To improve, make fewer mistakes

One of the unexpected delights of COVID has been reconnecting with childhood friends over online boardgames. When our IRL social lives shut down last March we started gaming, playing Nemesis, Gloomhaven, and recently settling on Twilight Imperium. TI4 is a game of kings - incredibly complex and engaging, and often infuriating. There's so much to keep track of that it's easy to make unforced errors that cripple your game. Recently I've found that I play my best games when my primary focus is to not make mistakes. Coming in with that mantra has really improved my win rate. It seems the person I was most in danger of losing to was me.

In Twilight Imperium the mistakes I most commonly make are 1.) forgetting faction abilities or action cards 2.) miscalculating available tokens and resources 3.) and ignoring scoring early objectives. The last one could be seen as a strategic blunder instead of a mistake, but in a game where the fanbase all stress the importance of not treating it like 'space Risk', when I end up spending two rounds building a mighty fleet instead of scoring victory points, it starts to look a lot more mistake shaped. The connection between these mistakes is mental sloppiness.

This seems to apply to more than just board games (though that's clearly the most important). Programming is, at the end of the day, kind of simple - think about what you want to do, tell the computer to do it. The hard part is when it doesn't do what you want and you have to figure out what's wrong. Having error reduction be a guiding principle - "when I write this script I want it to run the first time" - helps. Similarly if I'm writing an email, focusing on writing it in a way so that "the person who reads this comes away with no incorrect interpretations of my meaning" - focuses my writing and encourages me to actually reread what I've written.

Making fewer mistakes feels related to the theme I set for myself in 2020, Slow is Smooth. I have a tendency to rush and find my mind wandering to any number of other tasks or activities, even when I'm doing something I enjoy. Part of my mind is already on to the next thing. That's a mindsetmindset

guaranteed to result in shallow and shoddy work. Embracing an ethos of slow and smooth gives me an affordance to relax into the moment and actually see what's here right now. Operationalizing this as 'make fewer mistakes' is effective at turning the theme into an action, and apparently that's a game winning move.


  • Tyler Cowen in Average is Over, notes that "most [Chess] games are decided on the basis of the accumulation of advantages, and the level of error is fairly well predicted by the relative skills of the players".
  • Dan Luu observes that in "every activity I've participed in where it's possible to get a rough percentile ranking, people who are 95%-ile constantly make mistakes…" and in Overwatch in particular at that rank "the vast majority of players will pretty much constantly make basic game losing mistakes".

Addendum: So far the main thing that has helped is the simplest - going in with this mindsetmindset

. Other ideas for making fewer mistakes:

  • Watch replays of games
  • Make a checklist of things to do/review at specific points (ex. at the start of every round review what faction tech can I use)
  • When doing something tricky or unusual, check the rules ahead of time.