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Wait! This Sounds Familiar (rwblog S6E22)

Ace of Flames from the Jeu de Marseille

Balatro and Deliberate Practice

So lately I, like everybody else, have been playing Balatro. (You may remember that I recommended it a month ago). Balatro is great! You should be playing Balatro.

Game design and professor (and game design professor) Frank Lantz has also been playing Balatro. His newsletter is always fantastic,1 but this one was particularly interesting. He points out that Balatro is similar to poker because it’s high variance — even a “perfect” playthrough may result in failure due to randomness, which means you get almost no information about “optimal” play from any single result!

Wait! This sounds familiar. I’ve been going through “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance” by Ericsson et.al. — the actual source of that old Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hour rule. (I prefer James Somers’ summary.) But one very very important caveat that is only off-handedly mentioned in the paper, but made a central theme of David Epstein’s Range, is that deliberate practice requires immediate feedback. Indeed, Epstein points out that lack of immediate feedback is a defining property of so-called “wicked problems,” which is exactly how Lantz refers to Balatro! Maria Konnikova makes the same point about poker in The Biggest Bluff — poker is difficult to practice because it’s too easy to anchor on a single win or loss.

In some sense, Lantz is arguing that Balatro (and, by extension, poker) is fun precisely because it’s so difficult to deliberately practice.

Anyway: all this to say that I’m really into cards right now. I’m thinking about how we could extend the poker-hands mechanic into other systems. How about using poker hands with tarot minor arcana cards, where you get bonuses depending on which major arcana you pick? Or maybe you make poker hands and bluff which major arcana you have, like in Coup? 🤔

On a tangentially related note: check out this wild playing card set drawn by André Breton and pals while trying to escape Nazi-occupied Europe (featuring a cameo from Ubu Roi).

Magus of Locks from the Jeu de Marseille

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  1. I first started reading a year ago with his reflections on art in the age of LLMs.