I Am Spartax

This blog contains some musings on philosophy, games, and the philosophy of games. Feel free to comment; I'd like to provoke thoughtful discussion.

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On exploring game spaces

Sam Carroll
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Ingulphus wrote:
I find this idea that certain games are beyond the reach of children somewhat perplexing. It's the same with 'Agricola'. What creates this attitude? Is it the idea that there is only one way to play a game, i.e., perfectly, else you aren't really playing it? If it is, then that is nonsense.


Usually I start a blog post with a quote from someone famous, but this was such a perfect introduction to my ramble rant latest blog post that I couldn't resist.

I remember seeing a Youtube video where someone, maybe a low-intermediate-level player, was demonstrating a new online implementation of Go. And all the viewer comments said things like, "Yeah, maybe you should learn to play a little better before you go posting videos, n00b!" Which proves once again that youtube viewer comments are the lowest form of communication on earth, and I'm glad to hang out on the Geek instead. But unfortunately, you find the same sentiment here, although usually expressed with more courtesy.

Frequently in the Mage Knight Board Game forums, I'll see people post a report of their first game, and lots of well-meaning posters will pile on, explaining what was done wrong, telling the poster how to play better, and so on. And this isn't the situation when someone says, "After 10 games, I can't figure out how anyone can possibly beat the cities - please help!" It's just someone saying, "I played my first solo game of Mage Knight and I lost, but it's a cool game."

The same is true of my new obsession, Mage Wars - someone will post a video of a first play, and someone else will very nicely explain how they should both have been much more aggressive, and their opening was all wrong. Now, in their defense, Mage Wars has a different play-pattern than most CCGs or LCGs, and many new players get frustrated because they can't get going. But still - I feel like it's only polite to wait for someone to ask, "How could I do better?" before proffering advice.

It mystifies me. The advice is usually good, but the underlying attitude seems to be that unless you're playing well enough to compete with strong players, you must not be having a good time.

I can't identify with this attitude at all. To me, the most exciting time in a game is when I'm gradually deepening my understanding of the strategies available. I like to call it "exploring the game-space". Playing Puerto Rico or Caylus, I'll hear or read people say, "Don't buy the Large Warehouse (or the Alchemist, or whatever); it stinks." To me, that's a challenge. Can I win with that building? Can I make it an integral part of my strategy? Maybe the experts concur on that point, but that's not important to me. I'd rather lose the game but gain an understanding of why that particular building is or is not good than vice versa.

I remember reading a story here on the Geek of a chess player who specialized in learning odd gambits that weren't theoretically sound. Why? Because at the level of the tournaments he was playing, nobody knew how to counter them. I particularly remember the line, "Let's face it, after you read, 'This opening was authoritatively discredited by Grandmaster So-and-so,' you tend to skip over it and study the Ruy Lopez instead." This player's opponents were like parrots - they could say, "discredited opening", but they didn't understand why! Let me explore the discredited strategies and see if I can make them work; see if my opponents can figure out how to counter them.

So this is my encouragement to let people take their time figuring out games. Maybe they'll come up with something you didn't think could be done! Recently, my wife and I were teaching Brass to another couple and I said, "Don't be afraid to take loans; you pretty much can't play without them." So my wife, just to spite me, played coal-iron, took no loans all game, and finished with a competitive score. (And I was ridiculously proud of her, I might add! That's gaming with some attitude!)

Even if they don't come up with something new, you can let them have the fun of making the connections and having the "Aha!" moments themselves. Then they'll understand the game better, rather than doing something because a more experienced player told them to.

Reiner Knizia wrote:
When playing a game, the goal is to win, but it is the playing that is important, not the winning.
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Sat May 10, 2014 9:30 pm
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On opaque choices

Sam Carroll
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Luke Skywalker wrote:
But with the blast shield down, I can't even see! How can I fight?


For a while, I was planning to do a series of reviews of games I know well, entitled "The Cool Factor." The idea was that each review would focus in on what I found to be the most interesting part of the game. In the case of Caylus, I'd talk about the royal favor tracks. For Power Grid, I'd discuss the plant auctions. Venturing into wargame territory, I could talk about the use of Special Actions in Europe Engulfed or asset chits in the Fast Action Battles Series (FAB). These are the things that I keep thinking about after the game. I play the games solo, to test what might happen if I did this instead.

I still might do those reviews, but what I realized in thinking about them is that one of the things that interests me most in terms of game mechanics is what I will call opaque choices. An opaque choice has no obvious best option. The value of the alternatives should vary with several other factors. This means that the choice will be different in each play of the game. While luck and hidden information may play into this to a degree (for example, which airlines are best to push in Airlines Europe depends on which stock cards others are holding and which stock cards come up), I'd rather have those factors be less important.

The best example I can think of is Paths of Glory. Your central choice each turn is twofold: what card to play, and how to play it (event, operations, reinforcement points, or strategic redeployment.)

Paths is notable for stacking a lot on you. Each turn, you'll have a whole bunch of urgent stuff weighing on you, such as:

I've got a good opportunity for a flank attack against the Austro-Hungarians in Galicia. (OPs)
There's a frontline space in France that I really need to entrench. (OPs)
My Italians are getting smacked around, so I need to strengthen them with some British corps. (SR)
There's a bunch of guys in the deadpile, so I should play a big card or two for reinforcements. (RPs)
If I play for RPs, the British ones will be wasted, so maybe I should make an attack with the Brits. (OPs)
I should probably bring in the Russian 11th Army to help hold the Russian right against the Germans. (Event)
And there are some Russian armies well behind the front that need to be marched foward. (OPs)
I'd also like to bring in the Russian Caucasus Army to open a front against the Turks. (Event)
The French are almost out of reserves, so maybe I should pull some corps off the map. (SR)
I've got a nifty Combat Card that I'd like to use in an attack. (OPs)

Now, some of these, such as the two Russian Reinforcements, are mutually exclusive. (Only one reinforcement card per nation per turn.) There are other restrictions, such as being unable to play two SR cards in a row; these will play into your choice.

This is before taking into account some deck considerations:
I should raise my War Status level to try to get up to Total War.
I should play this crummy 2-OPs event that I don't need in order to increase my deck's average OPs value on the reshuffle.

That's a lot of stuff to consider, far more than can be accomplished in a single turn. Any of those things are good to do, but some are more important than others, and it takes experience and strategic insight to know which is which in a particular board situation. And hanging over you always is the stomach-churning threat of getting an army group cut off.

Now, in PoG, all the things you want to do will improve your position in some way, whether offensively or defensively, tactically or strategically. Some games engage your attention with the choice between negatives. For example, Twilight Struggle is liable to make the US player's head explode when he has one play left on turn two and is holding Destalinization and Decolonization.

A recent game with very opaque choices is The Manhattan Project. There's a lot going on there. It's difficult to evaluate various actions, but some are clearly better than others in differing circumstances. Following is an excerpt from a gameplay review I just posted:

Quote:
What kind of efficiency do you need? There are many resources to consider. For example, there is a reactor that needs just one yellowcake to produce one plutonium; another uses eight cake to produce four plutonium. The first obviously makes the most efficient use of your yellowcake, but yellowcake is not as likely to be a limiting factor for you; you can use the mines on the main board or buy new mines to produce more cake. The larger reactor is four times as efficient in terms of turns, which are limited. You might produce more money or yellowcake than another player, but you will have the same number of turns as every other player, plus or minus one.

Another factor to consider, though, is that the large reactor needs three scientists to run, where the smaller one only uses one. This will prevent you from using the large reactor until you hire enough scientists. It will also make matters difficult later on, when you're actually building bombs, since most plutonium bombs need at least two scientists to build them. Yet another factor is that the large reactor is likely to be a target for enemy airstrikes, and it's expensive to repair buildings.


During this section, I don't even go into the question of espionage, which can throw a sizable wrench into your calculations. Anyway, my point is that the comparative value of the two reactors depends on numerous other factors beyond just their stats: your (and others) supplies of yellowcake and scientists, the various players' espionage levels, the balance of air power, and the bomb designs in everyone's hands. The latter is hidden information; what bombs are out is trackable, but whose hands they are in is not. There's also the question of what new buildings will come up soon, which is unknown and chance-dependent. Of course, the attitudes and play-styles of the other players bear thinking about as well.

This is the kind of decision-making I relish. There are approximately sixty-'leven factors to consider, many of which bear on each other as well. Chance and hidden information are present, but not crucially important.
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Mon Apr 2, 2012 11:53 pm
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On unbalanced choices

Sam Carroll
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Quote:
Lucy: Hey, manager! You should read this book. It's called Winning and Ten Other Choices.

Charlie Brown: What are the ten other choices?

Lucy: Tying, losing, losing, losing, losing, losing, losing, losing, losing, and losing.


Recently, I was browsing through the strategy articles for Race For the Galaxy, and I came an interesting thought by Alexfrog regarding the Research Labs card (near the bottom of the second page of the thread):

alexfrog wrote:
I believe that time will show Research Labs to be the University of this game, overpriced and useful only for its point value, near the end of the game.

I dont think thats a bad thing, I think games like this SHOULD have a few bad buildings that 'look good', that are a skill test. Some people are always going to defend them. Some people take pleasure in trying to make a building work that others say is bad. (How many people just wanted University to be good and kept trying to make it work). I know that in a game I'm working on developing (Homesteaders), I have a couple buildings that I know are bad, but that look good and some people really love buying them. I think Puerto Rico is a better game with University and Hospice in the game than it would be without, just because there is some learning required to see that they are bad.


This is an interesting perspective to me. Now, first of all, RftG has a large deck of cards, so having one or two cards that aren't great is not a big deal, particularly since cards are much more frequently used as money than actually built/settled/conquered. In the case of the University (in Puerto Rico), it's one of 24 purple buildings, so it has a larger impact.

My first question: is there any situation in which you would build the University for its ability rather than just for points? I think there might be, but it would be a remarkably unlikely situation: for example, if you have enough doubloons to build the University but not a large building, BUT you plan to take the Trader and sell coffee with small and large markets, getting 8 doubloons, which with your two quarries, will enable you to build the large building of your choice next turn. You also expect to see Mayor get chosen first next round because there are two doubloons on it, so you can man your University, and then you can use it to man your large building when you build it to end the game - and thus collect a shovelful of points.

How likely is that? Not very.

My second question: How long does it typically take to figure out that a particular building is bad? I know the serious RftG players count their plays by the thousand, and those who play Puerto Rico on BSW log many many plays. When does the realization creep into your consciousness that the University never needs to get built? Is it early, as you're formulating your first heavy-shipping strategy? Does it take 20 or 30 games? Is it into the hundreds?

As an extreme case, consider Power Grid, where one of the eight preset starting plants is just flat-out horrible. I've seen people buy #6 on their very first play, but (other than maybe on the Italy map) never after that. It just hangs out until someone builds their sixth city, then gets discarded. This doesn't even take much learning to find worthless, unlike the University or the Research Labs.

On the other hand are the rest of the plants. Some are stronger than others, but any plant after the starting setup could be the best available option for a particular player at a particular time. This is because the plants come up at random, unlike the buildings in Puerto Rico, which are always available until purchased. Race for the Galaxy is somewhere in the middle, since the cards are drawn randomly, but you see an awful lot of them. Even if Research Labs really is your best option now, you can take Explore+5 next turn and find something better.

An anti-example is Caylus, which has no really bad buildings. Some, notably the stone farms and the market, are particularly good, while others, like the bank or the alchemist, are only good for certain situations and players. But on the other hand, if you build the bank, it's probably because you're swimming in cash (maybe you're well along the money favor track.) This means that there's a building on the board that is good for you but probably NOT terribly useful for any of your opponents. This gives you tactical flexibility.

My own preference is against having truly bad "buildings" (or whatever). I feel like it sacrifices long-term playability in favor of short-term. While you're getting a handle on the strategy, you wonder about the University. Eventually, though, you decide that it's not ever worth it and it never again figures in your calculations. This reduces the difficulty and interest of your choices once you're at an advanced level. (Of course, the example of Puerto Rico shows that it might still be very deep.) However, I think many Euros' learning curves peak too soon anyway, hence I dislike when games include bad buildings.

What do you think? In what games have you found there to be really bad choices? Can you defend their inclusion?
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Sat Mar 10, 2012 9:07 pm
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On combinations

Sam Carroll
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The Power of One wrote:
Hoppie: That was an eight-punch combination! Where did you learn to box like that?
PK: In prison, sir.
Hoppie: Are you training to be a boxer or a comedian?


I'm fascinated by combinations. Growing up, I played a fair amount of Street Fighter 2 and its successor games. In this genre, a combination is a series of attacks such that if the first one hits your opponent, he cannot evade any of the rest, if the combo is performed correctly. I personally think the combo system reached its zenith in Street Fighter Alpha 3, for a few reasons:
A) The combos are at a good difficulty level. A few (the weakest) are easy enough that anyone can do them, while stronger ones are hard. For example, I've played Guy (my favorite) for a long time, but I can't consistently bang out his toughest combos. I maybe get them every other time I try.
B) Unlike previous Street Fighter games, there's a robust juggling system that allows you to tack on an extra hit or two, but not tons of hits.
C) Certain characters (like Guy) are combo-intensive, while others (such as Adon) are not at all. They still maintain a pretty good balance between the various types, since the combo types have a steep learning curve. Guy can be deadly if you're very good, but if you try to use him while button-mashing or alternating a few cheap moves, you will do badly.
D) Unlike the Vs. games, there are no infinites or even near-infinite combos. The nastiest combos I know of might take off 65% of your life, but they require a full super bar and are very difficult to land and perform.
E) Attempting a combo is risky. You can jump in and follow with your "safe" attack, which won't do much damage but won't leave you open if it's blocked. Or you can try for a combo, which will do a number on your opponent, but if it's blocked you can expect a super fireball in the face.

The board game that is perhaps best known for combos is Chess. What chess player does not rejoice in a brilliant combination? The characteristics of chess combos that interest me are:
A) They are risky. Most interesting combos involve sacrifices. If you make a mistake in your combo, you won't discover it until after the queen sacrifice, and at that point, you're sunk.
B) They are like video game combos in that they must be done exactly right, but unlike in that each one is unique. A chess combo must be tailored to its precise situation.
C) Playing chess, players take turns moving one piece each. Thus a combination needs to have only one or maybe two reasonable responses to each move in order to be doable. For this reason, many combinations include checking the king, which requires action from one's opponent.
D) For a combination to be effective, it usually needs the element of surprise. If your opponent sees the combo before it starts, he can probably disrupt it.
E) While combos are a tactical phenomenon, good strategic play can set them up. For example, fianchettoing your queen's bishop now might later contribute to a strong king-side attack.

What other board games have strong combos?
While both of the games we've discussed are perfect-information, it seems like board game combos frequently flourish in games with action cards of some sort; since frequently the cards can be played all in a row and their interaction may produce extreme results unforeseeable by your opponents.

One basic example comes from Risk 2210 A.D.. This game has Nuclear command cards, which are generally expensive to play but powerful, though sometimes random. The most expensive card in the game is called Armegeddon. This allows all players, in turn order, to play as many nuclear cards as they want, for free. (Much chaos ensues). Another, much cheaper, card is called Frequency Jam, and prevents a specified opponent from playing any cards during your turn. It's usually used to protect against possible surprises like Cease Fire or Orbital Mines, but if you play this on the winning player and then play Armegeddon, that player will be winning no more. Everyone else gets to throw nukes, but not him!

Likewise, one of my finest gaming moments occurred in a game of Twilight Imperium (Third Edition). While my friends refer to this incident as, "Sam playing the I WIN card," it was actually a combination of at least four cards. The game had gone on for a while, and I was at 8 points while my opponents were slightly behind me, but they had beat down my board position a little and formed alliances against me. I expected to lose badly in the next couple of turns. However, I had the Political strategy card and I noticed that the way the turn had gone, I had more influence left than anyone else. I played an action card that let me search the action card deck for another card. I chose one that let me search the Political deck for a new agenda and put that up for debate when I executed the Political strategy. The agenda I chose was a vote on whether or not to lower the winning threshold to 8 VP. I think I may also have had an action card that let me prevent another player from voting or something like that, but the upshot is that I got the law passed and thus won a completely unexpected victory.

Here I Stand and Twilight Struggle are somewhat susceptible to combos, as I think are many CDGs. Traditional wargames or block wargames, are usually not, since a single move usually makes a comparatively small change in the game-state. A player might make a strong thrust in an unexpected sector, but it isn't a combo in the classic sense.

I also haven't run across many combos in Euros. I recall that there was a combo discussed (and deplored) on the Caylus boards, where a player with his marker advanced on the building favor track could build the church using the mason, use the favor gained from the church to build over the church with a residence, and do it all over again next turn. However, this is not terribly powerful (yielding 5 VP/turn at a cost of one stone, two cloth, and one denier), and in any case it's fairly easy to disrupt.

On the other hand, Blue Moon and Blue Moon City, where each card has a special ability, are more susceptible to combos. But for some reason they don't feel like chess combos to me. Maybe it's because they're expected by all players. If a player isn't chaining cards together, he is probably losing.

What do you all think? What board games give strong opportunities for combos? What are the best combos you've encountered?

As a bonus for those who read this far, starting around 1:30 there's a nice combo in this video:
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Fri Feb 10, 2012 6:44 pm
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On house rules

Sam Carroll
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I recently posted in a geeklist about game-related annoyances, saying that I don't like it when people try to house-rule a game after the first play. That got me thinking about the topic of house rules, so I thought I'd post a reflection here.

Consider the following situation: First play of a new game. One player spends the whole game trying an extreme strategy. Said player gets smacked down and finishes last. Said player then complains that the game doesn't work and needs a house rule or rules to make the zombie-tribble strategy work better.

When is it appropriate to create house rules?

I think making house-rules after only a little bit of play (one or two plays for a long game, a few plays for a short game) is disrespectful to the designer and playtesters. You really ought to give the game as published a bit more of a chance.

I make an exception for obvious typos. One example from a few decades ago: as a child, I was playing a friend's copy of Boggle, or maybe it was Boggle Jr. Anyway, the rules said that a word only counted if someone else got it. If you played that way, both players would always end with the exact same score, so the actual playing of the game would not matter for the scoring. We decided this was an error, and that a word should only count if no one else got it.

So my answer is: wait until you've played enough to have a solid understanding of the game. What that entails depends on the game, and is ultimately a question for your own judgement. One guideline is that you should certainly be thinking about tactical and strategic considerations rather than what you can and can't do according to the rules.

What kinds of games are susceptible to house rules?
In general, the higher the luck aspect, the less impact house rules will have, so the less careful you have to be with them. The impact of a house rule in Fortress America (+1 to defenders in Seattle, because they're hyped up on espresso drinks, for example) will not be that great. However, try changing one of the buildings in Caylus and you risk breaking the game.

This means that Ameritrash games and wargames tend to be particularly susceptible to house rules, Euros somewhat less so, and abstracts hardly at all.

What kinds of house rules work best?
To quote E. B. White, "Prefer the specific to the general." There was a discussion in the Asia Engulfed forums a while back about a very specific situation. Since there's a special rule that the Allies cannot enter the Sea of Japan, this guy and his opponent had taken to massing the Japanese fleet in these ports, so that they were immune to Allied air-attack. All of their games were coming down to this tactic, and they were getting tired of it, so they were going to stop playing Asia Engulfed. This seemed to me a great opportunity for a house rule, along the lines of: the Sea of Japan may not be entered by Allied fleets, but the Allies may conduct port/airbase attacks on the adjacent ports, using their land-based aircraft. Now as it turned out, the designer posted that air units are not affected by the no-entry rule, so it was moot.

But the point is that the rule applies only to a very specific situation, to combat a very specific tactic. It will have no repercussions in the rest of the game. House rules like this will not change the feeling of a particular game; the Agricolicity of Agricola, if you will.

I also think that house rules should not favor extreme strategies; if anything, they should combat them, for the same reason.

What do you think? Feel free to post stories of successful or unsuccessful house rules!
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Fri Feb 3, 2012 9:13 pm
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On Strategy and Tactics

Sam Carroll
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Spoiler (click to reveal)
No, grognards, this is not about a magazine.

(perhaps) Sun Tzu wrote:
Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.


I'm not a serious chess player, but I read chess books from time to time. In Capablanca's A Primer of Chess, he mentions that there are thousands of good books about the openings and many more on the endgames, but hardly any good books on the midgame, which is the heart of the game. There are a couple of possible reasons for this: one is that the board has a truly ridiculous number of possible states in the midgame. Another is that a minor change in the board position (a pawn being one square forward or back) could have a profound impact on the strength of one's position. This makes midgame positions and moves difficult to evaluate.

Then a few years ago, I picked up Max Euwe's book "Judgement and planning in chess," which I recommend as a mid-game book. As one Amazon reviewer said, it "does not advocate any sort of 'thinking method' aside from the old fashioned one of examining the position for salient strategic features (such as those shown in the book) and playing accordingly." But at that, it excels.

The book examines several strategic advantages (for example, queen-side pawn majority) in depth, discussing how to gain each advantage and how to capitalize on it. I find this a fascinating read, but the trouble is, I'm not good enough for it. I don't play or practice chess consistently enough that I can avoid egregious tactical mistakes, nor do my opponents. Thus when I play chess, the winner is the one who blunders less.

I suspect that Sun Tzu's dictum is correct in chess, but only given a fair level of skill from both players. If I had the most amazing strategic insight ever to grace the chessboard, I would still lose to any decent tournament-level player because of my tactical failings.* However, if both players can play at least competent tactics, then victory will go to the better strategist.

Let's look at a few other games in various genres. Please note that I do not intend to make a judgement of a game's worth when I consider its tactical or strategic leaning. You will probably be able to tell that I enjoy strategic thinking more, but that's just my personal preference.

Let's look into heavy Euros. I'll consider a few that I know fairly well: first Puerto Rico. Each turn, the major decision you have to make is which role to select; there are at most 7 options, perhaps as few as three, depending on where you are in the turn order. However, that decision is often difficult, with two or more strong options in the running. As each role is resolved, a player may have some decisions to make, but those are frequently no-brainers (“Hmm, should I sell corn for 0 or coffee for 4?”). This is not always the case; the Builder role in particular has very significant decisions for all players, but for the most part, the interesting decisions are in the role selection.

The role selection decisions are heavily tactical in nature. No matter what role you take, the same roles will be available next turn. And the role you choose is probably going to be influenced more by the immediate board situation than by your long-term plans. Have you never seen someone take the Captain just to screw the person who just produced coffee? It seems to me that the strategic decisions in Puerto Rico are the subsidiary decisions; what plantation do I want this time, or which building should I build? Such decisions are permanent, nor are the same options guaranteed to be there next turn.

Considering another popular Euro, Caylus, we find a similar decision tree. The core mechanic of the game is worker placement. Each time, you have the option to place up to six workers before passing. At the start of the first turn, there are 14 options available to the first worker (six special buildings, six pink buildings, the castle, and passing). As workers get placed, the available buildings will diminish until everyone passes. Next turn, all the buildings will once again be available, probably with at least one more option (a brown building.) As the game goes on, the buildings available for placement will tend to increase, but building residences will counteract that.

So each round of worker placement is ONE decision with maybe ten options on average. The chaos of the game generally inhibits planning multiple placements (other than in two-player Caylus), since other players will place their workers before you can place your next one. You just take your first choice now, hoping that the second choice will still be available next round. Very tactical decision-making. The strategic decisions are mostly related to what buildings to build and what favors to take.

The latter is particularly interesting to me, since taking a favor on, say, the money track increases the value of future favors on that track. Since the number of future favors you will earn and how many of those favors you will take on the money track are both unknowns, it is difficult to decide what which of the four tracks you will take the favor on. Consider the building track. Taking that for your first favor is clearly an inferior decision in the short run, since it gives you nothing at all. 3 deniers, a food cube, or even one VP are all better. However, in the long run, the building track is perhaps the strongest track to be pursuing. Contrariwise, the money track is frequently the most helpful in the short term (i.e. for your next turn), but less strong in the big picture.

Note on buildings: I believe that Caylus is nearly unique among worker-placement games in that players create new buildings that A) can be played upon by other players in future turns and B) will stay on the board permanently. Thus, when considering which building to build at the carpenter, one must consider the big picture, not just the next turn. Most other worker-placement games do not have this strategic decision.

Common to both of these Euros is that the central mechanic of the game encourages tactical thinking, while strategy is found more in subsidiary decisions.

A counter-example is Power Grid. The central mechanism and decision of PG is the plant auctions. Which plant (if any) do I want, and how much am I willing to pay for it? This is a decision with permanent consequences, since if you lose the bidding for the plant you want, it will not come back. Also, any plant after the first few represents a substantial investment of capital. If you buy a coal plant now because you have a surplus of coal this turn, you may well regret it in two turns when the price of coal has jumped way up. The tactical decisions of Power Grid are in the resource market and, to some degree, building on the map.

However, Power Grid is one of the few Euros I know that leans more toward the strategic side. (Maybe that's why I like it!) Most Euros lean at least a bit toward the tactical side. Dos Rios, which is more or less an action-point-allowance game, is almost entirely tactical. Which river is about to flood? What enemy meeples can I displace? The damming could be considered strategic, but your opponent will probably find a way to counter-dam on his turn.

Let’s now turn to a classic hex-and-counter wargame: Panzergruppe Guderian. Each turn, each player has the option to move any or all of his units (generally at least 50) and each unit may move at least six hexes. So a Soviet infantry unit in open ground could move to any of roughly 100 hexes in a given turn. If you work out all possible routes, there are over 45,000 for each unit. And that’s for the slowest movers! Clearly, working out whether to move to this hex or the next one over is impossible unless you have a larger goal in mind, such as, for example, that the units of this corps are going to encircle Smolensk roughly two turns from now. Once you have reached that decision, the smaller decisions implementing it (which unit ends up in which hex) are less important. However, when planning a battle, the details of which units attack which enemies can be crucial. So there is a need for tactical planning here, but in general, longer-term planning is more important.

Considering a more modern wargame I know well, I find the same thing. For FAB: The Bulge I wrote an essay on artillery usage which is nearly as long as the one you are reading now. The question being considered is, “For a given round of combat, should I commit 0, 1, 2, or 3 artillery assets?” So there are four options, fewer if you don’t have that much artillery available. However, in writing the essay, I made two interesting discoveries. First, that the decision is rarely simple. There are many possible cases, overlapping and interlocking. When attacking, your artillery will first destroy enemy field works if present, then disrupt the enemy forces if they are not already disrupted, and only then actually start killing guys. Already we have four possible cases (field works present or not, enemy disrupted or not) before even going into the probable composition of the enemy force. My second discovery was that this decision is not that important. In my estimation, someone who assigns artillery in the most efficient way possible versus someone who assigns it intuitively (e.g. this combat is important, so I’ll throw in another artillery) might thereby gain one VP over the course of a game. In this case, tactics without strategy is indeed the noise before defeat.

How about Ameritrash Thematic Games? Well, I'm not as familiar with this genre, but I suspect that decisions in these kinds of games are similar to those in wargames, where there are many small decisions adding up to larger decisions, as in my Panzergruppe Guderian example. However, in most multiplayer Thematic Games, it seems that the most important skill is Diplomacy.

I can't speak about abstracts other than Chess and Go, since I haven't played any (unless you count Hey, That's My Fish!, which is so short it mocks the idea of long-term planning). And I have only played a very little bit of Go, so I'm not comfortable saying anything about it.

*Actually, if I had that kind of insight, I'd play a lot more chess and probably get much better at tactics. But that's beside the point.
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Tue Jan 31, 2012 11:42 pm
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On categorization

Sam Carroll
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Today, a new user of BGG asked what a Eurogame was. He got some helpful responses, including a link to the BGG wiki. One user offered concise definitions of the major game categories on the Geek, and another responded to that with the following:
Quote:
settlers of catan, High luck, lots of dice rolling, little conflict= Eurogame. The catagory is meaningless.


Now, leaving aside the question of whether this is helpful to the new user who probably isn't interested in a discussion on categorization, let's consider whether his charges are true.

My previous blog post, long enough ago that I don't expect anyone remembers it, offered a definition for "wargames" as "games intended to simulate a specific military conflict: historical, hypothetical, or fictional." It generated some discussion, much of which centered on borderline cases. "Well, would you call it a wargame if such-and-such?" And the unspoken assumption was that if there are cases that don't fit neatly into your categories, then your categories don't work.

Now, I disagree with this assumption. Reality doesn't generally fall into neat categories. For example, the three classic states of matter (solid, liquid, and gas) don't cover all cases: glass has some unusual characteristics, liquid crystals are odd, etc. However, the vast majority of matter we interact with falls into one of the three classical states, so those three categories are generally useful. If this was not true, we'd need to come up with new categories.

It's OK for there to be a continuum. Wargameness is not digital but analog. If a game group advertises as, "We Play Wargames!" you could bring The Russian Campaign (definitely a wargame) and have a reasonable expectation of getting it played. You might also try A Few Acres of Snow (kind of maybe a wargame), but the people in this group might or might not want to play it. If you bring Agricola (definitely not a wargame), don't be surprised if it gets ignored.

So, going back to Settlers, we find that it has most of the characteristics of the Eurogame: relatively short play-time, wooden bits, clever mechanisms, no player elimination, little theme, indirect player conflict, etc. It could not be called low-luck, but that's only one characteristic. Maybe that moves it a small distance away from the center of the Euro chart, but everyone I know still agrees that it's a Euro. Nor do I think that because it doesn't have exactly the same set of characteristics as every other Euro, the category "Eurogame" is useless.

Was Beethoven a classical or a romantic composer? Yes.
Spoiler (click to reveal)
For the record, I think he was more classical than the tradition tells us, largely because the performance practice of his music is heavily shaped by conductors steeped in the Romantic aesthetic. The metronome markings in his music have usually been ignored, because they are "clearly too fast. His metronome must not have been working right!" Many current scholars and conductors, however, are thinking that Beethoven actually meant for much of his music to be fast, and that's why he wrote fast metronome markings. But there's no denying that he's a transitional figure.
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Sat Jan 28, 2012 6:14 pm
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On definitions and wargames

Sam Carroll
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One question that’s been beaten to death in the wargaming forum is “What is a wargame?” Since I enjoy the repetition, I thought I’d write a little bit on the topic of definitions, using examples from music and gaming.

“That’s not music; that’s just noise!” I’ve heard that comment about various types of music from various people, but for the moment, let’s pick on heavy metal, though I could use avant-garde jazz or twelve-tone art music just as easily. The metal fans reading this will probably remember an incident when they tried to introduce their favorite band to someone new to the genre and heard a similar comment. (For the record, I have nothing against metal. While it’s not a genre I love, I’ll listen occasionally and I appreciate the skill of many metal musicians.)

The statement, “That’s not music,” is generally hard to defend. If someone else thinks it’s music, it probably is, unless the other person just doesn’t understand the word “music”. (For example: “Is that music?” “No, dear, that’s actually a poached egg.”) You’ll have a hard time making a workable, useful definition of music that includes all the music you like to listen to while excluding metal. I mean, what are you going to say? “Music is . . . [blah blah blah] . . . as long as it doesn’t include overdriven electric guitars and blast-beats”? It’s “everything sharing these characteristics except for heavy metal”? You’d do much better to say, “I don’t enjoy that music,” (unquestionable, since it’s a matter of personal taste) or maybe “That’s not good music,” (eminently debatable).

The statement taken literally is not a value judgement, but it is frequently used as such. “That’s not music,” as used by most people, means “That is artistically worthless.” The funny thing is you’ll hear genre enthusiasts say the same thing. “I listen to metal.” “Yeah, me too, I like [insert band].” “Oh, they’re not really metal.” Usually, the band in question is at least somewhere close to being a metal band, but the first speaker doesn’t like that band, so instead of saying, “They’re no good,” or “I don’t like them,” he dismisses them by saying, “They’re not metal.” In this way he is also asserting his superior fanhood, because TRUE fans don’t like those johnny-come-lately bands that outsiders have actually heard of.

Now, such a statement is somewhat more likely to be true of a specific genre, partly because the genre might not be broadly known. “I like to listen to mathcore.” “So is that like Taylor Swift?” “No, not at all. That’s not mathcore.” Here, it’s not a value judgement, but a statement of fact; Taylor Swift has nothing to do with mathcore. Notice, though, that it’s far more common to find music that crosses genre lines than it is something that may or may not be music, though John Cage’s silent piece is an example.

It’s my belief that the best broad definitions focus on the final cause, in Aristotle’s terminology. So, for example, a seat can be defined as something meant for sitting on. Within that, you could differentiate between chairs, stools, couches, etc. according to their formal cause (a stool has no back; a chair does, etc.) Similarly, a definition of music would include the idea that it’s intended to be listened to, with genre descriptions being according to their characteristics: commonly used instruments (if it includes an accordion, it’s probably not combo jazz); harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic characteristics; and so on.

A wargame, by my definition, is a game that simulates a military conflict or conflicts. Said conflicts may be historical (the most common), hypothetical (Nato: The Next War in Europe), or fictional (Starship Troopers).

Thus there are three qualifications a candidate must meet to be considered a wargame. 1) Game, 2) simulation, 3) of specific military conflict(s). Note also that each of these qualifications can be considered a sliding scale, where some candidates fulfill it unquestionably, some candidates are clearly excluded, but some are in between. Following are some examples of “in-betweeners.”
1) Game: this is the least common failing. However, if we say that part of the definition is “intended to be played,” we might say that Campaign for North Africa falls short in this aspect. It probably could be played; in fact, I’ve heard rumors of groups that have played it, but it’s exceedingly rare.
2) Simulation: this one is the hardest to agree on, with the largest gray area. Axis&Allies is clearly World-War-II-themed, but not much of a simulation. Memoir ’44 might score a little higher, Tide of Iron better yet, and so on. One should consider the designer’s attitude and approach as well as the game’s success as simulation.
3) Of Specific Military Conflict(s): Risk falls down here, since it simulates a generic military conflict, not a specific one. Here I Stand is a borderline case, since it does simulate military conflicts, but also political, diplomatic, and religious conflicts. The Napoleonic Wars, which is a close relative of Here I Stand, is more military in focus.

A particularly interesting case to me is Twilight Struggle, which is a frequently debated topic. It is clearly a game, and generally considered a good one (going by BGG rating). Is it a simulation? Well, the designer’s notes indicate that it’s not intended to be a perfect simulation, but I’d say it’s at least at minimal simulation-level; YMMV. Qualification #3, I think, is where it fails. The game includes military conflicts (very much abstracted), but the overall conflict being simulated is more of a political conflict than a military one.

Note that this is not a judgement of TS as a game; it’s actually one of my favorites. I just don’t think it’s quite a wargame, even though it shares a mechanism commonly associated with wargames (the card-driven-game technique.)

You could also take a different approach and try to evaluate the quality of a wargame based on its quality in each of the three areas: is it a fun game to play, does it produce believable results, and is it on an interesting topic?

A last thought: Wargames at the strategic or grand-strategic level are almost always going to include some political, economic, or diplomatic considerations. (They wouldn't be good simulations if they didn't.) I think it's worth considering which elements are there to support which. Is the main focus of the game military, with the diplomatic rules there to help keep the game within the realm of possibility? Or is it a political game with some military aspects?
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Tue Nov 22, 2011 5:44 pm
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