What’s the geekiest game ever produced? Anyone remember CPU Wars—a top trumps game based on the clock speed, bus speed, transistor count etc of microchips?
Then there was Khet 2.0, a chess-like board game which involved positioning mirrors to direct your laser beam on to your opponent’s Sphinx before he or she did. And any game hoping to top this list would have to beat off strong competition from World of Warcraft, perhaps the best online role playing game.
Now there’s a new pretender to throne thanks to some sterling work by Alexander Hartmann at the University of Oldenburg in Germany. Hartmann is the mastermind behind “Spin Glasses: The Game”, a board game based on the physics of…err… spin glasses. And in the true spirit of Christmas, he’s released it in cut-out form as a free download available now (link below).
Spin glasses may be esoteric but they are also one of the more fascinating phenomena in physics. They are disordered magnets in which the atoms interact with each other to create conflicting configurations that compete with each other for stability.
That makes spin glasses metastable. They can seem firm and constant but a small change to the configuration in one part of the lattice can ripple through the magnet like wildfire.
And that’s exactly what happens in magnetic alloys such as iron-gold, which contains regions of both ferromagnetism and antiferromagnetism, depending on the pattern of orientation of the atoms within it.
Spin glasses are also something of a mystery. When these materials are cooled, they seem to ‘remember’ the magnetic history they experienced at higher temperatures. So when they are heated again, they regain the same magnetic properties as before, as if no cooling had occurred. That’s a puzzle because there is no known mechanism by which this memory effect can occur.
But while spin glasses are interesting, they are of limited use. Nobody has ever thought of an application for spin glasses, largely because they only form at temperatures close to absolute zero.
That hasn’t deterred Hartmann, who has reproduced this complexity and excitement in a board game for two players. The ‘atoms’ are counters that are black on one side and white on the other (each player is either black or white).
And these atoms are linked to each other either by a blue ferromagnetic bond or by a red antiferromagnetic bond. So a pair of atoms can exist in six configurations.
The energy of this configuration depends on the pattern of links. For example, a ferromagnetic bond linking two atoms of the same colour has an energy of -1. By contrast, an antiferromagnetic bond linking two atoms of the same colour has an energy of +1.
Since each atom can be surrounded by several bonds, the key quantity is the sum of the energy of the bonds. If this total energy is negative, it is stable. If the energy is positive, however, it is unstable and a player can flip one of the atoms to achieve a lower energy state. This change can of course, spread through the lattice.
The game ends when the lattice is filled with atoms and the winner is the player with the most atoms of their colour on the board.
Simple really, although Hartmann throws in a few surprises to spice things up in the form of action cards that allow players to do things like make more powerful moves.
That’s handy with the festive season upon us. If you’re having trouble picking a present for the geek in your life, you could do worse than download Spin Glasses: The Game. Or better still, buy the actual board game, now available in Germany in German for a very reasonable €14.50 plus postage. Contact email@example.com for details.
It’ll surely trump every other geek game under the Christmas tree. And for that reason, it can only be a matter of time before Spin Glasses: The Gamesweeps the planet in a viral wildfire of board game domination. Rather like a spin glass transition itself.