Two Games Called Meta

The past few days, my kids have been arguing about what game to play after school. The younger one wants to play Junior Monopoly but the older one thinks that’s too boring. The elder one wanted to play Blokus, but the younger one said that was too difficult.

My wife suggested Pictionary as a compromise, but they didn’t like that idea either. So I suggested a game called Meta.

The rules of Meta are quite simple – each player writes, on a piece of paper, a game they’d like to play. The pieces of paper are put in a hat. Then, one is drawn at random, and the named game is played.┬áMy elder son thought this was a great idea, so he proceeded set up a game of Meta. He got a hat and some scraps of paper, and started to ask everyone what game they wanted to play.

When he asked me, I didn’t really have a preference. After some thought, I chose “Meta”, which he dutifully wrote down. Of course, writing “Meta” came with the risk that the game would take longer, but that’s ok. I like Meta.

Unfortunately, when the name of the game was chosen, it was “Junior Monopoly”. At this point, my elder son quit in disgust, which is quite against the rules. I suppose we won’t be playing Meta again for a long time.

Perhaps it’s just as well. After all, if we all grew to love Meta, we might always all write “Meta” every time. Then we’d be forced to cut the game short at bedtime, and never find out who won.

This reminds me of a quite different game, also called Meta, for two players. The rules of this other Meta are simple.

  • The first player calls out the name of a game. The game must be a game that’s guaranteed to end. (After all, nobody wants to play the same game forever.)
  • Then, the players play the named game, the second Meta player playing as the first player.

So, if the first player called out “Chess”, they would play chess, with the second player playing white. If the first player called out “tic-tac-toe”, the second player would place the first mark on an empty tic-tac-toe board. If the first player called out “Monopoly”, well, that’s cheating – Monopoly is not guaranteed to ever finish. The second player would win instantly.

There’s one thing I’m not so sure about though – can the first player call out “Meta”? Is a game of Meta guaranteed always to eventually finish?

You would think so. After all, you really only play one move of Meta, and then you’re playing Boggle or Ten Pin Bowling or something that must eventually end. On the other hand, if this is so then the first player might call out “Meta”, and then the second player might do the same, and so on ad infinitum. The game might never end. However that means the first call of “Meta” was against the rules, and the infinite regress can’t happen, making the first call a legal move after all, leading to the possibility that a game of Meta might never end.

Please do think carefully about this, and let me know below if you think it’s safe for me to call out “Meta” next time I’m lucky enough to be playing Meta as the first player. I’d love to know what you think!