Many sites exist for trading objects or services of various kinds—my favorite example is a site for trading right or left shoes. Over on BoardGameGeek, there is a very active community of users who trade board games. The site lets you list games that you are offering and games that you want, and then automatically finds possible matches. Even with this support, however, finding and negotiating individual trades can be tedious. Enter Math Trades, which have been running regularly on BoardGameGeek for several years.
One frequent difficulty with individual trades is that, although you have something I want, I might not have what you want. What if we were able to get a third person involved? Suppose you have what I want, Tina has what you want, and I have what Tina wants. Then we can arrange a three-person swap. SwapTree is a site that will find such three-way and even four-way trades for you automatically.
But why stop there? Why not look for five-way loops, or even hundred-way loops? That's what happens in a Math Trade.
How a math trade works
First, a moderator announces the opening of the trade and lays down trade-specific ground rules. Everybody who is interested in participating lists the items they choose to offer in the trade. At a pre-determined time, the list closes to new entries.
Next, the participants review all the offers and decide which ones they want. For each item you are offering, you create a wantlist that says, in essence, “I would be willing to trade item 57 (my item), for item 22 or item 34 or item 119 or item 576.” Everybody sends their wantlists to the moderator by the announced deadline.
After a brief period for finding and correcting errors, the moderator runs special math trade software to find the most trades possible. The moderator then publishes the results, the participants exchange addresses, and drop their items in the mail.
A lot of trades
Note that the “most trades possible” can be quite a lot. The largest math trade to date involved 2320 items, of which 994 traded. These 994 items were broken into 7 trade loops, including one monstrous loop of 920 items. Just imagine standing in a circle with 919 of your closest friends and everyone handing their game to the person on their right!
(Actually, this trade involved 316 users, many of whom were trading multiple items. So that loop of 920 items wasn't really 920 people.)
Although math trades have been run regularly on BoardGameGeek for almost three years, it is only recently that trades of this size have become possible. About six months ago, I wrote TradeMaximizer, which has become the de facto standard software for math trades. TradeMaximizer improves on previous software by guaranteeing to find the maximum number of trades possible, and by doing so quickly, in under a minute for the large trade above and in just a few seconds for most trades. Previous software ran in hours or days, and even then might not find all the trades possible. I'll describe TradeMaximizer in detail in an upcoming post.
There's nothing specific to games in the idea of math trades or in TradeMaximizer. I know of math trades run for metal CDs (using earlier software) and for geocoins (using TradeMaximizer). If you have run a math trade in another community, or think you might like to, please post a comment here and let us know. Don't be afraid! They're easy to run if you keep it relatively small, and a lot of fun.
Probably the coolest application of math trades is for trading...kidneys!
No, this isn't some urban legend about waking up in an ice-filled bathtub. This is serious, life-or-death stuff.
When somebody needs a kidney transplant, they can often find a family member or friend who is willing to donate one. But what happens if the donor's kidney is biochemically incompatible with the intended recipient? Well, sometimes you can find two such donor-recipient pairs where each donor is compatible with the other recipient. By donating to the other recipient, each donor ensures that their intended recipient gets a compatible kidney. Three-way trades and four-way trades are also possible. Unlike ordinary math trades, however, larger loops are not supported. Oh, you can find the loops, but doctors won't perform the surgeries because the risks of something going wrong (such as somebody backing out at the last minute) are just too great.
A trio at CMU implemented a system that is now being used to find matches in a national list of donors every two weeks by the Alliance for Paired Donation. Their system differs from an ordinary BoardGameGeek-style math trade in two fundamental ways. One is the deliberate limit on the sizes of trade loops (which actually makes the problem harder, not easier). The other is the presence of altruistic donors—donors who give their kidneys to strangers without asking for a kidney for a friend or loved one in return.