Completing the Ritual

Cordial Minuet is a two-player game inspired by Texas Hold'em poker, but completely skill-based to avoid potential legal issues. The quick tutorial video explains the rules much better than I would.

Most of the coverage doesn't seem to know what to make of Cordial Minuet. Gambling and indie video games don't typically mix. People's reactions might stretch to "that's interesting" but more rarely to "I want to play".

Something Inhuman

Admittedly, if I didn't already know at least something about the game designer Cordial Minuet would be a dubious prospect. The introductory webpage has a deliberately dark, cluttered design featuring occult symbols and magic spells. It reads like mystical get-rich-quick propaganda. It's funny, I think, but that doesn't do much to lighten the mood.

Signing a pact

Signing up for Cordial Minuet.

The game itself opens a dark 666x666 pixel window and immediately prompts for credit card details. It's an intentionally cold place to visit, where you play against anonymous opponents for real money. Outside the game board the interface is dominated by stark numbers and blocky capital letters, in high contrast white on black. Money is carefully tracked down to fractions of a cent, while the people behind the numbers are obscured.

Every player is given a pseudonym, generated from a combination of two evocative nouns, but even those aren't revealed during play. I feel layers of identity between the game and myself, until it's practically being played by someone else.

A Cordial Minuet game is a kind of mechanical masquerade, always dancing by the numbers but it's tempting to project things onto an opponent for their every tiny decision. The interaction becomes like the hostile answer to thatgamecompany's Journey. Where Journey tries to foster a form of intimacy between strangers, Cordial Minuet washes most of the humanity out of its interactions. It's restrained communication performed through detached, combative mechanics.

On the forums Jason Rohrer discusses the importance of dehumanisation to the design:

In terms of aesthetics, the dehumanization of the opponent is really important to me. It's a very strange thing to celebrate a big, profitable win when your profit means someone else's crushing loss. I literally want you to see them as L'Abisso, faceless and nameless, almost like a mysterious part of the machine. When the chime sounds, as someone joins your game, I want that urgent sense of nervous anticipation, and that's fueled by the anonymity.

You're invited to gaze into the abyss and take part in, as the anagram suggests, a demonic ritual. The links between gambling and mysticism are many and complicated. Numbers remain loaded with superstition, including the magic square of the sun used to create a Cordial Minuet game board.

Cordial Minuet screenshot

Ritual in progress.

Different Worlds

Rohrer's games often invite me to try on questionable personas. After playing as a blood diamond trader or a home invader, numerology and rituals feel like a big step up. But Cordial Minuet still manages to push people's comfort zones to the point where the creative vision interferes with building a critical mass of players. It's difficult to draw people into an experience that should be off-putting. Poker players distrust the security, while many video game players distrust the concept of gambling for real money in the first place. It's difficult to find the common ground between these worlds. And that's before even considering the people who equate the occult theme with Satanism.

It's a shame when considered next to more exploitative game designs that dress their marketing strategies up in bright colours and cute animations. Or next to countless luck-based slot machines designed to keep you playing but never win in the long run. How much does our trust come from simple hooks and familiar aesthetics? We don't get to choose our psychology.

Cordial Minuet isn't setting out to exploit anyone, and I think most players go in with their eyes open. But maybe I'm just saying that because I'm one of them. A brainwashed follower looking to evangelise. I wouldn't go quite that far. There is some potential for harm inherent in the concept, with a certain recklessness to that. But my main allegiance is to admiring weird little experiments and wanting them to succeed.

A game of Cordial Minuet can be played for such low stakes as to make potential losses trivial. I had a rough learning curve during the beta, and deliberately played matches out of my league to gather data, but even so the most I've ever been down was about 50 cents. Low stakes free Cordial Minuet up to be more of an intellectual exercise than a particularly risky (or lucrative) prospect. Even with fractions of a penny at stake the use of real money alters the vibe, but there's some question about whether that feeling can sustain itself. There's always the temptation to go higher, and make the money aspect more tangible.

If you want to play high stakes no one is going to stop you, assuming you can find someone else willing to take that on. A $6,666.66 game flashes up now and again, as some kind of challenge or taunt from "Incident Clemency". He knows no other player currently has a balance able to match those stakes. The story behind where most of that money came from is well known and part of the game's mythology but it's an outlier. For many even playing for a dollar or two is still living on the edge.

Unable to afford

Behind the Scenes

Mathematics helps to create the harshness of Cordial Minuet, but it also makes it elegant and logical. Manipulating and better understanding it can help to break through the superstitious trappings and make it less intimidating.

There's a small but dedicated community surrounding the game. It seems to attract a certain kind of person, at least based on the more vocal players. Programmers and tech-minded creatives. People who are interested in systems. The forums contain frank discussions about different strategies, the impact of tiny design decisions, and whether anyone could make a decent bot.

While the game sticks to its aesthetics, elsewhere subverting the anonymous design seems expected, or even encouraged. Twitter bot Canto Delirium scans the leaderboards and makes it possible to work out who you were playing against after-the-fact. The leaderboards only update after a small delay, to avoid people too easily abusing this information to seek or avoid particular players, but Canto remains the biggest threat to anonymity, like we all showed up in masks and long robes but couldn't avoid signing the guest list.

Someone set up a chat room, ostensibly for trash talk but it's difficult to even lurk there without someone trying to be friendly. Tragic, I know. And it's not difficult for players to arrange matches with each other, despite the lack of any formal system to encourage it.

Open source design even leaves players free to manipulate Cordial Minuet itself, with at least some talk about Android ports or improving options for re-skins. I play with a spreadsheet in another window to analyse the game board for me, and this is in no way against the rules. It helps compensate for not being great with numbers, rather than giving me any huge advantage, but it was a fun exercise to get it working and experiment with displaying different kinds of information.

This is Cordial Minuet's metagame, where game design is something to explore and possibly manipulate. It's natural to look for an edge.

Joining the Secret Cabal

Cordial Minuet officially launched with a contest, giving away prizes including specially forged solid gold amulets. To minimise the risk of collusion the only games that counted towards the contest were those played against a selected group of players. I was a member of this secret cabal, which is good evidence that anyone at least had a chance to pick up some points. My stats aren't particularly impressive.

As someone in an awkward time zone, and still playing low stakes, the chance of encountering another cabal member and winning points for myself was slim. Indeed, this never happened. My goal for the launch contest was not to win, but simply not to give too many coins away. Certainly not to the same person – scores remained low enough that if I repeatedly lost to the same player I could seriously bias the result. I don't want that kind of power.

I succeeded pretty well in that regard, keeping my games spread out and generally holding my own. I lost some coins to a server timeout, and others to a game I had to leave abruptly. But if the spirits of Australian internet or anything else deem the other player worthy then so be it. Minoson has spoken.

Gambling skill is at the boundary of logic and illogic. Logical enough to play smart, but not so logical as to be predictable. To play with psychological traps but not fall into them yourself. Or at least less often than someone else.

Being in the cabal made me play extra conservatively, at least for the first few days. I'll admit it, I like the feeling of messing with people. Hit and run tactics where I bail out when I'm only a few measly coins ahead. I know how much it frustrates people but there's a perverse thrill in it. I've learnt to tone myself down, and play things out longer so as not to interfere with other people's enjoyment. There are better ways for me to find excitement, like the feeling of turning things around when losing, or pulling off a good bluff.

Low stakes games have their own challenges. In theory the stakes act as a rough matchmaking system, but in reality the range of skill in these games can be huge, especially at times without many active players. You never really know what to expect, with a mix of beginners and people playing just for fun. Possibly some that are testing new strategies, or hoping for an easy win. Beginners are often unwilling to fold, and therefore impossible to bluff. And even more experienced players are more likely to take the risk of calling when there isn't much riding on it. I prefer the games that seem to take those coins seriously, even when they have little or no real world value.

Over the twelve days of the launch contest the balance switched back from this mix of people, to being dominated by the more skilled players again. The influx of new people seemingly not enough to sustain any kind of growth. I was hoping to scratch my profit graph back up to the break-even point but it started to feel like a shark tank again before I quite managed that. I'll have to learn to play a lot smarter if I want that.

Predicting the Future

I seem to be documenting a game's failure, and may well be, but a comeback isn't completely out of the question. A day or two after the conclusion of the launch contest and Cordial Minuet has already updated with a new experimental mode. It involves a more poker-like scoring system. This comes at the expense of the original's numerical significance, but aims to make the reveals more exciting. The original being possibly a bit too mathematically elegant, and becoming less interesting over time.

I'm not much of a fortune teller, but I'll be interested to watch what happens. At a time when US casinos are considering what to do about younger people's lack of interest in poker machines, and considering incorporating more skill-based games maybe one day there will be a place for this kind of thing. Or maybe it could find more traction in places outside the US.

Or possibly this really is just an odd experiment that only a small number of people will ever play or even remotely care about.