Board Games, Card Games, Game Culture, Gamers, Play, Role Playing Games

Learning from Games: EV

I’ve been a tabletop gamer for most of my life.  My parents kept eternal stalwarts like Monopoly and Scrabble in the house for as long as I can remember.  After my first D&D game at 10 years old, gaming became a lifelong hobby.  Games help me and countless others learn valuable lessons that are applicable at the table and in the real world.  This is the beginning of a series of articles on lessons I learned from marathon nights killing dragons and stealing from cyber-orcs.  Today, I write about one of the more important and difficult for me to learn: expected value.

Quick EV Lesson for the Uninitiated

The concept of expected value (EV for short) is closely associated with high-level poker.  EV is the anticipated long-term benefit or deficit associated with any decision or action, given infinite repetitions.  For example, I wager on 10 coin flips.  On every heads, I win $1.00.  On every tails, I lose $0.50.  Let’s say that during this 10-flip wager the result is seven tails (-$3.50) and three heads (+$3.00).  Sure, I lost 50 cents on this particular wager, but that’s not important.  What is important is the decision I made based on long-term thinking.  I stand to make more money than I lose in the long run based on the terms in the wager, and therefore it has a positive EV.  If I took this same bet every day for a year (meaning 3,650 coin clips), the odds are that I see heads 50% of the time and I’m up about $900.

Still with me?  Good.  I promise there’s no more math.  The big takeaway is that the best decision is always the one that yields the most expected value in the long-term, regardless of any immediate short-term losses.

EV in Gaming

In my example I used money because that’s a commodity with real, tangible value.  With an extra $900 at the end of a year, I can buy that new TV.  In games with no money on the line, EV becomes a bit more nebulous.  What is value?  In a lot of games, it’s winning.  So you make the decision that leads to winning more often in the long-run.  But then…what is winning?  That depends on what kind of gamer you are.

  • Are you the competitive person who wants to win at all costs?   You want to find the most efficient way to “break the game.”
    I found the optimal build for the Demon Hunter in Diablo 3 and min-maxed accordingly, because it’s the most efficient and dude you should see my DPS because it’s UNREAL.
  • Perhaps you prefer to win with style and/or unconventional means.  As long as you get to do your thing once, it was all worth it.
    Yeah, I know gnomes take a -2 modifier to CON and have no bonus to STR, but I want my gnome blood mage to multiclass into barbarian.  Because reasons.
  • Or maybe you’re the one who explores the lore, mythos, and aesthetic of the game. Exploring the world is your win condition.
    I love that this game’s art is uses the first-person perspective.  It’s so engaging.

Each of these players wants something different from their experience.  Value does not have a universal meaning for all gamers, but it is equally important to all of us.  Why do we all game?  Because it’s fun and/or it gives us something in return.  The nature of that “something” is irrelevant.  We determine our own values in gaming.  Be honest about your values and align your play style to maximize them.

EV in Life

Applying EV to your life really comes down to this: make the best play with the highest potential for positive long-term results.  A lot of these decisions are really easy.  Watch what you’re eating, exercise regularly, save for retirement, floss your teeth.

However, making decisions without tangible benefits is difficult, and calculating EV in real life seems nigh impossible at times.  You must know what kind of a gamer you are in order to calculate EV in games.  It is the same in real life: you must know what kind of person you are to make the best decision you can.  I aim to frame decisions around my values, and actions that lend themselves to my values and goals.  We all have our own “win conditions,” and only you can determine what those values are.  Wealth, family, career, friendships, knowledge?  It’s up to you.  Are you making decisions that yield more potential long-term gains than long-term loss in service of those goals?

The hardest part of this lesson was acceptance that my decisions won’t always be great.  Everyone makes bad plays.  It happens.  There’s always another round to play, which means another opportunity to learn what the right decisions are.  Remember, don’t conflate bad outcomes with bad decisions.  Sometimes good decisions yield poor results.  You exercised two days this week, and on the third you sprained your ankle.  That doesn’t mean that your choice to exercise was bad.  It’s just like the coin flip wager.  As long as you made the best decision with the best EV, then you stand to gain more than you lose in the long game, even though this particular “coin flip” came up tails.  Don’t lose sight of your goals and win conditions; long term value is greater any immediate loss.

It’s a Long Game

Life is a long game.  The more you make the optimal play, the more likely you are to achieve whatever your sense of winning is, you win conditions.  Everyone goes through those spots where the d20 comes up 1 every single time.  However, the important part is not to forget that you will roll that 20 eventually.  You made the best decision you could given the potential long-term gains, took the wager, and came up short.  That’s okay.  But do not focus on the negatives or things outside your control.  Once you do, the easier it is for you to make a misplay.

If this free-spirited librarian can develop the ability to think about long-term benefits, you can too.  Sit down, write, do whatever you need to assess what your win conditions are, and then start trying to win.  Games are easier to play when you know what the objective is.  Find your objective, and keep it rattling in the back of your head.  Eventually, you’ll roll that natural 20.

What kind of gamer are you?  What kinds of things do you value in a victory?  How do you feel about Expected Value?  Let us know in the comments!

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