaufman June 3, 2015

    In this op-ed by independent game designer Jason Rohrer, Rohrer explains how his new real money skill game, Cordial Minuet, was developed to bypass the UIGEA.

    Subject to chance. Those three words stared back at me from Title 31 of the US Code, Section 5362. The Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006.

    It’s shocking to me how casually those three words are mentioned, almost in passing, given the enormous impact those words have had on the world’s greatest game over the past nine years. In April of 2011, those three words were the basis for raids, seizures, and arrests.

    The usage of these words in the UIGEA is significant because of how it breaks away from long standing legal precedents. In the very next paragraph, the UIGEA sticks to precedent by defining a lottery in terms of a game “predominantly subject to chance.” But in the previous paragraph, the predominance test—a cornerstone of court rulings on gambling—is ignored.

    Thus, Poker, which is arguably predominated by skill, is thrown under the same bus as a roulette wheel by the UIGEA. Yes, Poker is a game of skill—and recognized as such by a recent court ruling—but it is still subject to chance.

    At the heart of every hand is a shuffled deck of cards. An old fashioned random number generator. In fact, before the first card is dealt, the deck has already selected one player at the table to have the best hand by the river. Assuming he doesn’t fold his hand, that winner’s status is unveiled in a slow, strip-tease like reveal, but that winner was still predetermined by the card order to end up with the strongest hand. In essence, an RNG picks one of the nine players as the winner uniformly at random, we are each given an incrementally growing portion of the information about who has been chosen to win, and we place bets about whether we are that chosen winner.

    As a game designer, this is what I do: I study games deeply, pick them apart, and try to get at what makes them tick. In game design, the balance been luck and skill is an important one, and I was struck by the fact that all gambling games, skill-based or otherwise, seem to have randomness at their core, meaning they are all tripped by the same snare in the UIGEA.

    Thus arose an open design question: Is it possible to create a gambling game without any random elements?

    That’s the question that I tackled with my 18th video game design, Cordial Minuet, a two-player strategy game that is played legally online for real money.

    When I say “gambling game” in the above design question, I mean a “real” gambling game, and by “real,” I mean something that people would actually bet on. Clearly we could play Chess for money online safely under the UIGEA, but who would? The skill hierarchy is so fine-grained in Chess, and so clear cut, that finding a good opponent would be nearly impossible. You would almost always be paired in such a way that one player would not stand a chance and know it. No one is betting in that situation.

    A real gambling game requires uncertainty about who is going to win. In Poker, the skilled players beat the fish over time, but the fish still stand a chance on any given hand, so they are willing to bet on it. In all existing gambling games, that uncertainty is provided by a random number generator, thus triggering the UIGEA.

    But you don’t really need “randomness” to have uncertainty. What you need is hidden information. A random number generator is just one way to supply a game with hidden information. Another way, and perhaps a more interesting and deep way, is through choices that the players themselves make in secret.

    Rock Paper Scissors is the most basic game of secret player choices, and it obviously does not make for a real gambling game. How would we gamble on it? We commit our choices and then bet? There’s no texture to inform our bets. In Poker, we can bet on hole cards alone without any additional reveal of hidden information because the cards have a natural hierarchy. But natural hierarchy is incompatible with secret player choices, because players would be attracted to picking from the top of the heap. Thus, the moves in Rock Paper Scissors have a flat, intransitive relationship with no best move. Is it possible to merge secret player choices with some sort of texture on which to anchor betting?

    After banging my head against these problems for a few months, I stumbled on a solution.

    In Cordial Minuet, both players are presented with the same 6×6 grid of numbers. One player is picking columns on that grid, while the other is picking rows. They make these picks in secret, and where these chosen columns and rows intersect determine the hands made by each player.

    Each player picks two columns or rows at a time: “one for me, one for you.” The column I pick for you is revealed to you and intersects with the row you picked for yourself, giving you a number, but I don’t get to see the row you picked for yourself, so I don’t know what number you got. Likewise, the row you picked for me is revealed to me and hits the column I picked for myself, but you don’t get to see what number I got. In the following image, your row hit my secretly-chosen column at 31.

    Thus, even after the first pick, we have texture for betting. First, the numbers have a natural hierarchy. 31 is way better than 26 or 10. But even more important, we each have some information about what our opponent scored. I picked a column for you, so you have one of those six numbers. Furthermore, you gave a row to me, so I know you don’t have that number yourself. Thus, I can narrow your first round score down to five possible numbers. In the above image, I know you have one of 10, 1, 26, 27, or 33, but I know you do not have 14. I can compare these to the 31 that I actually have and the other numbers in my row that you think I might have. In other words, it’s a great time for us to bet.

    On a 6×6 grid, we can repeat this process three times until we each run out of columns and rows.

    By the end, we can each have three numbers that add together to make our scores. With fewer and fewer squares remaining, the second and third picks become richer, and the texture of the board deepens with each pick. By the end, I have even more information about what you got on your first pick because more rows have been ruled out as possibilities based on what you gave me for picks two and three. As the texture deepens, we can continue betting after each pick.

    But isn’t the numerical hierarchy a problem? Yes, some numbers are better than others, but what if we can arrange them in the grid so that no column or row is better overall than any other column or row? A magic square arrangement solves this problem for us. On the 6×6 grid, we can arrange the numbers 1 through 36 so that each row and column sums to 111. Thus, the same total point value exists in every row and column, though the highest number, 36, is only present in one column.

    The trick with this design was to merge player-chosen hidden information with partial reveal of that hidden information in a way that supports multi-round betting. The result is a game that is related to Rock Paper Scissors, but much deeper than simply “lets pick a secret move and bet.” We get the same strip-tease like reveal of the hidden information as Poker, but it’s a natural consequence of the intersection of player choices instead of a consequence of the random number generator.

    Another interesting thing about Cordial Minuet is that the same kind of opponent-reading skills useful in betting apply to the picking part of the game, even on the very first pick. Yes, all columns and rows have the same total point weight, but not all columns and rows have the same psychological or gameplay effect. The row with the 36 might be an attractor for your opponent. The row with the 1 may repel them. Going deeper, though all rows have the same average value, they differ in variance. Going even deeper, the picks you make early in a round rule out what will be available in later picks—at the highest level of play, the game tree itself matters. If you can learn to predict your opponent’s behavior, you can leverage the grid’s layout to paint your opponent into a corner.

    Where Poker has loads of rich betting and reading skill built on top of a random number generator, Cordial minuet has the same betting and reading structure built on top of a core picking game that uses those same skills. The opponent-reading skill in Cordial Minuet goes all the way to the bottom.

    Returning to the design question proposed earlier, how does this game function as a real gambling game? The answer is that it supports betting through textured and gradually-revealed hidden information.

    Returning to the UIGEA as the impetus for this whole enterprise, how does Cordial Minuet thread that needle? The answer is that the hidden information in the game is not generated randomly, and there’s no predetermined winner, so it’s simply not subject to chance. Ship it.

    About Matt Kaufman

    Matt Kaufman is Editor-in-Chief of QuadJacks.com and Director of Interactive Marketing at Z4 Poker.

    View all post by Matt Kaufman Visit author's website

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