Is COUNTDOWN worthy of respect as a game?

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L'oisleatch McGraw
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Is COUNTDOWN worthy of respect as a game?

Post by L'oisleatch McGraw » Wed Feb 05, 2020 2:21 am

Is it a good enough game to justify the attention it gets from a such a highly dedicated fan community?
Does the attention it gets, elevate it to the status of 'good enough'?

And if it is indeed good enough to be worthy of some degree of respect from people who play 'proper' games like Scrabble or Chess; what is the gold standard format? 9R, 14R, Old 15, New 15, ...or perhaps there is a future tweak that will trump all of these as the accepted 'best' version of the game?

Is there a consensus among the fan community as to what the signature format actually is?

The biggest problem, as I see it, is that this game (unlike the aforementioned -and rather similar- Scrabble) originated on a TV show. TV shows need to be mindful of ratings figures, changing trends, viewer habits etc etc... and quite often these pressures can lead to change for the sake of change, under the guise of keeping the show 'fresh' or 'current'.

Another curious fact about Countdown is that it crosses borders. It was devised by a Frenchman in 1965. Yet, today, the original French show bears only a passing resemblance to the UK version. There are 16 rounds, it includes Duels, a final sprint, then the winner goes on to play another round (introduced in 2016) to accumulate a cash total. The letters rounds originally featured 7 letters, then were increased to 8, then 9, and in 2010 they upped it to 10... which is where is remains for now. The French and UK versions are too dissimilar to be considered the same game. Siblings, but not twins.

To my mind, the format of the UK show -right now- is perfect. 15R is more effective than 9 at rewarding talent over luck. The New 15R, where each contestant gets 2 numbers picks, is fairer than the Old 15 where there was a built in imbalance. Damian and team have gotten it very much right over the last decade or so.

If there are changes in the future (perhaps under a new producer keen to make his/her mark), I pessimistically assume they would be changes for the worse. I can't see the current format being improved upon. For me, in the 2013-2020 period, we have reached peak Countdown.

If there are changes in the future, what are they most likely to be?
  • An increase to 10, or decrease to 8-letter selections?
  • The number of rounds changed? Perhaps another conundrum built in.
  • A change to the numbers game? (different large numbers introduced etc.)
  • A change to the scoring? (e.g. celebrity Countdown)
  • Introduction of buzz-in duels?
  • Apter-ish variant rounds? (e.g. Aegilops / Touchdown / Goatdown/ etc.)
  • Male playboy bunnies presenting prizes!*
To what extent are the show's producers mindful of legacy issues? There have been so few changes since 1982, especially in relation to the low-tech nature of the letters / numbers boards and the conundrum mechanism. It suggests there is a certain appreciation of the cult status the show has, and an understanding that certain elements are better left unchanged.

But what about gameplay?

We had 9R for around 19 years, Old 15 for approx 12, and New 15 only for the last 7... would it be fair to say that the changes from 9R to 15R, and subsequently to New 15R, were all about evolution to a best format... or were these done principally to keep the show fresh? Will "New 15R" become the legacy version of the game...

...and of so, is it time to embrace that? e.g. at co-events perhaps the days of using 9R should come to an end, as it is an outdated version of the game that has been superseded since. If a co-event wanted to use a short form of the game, wouldn't it be more sensible to use half versions of the New 15R instead? (i.e. 8R games featuring LLLNLLNC, where the conundrum is worth 5pts and not 10.)

----------------------------------

This has turned out a bit longer, rantier, and looser than I had initially intended. If you dislike verbose, stream of consciousness musings, you're probably not reading anymore anyway, so why am I even considering putting in a disclaimer? :lol: Never mind. I hope it has been food for thought for some, and plz feel free to add your tuppence worth.

*This may have already happened in a fever dream, or on a version of Countdown. Can't recall clearly...
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Re: Is COUNTDOWN worthy of respect as a game?

Post by Callum Todd » Wed Feb 05, 2020 6:07 am

I think it is worthy of respect as a game. It is perhaps a bit weird that there's this community of us that give so much of a shit about it, but I'm sure there are weirder hobbies.

I think it's certainly what you call a 'proper' game on a par with Scrabble and Chess, although without knowing too much about those games I concede there's an element of strategy to them that there isn't really in Countdown (there's some strategy in competitive Countdown, but really not much and nothing very effective).

I would say that Countdown, Scrabble, and Chess all fall short though of the status of what I would call a 'proper proper' game (typically a sport) like football, snooker, or certain martial arts.

This is because there is always a limited (but vast) amount of options available to you in Countdown, Scrabble, and Chess, whereas often sport-type games allow for an infinite array of possible actions. That's where creativity comes into play, and hence the possibly of artfulness? artisticty? I don't know the word for this. Countdown, Scrabble, and Chess, as much as they're great games, aren't art.
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Re: Is COUNTDOWN worthy of respect as a game?

Post by Graeme Cole » Wed Feb 05, 2020 9:47 am

L'oisleatch McGraw wrote:
Wed Feb 05, 2020 2:21 am
We had 9R for around 19 years, Old 15 for approx 12, and New 15 only for the last 7... would it be fair to say that the changes from 9R to 15R, and subsequently to New 15R, were all about evolution to a best format... or were these done principally to keep the show fresh? Will "New 15R" become the legacy version of the game...
As I recall, the new 15R format was brought in because Channel 4 wanted to move the advert breaks. By a happy coincidence, the format they moved to happened to be an improvement on what it was before.
L'oisleatch McGraw wrote:
Wed Feb 05, 2020 2:21 am
...and of so, is it time to embrace that? e.g. at co-events perhaps the days of using 9R should come to an end, as it is an outdated version of the game that has been superseded since. If a co-event wanted to use a short form of the game, wouldn't it be more sensible to use half versions of the New 15R instead? (i.e. 8R games featuring LLLNLLNC, where the conundrum is worth 5pts and not 10.)
Most Lincoln-style events use 9-rounders simply because 15-rounders would take too long, not out of some misguided sense of keeping obsolete traditions alive. The oldest event, COLIN, has always used 9-rounders even though it started years after Countdown ditched that format, because that's what works within the time constraints of the day. The organiser only has the hall booked until a certain time, and anyone who has attended the larger Lincoln-style events will know that there's often very little time to spare at the end of the day.

If COLIN, or any other Lincoln-style event, used 15-rounders, you would probably only get to play four games rather than six. It would just move the problem from 9-rounders having more luck involved because they're more likely to go to crucials, to getting to the final having more luck involved because it's easier to do that if there are fewer games.

I don't think event organisers would want to use that 8R format when there's a 9R format already there and tested over a long period of time. The 9R version would have been playtested in 1982 to ensure it was balanced enough, and they did a good enough job with it that they used it for 19 years. You'd be moving from "an outdated version of the game that has been superseded since" to a version of the game that's never been played on TV or at events.

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Re: Is COUNTDOWN worthy of respect as a game?

Post by Gavin Chipper » Wed Feb 05, 2020 3:42 pm

This is quite an interesting discussion. I was going to make some of the same points as Graeme about CO-events using 9-rounders because of time rather than anything else, and also the current format coming about because of advert timing.

I also think the 15-rounder is better than the 9 (for the show, not CO-events), not just because the greater number of rounds makes the result less "random", but also because it reduces the importance of the conundrum "lottery". If Countdown was 100 rounds, I'd still prefer a single conundrum. I do actually like the idea of the conundrum as a chance to steal back a lost round. If you didn't have it, someone could miss a 7 in round one and then play perfectly but still not get the chance to catch up. And that is also a nice demonstration of how 18 points for a 9 is too much.

And now onto whether it's a "proper" game worthy of respect! I'd say that it is less "pure" than some other games because it has three completely separate round types (well letters and conundrums aren't completely separate) and then it becomes arbitrary how much weight you put on each one. In a more "pure" competition, you are basically aiming to achieve a particular goal at all times, and while different skills might be required, it's not because they've been added into the game as separate events.
Callum Todd wrote:
Wed Feb 05, 2020 6:07 am
I would say that Countdown, Scrabble, and Chess all fall short though of the status of what I would call a 'proper proper' game (typically a sport) like football, snooker, or certain martial arts.

This is because there is always a limited (but vast) amount of options available to you in Countdown, Scrabble, and Chess, whereas often sport-type games allow for an infinite array of possible actions. That's where creativity comes into play, and hence the possibly of artfulness? artisticty? I don't know the word for this. Countdown, Scrabble, and Chess, as much as they're great games, aren't art.
Artistry isn't it? But I'm not sure I'd agree with this. Basically any competition that has an infinite array of possible actions requires some sort of co-ordination to get the correct one. And while co-ordination is fine in a competition, I don't think it's right to say that any proper competition requires the competitors to be well co-ordinated.

I'm no expert, but chess is a far more complex game than Countdown or Scrabble, and I think most players would say there is creativity or artistry involved. And even if not chess (if the lack of possible moves is still a problem), then you could invent a more complex game where you still make discrete moves rather than have to co-ordinate into a particular position.

And besides, while a footballer could kick the ball at one of potentially infinite different angles, their thinking isn't actually going to be infinitely nuanced in practice, and they wouldn't really know the difference between 34.6 degrees and 34.7 degrees, so I think it's a bit of a red herring, and because of the higher level of randomness (what they intend versus what actually happens) there's more luck as much as there is more artistry. I mean, no chess player accidentally puts the piece one position out from where they intended, but I don't think it makes it any less creative or artistic.

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Re: Is COUNTDOWN worthy of respect as a game?

Post by Callum Todd » Wed Feb 05, 2020 7:45 pm

Gavin Chipper wrote:
Wed Feb 05, 2020 3:42 pm
Artistry isn't it?
That's the word I was looking for! Thanks.

I stand by my comment about Countdown/Scrabble/Chess vs. Football/snooker/martial arts in these terms. Countdown, Scrabble and Chess are effectively turn-based games (I know Countdown's 'turns' occur simultaneously, the conundrum especially, but still are) whereas football and martial arts aren't (okay, snooker is, but I still think there's a far greater range of options available due to ballspin, pacing of cueball, etc.)

Football and martial arts exist in arenas of chaos with minimal order keeping them in check. Turn-based games, and especially ones as limited in the possible actions as Countdown, Scrabble and Chess, are very orderly and hence very restricted. There's a lot more to the infinite array of options in a football manage than the angle at which a player strikes a ball. Maybe that's about it in subbutteo or something, but in football there are so many moving parts to consider other than just the striking of the ball.

Watch Liverpool play football this season, watch Ronnie O'Sullivan at the 2013 World Snooker Championships, watch Georges St-Pierre fight, Vasyl Lomachenko box, or Gordon Ryan grapple. That's artistry as pure as in any other form. As great as it was, I'm not sure the same can be said for watching Conor Travers in the 30th Birthday Championship (sorry Conor!)
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Re: Is COUNTDOWN worthy of respect as a game?

Post by Mark James » Wed Feb 05, 2020 10:20 pm

If you have to ask, the answer is no.

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Re: Is COUNTDOWN worthy of respect as a game?

Post by L'oisleatch McGraw » Wed Feb 05, 2020 10:45 pm

Mark James wrote:
Wed Feb 05, 2020 10:20 pm
If you have to ask, the answer is no.
But if the person asking the question was an ill-informed muppet (anseo!), then perhaps not?
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Re: Is COUNTDOWN worthy of respect as a game?

Post by Gavin Chipper » Fri Feb 07, 2020 11:10 am

Callum Todd wrote:
Wed Feb 05, 2020 7:45 pm
Gavin Chipper wrote:
Wed Feb 05, 2020 3:42 pm
Artistry isn't it?
That's the word I was looking for! Thanks.

I stand by my comment about Countdown/Scrabble/Chess vs. Football/snooker/martial arts in these terms. Countdown, Scrabble and Chess are effectively turn-based games (I know Countdown's 'turns' occur simultaneously, the conundrum especially, but still are) whereas football and martial arts aren't (okay, snooker is, but I still think there's a far greater range of options available due to ballspin, pacing of cueball, etc.)

Football and martial arts exist in arenas of chaos with minimal order keeping them in check. Turn-based games, and especially ones as limited in the possible actions as Countdown, Scrabble and Chess, are very orderly and hence very restricted. There's a lot more to the infinite array of options in a football manage than the angle at which a player strikes a ball. Maybe that's about it in subbutteo or something, but in football there are so many moving parts to consider other than just the striking of the ball.

Watch Liverpool play football this season, watch Ronnie O'Sullivan at the 2013 World Snooker Championships, watch Georges St-Pierre fight, Vasyl Lomachenko box, or Gordon Ryan grapple. That's artistry as pure as in any other form. As great as it was, I'm not sure the same can be said for watching Conor Travers in the 30th Birthday Championship (sorry Conor!)
Well, I think using Conor's 30th birthday win is a bit of a straw man, because I would definitely not argue that it was artistry, and I was more arguing for a more complex game like chess. And as I say, you could get more complex turn-based games than chess if you really wanted - so when I talk about chess, just imagine a more complex game if you want to.

I would also still argue that the range of choices in one of these sports that you argue for is still probably more limited than you would say. Yes it's "infinitely" variable, but people's thinking isn't that nuanced anyway, and I would say that there isn't necessarily any more cognitive nuance in one of these sports than there is in chess (probably less). And as I said before, a lot of it comes down to co-ordination. Sure, Ronnie O'Sullivan is great at snooker, the best footballers are great at football, but I'm sure there are many people out there who could "think" these games just as well but lack the specific type of co-ordination required to play at the top level. And I think co-ordination itself is actually quite a "base" skill, rather than this great nuanced art. And I doubt it's that Ronnie O'Sullivan sees potential shots that others simply don't (in most cases anyway) - it's more likely that he's just better at hitting them. In something like chess, the top players will see something others simply miss. I'd say that's the more "proper" skill to have.

Obviously co-ordination is just one aspect of their skill, but you are effectively disqualifying all competitions that don't require this one specific thing, which I think is crazy. Well, I would say that it's completely ridiculous to say that these competitions would not be "proper", and still a bit ridiculous to say that they cannot display "artistry". (Because these are two separate points you're arguing.)

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Re: Is COUNTDOWN worthy of respect as a game?

Post by Callum Todd » Sat Feb 08, 2020 7:18 am

Gavin Chipper wrote:
Fri Feb 07, 2020 11:10 am

Well, I think using Conor's 30th birthday win is a bit of a straw man, because I would definitely not argue that it was artistry, and I was more arguing for a more complex game like chess. And as I say, you could get more complex turn-based games than chess if you really wanted - so when I talk about chess, just imagine a more complex game if you want to.

I would also still argue that the range of choices in one of these sports that you argue for is still probably more limited than you would say. Yes it's "infinitely" variable, but people's thinking isn't that nuanced anyway, and I would say that there isn't necessarily any more cognitive nuance in one of these sports than there is in chess (probably less). And as I said before, a lot of it comes down to co-ordination. Sure, Ronnie O'Sullivan is great at snooker, the best footballers are great at football, but I'm sure there are many people out there who could "think" these games just as well but lack the specific type of co-ordination required to play at the top level. And I think co-ordination itself is actually quite a "base" skill, rather than this great nuanced art. And I doubt it's that Ronnie O'Sullivan sees potential shots that others simply don't (in most cases anyway) - it's more likely that he's just better at hitting them. In something like chess, the top players will see something others simply miss. I'd say that's the more "proper" skill to have.

Obviously co-ordination is just one aspect of their skill, but you are effectively disqualifying all competitions that don't require this one specific thing, which I think is crazy. Well, I would say that it's completely ridiculous to say that these competitions would not be "proper", and still a bit ridiculous to say that they cannot display "artistry". (Because these are two separate points you're arguing.)
These are very compelling points. I used the Conor example because it was the best I was aware of. I don't know nearly enough about chess - when played at a decent level - to comment (something I hope to remedy at some point).

Lots of food for thought in there; I shall go away and consider it and reevaluate my ideas. For the moment, consider me thoroughly Gevin-ed.
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Re: Is COUNTDOWN worthy of respect as a game?

Post by Gavin Chipper » Sat Feb 08, 2020 1:30 pm

Goodness. I didn't expect that.

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Re: Is COUNTDOWN worthy of respect as a game?

Post by Phil H » Mon Feb 10, 2020 12:44 pm

To a large extent, the factors that might be considered to make Countdown less worthy of respect are the things I like about it. Compared with Scrabble, participation levels are much lower, prizes are (I'm guessing) relatively trivial, and games are far shorter, making the element of luck greater (though on the other hand, both players have the same letters at their disposal).


I've never been to a Scrabble tournament, but from what I've heard on this forum, I like the fact the Countdown community doesn't seem to take itself nearly as seriously. It's an interesting discussion but it doesn't sound like many of us - including the OP - are really too bothered what the Scrabble/chess/etc communities think of us.

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Re: Is COUNTDOWN worthy of respect as a game?

Post by Phil H » Mon Feb 10, 2020 10:25 pm

Gavin Chipper wrote:
Fri Feb 07, 2020 11:10 am
Callum Todd wrote:
Wed Feb 05, 2020 7:45 pm
Gavin Chipper wrote:
Wed Feb 05, 2020 3:42 pm
Artistry isn't it?
That's the word I was looking for! Thanks.

I stand by my comment about Countdown/Scrabble/Chess vs. Football/snooker/martial arts in these terms. Countdown, Scrabble and Chess are effectively turn-based games (I know Countdown's 'turns' occur simultaneously, the conundrum especially, but still are) whereas football and martial arts aren't (okay, snooker is, but I still think there's a far greater range of options available due to ballspin, pacing of cueball, etc.)

Football and martial arts exist in arenas of chaos with minimal order keeping them in check. Turn-based games, and especially ones as limited in the possible actions as Countdown, Scrabble and Chess, are very orderly and hence very restricted. There's a lot more to the infinite array of options in a football manage than the angle at which a player strikes a ball. Maybe that's about it in subbutteo or something, but in football there are so many moving parts to consider other than just the striking of the ball.

Watch Liverpool play football this season, watch Ronnie O'Sullivan at the 2013 World Snooker Championships, watch Georges St-Pierre fight, Vasyl Lomachenko box, or Gordon Ryan grapple. That's artistry as pure as in any other form. As great as it was, I'm not sure the same can be said for watching Conor Travers in the 30th Birthday Championship (sorry Conor!)
Well, I think using Conor's 30th birthday win is a bit of a straw man, because I would definitely not argue that it was artistry, and I was more arguing for a more complex game like chess. And as I say, you could get more complex turn-based games than chess if you really wanted - so when I talk about chess, just imagine a more complex game if you want to.

I would also still argue that the range of choices in one of these sports that you argue for is still probably more limited than you would say. Yes it's "infinitely" variable, but people's thinking isn't that nuanced anyway, and I would say that there isn't necessarily any more cognitive nuance in one of these sports than there is in chess (probably less). And as I said before, a lot of it comes down to co-ordination. Sure, Ronnie O'Sullivan is great at snooker, the best footballers are great at football, but I'm sure there are many people out there who could "think" these games just as well but lack the specific type of co-ordination required to play at the top level. And I think co-ordination itself is actually quite a "base" skill, rather than this great nuanced art. And I doubt it's that Ronnie O'Sullivan sees potential shots that others simply don't (in most cases anyway) - it's more likely that he's just better at hitting them. In something like chess, the top players will see something others simply miss. I'd say that's the more "proper" skill to have.

Obviously co-ordination is just one aspect of their skill, but you are effectively disqualifying all competitions that don't require this one specific thing, which I think is crazy. Well, I would say that it's completely ridiculous to say that these competitions would not be "proper", and still a bit ridiculous to say that they cannot display "artistry". (Because these are two separate points you're arguing.)

This is great. This could be an assignment for a philosophy of art class.

Now that I've started, I feel I'm stating the obvious, but for me, the difference between turn-based games and my favourite sports isn't the variety of options but the "watchability" factor and the intensity of the action. Sure, people might find chess or even Countdown just as compelling in its own way (there's a post by Paul Howe somewhere here where he says that analysis of chess games can have him "grinning from ear to ear") but I don't think it could ever have the same mass appeal. In fact, it's just occurred to me that the lack of natural stoppages in football - one of the common arguments against VAR - might be a major factor in its global pre-eminence.

I'm no expert either but while I'd agree that great chess playing is no less admirable than great sporting achievement, I don't actually see why it should be considered more admirable. Again perhaps stating the obvious, it probably tests a narrower range of skills, but also develops them more deeply. However, there's absolutely no doubt that Messi sees passes, combinations and so on that others don't, and dribbles that others can't anticipate. I think being able to do it at the speed he does, while effortlessly controlling the ball, etc. is more or less analogous to a top chess player being able to analyse more possibilities, think more moves ahead, and so on, than the next player.

The main part of Gevin's post I'd disagree with is the bit about co-ordination being a "base" skill. Here I admit I'm drawing heavily on Matthew Syed's "Bounce" (which I gather draws a lot in turn from Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers"). Syed is a former British number one in table tennis but when he played the former Wimbledon champion Michael Stich at "normal" tennis he found he didn't have a prayer of returning any of his serves. Why? Not an absolute lack of co-ordination or reactions - he showed these in abundance during his own sporting career. Rather, unfamiliarity with the specific situation. The likes of Federer, whether consciously aware of it or not, will pick up subtle cues from their opponents' movements which allow them to return serves, due in no small part to having watched and performed the same action thousands of times before.

On a slight tangent, I do call snooker a "sport" because that's what it's most commonly called in ordinary English (and it's provided at least one SPOTY winner), but while I'm a big fan of O'Sullivan's, I somehow hesitate to regard him as an equal "sportsperson" to Federer or Messi - athletic ability and physical conditioning (rather than "co-ordination") being the main difference.

Finally, a factor I mentioned in my last post - participation numbers. As I saw someone argue elsewhere, comparing football to other sports, isn't the best of a billion likely to be better than the best of a million? Perhaps not necessarily, but I think it's worth considering.

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Re: Is COUNTDOWN worthy of respect as a game?

Post by Jon O'Neill » Tue Feb 11, 2020 12:24 pm

Phil H wrote:
Mon Feb 10, 2020 10:25 pm
The main part of Gevin's post I'd disagree with is the bit about co-ordination being a "base" skill. Here I admit I'm drawing heavily on Matthew Syed's "Bounce" (which I gather draws a lot in turn from Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers"). Syed is a former British number one in table tennis but when he played the former Wimbledon champion Michael Stich at "normal" tennis he found he didn't have a prayer of returning any of his serves. Why? Not an absolute lack of co-ordination or reactions - he showed these in abundance during his own sporting career. Rather, unfamiliarity with the specific situation. The likes of Federer, whether consciously aware of it or not, will pick up subtle cues from their opponents' movements which allow them to return serves, due in no small part to having watched and performed the same action thousands of times before.
I would contest that Syed has a much better chance than, for example, Gevin, of ever becoming able to return professional-level serves, due to his co-ordination. Or to put it another way, if they both practised for the same amount of time, Syed would be way ahead.

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Re: Is COUNTDOWN worthy of respect as a game?

Post by Robert Foster » Tue Feb 11, 2020 2:04 pm

My initial reaction is - yes, Countdown is absolutely worthy of respect as a game. I think any pastime which a community of people takes pleasure in has a right to be pursued without guilt or the feeling that it's somehow not worthy of respect. (assuming it's not illegal, morally questionable etc.)

From what has been posted, it seems like the reason why this debate exists at all can be covered by one of the following points:
1) Countdown doesn't have enough strategic depth to warrant significant attention beyond being a parlour game. 'Proper' games like football and chess have practically limitless possibilities to explore, whereas Countdown can be played perfectly by a machine every time.

True enough, Countdown has very limited strategic depth, and absolutely none under perfect play. But then there are countless games with global appeal which do not rely on strategy to make them appealing for players. It's not rocket science to work out what perfect play in archery, darts or ten-pin bowling would look like, (knock over the things all of the time, always get the pointy thing in the appropriate hole). The reason why these
are still credible sports/games is because the skill ceiling is sufficiently high when attempting to execute such feats as a squishy, temperamental human. Because of our limited hardware, the only way to approach the goal is to adopt pseudo-strategies; in Countdown's case, perhaps looking for endings like -ING in the letters rounds and reserving a small number to add on at the end of a numbers game. These elements require creativity and skill of their own, even though to a machine they would seem redundant. Strategy-wise, Countdown is much more akin to darts or bowling than chess or football in this respect, so I don't think these comparisons are fair.

2) The game isn't popular/widespread enough to be worthy of merit. Countdown isn't as respected as Scrabble for example because the player base is much smaller.

This is kind of true, but not really a fault of the game itself. I would say that respect for a game (and its players) is strongly proportional to the game's ubiquity. Federer and Messi are globally revered, but are less dominant in their fields than this guy who was objectively the greatest checkers/draughts player ever to have lived. While it's true that a game's popularity correlates with being a good game, I don't think it's enough to say "don't waste your time playing Countdown because it's not well known". Otherwise, no new sports/games would ever become popular.

3) The skills required to be good at Countdown are too arbitrary. The skills being tested by sports/games like sprinting, weightlifting, chess etc. seem 'purer' in nature so are more worthy of being pursued.

This point is the one I find hardest to argue against. In principle, Countdown does test some pretty fundamental skills like arithmetic, vocabulary, and spelling. But particularly in letters rounds, organic vocabulary/spelling skills are largely dwarfed by someone who has greater familiarity with high-probability words in the lexicon. Admittedly, learning and remembering these is a skill in its own right, but it seems to go against the 'point' of Countdown.

I always cringe when an armchair enthusiast or unpractised player goes on the show or to a CO event and enthusiastically declares a lovely word like CLOISTER, only to be squashed by a seasoned apterite who reels off one of SCLEROTIA/SECTORIAL, or some other high-probability letters set which they have memorised and possibly seen dozens of times before. Which player has demonstrated more skill here? This situation is unavoidable if Countdown is meant to be taken seriously when played at a high level - of course, to maximise your chance of winning, you have to consciously practise anagramming common letter sets and be aware of the words they make, no matter how obscure.

And importantly, the lexicon has become increasingly obscure, mainly due to the enormous dictionary update at the end of 2015 where thousands of archaic and ultra-rare words were added overnight. (ONSTEEAD, ROTALIID and TROPEINE to give a few examples. I would give definitions but I have no idea what any of them are). Top players gradually hoovered them up, leaving armchair players further adrift with no hope of ever knowing them organically. If the word LAMEPENIS were added to the dictionary tomorrow with the definition 'an obsessive board game enthusiast who likes to memorise arbitrary strings of letters', players wouldn't blink.

tl;dr - Yeah, defo worthy of respect. Actually no, probably not. But y'all are great so I'll keep playing it anyway <3

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Re: Is COUNTDOWN worthy of respect as a game?

Post by Callum Todd » Tue Feb 11, 2020 9:07 pm

Okay, so as promised I've gone away and done some thinking. And here's what I've come up with thusfar:

First of all, this thread asks if Countdown is worthy of respect as a game, and in its opening post makes reference to
L'oisleatch McGraw wrote:
Wed Feb 05, 2020 2:21 am
'proper' games like Scrabble or Chess
As Gevin has correctly pointed out, I've been arguing two separate points (and that has been confusing things). To simplify things, I'll briefly tackle that initial question first and then close and shut my case on it, so that I can move on to the point that is a greater point of interest to me:

Yes, it is worthy of respect as a game. Perhaps less so than (more) 'proper' games, although examples of such games would have to be given/verified by someone more familiar with them than I, as I know nothing about Scrabble, Chess, or indeed pretty much any other game (as I have somehow ended up devoting far too much of my life to Countdown to really learn any of these other games. I hope to learn the basics of Chess this year, so maybe hope is not yet dead for me.)

---

Moving on - whilst shamelessly piggybacking Eoin's thread which is enough of a debate in its own right - I raised a point about when does a 'game' become artful?

The core problem with this question is that to determine what is artful we must first determine what is 'art'. And who can really define that?!

Well, given the forum on which this debate is being held, let's say that Susie Dent can! With a little help from her friend Lexico, which defines art as
https://www.lexico.com/definition/art wrote:The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination...
I'm a reductionist by nature and am going to boil that down to 'creative skill'.

And in those two words we have the heart of the debate. As Gevin realised (and I didn't, hence my being unsteadied by his points): there are two parts to the question of whether or not something can be called 'artistry': creativity and skill
Gavin Chipper wrote:
Fri Feb 07, 2020 11:10 am
a lot of it comes down to co-ordination. Sure, Ronnie O'Sullivan is great at snooker, the best footballers are great at football, but I'm sure there are many people out there who could "think" these games just as well but lack the specific type of co-ordination required to play at the top level. And I think co-ordination itself is actually quite a "base" skill, rather than this great nuanced art. And I doubt it's that Ronnie O'Sullivan sees potential shots that others simply don't (in most cases anyway) - it's more likely that he's just better at hitting them. In something like chess, the top players will see something others simply miss. I'd say that's the more "proper" skill to have.
Now as to which games require sufficient creativity and skill to be defined as art, I'm going to steer clear of Scrabble and Chess for now, as I simply don't know enough about them to comment. I'll just judge Countdown, but by all means if you know enough about Scrabble and/or Chess I'm sure you'll be able to connect the dots if I make any points about Countdown that you believe are also applicable to those games. This is why I used Conor's 30BC run as an example. Because it's the best example of brilliant performance in one of these games that I know of. Of course there will be far better examples (far less strawy men) but sadly I have not learnt of them in my sheltered life to date.

Let's tackle skill (which I think - correct me if I'm wrong - is basically what Gevin was describing when he spoke of 'coordination') first as it's easier. There's obviously skill involved in Countdown. Some people are evidently more skilled at it than others. Exactly what that skill is, how/why it is developed, or even how it works before it manifests itself as a declared word or numbers solution is very unclear. I remember a few folk at Co:Dublin last year asking Conor and I what exactly went on in our heads during a round in the final to lead to us spotting a certain word that they deemed to be a decent spot (I think it was THREATEN or something like that). We both confidently answered that 'it just sort of jumped out at us'. Our interrogators weren't convinced; they didn't believe the brain works that way. We both agreed that it probably doesn't, but neither of us knew how else to describe it.

So Countdown has skill - sure - but it's hard to elaborate much on the nature of that skill when it seems impossible to examine. Maybe it's something really complex and interesting and impressive. I'm not convinced.

It's creativity where Countdown's aspiration to 'art' status really falls flat on its arse to me. Without getting myself stuck on the topic of games that I know nothing about as I did before, the reason Countdown (and other similar games) don't seem artful to me regardless of how much skill it is played with, is that it is very limited in its scope for creativity. The number of possible legal 'moves' that can be undertaken at any one split second of a game is not only finite, but extremely low. This is demonstrated, as Rob has pointed out, by the fact that a computer can be programmed, with relatively little difficulty, to play the game literally 100% perfectly.

Take a letters game of Countdown. How many 'moves' are possible in this round that can still be recognised as playing Countdown (i.e. technically you could get out of the chair, cartwheel across the studio and whistle the tune to Maple Leaf Rag, but then you're not playing Countdown anymore)? Presumably the same as the number of words that could realistically be spotted (valid or otherwise). Presumably a hundred or so at least, maybe several hundred, maybe a thousand. Even if you don't believe that this is a small number of available moves (to me it is), then consider this: how many different effects can be produced from this arsenal of potential moves? Now at very most this is 10. (If a nine is available you could score 0 points, 1 point, ...., or 18 points).

So, in a standard game of Countdown between two players who each have these options available to them, a 30 second passage of play occurs (comprising roughly 7% of the playtime of a game) in which there are a maximum of 100 (10^2) possible outcomes (0-0, 0-1, 1-0, .... 18-18). If any words of length 1 through 9 are unavailable from the selection then obviously the number of possible outcomes decreases. It decreases even more if you ignore the very unlikely possibilities of players declaring a 1 or a 2 (or indeed a 3 or a 4 in most circumstances). And it decreases yet more if you categorise the outcomes further into events with distinct meanings (i.e. players score the same, player A scores 5 more than player B, etc.) Realistically, you're looking at a relatively low two-digit figure once these categories have been accounted for.

By contrast, take a 30 second passage of play in a game such as football (my martial arts examples would work here too, as would snooker - albeit less so). What are the number of possible 'moves' in this passage of play that can still be recognised as playing football? I'm almost as ignorant of mathematics as I am of chess, but I would be surprised if the answer to this question is a number that humans are capable of notating. Even if you apply the rigorous categorisation to football that I applied to Countdown, you're still surely looking at a minimum of tens of thousands of outcomes.

And so I believe that Countdown, as a result of its strict limitations, is far outstripped by more open games such as football in terms of opportunity for creativity, and hence it is naturally far less capable of artistry. I also believe that this idea is applicable to other limited games when compared to other open games, although the degree to which this is true will differ with the nature of the games, and I am not sufficiently knowledgeable on most games to speak.

Perhaps I'm giving too much weight to the 'creativity' side of the art definition. Maybe I need to consider skill more. Certainly great artists such as painters and musical composers would be totally unheard of if, despite their mind-blowing imagination, they lacked the technical prowess to paint competently or write music that could be interpreted and performed. I don't know. There's a balance to be struck for sure.

I also definitely agree with Phil that participation numbers can help a game look more impressive, as performers of that game at elite level will be of a far higher percentile in their game than the elite at other games will be, by virtue of a greater sample size. Maybe there's 500 people in the world who would all, if they knew to watch a few episodes of Countdown and maybe deigned to sign-up to Apterous for a week or two, be better at finding Lexico-valid anagrams within a selection of nine English alphabet letters than Conor Travers. There really might be. But it's unlikely that there's 500 people on Earth who are better at football than Lionel Messi. If there were, most of them would know about football (because most people worldwide do) and at least a few dozen of them would be world famous megastars by now.

---

If any sad bastard is still reading this drivel, there's one more element to art that I think should be considered, but it makes this whole debate interminable as it's so impossible to quantify. For me, art must contain (or rather, channel) beauty. I think this is why, as I alluded to earlier, I find it a difficult concept to define (despite having rolled with the dictionary definition for the duration of this post thusfar). Because who the hell knows what beauty is, really?! One thing we can confidently say of beauty is that it is 'in the eye of the beholder'. In the eyes of this beholder, Trent Alexander-Arnold's cross-field passing, Ronnie O'Sullivan's tactical awareness while break-building (I maintain that the best snooker shot I have ever seen was a simple pot of the yellow he once did in order to respot it elsewhere on the table so that it would be available several shots later), or Vasyl Lomachenko's 'Loma Hop' are beautiful. They inspire in me the same feeling of awe that any great art of traditional media does. As much as PONYTAILS is a great word and this is a cracking jumper, I don't get that same flutter of numinosity from watching a great Countdown performance.
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Re: Is COUNTDOWN worthy of respect as a game?

Post by Gavin Chipper » Tue Feb 11, 2020 9:38 pm

Wow, this thread has really taken off. Maybe we are back to peak C4C. I might reread and reply to some of the above posts a bit later though (not today - far too busy!)

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Re: Is COUNTDOWN worthy of respect as a game?

Post by Fiona T » Tue Feb 11, 2020 11:29 pm

I think comparing countdown to football is like comparing chocolate to mince. They're completely different.

The comparison with other 'brain' games seems more valid.

The difference between Countdown and scrabble is the element of luck/chance. In scrabble, the players have different letters, taking turns to place them on the board. There's also a decent amount of strategy - you don't stick your O next to the triple letter, ready for your opponent to double ZO for 62 points, or perhaps you do risk opening up that triple letter in order to play your 7 for 50 bonus points. Pure Countdown has no luck element - both players have exactly the same hand.

Chess, both players have the same hand - the only 'chance' element is who gets to play first. But the strategy element of chess is phenomenal - the ability to visualise the possibilities of game play if you make this move rather than that. Countdown has very little strategy beyond picking to your strengths/your opponent's weaknesses.

I'm not sure how Scrabble and Chess championships work, but if one takes FOCAL as the "countdown championships", from my fairly limited experience of events, it can seem that there is a lot of luck involved getting to the finals of an event.
Several players may have won the same number of games, and the ranking is on points. If you're playing an opponent (no names!) who picks as awkwardly as possible, you're unlikely to be getting 8s and 9s in every round. (Actually from this point of view, if it were to be absolutely fair, then the card packs would all need to be identical - I don't know but doubt that this is the case with different iterations of the game pack in play). I suppose this point is largely mitigated by playing Bristol format, although even with that, Prune is hardly going to spot the obscure max or buzz in on the conundrum before you!

Which is a ramble that doesn't answer your questions, but yep I think it's worthy of respect, but if it were going to be taken seriously, the tournament side might need revisiting to minimise the elements of luck which are not part of the countdown game. And I think that would be a shame - for me the enjoyment of the tournaments is the fairly relaxed atmosphere, and the fact that masters of the art of anagramming, and armchair enthusiasts can rub shoulders and get enjoyment from the day.
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Re: Is COUNTDOWN worthy of respect as a game?

Post by Thomas Cappleman » Tue Feb 11, 2020 11:34 pm

Going with the definition Callum found, of artistry as "creative skill", I think a combination of those words must include some element of choice - tying in with the openness Callum talked about.

Pure art-art obviously has this - you could choose to make or paint anything within the realms of the materials you have. Most sports have this, but not all. Football and snooker do, archery and darts (basically) don't.

A lot of mental games have this - chess, scrabble, bridge all have multiple ways to approach a problem, with degress of "rightness" but not necessarily a way of knowing which is best.

Countdown has virtually no element of choice. Beyond the subconscious processing that a lot of us develop, there's a degree of choice to how you approach a letters round, or particularly a numbers round. But having come up with your solution the only choice is how confident you are that your solution is valid - you're never going to choose a shorter word for art's sake. That's why a great letters spot is impressive but not thrilling to watch, and why an unexpected numbers method is slightly more thrilling (you can see more of the choice that's gone into the solve). And why any 937.5 solve is instantly less thrilling once you know there wasn't any creativity involved.

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Re: Is COUNTDOWN worthy of respect as a game?

Post by Conor » Wed Mar 04, 2020 11:56 pm

First: I'm genuinely hurt you didn't consider my performances to be works of art!

When it comes to classing certain games or sports as more artful than others, there seems to be a relationship between 'level of artistry' and 'ability of humans over computers', tying in with definition of art as 'the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination...'. This of course gives sports a head start over mental games like Countdown and chess, but it extends to sports such as archery, darts, ten-pin bowling where one could conceivably design robots to get 'max games', unlike football where even the most advanced robots seem completely hopeless. And it's no coincidence when discussing the artistry of snooker it's Ronnie who we talk about, the best break builder and the aspect of the game you'd expect a machine to struggle with most. In a sense, it's kinda sad that raw computation outperforms ingenuity in something like Countdown, but it seems like most disciplines are heading this way.

To address some of the questions in the initial post:
- if Countdown was to become a more legitimized game, I think the impact of conundrums should be reduced. They are way too important in 9 round games; I'd reduce them to 5 points.
- towards using 15 rounders or 9 rounders at CoEvents, only having 15 rounders would leave too few games. In the first round, the draw is either seeded or random, and typically there's a big skill disparity there. So having a system where you start with 9 rounders and then gravitate towards 15 rounders as the tournament progressed (for the tighter games) would be a good compromise if it's logistically viable.

I'd love (somewhat selfishly) to see a televised or tournament scene for speed (or bullet) rounds. Speed chess is very much a thing, just with having a host spend all that time drawing out letters it seems unfair to just end it in a few seconds. Maybe something that could be done with technology.

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Re: Is COUNTDOWN worthy of respect as a game?

Post by Fiona T » Wed Mar 11, 2020 2:09 pm

Robert Foster wrote:
Tue Feb 11, 2020 2:04 pm
I always cringe when an armchair enthusiast or unpractised player goes on the show or to a CO event and enthusiastically declares a lovely word like CLOISTER, only to be squashed by a seasoned apterite who reels off one of SCLEROTIA/SECTORIAL, or some other high-probability letters set which they have memorised and possibly seen dozens of times before.
Spotted CLOISTER yesterday - it was entirely credit to this post I turned it into SECTORIAL :) Cheers Rob!
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Re: Is COUNTDOWN worthy of respect as a game?

Post by Robert Foster » Wed Mar 11, 2020 3:11 pm

*cringe*

;)

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