Friday, January 01, 2010

Trivia Smackdown

Last night was the Trivia Smackdown, the first time our regular trivia game was played for cash money, and it also involved some new rules. But we didn't get told the new rules beforehand... or even during the game, which meant strategizing was nearly impossible. Until the key moment.

The game started with six teams of six members, with a $10 per person buy-in (and all $360 in the prize pool to be split up amongst the winning team). The wrinkle: at the end of the first round, each team had to "smack down" one of its members, sending them off to the corner to form a new team. This is one of those ideas that sounds good on paper: shake everything up, force a different kind of strategizing, and get people to interact with people outside their circle of friends.

In practice, it goes over poorly. People want to spend the evening with their friends. They formed this team carefully balancing their areas of expertise. The strategizing is impossible when you don't know what topics are still to come, and you haven't had the rest of the rules explained to you. And no one likes picking which of their friends is expendable, or being that expendable friend.

Nearly everyone came away from this with a bad feeling in their mouths, which got worse when after each subsequent round we had to "smack down" another player, causing the smackdown team to grow to absurd proportions (far too unwieldy to collaborate effectively, or even to fit into the space available), while the remaining team members just felt bad about still being there, plus felt more pressure about earning the place they'd kept.

By the end of the fifth round, the original teams were down to two members, and sure enough, someone had to be smacked down, leaving just a single member on each team, and 30 people on the smackdown team, and that's when the inevitable but unpredictable twist came. By this point, the smackdown team was in third place, and our team was near the bottom of the rankings. I was the last person on my team to be smacked down. And then the last rule change was announced.

Each team's remaining member could choose to recall none, some, or all of its members, but they had to make that decision in secret from the other teams. If you won without recalling your members, you got the whole prize pot for yourself... (as if anyone wouldn't then split it with their friends anyway!). As it happens, nearly every team recalled all their members, perhaps just because everyone hated being separated from their friends. One team recalled all but two (don't know why).

And our one remaining team member, being a good student of game theory, realized that being near the bottom of the rankings and already mathematically eliminated, while the smackdown team was in third and within reach of the prize, it made more sense not to recall anyone. This was the key point on which the whole game ended up resting, this point of game theory. Because he was totally right.

Though it did also take a handy coincidence that the final round (which was also a Silver Bullet round, double points for right answers, but lost points for wrong answers) had a topic that was great for us. We scored a solid eight out of twelve possible in that round, but most teams, playing risky, actually lost points. And in the end, the smackdown team won.

There were seven of us by this point, five out of six of the original Browncoats team, plus the two members of another team that got left behind. So we took 5/7ths of the prize pot and then split it six ways (to include back in our sixth member, who if anything should have gotten a larger share for making the winning call, so certainly shouldn't've been excluded).

Despite this largely tactical win, I still don't like these rules. I wouldn't mind playing for money occasionally (though hopefully not too often) but I hope that we can keep our team together. The rules might not be so bad if we knew ahead of time what we were doing, but even then, I'd rather not go that way, and I think enough other people agreed that we won't see that particular combination again.

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