Bridge in the Menagerie

Thanks to my friend Mike, I’ve recently been doing a lot of thinking about the classic card game Bridge. As I learn more about the game, I’ve become increasingly intrigued. Speaking as a game designer and researcher, I find Bridge to be a wonderfully curious game, both mechanically and culturally. I’m surprised that Bridge doesn’t get referenced more often within the game dev and game studies communities.

I’m also surprised there aren’t more specialized 2v2 videogames out there. What an under-explored design space! There’s a reason that Bridge has become so popular, birthing clubs and leagues around the world – namely, it’s fun to play games with a partner! In the world of indie games, Ramiro Corbetta’s 2v2 sports game Hokra stands as compelling proof.

Mike got me reading one particular book about Bridge – Victor Mollo’s Bridge in the Menagerie, from 1965. The book, part of an entire series, follows a cast of fictional players at a fictional Bridge club, the Griffins Club. I wouldn’t recommend the book to beginners (I can’t entirely follow it myself), but I do want to share some choice excerpts.

Mollo, always a little wry, opens the book with a cheeky meditation on the “art of losing”:

There is too much stress everywhere on the art of winning and not nearly enough anywhere on the art of losing. Yet it is surely the more important of the two, for not only do the losers pay the winners, but they clearly enjoy doing it. Were it otherwise they would have stopped playing – or taken to winning – long ago.”

Applying this philosophy to the game of Bridge specifically, Mollo continues:

“Success at bridge, in fact, depends less on winning than on extracting the last ounce of pleasure from losing.”

As someone who is struggling to learn Bridge, I definitely sympathize with this attitude. Though Mollo’s words are obviously a little tongue in cheek, they hold an important truth. They echo Bernie DeKoven’s insight that we play not just to win, but also to pursue the so-called “well-played” game. As I recently discussed in my blog post about Go, it is often more rewarding to have participated in a lively back-and-forth than to have “won” by the game-stated goal. “Journey over destination” and all that jazz.

Bridge culture seems especially well-suited to savoring this joy of losing. Bridge players often discuss each board (hand) after it’s been played, analyzing what went wrong, what went right, and how the board might have been played differently. That kind of postmortem helps the losing side transmute the frustration of defeat into a pleasurable discussion – one that’s also a valuable learning experience.


Kibitzing and the Griffins Method

In another view, perhaps Bridge is a little too prone to analysis and discussion.

Have you ever played a game where a know-it-all hovered around the board, offering unwanted advice about what you should have done? In Bridge, that kind of “backseat driver” is referred to as a “kibitzer” (often in a pejorative sense).

The problem with kibitzers is that they stand “outside” the game, as non-participants. As Mollo explains: “[The kibitzer] holds power without responsibility and can plague all the players all the time, sitting back happily in the knowledge that no one can hit back.” In other words, it’s all too easy to become an armchair critic. Talk is cheap.

At the Griffins Club (remember, it’s fictional), the play community has invented an ingenious way of dealing with these kibitzers. The Griffins Club rule is that any kibitzer can be “doubled” – that is, the player who is being critiqued can challenge the kibitzer to replay the same board and prove their claim. If the kibitzer fails to demonstrate their point, they have to pay an amount based on how much the player lost on the board (at the Griffins Club, Bridge is played for money).

In essence, a player can call a kibitzer on bullshit claims. As Mollo summarizes: “Kibitzers need never suppress their vilest and strongest instincts. But they must pay for the privilege of being natural.” Mollo’s implication here is that kibitzers are, more often than not, full of hot air. “One of the charms of the Griffins Method is that a kibitizer’s worth is measured strictly by the absurdity of his interjections. The greater the pest, the more he contributes to our welfare and the more, in consequence, do we love and revere him.” Mollo continues: “from each piece of gibberish we reap a just reward.”

I’d love to see some similar rule applied to other play communities. The particularities of the Griffins Method are geared to games played for money, but I wonder if there are ways to re-appropriate its general “spirit.” It’s always fun when a nuisance (in this case, a kibitzer) is playfully transformed into a source of merriment. Well, as long as the kibitzers have a good sense of humor about it too!


Game Fables

Reading Bridge in the Menagerie also led me to wonder: why aren’t there more written serials about videogames? There’s certainly precedent in the world of boardgames and card games. Newspapers, for instance, have been running Chess columns for decades. Yasunari Kawabata’s The Master of Go, which I posted about a few months ago, is a collection of dispatches originally written for a Japanese newspaper. And Mollo’s books offer a kind of “game fable” – an appealing mix of irreverent yarns and Bridge geekery.

I’d love to see someone take a popular videogame and write a serial (fictional or non-fictional) that mixes storytelling with commentary on game strategy. Are there any existing examples? The only example I could think of was Joel Goodwin’s “The Aspiration Cometh,” a dramatic series about an epic match of Neptune’s Pride.

Can anyone think of any other examples? And what other videogames deserve the serial treatment? Personally, I’d love to see a serial about Hokra. Any takers? 🙂


EDIT: Mike points out that the term “kibitzer” isn’t always meant pejoratively. He points to this “drier” definition. Mike wisely adds: “In Mollo’s world, the players are such extreme caricatures of various Bridge personalities that they can’t help abusing their kibitzing privileges, most often by saying things that simply aren’t true and betray various weaknesses in their abilities. But in the real world kibitzing is just an accepted part of the game. And like partners, kibitzers can either drive you crazy or make the game richer and more fun.”

4 Responses to Bridge in the Menagerie

  1. I find capoeira to have a sophisticated dynamic with respect to the “art of losing”. When two capoeiristas “play” (that’s the verb that is used), their goal is to create a beautiful game, not to beat each other (as in “win” a fight). At the same time, both want to play aggressively and take advantage of the other’s mistakes. Essentially if you don’t do this, you’re letting your partner get sloppy, which down the road can lead to injuries. So the game strongly encourages pushing oneself and others to improve, while twisting the straightforward competitive dynamic.

  2. Tommy says:

    Inquest magazine, which covered tabletop/CCG/RPG games when I was a tween, did a weekly feature where they turned a game recap into a narrative. There are group-based “Let’s Play”-style recaps of games as well. I read a particularly good explanation of a game of Solium Infernum by multiple people involved in the game; likewise, there are some great narrations of Dwarf Fortress games floating around on the internet.

  3. Thanks for the reference, Doug. I’m not sure my tale is that rare – and then again, it is actually factual, I made nothing up (intentionally). The alien role-play happened.

    As Tommy states – Dwarf Fortress seems to ooze out plenty of stories which often mix in strategy or tutorial. There was one on Arcadian Rhythms by Chris Spann I linked just recently and he was playing for the first time (whether he’ll play a second time is anyone’s guess).

    You know, there was this book I used to migrate from the Fighting Fantasy choose-your-own-adventure books in the mid-80s towards D&D called What is Dungeons & Dragons? It had this wonderful section in the middle which explained a sample campaign by mapping fictional prose of the experience to the actions required to operate the rules: the left page would have something like “Bogman opens the door and the stench is overpowering, saying ‘Jeez, who died?'” and the right page would indicate where rules came into play (DM rolls saving throw, etc.) and I loved that. It really helped explain how D&D was supposed to work to my young teen mind.