Too Busy For Words - the PaulWay Blog

Mon 18th Apr, 2011

Unexpectedly finding oneself playing 'Mao'

One of my favourite games, when I get to play it, is ' Bartok' - a Nomic-like card game where you start with an initial set of rules (similar to the popular card game 'Uno') and each time someone wins they get to add a new rule and another round is played. After a number of rounds, remembering what rules are in play, and what you have to do to obey them at any one time, can be an interesting challenge. I usually don't play with the question rule ("asking any question is illegal") because it makes the game a silent, tense affair.

Next up the scale, then, is "Mao", where one person decides a secret set of rules that no-one else knows. Players try playing and are told whether their play is allowed or not, and they have to try and work out the rules. Of course, not telling the other people what you've worked out is a standard way of getting ahead in the game. I like Mao less than I like the question rule, because it's all about trying to work out everything in your head and saying anything is a distraction. And, as the name implies, throwing in one or two nonsensical or counter-intuitive rules (e.g. "it is illegal for someone to play a jack and not immediately play another legal card") is just part of the fun.

So I was somewhat disturbed to realise, in trying to book international flights recently, that I was in the middle of a game of Mao without realising it. Airlines have an extremely complex, ever changing, and sometimes completely bizarre rules about what flights are offered and how much they cost. Then each of the many flight searchers - Zuji, Skyscanner, Expedia, Lastminute, etc - has their own way of combining these options. Seemingly sensible outward journeys will be combined with ludicrously long returns; prices will suddenly seem to jump up for no given reason, and route options you'd think were right there - indeed, that you can easily prove exist with other queries - are ignored.

The nonsensical rules I've discovered so far are:

And then there's the misinformation:

This is not to say that these are the only deficiencies. Most sites make it difficult to order the flights other than by obvious methods (e.g. price). All provide no way (that I've seen) to exclude certain airlines or airports, or set cost or time ranges. Excluding options listed on the fly would also be an invaluable feature. I'd love to see a site that allowed you to select a range of seat pitch and width options. It's sad to say that the regular things that would make these sites a pleasure to use - quick load times, low image count, reduced advertising, simple and readable layout, presenting all useful flight information when requested, being able to compare different options easily, being presented with useful alternative information, being able to print or select options for email easily, and search forms that are easy to fill out from the keyboard alone and change on the fly - are almost forgotten in the frustrations of these sites.

The site that I have to give most credit to - including a link - is Skyscanner. It has a good range of flight options and sort options - total travel time and departure time are very useful, for example. And then tonight, after I'd near given up in despair, I found the options on the left-hand side that I'd ignored, which allowed you to set a maximum journey time, remove airlines, and (most importantly) choose an outgoing and return flight in separate lists. If only I'd spotted that yesterday!

They still need flight details expanding on the page, the ability to limit flight selection by price, and to realise that for some routes - e.g. CBR to just about anywhere - you're going to have to pull together a couple of separate flight options rather than only go with carriers who fly the whole distance or with code-shares.

And still, I had more success with a travel agent - in fifteen minutes she could find all the options, try every possible combination out, eliminate the obvious wrong ones, and present me with a simple list of the best options available - including a 'Y' journey where we go to one destination and return from another nearby. And at a competitive rate, too.

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