Abstract Strategy Games

There is some confusion in Seattle Cosmic (and elsewhere) about what constitutes an abstract strategy game, or "abstract game" for short. In my opinion, this is partly because "abstract strategy game" has become a prestige title applied to all sorts of games that really don't qualify, no matter how good they are on their own merits. For example, Looney_Labs? describes Icehouse in their marketing material as a "real-time abstract strategy game". There is no such thing, at least from a game theory perspective. The best definition I have seen on the Web for "abstract game" or "abstract strategy game" comes from the introductory information for the newsgroup rec.games.abstract at the Usenet Info Center. It says that rec.games.abstract is a

newsgroup for the discussion of abstract games where strategy, tactics and player skill are paramount. This includes the major category of perfect information, pure-strategy (deterministic) games, i.e. those with no element of chance (e.g. no dice), and where all information is available (unlike card games and Scrabble, for example, where players' hands are hidden). The games under consideration are characterised by a simple board and pieces, with a small number of rules. The cliche `a minute to learn, a lifetime to master' is often applied.

Other criteria that are usually applied are that abstract strategy games are for two players only (thus avoiding petty diplomacy) and that the players must alternate turns. (These criteria appear in Mark Thompson's excellent article in The Games Journal called Defining the Abstract.) I believe another criterion that is usually applied is that an abstract strategy game is zero-sum, that is, what one player gains, the other loses; usually there is a single winner and a single loser.

Another part of the confusion in defining the term "abstract game" seems to stem from its application to games that are merely themeless, e.g. Backgammon? (which has chance in the form of dice), as opposed to themed games such as Settlers_of_Catan?. I will sometimes use the term "abstract game" in that way myself, but I will never use the term "abstract strategy game" so.

Summary: Definitions are not facts, although it can be a fact that a certain person uses a certain word or phrase in a certain way. I use "abstract strategy game" as it is defined above. I use "abstract game" to mean either "abstract strategy game" or sometimes "themeless game". You can call abstract strategy games "penguins" and penguins "abstract strategy games" for all I care; just please define your terms clearly before you talk to me.

By the way, if there are any mathematicians trained in game theory who are reading this, I would be happy if they would add some comments to this page.