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Nomic is a game where modifying the game is the game.
August 27, 2007 8:57 PM   Subscribe

Nomic, as introduced by inventor Peter Suber (homepage): a game of self-modification—every move is an attempt to alter the rules governing how the game is played. Further from wikipedia. [A great deal more within.]
posted by cortex (59 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite

 
Peter Suber (previously) created Nomic in 1982; the game gained attention with publication in Douglas Hofstadter's SciAm column in June of that year. Setting aside even the open-ended variety of basic gameplay, Suber's initial ruleset has spawned a tremendous number of variants and rewrites: nomic as boardgame, chess experiment, limerickfest (from here), monosyllabicism, and onward. Niche and idiosyncratic to a fault, Nomic tends to pop up in fringes here and there and die quietly thereafter; nomic.net itself is neglected, and its list of dead games is both inspiring and depressing.

Nomic has also been subject of or accessory to a number of academic papers [blanket pdf warning]: Minimum Nomic, Self-modifying Protocols, Case study re: same, Formalizing Nomic, and Political Structure. (Suber himself is an academic, who has written on a number of subjects, e.g. language change.)

And there's the question of whether Wikipedia is secretly the best game of Nomic ever.

Though perhaps wielding the most credentials on the block, Nomic is not the only self-modifying game around, though: Fluxx, Mao (and its less dark-hearted cousin Bartok) and confounding classic Mornington Crescent all list high—though none quite stand up to Calvinball for populist appeal. See related previously on Metafilter; it seems, though, that even when Nomic isn't the topic per se, it just keeps coming up.
posted by cortex at 8:57 PM on August 27, 2007 [2 favorites]


I've actually played a game of Nomic. It's even more irritating than it sounds. For metagames I much prefer playing Zen Snap, or its more elaborate cousin Mornington Crescent.
posted by Nelson at 9:09 PM on August 27, 2007


Some friends of mine developed some fairly sophisticated tools for managing a game of nomic that's been going on and off online since 2001, I played in an early round. It's an interesting game.
posted by nanojath at 9:12 PM on August 27, 2007


I was going to start a Mornington Crescent game in here just to be confusing/contrary, but the more inside had to go and mention it.

-30 DKP to cortex.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 9:13 PM on August 27, 2007


I think nomic works better as a theoretical model for any political system than it does as a game. But its fascinating stuff.
posted by empath at 9:20 PM on August 27, 2007


I've always been curious as to what type of person is drawn into playing this game.

Like many people, I find the theoretical aspects interesting. (It only goes so far in mimicing social or political models though unless there are rules which allow someone by force to throw away the rules altogether, kill some other key players and set up new self-contradicting rules.)

But actually playing the game seemed to me to be an exercise in management and tedium. Mao is a bit better but even so the initial appeal was an appropriately reflective "Hey, cool, we're playing a self-modifying game" rather than just joy.
posted by vacapinta at 9:23 PM on August 27, 2007


I'm a bigger fan of the more free form, and more creativity inspiring 1000 blank white cards.
posted by redbeard at 9:31 PM on August 27, 2007 [1 favorite]


I was just gonna post what redbeard said. I think that freeformity is the key...

Admittedly, I've never gotten a group of people to get together to play :( But I've made lots of awesome nazi cards (in bad taste, admittedly) on my own in preparation for a "starter deck".
posted by symbioid at 9:35 PM on August 27, 2007


Sometimes I feel the urge for a brisk round of solitaire Nomic.

301. Successfully adding a rule will be worth 100 points.

That was fun.
posted by ormondsacker at 9:36 PM on August 27, 2007 [1 favorite]


So, not a game in the classic sense of "something fun" then.
posted by chundo at 9:41 PM on August 27, 2007


I'm having a hard time imagining this game being fun. I'm not claiming it can't be - I'm just saying I'm having a hard time imagining it. So are there any clearly delineated turn-by-turn examples of play?

For example, "Turn one, player A proposed rule such-and-such. Votes for: A, B, D; Votes against: C, E, F, G. Rule rejected."

I clicked on the "dead games" link, and picked one at random, hoping I would see something like the above.

Instead, I got a flat text dump of a billion email messages (including full headers), which, at least as far as I read, consisted of people debating what "nom de plume" means, and describing themselves in ways like (I kid you not):
Oloros (suddenly Male, with masculine urgings and an elephantine nose) moves from the Sludge Showers to the Warrens, following the siren song of Gallavanting Tripper. It does not disturb him that this allure seems to effect only him as he travels through the Genomic Hub, oblivious to the other Creatures, and the Stone Circle, pausing not to lose himself in the shadows, on the way to the low Warrens to Mate with GT
"Oloros" was the author of that; yes, he was speaking in the third person about himself.
posted by Flunkie at 9:45 PM on August 27, 2007


Ah! I think I dropped a "previously" link re: 1KBWC. I disagree with you on the subject of degree of creative inspiration, but the card game is definitely a lot more visually interesting (by default, at least; Nomic is funny that way).

I find the whole genre fascinating. And from experience playing a few games over the years, I agree that the game is almost more compelling as a concept and model than it is as literal play: Nomic is hard to run and easy to break, and can require so much attention over the long term that finding a cohesive group where everyone is equally invested and folks don't drop out can be damned hard.

There's a whole other tangent that I restrained myself from going down: the notion of self-modification in programming, and the small but attractive genre of games wherein simple, actively self-modifying entities are in one way or another in competition. I enjoyed (but was never any good at) Core Wars, for example, but there have been many others. Shades of Conway's Life, of course.
posted by cortex at 9:50 PM on August 27, 2007


Here's the actual standard Solitaire Nomic, for the logic geeks among us. Fulfill the victory conditions by altering the rules, in as few moves as possible.
posted by ormondsacker at 9:52 PM on August 27, 2007


As far as Nomic games being fun, there're a few variables to consider when looking through historic games:

- Suber is a wonk, and his original ruleset is pretty heavy; most folks play with a modified (which is to say, to a greater or lesser degree stripped down) ruleset, Cf. Pure Nomic;
- Much of the joy that those who take joy in Nomic do take comes from not so much successful play as from the little details and scams and wit and structures and violations that come from proposing and debating the evolving ruleset;
- Pretty much everyone who plays a game of Nomic is a huge goddam nerd in one sense or another. Nerds can be kind of weird.
posted by cortex at 9:56 PM on August 27, 2007 [1 favorite]


Found stuff like this:
proposal = Use of Black Cats, Broken Mirrors, Dead Chickens, Voodoo Dolls or any other fate changing devices and/or methodologies is strictly prohibited.
And:
proposal = Rule 35: The name of the nomic game is : The Curvature of my Spine is Overwhelmed by Local Aneasthetic Nomic.
And:
proposal = Change rule 11 to state that: The King, or any other ruling body within the society to which the current Poobah resides, is a fink.
I'm sorry I'm a buzzkill, but these all strike me as the type of thing I was prejudicedly expecting: "Aren't I wacky! I'm the wackiest! Ha ha!"

Uh, yeah. Sure. Ha ha.
posted by Flunkie at 10:05 PM on August 27, 2007


I have an inkling that this could make a fantastic drinking game.
posted by kyleg at 10:10 PM on August 27, 2007


I dunno, Flunkie, the game I played wasn't anything like that. Was it fun? It was interesting, it was intellectually stimulating and sometimes compelling. It's pretty abstract, it definitely scratches a different itch than, I don't know, Hearts or Halo. We were exploring the natures of things like how you define a currency, and creating partisanship, and what it takes to break a ruleset and make it unplayable. I can't imagine very many people being into it, but it was all right. But since the rules can be absolutely anything the group agrees to it's obviously totally variable and depends entirely on the group.
posted by nanojath at 10:16 PM on August 27, 2007


I dunno, Flunkie, the game I played wasn't anything like that. Was it fun? It was interesting, it was intellectually stimulating and sometimes compelling.
Again, I'm not arguing that it can't possibly be interesting. But my gut reaction was "this is going to be a bunch of Discordians sitting around and naming each other "==SUPERPOPE==", and my limited investigation has, essentially, backed that gut reaction.

I honestly would be happy to see an example of an interesting example of play. If you could provide one, I'm all ears.
posted by Flunkie at 10:21 PM on August 27, 2007 [2 favorites]


This sounds a lot like the kind of gymnastics required to write down the largest number. Interesting side link: million dollar 1983 Scientific American largest number game
posted by anthill at 10:33 PM on August 27, 2007


But since the rules can be absolutely anything the group agrees to it's obviously totally variable and depends entirely on the group.

It makes for an interesting comparison to pen-and-paper RPGs; there, too, you have a structure/premise that is pretty dang open-ended and which lends itself to play that varies in quality across a number of axes depending almost entirely on the group in question. For every really solid collaborative narrative that comes out of a game of D&D , there are going to be ten games that are mostly twinking or bad amateur theatrics or excuses to discuss tolkienian or what have you: things that aren't necessarily bad (esp. if they fulfill the entertainment desires of the folks playing) but which don't really display the potential of the game.

Another thing that bears on Nomic and which fascinates me is the general notion of emergent behavior in systems—the idea that the combination of a few simple rules and entities can lead to very complex behavior if the mix is just so, and I think this explains a lot of the strange little things that get thrown into Nomic games early on—it's not that Potatoes or Pope Points or whatever are expected to be particularly interesting additions in isolation, but rather that with a few extra "things" sitting around, you have this potential of seeing people do wonderfully clever and surprising things with those things once the ruleset begins to overlap with itself properly.
posted by cortex at 10:46 PM on August 27, 2007


I honestly would be happy to see an example of an interesting example of play.

My first comment in this thread (second comment) links to the website of the game I participated in, which includes records from all the prior rounds (it appears there isn't an active round going at the moment) - under the History label, last thing on the left-hand sidebar.

I don't know the degree to which those records capture the actual process (which wasn't really much like "play" in any conventional sense and consisted mainly of proposing, discussing and voting changes to the ruleset) and I doubt any of it will make very interesting reading: it's been a good few years since I played but my recollection is that it was pretty dry stuff.
posted by nanojath at 10:54 PM on August 27, 2007


I would like to try this game someday.
posted by Meatbomb at 10:55 PM on August 27, 2007


Peter Suber is fantastic. His philosophy site and online course notes are the richest I've seen, his papers are thought-provoking and original, and the breadth of topics he covers in the courses he teaches is impressive. (Nineteenth century continental philosophy, logical systems, crimes and torts, and minds and machines? That's a hugely diverse collection.) He was the subject of one of my first MeFi posts, and in that thread I learned that he used to be a stand-up comic and juggled plungers on Carson. Really, I'm in awe of this man.

Most philosophers I talk to haven't heard of him, sadly. I like turning people on to his site.
posted by painquale at 11:08 PM on August 27, 2007 [1 favorite]


I have an inkling that this could make a fantastic drinking game.

As soon as I saw "a game of self-modification" I thought of boxhead. The last game I played became blurry at about the point someone declared that boxhead would, from that point on, be known as boxpants.
posted by markr at 11:22 PM on August 27, 2007


I played a bunch of nomic variants a decade or so ago (back when I was a student and had time), notably Imperial Nomic, which begins with a single person who decides which proposed rules are accepted (but voting is often introduced in the course of the game). And I played a more traditional all-players-voting game a couple years ago (back when I was unemployed and had time).

I think they can be a lot of fun, if you have a good set of players. There does tend to be a lot of silliness, and a lot of rule ideas that go nowhere, but there have been a number of cases where an interesting game arose (apart from the metagame of making the rules). One of the Imperial games essentially became a MUD, others became board games. A couple started as board games (notably Nomopoly), which I think gave a manageable structure to build on, rather than the dry and abstract framework that Suber's rules describe.

Unfortunately, most of the archives of the games I played seem to be gone, and the ones that are left are kind of incoherent. You need to know the game state when "moves" were made in order to understand what the moves mean, but it's very difficult to reconstruct that.

Nomopoly 2 may actually have enough of that state to be readable...
posted by aneel at 11:28 PM on August 27, 2007


I've tried various ones in the past, and most just become bogged down and dull. Imperial Nomic is easily the most interesting as having a single person decide which rules to accept can help keep the game focused and actually fun. Especially when the players work toward improving and complimenting the existing rules instead of creating entirely new ones.

If I knew of any starting up, I'd happily join in.
posted by evilangela at 11:57 PM on August 27, 2007


Not entertaining (even in the schadenfreude-laden way that Wikipedia politics is entertaining), and seems to be exclusively played by the sort of asshats who think that D&D is 'collaborative storytelling'.

I enjoy The Game much more.
posted by blasdelf at 12:37 AM on August 28, 2007


nomic can be repurposed to play wacky versions of existing games by throwing in a few more immutable rules at the beginning. I'm just imagining some demented nomic version of poker where on top of check/raise/fold each player can also propose a rules change.

(on preview, monopoly appears to be an example)
posted by juv3nal at 1:08 AM on August 28, 2007


I can confirm that nomic as a drinking game is a great deal more fun if you're not completely absorbed by the theoretical machinations of the game proper. That said, in the long run you'd probably do better by just drinking something and, y'know, having a chat.

It's kind of one of those games for people who think they're really, really smart.
posted by bwerdmuller at 3:59 AM on August 28, 2007


When ever I've tried to play a nomic-like game as a drinking game, it's always devolved into a game of "Drink the Beer". That is, people identify the point of the game as being to get drunk, so establish rules that provide for it as quickly as possible. As intoxication mounts, attention waivers and the game dies.

I'm interested in simulation nomics, where the game is constrained by a setting and a purpose that can't be change by the game itself. I've always wanted to play again in a free form version of of a WWI simulation that I stumbled upon years ago. It died out over time, but for that brief time, in the role of Holland, I had a lot of fun. As I've been reading A Distant Mirror lately, I'd also be keen to play in a similar game based on the Hundred Years War. Players take on the roles of various actors/influences at the time and then try to make their aims real via an application of scholarship, roleplay, and voting.

Trying to get that all together though, takes a lot of people who are on the same wavelength. Failing that, Wiki RPGs where players work to create a setting or simulate an imagined debate are fun while they last. As is Mafia.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 5:55 AM on August 28, 2007


nomic can be repurposed to play wacky versions of existing games by throwing in a few more immutable rules at the beginning. I'm just imagining some demented nomic version of poker where on top of check/raise/fold each player can also propose a rules change.

I'd like to see a poker game where you wager consent for rule changes.

First bettor gives his consent to a swearing ban. Second bettor gives his consent to a swearing ban and a rule making the six of diamonds wild. Now the third bettor has to consent to both those and one new one if he wants to stay in the hand.

The winner of the hand gets to put any of the proposed rule changes up for a vote. If you've already given your consent, you can't vote "no."
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:19 AM on August 28, 2007 [2 favorites]


then again, like most of the games in this thread, it would probably be more fun to think about than to play
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:20 AM on August 28, 2007


the sort of asshats who think that D&D is 'collaborative storytelling'

People who play D&D as collaborative storytelling > people who play D&D to roll dice over and over and collect kewl imaginary trinkets.
posted by mkultra at 7:02 AM on August 28, 2007


I was hoping it would be more like Calvinball.
posted by Totally Zanzibarin' Ya at 7:16 AM on August 28, 2007


Double.
posted by anotherpanacea at 7:31 AM on August 28, 2007


(See first 'previously' link in my first comment, anotherpanacea.)
posted by cortex at 7:35 AM on August 28, 2007


I'm also a fan of Nomic as a concept. Never played, but I could see it being fun, then slowly becoming work, then annoying.

But thanks, cortex! This post kept me running around at Wikipedia. Mornington Crescent was fun - I understand (I think) a few obscure references at the JREF forum. Now I want to play Mao and/or Bartok. (I'm a fan of games where you have to figure out the rules as you go. But simple ones like "One Up, One Down".)
posted by ObscureReferenceMan at 10:04 AM on August 28, 2007


I just wanted to add a shoutout to Eleusis in which one player (God?) makes the rules and the other players (Scientists?) work to observe patterns and uncover the rules.
posted by vacapinta at 10:54 AM on August 28, 2007 [1 favorite]



People who play D&D as collaborative storytelling > people who play D&D to roll dice over and over and collect kewl imaginary trinkets.


Maybe, but they could also be far better served by using another system. Consider how well D&D translates to computer games which are all about rolling dice over and over and collecting kewl imaginary trinkets.
posted by juv3nal at 11:40 AM on August 28, 2007


Constitutional democracy may qualify as Nomic writ large (and slow).
posted by McLir at 11:40 AM on August 28, 2007


Heh. It was interesting seeing that one of the previous links mentioned was a direct rip of a post I made to Monkeyfilter (which now I can't find, because Monkeyfilter kinda blows regarding personal posting histories).

I've tried a couple times to get a 1000 Blank Cards game going, but no one has the stick-to-it-iveness that it requires.
posted by klangklangston at 1:13 PM on August 28, 2007


I've actually played a game of Nomic. It's even more irritating than it sounds.

I found this, too, except it took several more years before I admitted that was what happened.

And there's the question of whether Wikipedia is secretly the best game of Nomic ever.

If you play that part of it. I am an obsessed Wikipedian, but start a policy debate and my eyes glaze over. I've resisted becoming an administrator in part because of this. (Even so, I think Jason Scott overstated his case that Wikipedia is a MMORPG.)

People who play D&D as collaborative storytelling > people who play D&D to roll dice over and over

Indeed. I was privileged once to see a particular RPG played with one of the authors as GM. He was creative and challenging to the point that the players were really, really good too. If only all my gaming experiences had been like that!
posted by dhartung at 12:21 AM on August 29, 2007


Zen Snap?
posted by Many bubbles at 12:06 AM on September 1, 2007


Zen Snap?

Yeah, it's a lot like Mornington Crescent with a simplified ruleset and fewer allowable lateral moves after the second iteration.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 12:12 PM on September 1, 2007


Yeah, it's a lot like Mornington Crescent with a simplified ruleset and fewer allowable lateral moves after the second iteration.

So does it have the same premise? I mean, does it use train stations, too?

This page is Google's top result for it! And almost all the other links it turned up didn't seem to be related, aside from one that had what looked like an oblique reference to it. You've failed me, Google.
posted by Many bubbles at 7:36 PM on September 1, 2007


I've never heard of Zen Snap before, but the fact that (a) it's attested that it's like Mornington Crescent and (b) you can't find anything to back up the claims that it exists or how it really works both suggest to me that it's very much like Mornington Crescent.
posted by cortex at 7:50 PM on September 1, 2007


Yeah... curse my curiosity! Does this mean it isn't true that you can find anything on the internet?
posted by Many bubbles at 7:53 PM on September 1, 2007


I just out meta'ed all y'alls asses.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 8:00 PM on September 1, 2007


Wevs, buddy. Last face card was Jack Spades, which makes it opposite day.
posted by cortex at 8:25 PM on September 1, 2007


Oh shit, you're right, it is the first of the month. Dammit.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 8:42 PM on September 1, 2007


A month with a p in it, though.
posted by Many bubbles at 8:46 PM on September 1, 2007


But Many bubbles, it's September, not April, so the pb exclusion applies. (And you thought he just invented the permalink and helped out on Metafilter.)
posted by cortex at 10:47 PM on September 1, 2007


Aha! But I've got the Nine Lead Coins, so the exclusion is reversed.
posted by Many bubbles at 11:28 PM on September 1, 2007



Aha! But I've got the Nine Lead Coins, so the exclusion is reversed.


Only if you choose to use the coins. And if you do that, you're playing into his German Gambit which, as far as the scholarship goes, isn't promising for you. Not promising at all.
posted by juv3nal at 11:34 PM on September 1, 2007


Besides, those coins are frozen as collateral on the Herbert Loan BitterOldPunk took out in your name last round, so unless you've got a reduplicator in the wings it's not like you could even properly explore that particular doublebind.
posted by cortex at 7:42 AM on September 2, 2007


As amusing as it might be that the game "Zen Snap" exists only on this web page, it's not true. I've been playing it for about 15 years now with a friend of mine from college.

The game's rules are easy to learn and it requires no special equipment to play. The first person who says "snap" wins. Like all great games, it may be simple to learn but takes years to master. Do not be tempted by easy victories.
posted by Nelson at 8:38 AM on September 2, 2007


That was NOT a Herbert Loan, because three players had previously pooled resources and insured against collateral extension. Oh course, I still lose the round on points, but I'll take the moral victory. To whom do I write the money order?
posted by BitterOldPunk at 9:39 AM on September 2, 2007


Hold on, who's playing? I need to work out our average latitude and longitude for this one.
posted by Many bubbles at 12:54 PM on September 2, 2007


As amusing as it might be that the game "Zen Snap" exists only on this web page, it's not true. I've been playing it for about 15 years now with a friend of mine from college.

It could be that a description of it exists nowhere on the accessible internet except this web page, though. That would be sort of freaky if it's existed for at least fifteen years offline.

(Thanks!)
posted by Many bubbles at 12:59 PM on September 2, 2007


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