Monday, December 5, 2011

Next Iron Chef: gaming the system

For reference: Next Iron Chef is a cooking competition reality show. This season the format for an episode goes like this: all remaining competitors battle in a cooking challenge. Their dishes are judged, and the worst two have to cook again, in an elimination battle. The judges decide between the elimination dishes and one of those two people is kicked off the show.

The Dec 4th episode included two twists that were interesting from a game design perspective. Reality shows often have gamery style twists and turns, and frequently screw up the design of those twists so that there is an obvious dominant strategy. This time they did pretty well, I think. Let's look at each of them and talk about what's going on.

Ingredient Auction
The first twist of interest was an auction of ingredients. There were five chefs left in the competition at this point, so five ingredients. All were covered, and revealed only when it was time to auction each, in turn. In reverse-auction style, the chefs bid lower and lower amounts of minutes in which they believed they could cook the ingredient. They started at 50 minutes and had to use 5-minute increments. In addition, the last chef would automatically get the last ingredient, but with a time of 5 minutes LESS than the lowest successful bid on any other ingredient. Yikes! That last rule caught me a little but by surprise at first. After thinking about it, though, I decided they actually did the right thing.

The producers (I always give "the producers" credit/blame when talking about reality TV shows, but I mean "all the people making decisions about how things are set up" - I guess they still might have writers and other staff for that, right?) had a couple of goals in setting up this auction.
  1. Want to make the chefs bid aggressively
  2. Need to make it fair / make sure nobody gets a free ride
If they had not set that -5 minutes beyond lowest bid, a couple of bad things could have happened:
  1. Four chefs bid aggressively, and the last chef has 30 minutes more than the others just for being quiet
  2. One chef bids aggressively on the first thing, then the other four collude to all have 50 minutes.
These might not be that likely, but they are a real danger. Especially when it comes down to two chefs for the last two ingredients. If the first three ingredients went to 25 minutes, the last two could easily agree to take 45 and 50, or even full 50 and 50 minutes, and put themselves totally out of reach of the other three chefs.

I might have simply set the final chef's time equal to the lowest previous bid, but the -5 really puts the screws to them to bid earlier in the process. Whatever you bid, you know that someone else will have less time than you do, so you can never completely hose yourself by bidding foolishly low. If you do, someone else gets crushed.

Now you might say... what if a chef bids 5 minutes? That would put someone else at 0, effectively eliminating them immediately. They didn't quite have this problem, because the bottom two chefs go to the elimination challenge. If you set someone else to 0, but you only have 5, you've all but guaranteed yourself into the bottom two with them. Not a good plan... Or might it have been? (As we shall see, below.)

The five ingredients chosen also have an impact on the bidding. A bad ingredient will go for more time, and  is more amusing as well. They had (in order): Wagyu Beef, Sardines, Lobster, Tuna Jerky, and Leg of Lamb. The beef was a good one to start with, I think. Clearly desirable so it would be bid on aggressively enough. It went for 30 minutes. Next was Sardines, which I might not have put second. It went for the full 50 minutes (because it's so bad) which I also think is a mistake. Sardines can be eaten straight out of the can (not that you want to), and certainly could be prepared in a very short time. This was even proven as the chef that got them made three dishes in 50 minutes. Could she have made one of those in 10? I think so. In fact, of those three she made, the one that the judges disliked took her the most time. Not to mention the numerous times the judges have scolded the chefs for cooking more dishes than they asked for. Certainly in hindsight, but also, I think the first time through, the sardines could have gone to 10 minutes. A little cute fried application like she did for one of her dishes can be done in 10 minutes, and that would pretty much instantly kill whoever was last - giving them only 5 minutes (with Leg of Lamb, no less, though they didn't know what it would be at the time of bidding on the sardines). Just FYI: the lobster went for 25, then the Tuna Jerky 25 as well (due to neither competitor wanting to be stuck with who-knows-what and 20 minutes). This showed the -5 plan working brilliantly, pushing the bids low on a bad ingredient because the previous item had gone pretty low as well.

Now for the second interesting twist. They did not reveal this until after the cooking, which was critical, as we shall see. After the cooking was done, but before the judging, the previous weeks winner (who always gets an advantage the next week) got to play their advantage. They got to judge for themselves, and choose one of their competitors to automatically go to the bottom two. The power level of this advantage is absurd, and completely out of scale with all previous advantages (some of which were as small as "5-minute head start"). Worse, it has an obvious strategy that is the complete opposite of what it claims you are supposed to do. You're supposed to put the worst person into the bottom, for elimination, right? That couldn't be further from correct, strategically. In fact, you should always put the very best person into the bottom, for several reasons.

  1. If your dish was bad, and you put the worst person into the bottom, the judges might decide you are the next worse, and force you into the bottom as well. If you put the best person into the bottom, and you are second-worst, you will escape the elimination battle entirely.
  2. If you put your biggest competition into the bottom, there's a small chance the worst person will upset them in the elimination battle and clear out one of the better competitors for the future (helping you both long-term and short-term).
  3. (*) If you are second-best, and you put the best person into elimination, you could then win this challenge, and steal the advantage the best person would have had next week, for yourself!
* As it played out, I can't be sure of this. The judges chose the winner before they revealed who was forced into the bottom two by last week's winner's choice. It was not clear if the winner had been chosen to go to the elimination battle whether they would have kept their advantage or not. I think they would have, but at the time the previous winner chose who to dump into the bottom it was totally not clear.

The previous week's winner (Anne) did seem to follow my advice. Her choice ended up in second place overall (so it may have been close between who she thought was best and who the judges picked). What made this even worse for television (and this is always the case when the producers foolishly make the competitors judge each other) is that Anne had to dis every other dish as she tasted them. She needed to have an excuse to send whoever she wanted to the bottom, so she couldn't share her honest opinion of their work... and she's probably even friends with some of them! (There is a slight out here, in that while she has to give the first one she tastes a bad review, she can then give approval to any other one that is worse than it. In effect, she only had to give a bad review to the best one, so that she would have the excuse to tank it. Still terrible from the producer perspective, though, since she's lying about how good the food is.)

You might say that you should put a medium or weak person into the elimination battle, in case you end up facing them, but that's not correct. If you think you suck at cooking, what are you even doing here? Maybe at this point you would know your own dish was bad, and after trying the others realize yours is so bad in comparison that you've already lost, but that's a rare case. Plus you do gain all that information, so only if you felt you were by far the worst should you put anyone but the best into the elimination challenge. If you were bad but someone else was too, there's a chance the judges will favor your dish and spare you.

Hilariously, to me, these two twists combined to crush Anne. She got the sardines with far too much time (50 minutes) and made three dishes, one of which was bad. If she had bid only 10 minutes, she could have made just one of those three, the one the judges seemed to like best, and crushed someone else with only 5 minutes. Even better, her bid might have made the others bid even lower on subsequent choices, practically demolishing several of them. Then she could have still put the best other person into the elimination match, and had at least one dead-on-arrival competitor drop down with them, sparing her no matter how weak her 10-minute sardine dish was. Of course, she did not know that she'd have such power, so bidding 10 minutes would have been mighty risky. As it played out, she went to the elimination challenge and lost. Still, if she had any chance of winning overall she had to be that other person eventually, and might still have gotten rid of her toughest competitor had things tipped slightly more in her favor in the elimination battle.

You might think a bid of 10 minutes would put yourself into the bottom two, but not if there are two more rounds of bidding left to go (plus the last person getting the -5 time), which there were. The three people left would all know that not getting something would mean having an impossible 5 minutes, and therefore would bid down to 15 minutes or possibly even 10. In fact, with that specter looming, the second to last item could go on a 5-minute bid, just to guarantee death for the last person.

Did I mention that the theme for this challenge was "risk?" I would have boldly led with a 10-minute bid on those sardines. (If I was as good a chef as they are, of course; I am sadly not.) That would have been some awesome television.