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The Nuts

Twoaces In poker terminology, “the nuts” or “the nuts hand” refers to having the best possible hand at any given time. So, for instance, in a game of Texas Hold 'Em if there are two aces on the board and no possibility of a straight flush, a pair of aces in one's hand would be the nuts (since four aces would be the best possible hand in this particular round).

The experience of having the nuts is both wonderful and terrible – obviously it is magnificent to know one has won the hand, but in poker the value of the win depends more upon how much you can money you can draw out of the other players than on the overall quality of your own hand. So for instance, in the previous example, the fact that no other player can have an ace in their hand makes it very much less likely that anyone will bet heavily against you in that instance. The terrible facet of the nuts is that knowing you have the best hand it can be hard to conceal this fact from the other players, and one must make a concerted effort to conceal one's true emotions if one is to have any chance of suckering in the other players. A well-developed poker face becomes essential!

Neurobiologically, the nuts sets off a hit of dopamine just as if the player had won because holding the nuts is functionally the same as having won. However, the player can get more of the reward chemical by playing the hand well and getting more money out of the pot. Thus the nuts combines a base level experience of reward (from winning) with the potentiality for winning even more (by luring players into the pot) thus making it a very potent experience as the dopamine for the win is supplemented by yet more dopamine for the anticipation of uncertain additional reward (i.e. taking yet more money).

It's not at all clear to me that any videogame can produce an experience equivalent to the nuts, or rather, it's not at all clear to me that any current videogame does. Pragmatically, I can see no reason that a game could not “pay out” an experience like holding the nuts in poker, but it seems unlikely that videogames would currently be designed for this outcome given the general tendency for videogames to become enmired in the doctrine of challenge-oriented play i.e. that the player must only experience maximum reward if they have endured maximum hardship (or overcome a maximally difficult challenge).

How would one construct a “nuts” experience in a videogame? Let us consider one possible example. Suppose that a particular cRPG has in its random treasure tables an item – let's call it the Nuts Orb, for convenience – that when activated guarantees that one will beat any boss it is used against. However, when activated the player has a short period of time in which to fight the boss (with radically improved attributes) in order to earn additional experience, such that they also have the possibility of beating the boss via combat, rather than just having the Nuts Orb hand them the victory. This seems to meet the requirement: holding the Nuts Orb gives you the hit of knowing one has already won (you will beat the boss) but gives you the opportunity for additional reward (by giving you a chance to beat the boss with superior power and earning additional experience).

The Nuts Orb could be adapted to fit any game which features a boss, and it may be possible to adapt it to a great many other genres with some application. In a first person shooter deathmatch game, a Nuts Gun could render the player invulnerable until their next kill, after which it times out in 10 seconds if they don't get another kill (providing for the possibility of additional reward) – although I'm open to the objection that the other players would find the existence of such a weapon unbalancing (at least when they did not hold it!).

Perhaps there is already something equivalent to the nuts to be found in puzzle games. For instance, Taito's classic Bubble Bobble contained dozens of items that gave a more-or-less instant win, umbrellas that advance multiple stages, lanterns and crosses that eliminate the remaining enemies, and potions that remove all enemies and fill the screen with bonus items. The potions may be a genuine case of the nuts in videogames – collecting the potion gives you the win, and the possibility of additional reward (via collecting all the items that appear). However, in the experience of getting the potion, one tends to lose sight of the fact that one has won the level because one is focussing on completing the new challenge, so the parallel is by no means perfect. (It raises the question of whether the same problem would haunt the Nuts Orb, described above...)

Whether or not a videogame has already delivered an experience of “the nuts”, the potential is there to create this powerful and rewarding (yet slightly conflicted) experience in a videogame, and it would be an interesting design challenge to create a game that expressly focussed on the possibility of doing so.

Think you've spotted something equivalent to “the nuts” in a videogame, or even a boardgame? Please share your views in the comments.


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There's a couple of problems in bringing "The Nuts" over to other games, in that it is a guaranteed win, and most games dont include a guaranteed win "weapon" or "item".

A contemporary example I could think of would be Modern Warfare 2's "Nuke" which players can work up to by having a successful streak. Firing it ends the game and kills everyone else on the opposing team so the question of getting the most out of it may be to wait until everyone on the opposing team is "in-play" before activating it.

"The Nuts" in poker is interesting because its a two tiered event, first you get the best weapon and then you manipulate others into taking you on with it. It may be hard to translate literally into contemporary games because the weapons would be handed out randomly and blindly and players decide off the back of what they receive whether they want to fight.

Not exactly a fun game mechanic by itself since the interaction comes from the tricking of others into betting and taking you on. The problem too is by contextualising it you need a real-world item which is unbeatable and there are very few (if any) scenarios of competition where there exists a weapon or tool that if you have, you cannot loose with. It certainly is a unique sensation though.

I think there is a misconception built into Chris' logic. Chris hits on it, but still manages to miss the mark somewhat when he says that "...However, the player can get more of the reward chemical by playing the hand well and getting more money out of the pot". The misconception is that winning the hand is the same as winning the game. One reason that more experienced players will be able to suppress this reaction (poker face) is because they have a better perspective of the game. For example, a novice player gets extremely excited with every hand they win, and to them, flipping over the best cards on any given hand is the goal of the game. Compare this to a professional player, who is able to see the grind of the entire session's work, whether it be a night, a week, or a lifetime of playing. To him, having the best cards for a particular hand is no more exciting than knowing one answer off the top of your head in a 100 answer crossword puzzle. A bad player can get the nuts 10 times in a night and still lose all their chips while a good player can have a winning session without holding the nuts a single time. The real trick then in simulating this response in a game then, is not simply to give the player an auto win, but rather to have a gameplay mechanic that allows for this misconception of the actual goal of the game. In poker the goal of each hand is not to have the best hand every time, that is a totally random event you have no control over, it's to win as much (or lose as little) as possible each hand. While a novice may realize this logically, there is so much complexity involved with each hand that they are seldom able to keep the big picture in mind when they hold the nuts. They allow their brains to relax when they realize they no longer have to worry about being beaten by another hand. A game mechanic that could reproduce this 'losing the forest for the trees' situation is really what would be necessary to reproduce the sensation of holding the nuts.

Will: interesting account here... I think there's much of relevance in your claim here that successfully fooling the other players is what makes that situation so additionally rewarding - but surely it must be possible to devise a videogame that could pull off the same experience... I still think there's something worth pursuing here.

Ty: I think you misunderstand me; I don't think professional poker players have a 'game' they can win outside of a tournament context (their bankroll is always in flux), so surely there's only ever the hands that can be won?

Yes, it's true that a professional poker player is in it for the long game, and that individual hands are less important in this context (indeed, you must fold a great many hands before the flop), but that doesn't mean they don't get a hit of dopamine when they get the nuts. I'll wager they suppress their stress response and so don't enjoy it as much as the novice players, but they still get that hit. I can't see how they couldn't. Even a person acting like a robot is still a human underneath the skin. :)

And what of the professional player in a tournament situation? Tournament play is radically different from normal professional cash-gathering, because the need to act is intensified by circumstances; the long game is constrained. You can't play as tight a game as you would like in a tournament - you start playing hands much weaker than you'd normally allow, because of the constraint of needing to act in a tight space. It seems to me, as a neutral observer, that some players make this work for them, while others don't make the adjustment to their style of play and end up running out of time to make a play. Either way, getting the nuts in a particular round of a tournament game can be tantamount to "winning the game" as the big stacks have the advantage and tend then to consolidate their position.

Ultimately, I don't think it is necessary to emulate the long game to create the experience of holding the nuts - I think the novice's experience is just as valid as the professionals in terms of the raw experience, and could be used as a template to inform a videogame design aiming at a similar sensation.

Although I don't play poker professionally myself, one of my friends is a poker professional and has ranked in the world series top ten a couple of times. I'll have to discuss this with him next time we're in the same place.

Thanks for sharing your views!

Oh god. The first, best reason to learn any new jargon is definitely the jargon itself. I would just like to point out that:

"Neurobiologically, [...] holding the nuts is functionally the same as having won."

Chris, I was not thinking strictly in the context of Tournament poker since you made no mention of it specifically in your article. The majority of poker that is played is in cash games so I naturally began my thoughts there. (also, there's no specific restriction to Texas Hold'em mentioned in the article, which is actually a much simpler game in terms of the nuts than others. The emotional dynamics of other types of poker tend to be much more complex in terms of having the nuts, especially with the drawing games such as omaha or 7 card stud.) I do agree with you that there is always a 'rush' involved with hitting the nuts regardless of your level of experience, but what I was trying to say is that it's the difference between thinking the game is over and knowing there is still a long way to go. A misconception created by ESPN coverage of poker tournaments is that every time you have AA in the hole it's an all in hand or every time you have the nuts you are going to rake in a big pot, while in reality most hands where you have the nuts you will win very little. Depending on how you think about it, there are even hands where you would have the nuts in a "no fold'em hold'em" scenario, but the hand ends before the showdown. So in actuality you may have had the nuts and actually lost money because you didn't realize your hand would have become the best due to the random nature of the game. It's true that having one of the bigger stacks puts you in a favorable position, but that is still not the same as winning anymore than finding the best weapon in an RPG is the end of that game. I would contend in the tournament scenario that the only single hand that "wins you the game" in a tournament is the very last one where you take your opponents final chips. The fact that this hand is often less than exciting and automatic, as Doyle's two WSOP wins with 10-2off show, should tell you something. There will be many all-in moments when you could potentially lose the game, but not losing isn't the same as winning, and eliminating one player out of 200 may get you closer to winning, but there are still 198 other players (bosses?) standing between you and the princess.

Thanks for interesting theme, Chris.

Development cards in "The Settlers of Catan" can be "light" analogue of the nuts. For example, "Monopoly" card.

You will not win (in most cases) unlike to poker. But "player can get more of the reward chemical by playing the hand well and getting more" resourses. Excuse for citing ;)

It seems that the nuts are applicable in games where there are:
* real people
* bluff
* bonuses (money, points, scalps, trophys, experience etc.)

You should not receive bonuses thanking only to the own skills. Other players should have _possibilities_ to reduce your bonuses.

Ty: thanks for coming back! And also, thanks for pointing out that I didn't expressly mention Texas Hold 'Em - I did intend to be talking about this game in particular, since this has (to my knowledge) the most clearly defined relationship between the holding the nuts and victory.

Regarding being dealt AA, my experience of this hand is that it rarely gets to be the nuts - I see nuts hands much more commonly with flushes, and AA's biggest advantage might be that it has two chances at a nuts flush draw - but honestly I think I'd much rather have AK suited. Personally, I tend to bet heavily before the flop with AA in Hold 'Em because in principle it's a stronger hand against fewer players, and especially if you can get it down to heads-up, but I imagine a pro would judge what to do with pocket rockets based on who was at the table etc.

The bottom line here is when I used the term "win" in the context of poker I meant "win the hand", and the argument sketched above doesn't need to be taken in the wider context to make sense.


KoS: Interesting point in terms of Settlers of Catan... Personally, if I'm drawing a development card a Monopoly would be a disappointment for me since I'm usually hoping for either victory points or a Road Building. But I do take your point that drawing the Monopoly gives you the chance to win more points, and so there is a 'light' analogue here. It makes me think another boardgame might offer an even stronger example.

As for real people, bluff and bonuses - I think only bonuses is required here. Your Settlers example, while not perfect, suggests you don't need either real people or bluffing - since it would work just as well versus a computer opponent.

It'll be interesting to see if anyone else can come up with other game situations with some element of analogue with the nuts!

I was bluffing in Catan with Monopoly card, when pretended, that it was a Knight card. Because of it sometimes player with 7 on the dices decided to put the robber on another hex, but not mine.

In the game with real people and bluff there are ways to increase benefits from good "secret" card in your hands. Even if these benefits are not described in rules.

But I do agree, that it is possible to design rules for the nuts only with bonuses.

Ha, yes, I can see what you mean about using a development card to bluff in regular Catan. Frankly, I haven't played with the robber for years now - we play a less directly competitive version of the game in which when you roll a 7 you get to trade one card with "The Market", a set of five cards (one of each resource) set aside at the beginning of the game. It makes the game less directly competitive, which is essential when playing with my wife who isn't going to put up with the vicious cut-throat play the game would produce otherwise! :)

Best wishes!

I think strategy games could simulate this experience a little. Given the FoW, in a sufficiently large map every encounter between forces could be conceived as a hand. When your force manages to have irresistable superiority, there is no question about the outcome - perhaps because you just broached a new tech level and have some units the enemy cannot beat at that time. But winning is also a matter of getting to fight, so you have to persuade your opponent to commit and not dance away to a well-defended base. And if you do win that fight, well the base is still there and the game continues until you crush it.

zenBen: But can you know, in this situation, with the certainty you can have in poker that you hold the nuts, that the enemy hasn't got a bigger force waiting for you in the fog? :) I'm not sure you can ever attain to that degree of confidence. Interesting parallel, though.

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