Week 4 ~ Mū Tōrere + greyballing

This is Episode 4/10 of the Hacking 10 games in 10 weeks project.

Matteo Menapace
Mar 13, 2017 · 9 min read

Another week, another continent. Following the survivalist trend of Silicon Valley, I landed in New Zealand and settled on Mū Tōrere, a blockade game of pure strategy (yay! no chance) traditionally played by the Ngāti Porou tribe and other Māori iwi of the North Island.

Picture from Games and pastimes of the Māori by Elsdon Best

What is this game really about?

The origins of this game are a little mysterious. Most sources I found claim that it predates the arrival of European colonists in the 18th century, and it is therefore considered a native game of the Māori. However, Kiwi ethnographer Elsdon Best, the first to document it in his book Games and pastimes of the Māori, cast a shadow of doubt:

The most disconcerting fact, if we view Mū Tōrere as an old time game, is that it seems to have been unknown to other tribes than those of the East Cape district, and its vicinity. From no other district have we succeeded in obtaining any information as to a former knowledge of the game. It is an ethnographical axiom that nothing is more persistent than the games of a people, and it is hardly possible that the practice of any such game should have been confined to so small an area in pre-European times.

He concluded that Mū Tōrere was so peculiar it didn’t resemble any other game, so “the question must remain an open one”. What if this was a prototype designed by some geeky Māori, which didn’t excite enough people to become a popular game?

Mū Tōrere is so simple that it does indeed look like an early game prototype. Two players try to block each other whilst moving their 4 pieces (8 in total) around the vertices and to/from the centre of an octagon (9 available places).

Your pieces start all together on four adjacent points of the star. You can move them from one point to the next empty one, or from the centre to any empty point. You can only move a piece to the centre if at least one of its neighbours is your opponent’s piece.

There is only ever one free space on the board, and your goal is to move your pieces so that your opponent can’t slide any of theirs in the free space. In other words, to surround the empty space.

There is no capturing of pieces, no jumping over them, nor can they be upgraded. You can only slide them, one at a time, one space at a time.

As you take turns, you realise in most cases you have only one choice, which is to slot your piece in the space just vacated by your opponent. Because of that, the gameplay can accelerate, and your main challenge is to keep focused on those rare occasions when you do have a couple of choices, one of which could cost you the match.

I have the feeling that you can quickly learn to spot those few dangerous combinations and make sure you will never lose a game of Mū Tōrere. Which means that most matches are effectively endless draws. Not really exciting to play. This could explain why not many Māoris knew about this game, as Best reported.

Nevertheless, even a boring / unpopular game can teach us something interesting about its cultural background. The extremely limited space on the board and the limitation of choices available to players create a sense of stuckness. Perhaps the people who invented Mū Tōrere felt stuck, at the edges of a remote island and trapped into a repetitive routine.

There is no open conflict in Mū Tōrere, and its rules promote a well-behaved interaction with your neighbours. The constant mingling of your pieces with theirs resembles a small and tight community, where everyone knows everything about everyone else, keeping each other in check through gossip. Yet the ultimate goal is segregation, creating a space those close neighbours can’t access.

What will the hacked game be about?

The experience of stuckness I felt while playing Mū Tōrere made me think of what people feel like when they are stuck in real life with unrewarding or precarious jobs. Having a job, any job, is for most people in our society both a material necessity (try surviving without an income) and a moral imperative (look at how “the unemployed” are demonised). A job, any job, is the only choice one has to keep up with the financial burdens of modern life.

In the past, technology was predicted to liberate humans from toil and wage slavery. But instead of empowering us, modern technology has often been used to automate work previously performed by people, and to generate what David Graeber calls bullshit jobs:

In the year 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by century’s end, technology would have advanced sufficiently that countries like Great Britain or the United States would have achieved a 15-hour work week. There’s every reason to believe he was right. In technological terms, we are quite capable of this. And yet it didn’t happen. Instead, technology has been marshalled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more.

Automation is not new. Since the Industrial Revolution people have been resisting the use of machines to make human workers redundant. Today, machines can beat humans at handling bullshit without complaining in an increasing variety of tasks. A robot will take over your job, we are getting used to hear.

And for the humans who are feeling robots breathing down their necks, or whose jobs have already been automated, there’s the alluring prospect of self-employment in the so-called sharing economy. Share your car with strangers and get paid to drive them around, working whenever suits you, is the promise. Yet when a technological intermediary controls access to information and sets prices, being self-employed is hardly empowering. You become slave to an app, rather than an employer. An app that pits you against thousands of other people like you, stuck in a car driving strangers around. An app that knows how many other drivers it can pit you against, at the lowest price.

Yes, I’m talking about Uber. A company that ruthlessly exploits technology to disrupt the transportation market, Uber has also been innovative in its use of technology to evade law enforcement. As reported by Mike Isaac in the New York Times, Uber has systematically deployed a tool called Greyball to identify and deceive what Uber calls opponents. Nicholas Carr explains:

When an opponent hails a car using the Uber app, the app presents the opponent with a fake map, filled with “ghost cars” that don’t actually exist. The map overlays a fictional story, intended to mislead, on a representation of actual city streets. Beyond the ethical and legal questions it raises, Greyball sheds important light on the digital representations of reality that we increasingly rely on to live our lives. These representations do more than mediate reality; they manufacture reality.

While Uber pointed out that greyballing was also used to protect drivers, blah blah blah … and that they are expressly prohibiting its use to target action by local regulators going forward, I knew that the unscrupulous use of technology to systematically deceive opponents sounds like an interesting premise for a game.

How can I hack Mū Tōrere so that it’s about greyballing?

A two-player game. One person plays Uber, the other the opponents.

The board is similar to Mū Tōrere, except that there’s only one path to the centre, which makes it look like Uber’s logo. One circle wouldn’t be enough though, let’s have four of them (with a vision to growth-hack them exponentially to nine, sixteen, etc).

Each player starts with 11 pieces, positioned on the board as shown above. Taking turns, you move one piece at a time, one space at a time. Your ultimate goal is to eliminate all the other player’s pieces.

How do you eliminate pieces? Wait. Since this a is a game of deception, you have also secret cards:

  • 22 Uber cards, split between real drivers and ghost cars
  • 22 opponent cards, split between riders and coppers
Uber cards (ghosts and drivers) on the left, opponents cards (riders and coppers) on the right

Before a game starts, shuffle the 22 Uber cards and the 22 opponents cards (separately) and place them face-down next to the board. The Uber player picks 3 cards from the Uber deck, and the opponent picks 3 from the opponents deck. Don’t reveal your cards to the other player.

When you move a piece into the centre of one of the circles, you trigger a cards match, which will determine the elimination of one or more pieces. Each player chooses one of their 3 secret cards and makes their choice clear by putting that card face-down on the board. When both players have made their choice, reveal the two chosen cards and deal with the consequences:

  1. Ghost car + copper = Uber wins
    Greyballing worked, Uber evaded the stint.
    If the match was triggered by an opponent, then that piece is eliminated.
    If the match was triggered by Uber, then the opponent has to eliminate two of their pieces from that same circle.
  2. Ghost car + rider = opponent wins
    Greyballing backfired, the rider is unsatisfied and stops using Uber.
    If the match was triggered by an opponent, then the closest Uber piece is eliminated.
    If the match was triggered by Uber, then they have to eliminate two of their Uber pieces from that same circle.
  3. Driver + rider = Uber wins
    Good business for Uber.
    If the match was triggered by an opponent, then that piece is eliminated.
    If the match was triggered by Uber, then the opponent has to eliminate two of their pieces from that same circle.
  4. Driver + copper = opponent wins
    A driver got caught and Uber gets fined.
    If the match was triggered by an opponent, then the closest Uber piece is eliminated.
    If the match was triggered by Uber, then they have to eliminate two of their Uber pieces from that same circle.

When you win a match that you triggered, you need to move your piece out of the centre. Place it anywhere on the same circle apart from the direct entrance to the centre. This can allow you to strategically block the other player’s pieces.

As you can see, playing Uber means that the matches you trigger are riskier (you could eliminate two opponent pieces, but you could also lose two of yours), because Uber likes risky business.

Using these elimination rules all cards have the same risk/reward factor. For example playing a ghost card can either win you or lose you the same amount of pieces. I’m currently experimenting with different ways to make certain card choices strategically preferable than others.

Riskier business

  1. Ghost car + copper = Uber wins 2 pieces
  2. Ghost car + rider = opponent wins 1 piece
  3. Driver + rider = Uber wins 1 piece
  4. Driver + copper = opponent wins 2 pieces

This way the ghost and copper cards can reap bigger rewards, while the rider and driver cards are generally less risky.

Points on cards

On top of either of those two elimination systems, cards could also carry points:

  • 2 cards per type would be worth 3 points
  • 3 cards per type would be worth 2 points
  • The remaining 6 cards would be worth 1 point

This would add an extra element of risk to the choice of a card. Let’s say your current hand is made by 3 cards of the same type. Without a points system, you would have no choice but to play any of them. With points, you may decide to play the low-points card or the high-points card, depending on how much risk you’re willing to take.

Points could also be accumulated over the course of several games. Let’s say you win a game as Uber and lose the next game as the opponents. With a points system, you can determine an overall winner.

As you probably worked out, this is work-in-progress stuff. I’ll keep updating this post as I prototype and playtest the ideas above.

Meanwhile, since you made it this far, and assuming this post has sparked some thoughts in your brain, why not add a little comment down below, or give us a clap? Thanks!

Hacking 10 games in 10 weeks

Experiments in board game design: injecting contemporary issues into traditional board games

Matteo Menapace

Written by

Encoding and decoding playful learning experiences. Resident game designer at the V&A vam.ac.uk/info/residencies#in-residence

Hacking 10 games in 10 weeks

Experiments in board game design: injecting contemporary issues into traditional board games

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