Biased Pandemic

by freyley 3 min read13th Mar 201236 comments


Recently, Portland Lesswrong played a game that was a perfect trifecta of: difficult mental exercise; fun; and an opportunity to learn about biases and recognize them in yourself and others. We're still perfecting it, and we'd welcome feedback, especially from people who try it.

The Short Version

The game is a combination of Pandemic, a cooperative board game that is cognitively demanding, and the idea of roleplaying cognitive biases. Our favorite way of playing it (so far), everyone selects a bias at random, and then attempts to exaggerate that bias in their arguments and decisions during the game. Everyone attempts to identify the biases in the other players, and, when a bias is guessed, the guessed player selects a new bias and begins again.

The Pieces

First, Pandemic. Pandemic is a cooperative game with a win condition and three lose conditions that are separate. It provides each player a list of available actions and then allows them 4 moves in which to mix and match those actions. Because of the combined win and lose conditions, players are constantly forced to decide between tactical and strategic objectives, with a strong emphasis on making it easy to choose tactically good moves at the expense of failing to win the game and thus losing by taking too long. Pandemic is a fun game, and it's a great game for people looking to stretch their brains. Obviously you want to be familiar with, preferably experienced at Pandemic before attempting Biased Pandemic. We did have one inexperienced player at Pandemic (out of 4) and that seemed to work okay, though it may have been harder for him than the rest of us.

Enter the biases. Each player selects a bias. We printed out the biases listed here and used them to select our biases. One of our players just made a TOC for selecting biases. There happen to be 104 biases listed in that document, so a deck of cards combined with a coin flip allowed for bias selection. A computer's random number generator, dice, or any other random method should suffice. Some biases may seem unplayable to some players -- certainly, the monetary biases seem unplayable to most of us -- but other players may find a way to play it, so we've refused to cross off biases and just allowed players to re-roll if they get a bias they're sure they can't play.


This can be a little difficult to wrap your brain around, so let me give a couple of examples. One player, playing the Negativity Bias, went around the board treating cities which had outbroken earlier in the game and ignoring other issues. Another player with Hyperbolic Discounting went further: he treated cities, any city near him, while carrying 5 red city cards in his hand and pointing out, in response to entreaties to cure red, that red wasn't much of an issue right now. A player with Reactance had the winning yellow card and simply refused to be told to go somewhere to give it to the player with the other four. He even went so far as to refuse a half a dozen offers of an airlift so he could give up that card. A player with Hindsight Bias claimed that he had predicted that the player with 1 red card would get two more on his next draw, and was upset that he'd let the other players argue him otherwise. A player with The Ultimate Attribution Error suggested that if we weren't doing well because no rationalist could ever win this game because we were terrible at it. A player with the Authority Bias attempted to suggest that we should do things because it's what Eliezer would want us to do. A player with Illusion of Control declared that his next draw, he simply would not draw an epidemic. There were many others.

Recommended Rules Of Play

We played it somewhat haphazardly the first game, but at the end we agreed on a structure for the next game that we think is better. In our next game we plan to have the order of play go like this: during each player's turn, all players can discuss what the player should do for a timed interval, perhaps 1-2 minutes. The player then declares their intended move. Now each other player gets an opportunity to make a single bias guess. If a guess is correct, the player stops playing the bias, and begins the round again. At the end of their turn, if their bias was guessed, they select a new bias. We considered a bias to be guessed correctly if the player guessing fully described the bias, not just the biased behavior. Bias names, however, were not required.


One way that you can not do well is by falling into the trap of making the same biased statements repeatedly. After a few rounds of this, the biased statements were pretty obvious. The guesses are an indicator of what the other players are seeing, and we went out of our way to look for ways to respond to the guesses by playing up the aspects of the bias that the other players weren't seeing. For example, a lot of the different biases look like simple overconfidence. One player was playing The Illusion of Control in such a way that the rest of us thought he was overconfident. His response was to start declaring that he simply wasn't going to draw an epidemic card, and when he drew one, he declared that it was my fault for making him draw the card. This was obviously not simply overconfidence.

Before playing, you should figure out how familiar you are with the biases. Players who are incredibly familiar with all of the biases may want to play a game where everyone plays as subtly as possible and your goal is to prevent other people from noticing your bias. For us, our goal was to learn the biases better and identify them in other people, so we tried to ham it up and play them as obviously as possible at first. It was incredibly difficult to specifically identify the biased thinking behind obviously biased statements, even with that, so I'd suggest at least trying it with obviousness first.

One of the most difficult things to remember is that your goal is not to win the Pandemic game. Sure, that's nice, but your real goal is to familiarize yourself with biases, and to have fun roieplaying and identifying biases. Losing Pandemic, especially because the players are following their biased thinking, is a totally acceptable outcome. We won, and do not credit our thinking for it.

We're looking forward to trying the game again, and maybe you'll have suggestions for improving it.