Initially, 12 cards are dealt face-up into a shared 4×3 layout, like this:

Players simultaneously try to find a *SET:* three cards in which each of the four features of the
card (color, shape of symbols, number of symbols, and shading) have either
all the same value or all different values.

For example, this **is** a *SET*:

All three cards have different **colors**; all have different **symbols**;
all have different **numbers of symbols**; and all have the same **shading**.

This is **not** a *SET*:

All three cards have different** colors**; all are **diamonds**; all have
**one symbol**; however, two have **open** shading and one is filled.

SET is a fun game, whether or not you have kids in middle school math class. (You can buy it here if you want; note it gets 85% 5-star reviews and 96% 4 or 5 stars.)

The rules say
that when a *SET* of three cards is found, the three cards are removed and replaced by
three more from the deck. If at any point there is no *SET* of three cards in the array, then
3 more cards are added. The instruction booklet says that the
odds against there being no *SET* in 12 cards is 33:1, and the odds
against no *SET* in 15 cards is a whopping 2500:1. However, in playing
the game, we were stymied more often than that with 12 cards, and even
once with 15 cards (as shown in this crappy cell-phone-photo):

So one of the following must be happening:

- We were unlucky to get a one-in-2500 array of 15 cards in our first day of playing.
- We didn't recognize a
*SET*that is actually there. - The instruction book is completely wrong.
- The instruction book correctly gives the odds for an initial deal of 12
(or 15) cards, but in the course of playing the game, removing
*SET*s and adding more cards. the odds change.

I hoped that the answer was 4, and I built a simulation to check.
Here are the results—First, when dealing 12 (or
15) cards into a fresh layout and checking whether there is a *SET*, I get:

Size | SETs | NoSETs | SET:NoSET ratio for initial layout -----+--------+--------+---------------- 12 | 96,701 | 3,299 | 29:1 15 | 99,962 | 38 | 2631:1This agrees reasonably well with the ratios stated in the instructions (33:1 and 2500:1). But now if we simulate playing a game, removing

Size | SETs | NoSETs | SET:NoSET ratio for game play -----+--------+--------+---------------- 12 | 86,260 | 5,692 | 15:1 15 | 5,433 | 48 | 113:1 18 | 47 | 0 | inft:1These ratios are quite different. The chances for finding no

Two problems remain. The first is to update the odds in the instruction booklet. I've let the good folks at setgame.com know, and hope they can fix it in the next printing.

But more
interesting
is the problem of *why* the odds change so
dramatically. At first I thought it was because players were picking up
the "good" cards to make *SET*s, leaving the "poor" cards, which are
less likely to make a *SET*. But what makes a card good or poor?
As Gregory
Quenell points out in
this presentation,
each of the 81 cards participates in the same number of *SET*s, 40, and each pair
of cards participates in exactly one *SET*. (That means there is a total of 1080
distinct *SET*s: 81 × 80 × 1 / 3! = 1080.)

So there is no such thing as a "good" card, or a "good" pair
of cards. Instead, I think what is happening is that when the initial 12 cards are dealt, there
might be 0, 1, 2, or more *SET*s in the array. If there was 1, then when you pick up that
*SET* and replace it with three new cards, you only get three chances to form a *SET* with one of the new cards. The
act of picking up a set makes it less likely that a set remains in the array, and the odds of generating a new set are somewhat lower
since you only get 3 shots at it.

I did another experiment
where I tallied the results only for layouts where there are no *SET*s in the initial *n*-3 cards;
I then add 3 cards and see if there is a *SET*. Here's what I found:

Size | SETs | NoSETs | SET:NoSET ratio for initial layout, but no SETs before dealing last 3 cards -----+--------+--------+---------------- 12 | 26,415 | 3,330 | 8:1 15 | 3,294 | 36 | 92:1The results for an array of size 15 is roughly the same as when we play the game normally, which it should be, because in playing the game normally we only go to 15 cards when there is no