Summary: A stag hunt is a situation where people try to coordinate on doing a big, important task but have reasons to individually prefer a safe and comfortable task. Staggering Hunters is a gamified variation of the Stag Hunt.

Tags: Medium, Experimental

Purpose: Practice coordinating with people, even through communication difficulties.

Materials: A bunch of “coins” (which can be small change or poker chips or beads or any other collection of small objects) and a pile of six sided dice (which can be any similar random number generator.)

Announcement Text: The Stag Hunt is a bit of game theory, similar to the more popularly known Prisoner's Dilemma. The idea is that a group of hunters are going out, and they can either cooperate to hunt Stag for a large benefit that only works if everyone chooses it, or individually hunt Rabbit for a small benefit that works even if not everyone agrees. Cooperation is harder than we think; not everybody is always on the same page about what we’re trying to do. Staggering Hunters is a gamified version of this!  The LessWrong post here is suggested reading, though you don’t have to have read it to show up and play. We’re going to play the game, then discuss how it went and try again to see if we can do better. 

Description:  Put the pile of coins and dice in the middle of the table, in reach of as many players as possible. 

Explain the following rules:

  1. Definitions: There’s a Pile of Coin and a Pile of dice. Those are like the bank in board games, when we add Coin we can do it from the Pile. The Pot is different; at the end of a round everyone will divide up the Coin in the Pot. We’re going to play for three rounds.
  2. Setup: Everyone rolls a die in secret, then takes Coin from the central pile for what they rolled. (You rolled a 5, take 5 coins.) Keep your current Coin supply secret.
  3. Each round, do the following:
    1. Silence: Roll a die. If it’s 4, 5 or 6 you can talk, if not, stay silent this round. (This includes communication like writing on a notepad, giving a thumbs up, or other deliberate non-verbal communication.)
    2. Discuss: Talk to each other (if you can) about whether you want to hunt stag (pay 5 coins. if successful, add 10 Coins to the Pot) or rabbit (pay 1 coin. If successful, add 3 coins to the Pot) Remember that not all players can speak, even to say that they can’t speak. 
    3. Decide: Everyone, speaking or not, holds out either 0, 1, or 5 coins under their hand so that nobody else can see, indicating doing nothing, hunting rabbit, or hunting stag. 
    4. Score: People who don’t hunt don’t spend anything and don’t add anything to the Pot. Rabbit hunts are automatically successful. For each person who picked Rabbit, add 3 Coins to the Pot. Stag hunts are successful only if every person chose to hunt Stag. If everyone picked Stag then for each person, add 10 Coins to the pot.
    5. Divide: the pot as evenly as possible between all players. If it is not possible to divide the Pot evenly (for instance, if there are 6 Coins in the Pot and only five players) then leave the remainder in the Pot. (So if there were 6 Coins and five players, there would be 1 Coin left in the Pot.)
    6. Gift: Each player may, if they wish, give one Coin to one other player once. 
  4. If you’re on round 1 or 2, then start a new round from step 3. If you’re on round three, the game is over and you should count up how many Coins everyone has.

Staggering Hunters is a fairly fast game, especially once everyone knows the rules. Go ahead and debrief, talk freely about what strategies worked and what didn’t, and if you’re interested in playing again go ahead and set up for another game!

After each game, debrief and talk about how this relates to coordinating in things more complicated than a board game. The suggested reading is a good place to start the discussion, but so is any "Why didn't you all just..." sentiments your group has.

Variations: The easiest thing to tweak about Staggering Hunters is the number of rounds. More rounds makes it easier to eventually feel comfortable hunting Stag. The default, three rounds, is selected to make it always just possible to pull off some Stag hunts! If someone rolled a 1 for starting resources then everyone can pick Rabbit for three rounds and the people who rolled a 1 end the first round with 3, the second with 5, and can pick Stag for the third and final round. You can get there even faster with tactical gifting in step 3.6. 

You can also tweak the costs and rewards for Rabbit and Stag. I used the ones from the LessWrong post about it. Similarly, you can tweak what dice you’re using for the rolls; using a die with more sides makes it harder to guess what most people have for starting resources. 

The intention behind the random starting resources and random ability to speak is to create more doubt around whether it’s safe to pick Stag. One variation is to just remove that; have everyone start with 5 Coin, make your current Coin supply open information, and always be able to speak each round. Picking Stag is a lot easier like that! You might still not be able to do it. 

A very easy tweak is to just remove the Gifting step. The purpose of that step is to let a cooperative and communicative group boost someone who ended up without enough Coin to hunt Stag to get back in the game faster. Still, it slows down play a touch and isn’t present in the original formulation. 

Another small variation with a large impact is to dispense with the Pot. If everyone hunts Stag, everyone gets 10 Coin. If an individual hunts Rabbit, that individual gets 3 Coin. This makes Rabbit a lot safer of a choice. I find dealing with the outrage Rabbit players can have towards Stag players to be an interesting aspect of the game.

The following paragraph contains spoilers, and is written in rot13. If you’re running Staggering Hunters, you might want to read this but you don’t have to. If you’re going to attend a game of Staggering Hunters someone else is running, I suggest you don’t read it. Ivpgbel pbaqvgvbaf ner yrsg vagragvbanyyl inthr. Ol qrsnhyg, vg’f ernfbanoyr sbe fbzr crbcyr gb pbapyhqr gung rnpu cynlre vf gelvat gb unir zber Pbva guna nalbar ryfr. Gung’f ubj ybgf bs tnzrf jbex. Bgure crbcyr zvtug pbapyhqr gung gur tbny vf gb unir nf zhpu Pbva orgjrra nyy gur cynlref nf cbffvoyr. Vg qbrf xvaq bs fbhaq yvxr lbh’er nyy gelvat gb pbbcrengr ba Fgnt, qbrfa’g vg? Zl cersrerapr vs V zhfg cvpx n tbny vf gb unir rnpu vaqvivqhny nvz gb unir nf zhpu Pbva nf gurl pna jvgubhg ersrerapr gb bgure cynlref ohg guvf vf fhecevfvatyl uneq gb rkcynva. Ubjrire, V guvax vg’f vagrerfgvat gb frr vs crbcyr cvpx hc ba gung nofrapr bs n fcrpvsvp tbny naq gb frr jung nffhzcgvbaf gurl znxr jura gurl qba’g ernyvmr jung jrag hafgngrq.

Notes: Yes, I know it’s kind of weird to get coins from hunting rabbits and also a bit weird to put coins in a pot. The texts I got Stag Hunt from used Utility. Both of these are at least somewhat euphemisms for meat. Feel free to swap for vegetarian labels at your leisure. 

Because there's a section where some players aren't speaking, I suggest not directly playing the first game if you're the one running things. That way you can walk people through the steps of each round, answer questions, and help keep the Pile and the Pot separate. If everyone is clear on the rules you don't need a moderator like this, but assume even if everyone thinks they're clear you assume something will come up the first time through.

Credits: My structure of a Stag Hunt comes from Duncan Sabien’s Open Problems in Group Rationality which is described in Raemon’s The Schelling Choice is Rabbit Not Stag

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2 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 6:18 PM

Very nice exercise! We were a group of 11 and split into two groups of 5 and 6. After playing a few times we made one big round with all 11. Interestingly, not once did we hunt a stag! The exercise lead to some very interesting discussions afterwards.

Interesting! I'm quite curious how the discussion went. The groups I've run this with tend to talk about game design and how to give it more variety.