Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The FARKLE Guide to Life

Recently, I've discovered a new Facebook time-waster: FARKLE. It's a dice game where you try to throw as high a score as possible in ten sets of 'tosses'*. Playing it pretty seriously over the past few days has given me an odd insight into peoples' approaches to life in general.

* - There's a 'classic mode' where you play against an opponent and the object is to get the highest total score in ten sets of opposed rolls, but I haven't played that version yet, because you have to earn 'chips' to unlock that game mode, and I'm not even halfway to earning enough chips.

First, the basics. FARKLE is a game where you start with six dice and throw them all at the same time. You score points based on the combinations of numbers that come up; for instance, a '1' scores 100 points, a '5' scores 50 points, and three of a kind scores 100 times the number on the triplet (unless it's trip '1's, in which case it scores 1000 points). There are a few other scoring combinations, but the most common way to score is to throw a '1' or a '5'. This is important, because you set aside the dice that score** and continue to roll the dice that didn't score until one of two things happens:

1. You make a roll that doesn't score any points; this is a FARKLE and ends your set of rolls without allowing you to score any points you previously may have rolled.

2. You choose to 'bank' the current number of points you've rolled, which ends your set of rolls and allows you to score the number of points you've rolled thus far and then begin a new set of rolls with the full set of six dice. You can only do this, however, if your current number of points rolled is 300 or more; otherwise you are required to roll again.

** - You technically don't have to set aside a die that would count as a scoring die, but you also don't get the score on that die if you don't set it aside. I haven't yet figured out a situation where you'd deliberately choose not to set aside a scoring die.

Here's an example, in case that explanation doesn't make sense:

You roll the six dice and get a result of '1', '2', '2', '3', '5', and '6'. The '1' scores 100 points, so it's set aside, while the '5' scores 50 points and it is also set aside. Since you have only 150 points, you don't have enough to bank yet, so you pick up the other four dice and re-roll them. Your second roll comes up '1', '4', '4', and '6'. You score another 100 points for the next '1', set it aside, and are again forced to re-roll, since you now have just 250 points. Your next roll is '2', '3', and '6'. Since this doesn't score, you've just FARKLEd and all 250 points you've rolled this turn are thrown out. You then begin again with a new set of rolls (set 2, in this case) starting with all six dice again.

One other wrinkle; if you score on the dice often enough so that all six dice are set aside before you bank or FARKLE, you then get to start over with all six dice again, only this time you keep your previous points. So if your first roll is '1', '2', '3', '4', '5', and '6' (a special called a 'straight', worth 1500 points), you get to keep the points and start with six dice again.

Another wrinkle, this time strictly for the Facebook version of the game: the game tracks the scores of everyone on your friends list who's also played, and can display the top ten ranked scores of both you and your friends over the past week, the past month, and over the lifetime of the game, giving special emphasis to the top three scores in each grouping. If you're competitive, your goal is to get the top score, or at least get into the top 3.

The interesting thing about this game to me is the way that, well...let me explain with another example. Let's call this player Eric.***

*** - Though I have two friends whose names sound like 'Eric', neither actually spells his name like that; this means that either the people involved won't think they are being used as the example (because I didn't spell his name correctly), or, if one does ask if this example was supposed to represent him, allows me to claim that I was using the other as the example. Win-win!

Eric is what might be called 'risk-averse'. Each time he reaches 300 or more points, he banks his result. It's extremely unlikely to roll a FARKLE off the initial six dice (though it does happen occasionally), and although it sometimes happens that a FARKLE occurs before he's reached his 300 point minimum, it doesn't happen often enough to prevent Eric from consistently scoring more than 2000 points in a game. However, likewise, the 'great' rolls, while they do sometimes happen off the initial roll, don't happen consistently enough off of early rolls to ensure really high scores, thus Eric seldom scores higher than 4000 points.

Now, consistently scoring 2000-4000 points might be a great way to consistently win games in FARKLE Classic, where you're going up against a live opponent. But in the 'shoot for the high score' version of FARKLE, it's a good way to stay stuck at the bottom of the top 10 list, if indeed you even manage to get on.

My own strategy has evolved over the past few days so that I occasionally make plays that Eric, if he were looking over my shoulder, would shake his head about and wonder why I was being so foolhardy. A great example is rolling the sixth and final die when it's the only die remaining to be rolled with a score of 350-500 points sitting in the bucket waiting to be banked. Since the only way to score a single die is to roll a '1' or '5', this means that two-thirds of the time, I'll end up FARKLing and scoring nothing instead of getting the 350-500 points I could have banked. If the point of the game is to score points, Eric would wonder, why am I trusting to luck and ending up throwing away these sure-fire points?

There are two possible answers to this question: the FARKLE-specific reason, and the more general philosophical reason.

The FARKLE-specific reason is that, if I want to try to score 8000 or more points in a single game, I'm not going to manage to pull it off without luck -- if I FARKLE out at 350, I wasn't likely to break 8000 that game anyway, but if I get lucky and roll a '5', bumping my score to 400 and allowing me a new set of throws, I might get an additional score before banking that gets me a lot closer to my goal. (There's been at least one occasion where I threw a lucky '5', then tossed a straight with my very next roll, resulting in a net boost of over 1500 points on that turn.) Yes, I'll fail more often than I succeed, and sometimes even if I do succeed, the additional points aren't big enough to get me to my goal anyway, but the point is that I already know that 350 points by themselves aren't going to be enough to get me where I want to go, so I throw the dice and hope for the best (knowing as well that I can always start a new game).

The more philosophic reason is that, while you can easily total up the points you lost by taking a chance and losing, you can't easily, if at all, total up the points you passed up on by playing it safe and banking what you currently have. In that sense, it's always going to look 'smarter' to play it safe rather than take a risk. But is it really? Sure, you can do the math showing that, in the long run, you'll give up at least as many points if not more by risking low-probability throws than by playing it save, but on the other hand all I need is one really lucky game to post my score as the #1 lifetime score among all my FARKLE friends, and that score doesn't go away. Sometimes, you only need to succeed once to make all the losses irrelevant, and likewise playing it safe 'for the long term' doesn't really help because the scale on which you're being judged doesn't care what your overall score was, just your best score.

Take a chance and let yourself be vulnerable to someone; maybe you'll end up hurt and miserable, but one success may be all it takes to make you happy for the rest of your life. Spend a dollar or two on lottery tickets when the prize gets high enough to notice; odds are you'll never see anything like the amount of money you spend over the years you play, but one lucky ticket and none of that matters anymore. Now I'll be the first to admit that it's easier to hold faith in luck when it works in the latter rather than the former fashion; spending two extra dollars in a week almost never deprives you of something you need, while having your heart shattered (yet again) feels like something you simply can't do over and over without losing your mind. The principle is the same in either case, though; just because you can't see or feel the prize doesn't mean that it's impossible for you ever to reach it. Yes, you may never actually get there, so be ready for that, but if you use that as an excuse to stop trying, then you're guaranteed never to get there.

I'll also be the first to admit that I haven't always lived up to this philosophy; as I noted, it's sometimes pretty hard to hold to faith when you feel broken by fate. I'd like to think, though, that it's a lesson that I stay as open to as possible, and occasionally even re-discover after a long, dull routine of playing it safe.

After all, there are only two ways to tell when you're done rolling the dice: either the dice themselves tell you to stop, or you put them aside and stop yourself.


Shortly after posting this, I rolled my best-ever score in FARKLE: 10,600 points. It's a bit behind the highest I've ever seen (among my FARKLE-friends, that score ranks sixth all-time, with the second-highest at 11,850 and highest at 13,100), but it's pretty good.

To quantify what I mean about 'it's harder to realize how many points you may have given up by stopping', I thought I'd track one game here to demonstrate:

  1. Roll to 250, then FARKLE out. No choice here. (Net +0)
  2. Roll to 700 with one die remaining. Take the chance and get a '1'. Then roll trip '1's on the next roll. Bank. (Net +1100)
  3. Roll to 350 with one die left. FARKLE out. (Net +750)
  4. Roll to 550 with three dice left. FARKLE out. (Net +200)
  5. Roll trip '5's on the first roll. Add two '1's on the second. FARKLE out. (Net -1200, since the game imposes a 500 point penalty for three consecutive FARKLES.)
  6. Roll to 600, then FARKLE out. (Net -1800)
  7. Roll three pairs on first roll, then on second roll, up to 850. Roll up to 950. Bank. (Net -1700)
  8. Roll straight on first roll, then start second roll with a pair of '1's and a pair of '5's for a total of 1800. Bank. (Net -1700)
  9. Roll trip '6's and a '1' for 700. FARKLE out. (Net -2400)
  10. Roll trip '4's and a pair of '5's for 500. FARKLE out. (Net -2900)

Final score = 4,050

On one hand, this looks like a good reason not to push too hard -- had I banked at every logical opportunity, I'd have had a final score of 6,950 instead of 4,050. On the other hand, 6,950 is the lowest score among my FARKLE friends who've played this week, and wouldn't even crack the top 10 all-time. You've got to have a game that's capable of being pushed to win a high score; even pushing for good luck won't help you if there's no luck to be had in that game. If there is luck, though, and you don't push for it, you won't get it, either.

One thing I'll add to my method, though -- for FARKLE, be less aggressive about pushing luck where there's a chance for a third FARKLE, since the penalty helps negate whatever luck you've already had. Not sure how that translates to a general life lesson, though.

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