You can play a round of Jason Rohrer's Cordial Minuet for any amount between a penny and $999,999,999.99. Whatever the bet, win or lose, Rohrer is taking a 10 percent cut of the pot.
It's a surprisingly unapologetic "free-to-play" monetization model for an indie game developer, especially Rohrer, who's probably still best known for Passage, a small, touching, pixelated game about aging. My favorite game of his is 2011's Inside a Star-Filled Sky, which beautifully expresses the maddening concept of infinity in the form of a recursive twin-stick shooter.
When we have inane discussions about games as art, Rohrer's games are an argument for the medium's potential. When we talk about game developer auteurs, we're talking about Rohrer.
And now he has his mind set on running what has the appearance of a seedy online poker room. On its face, it seems like the antithesis of games as art, perhaps the only type of game greedier than the microtransaction-riddled free-to-play, pay-to-continue-playing Clash of Clans and Candy Crushes that infest the mobile app stores.
"You brought your credit card, right?" Rohrer asks as soon as we jump on a Skype call for a few guided rounds of Cordial Minuet. I grab it, enter my information through an interface that looks just like the type I use to order Indian food on Seamless, and tell the game I want to deposit $5.
It's easy to forget that there's a processing fee on every credit card transaction because most retailers just eat the cost. Rohrer doesn't have that luxury. I'm not buying an order of lamb Tikka Masala. I'm depositing money into a system I can withdraw from at any time. If I deposit $100 and withdraw that money right away, Rohrer's left with nothing but a fee and a net loss. Of the $5 I deposit, only $4.55 ends up in my in-game balance.
That's how it should have worked, at least. But the animation indicating my information is being processed just idles indefinitely.
"Uh oh," Rohrer said, and we ended the call so he could troubleshoot what he thought was a server issue. By the time he called back, some 15 minutes later, the system had charged my credit card for $5 seven times, a banner day for Cordial Minuet revenue. Rohrer refunded me for the extra charges.
"This is why I need a large amount of people to test this game before I release it to the public," he said. "It's not just a matter of crashes. Something weird like this can happen and all of a sudden someone spent way more money than they wanted to."
Eventually we start a game for a cent, which is split up into 100 white coins, each representing one one-hundredth of a penny, kind of like poker chips. If we played for $100, each would represent $1; if we played for $100 million, each would represent $1 million, etc.
Rohrer calls Cordial Minuet a two-player online strategy game, but it looks more like Beelzebub's sudoku puzzle. The players, who remain anonymous, are matched according to the amount of money they want to play for. Each has a view of the same six-by-six magic square, a mathematical construct where the sum of each row and column of numbers between 1 and 36 is 111. Multiply that by the six rows or columns and you'll get 666. Cordial Minuet is also an anagram for "demonic ritual." If Satan were to get into online gambling, this is where he'd would start.
Rohrer said he always thought the occult was a fascinating corner of human endeavor, and when he started reading about the history of games played for money, he found that it's impossible to know which came first: recreational chance or divination rituals. Many of the earliest forms of gambling—knucklebones or Jacks, for example—were used competitively and to try to decipher the will of the gods.
Magic squares, too, originate in the occult. They were used in ceremonial magic to construct sigils representing angels or demons.
To start, I pick two columns, one for myself, and one for Rohrer. He does the same, but his interface is rotated 90 degrees, so from his perspective his columns are my rows and vice versa.
We place bets, then reveal the columns we picked for each other. The number where the column I picked for myself intersects with the row Rohrer picked for me goes towards my score.
A graph on the right side of the magic square keeps track of every possible score Rohrer and I could get based on the available information, allowing me to focus on strategy instead of doing the math in my head.
I can't see the row Rohrer picked for himself yet, but I know it's not the one he gave me. I look at the spread of numbers, and try to predict Rohrer's choices to give myself the highest numbers.
We do this three times, placing bets along the way. At that point, we each have three intersections highlighting three numbers that make up our final score. Now we take turns revealing those three numbers, one at a time, again placing bets before each reveal, much like players can raise the stakes between the flop, the turn, and the river in Texas Hold'em.
The US federal government defines "gambling" as any activity which consists of chance, prize, and consideration (meaning the participant has something at stake). Cordial Minuet's magic square, unlike a properly shuffled deck of cards, isn't a random element. It has trillions of variations, but the distribution of numbers is always balanced. "The magic square is always fair," Rohrer said.
"The primary skill is how well can I judge the situation based on the bets that you've been making to determine whether I should fold or not, whether I should bet higher or not, whether I can trick you or not. I can definitely very easily beat a beginning player in this game now," Rohrer said, laughing. I know he's right because I lose consistently.
Rohrer says this means Cordial Minuet isn't breaking any gambling laws. "I'm as confident as an amateur lawyer can be, I guess," said Rohrer, who has successfully defended himself in court before. "I'm not saying that there's loads of precedent. There's never been a game like this, which is part of the reason why I'm making it."
I'm as confident as an amateur lawyer can be, I guess
Rohrer started playing poker during a homeschooling conference for his kids at a hotel that had just opened a new poker room. Other parents were upset because kids were walking around the sound of chips clicking in the lobby, but he decided to play. He started with $40 and walked away with $160. When he went home, he started playing online. He hasn't played for real money since he lost about $50, but said he could sense he was getting better, just like he could sense he was getting better at League of Legends the more he played it.
After playing Cordial Minuet and seeing how easily I could lose my (four-figure) life savings to Rohrer in minutes, the distinction between chance and skill seemed marginal to the real danger: it could ruin me if I let it.
According to the executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, Keith Whyte, the legal definition of gambling isn't helping problem gamblers.
Over 40 million Americans and Canadians will spend millions of dollars on fantasy sports sites and apps this year, for example, but those games are legal because they're considered games of skill. "Honestly, a lot of it is them just using technology to circumvent gambling laws," Whyte said. "Whether those laws are impractical or outdated is a separate question. In a lot of cases it's just a fig leaf workaround."
Games of skill can even have the reverse effects on problem gamblers. "Belief in skill often leads us to do things that may be risky," Whyte said. "That's a good part of human nature. It's what makes us great inventors and artists and businessmen. In gambling, belief in skill leads a lot of people to think, 'I know I'm going to win, and even if I lost, I now have more experience. I'm not going to make that mistake again, so why wouldn't I put more money behind it?'"
As Jeffrey L. Derevensky, director of the International Center for Youth Gambling Problems and High-Risk Behaviors, explained it to me, a problem gambler can abuse any game, regardless of chance or skill.
"An alcoholic has a preferred drink," he said. "Could be beer, wine, whatever. Take that away from the individual and he would drink something else. The same is true with pathological gamblers. If you remove their favorite game from them, they'll bet on something else."
Derevensky also said that while a higher proportion of problem gamblers are involved with fantasy sports, the structural characteristics of those games aren't as problematic for them because they can't place bets as frequently as they could at a roulette table or a slot machine. Traditionally, they'd have to wait until the end of the season for the feedback, though fantasy sports sites like Draft Kings now offer daily leagues.
In Cordial Minuet, no turn lasts more than a minute, so if enough people will play it, you could theoretically place hundreds of bets a day.
Whyte said a lot of the responsibility falls on users, but that the NCPG believes some responsibility is on those who offer games where people are encouraged to place a wager based on their own skill.
The NCPG isn't interested in legislature. It wants gambling institutions to self-regulate in order to protect their customers and themselves. "They face increased risk if they don't," Derevensky told me. "This is America. Someone somewhere is probably going to try and sue them if it gets excessive, if they're being exploitative."
Rohrer's aware that there are a lot of potential nightmares lurking here. Some of them, he thinks, he's already circumvented. For example, the most user-friendly way to let players withdraw their money from the game would be with something like PayPal, but distributing prizes from any kind of game, even if it's legal, is against PayPal's terms of service. If 10,000 players show up on the first day of Cordial Minuet's release, put a few dollars into the game, and PayPal freezes the account, Rohrer has screwed them all over, and probably himself.
Instead, Rohrer has teamed up with a company that normally handles payroll checks. Using a digital API, it mails physical checks on his behalf anywhere in the world. This, as you can imagine, is more expensive than PayPal, another cost that Rohrer passes on to players—$3 per check inside the US, $7 per check internationally.
Rohrer is preparing for other nightmares as best he can. Imagine a scenario in which a player uses a stolen credit card to deposit $1,000, and then requests a check. The true owner of the card sees the charge and issues a chargeback. If it's just a credit card thief using Cordial Minuet to launder money (another reason players remain anonymous), Rohrer could at least request to stop payment on the check. If the thief loses the $1,000 dollars to 1,000 different players one dollar at time, Rohrer would have to cancel 1,000 checks and inform 1,000 players that the money they thought they won fairly is never coming because it was stolen before it entered the system.
For this reason, Rohrer will require proof of identity from any player who deposits more than $500 a year. Conversely, in order to keep the IRS from knocking on his door, every player who withdraws more than $600 a year will have to send Rohrer a W-9 so Rohrer can send him a 1099. It's standard contractor paperwork, the kind I had to fill out to get paid for this article.
For now, Rohrer and his wife are handling all of the paperwork and logistics alone. As he explained, if thousands of players start depositing thousands of dollars, the workload problem will solve itself since he'll have the money to scale up.
Rohrer has to do these things to protect and provide for his family. "I don't know if I'm nervous," he said. "At this point in my life, this is game number 18, and so I'm not doing these things just for fun, these are not just experiments, this is how I make my living now."
I can't help but feel that all of it, the checks, W-9s, the flirtation with the law—all of it is an elaborate performance and provocation.
By pushing the laws, form, and best practices of real money gaming, Rohrer is exposing hidden contradictions and puts into question the very notion of chance versus skill.
How is a roll of the dice more a matter of chance than any number of random events that determine our fortunes? Is a roll of the dice really that much more random than the anonymous player at the other end of the magic square? Is Rohrer's game safer than a roulette table, fantasy football, or any number of "free-to-play" games that revolve around random number generators that players spend millions of dollars on a year?
Cordial Minuet engages with these questions in fascinating ways. However, the most important lesson Rohrer's game implies is what fantasy football contest operators, credit card companies, and Vegas magnates already know. It's an ancient hustle, as old as the fortune tellers who inspired the game's satanic aesthetic. Chance or skill, legal or illegal, moral or immoral, the debate only matters as far as it affects Rohrer's ability to take that 10 percent cut.
As summed up by a saying Derevensky shared with me and attributes to Steve Wynn, owner of the Bellagio, Golden Nugget, Encore, and others: "If you want to win at gambling, own the casino."