Thematic Solitaires for the Spare Time Challenged

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Math or Might? Do you crunch games with math or do you play the theme?

Morten Monrad Pedersen
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Microbadge: Fan of Stonemaier GamesMicrobadge: 1 Player Guild - Together We Game AloneMicrobadge: 'When playing a game, the goal is to win, but it is the goal that is important, not the winning' - Dr. Reiner KniziaMicrobadge: Level 17 BGG posterMicrobadge: Automa Factory fan
Fair warning: I’ll be a very black’n’white in this post . I know that anything involving humans is rarely black’n’white, but I’ll ignore that and intentionally jump right into the fallacy of the excluded middle with eyes wide open .

Warning aside, we’ll go on to tonight’s main event. In the red corner, we have the thematic gamers, who get into the game world and play as if they were actually there and in the blue corner we have the math’ers who dispassionately dissects a game and beat it up using its own mechanics.

Introducing: A pretty black’n’white case study

I actually do have an example that I find to be fairly black’n’white. It comes from a discussion I participated in about the game We Must Tell the Emperor.

In that discussion, I was talking about an option in the game, that I felt didn’t make sense to go for players to go for.

Board Game: We Must Tell the Emperor

We Must Tell the Emperor. Image credit: Ron A.

Let’s take a slight step back and first talk about the game. We Must Tell the Emperor (WMTtE from now on) is a States of Siege tower defense game where you control Japan in WW2 from the time of the Pearl Harbor attack to the their surrender.

As normal for these games, you win if you survive till the end of an event deck. From a pure win/lose criteria it doesn’t matter whether your empire has been reduced to a smoking crater and it doesn’t matter whether you would have lost if the game had gone on for just one more turn. As an alternative, the game also has an option of winning a military victory by beating your enemies out of the map and thus winning in glory.

Playing the game as a randomized optimization puzzle vs. playing the game as a simulation

I argued that it made no sense to go for the military victory, because the win rate of that strategy appeared to be much lower than the hang-on-by-the-skin-of-your-nails approach, I advocated, and if you hadn’t succeeded with the military strategy around the middle of the game, you would have badly hurt your chances of pulling off the skin-or-your-nails win.

On the other hand, the thematic gamers argued that thematically I sacrificed everything to hang on and ended up with a smoking crater that would been conquered if the game had gone on for that extra turn, while they played to win the war, that is win in the situation simulated by the game.

Their argument was based on the real-life situation, the Japanese in WW2 (played by you) had struck a hard, preemptive blow against the US, who they perceived to be a very powerful future enemy, and they started out believing they could win the war. In this situation Japan would never start out aiming to end up as a smoking crater doomed to being conquered, but that was exactly what I did in the game.

Instead, Japan of course aimed for winning the war and so, it was argued, should the player. I definitely understand that point of view and for a long time, I was playing Dawn of the Zeds from a thematic point of view and it increased my enjoyment of the game.

This difference of opinion about WMTtE hopefully shows the difference between thematic and mathematical approaches clearly.

More WW2 math

Another game in the States of Siege series bears a lot of similarities to WMTtE (they’re also by the same designer). I’m talking about Malta Besieged, where you switch sides and play as the allies in WW2. In this game the differences in win rates between mathy and thematic gamers seems to be rather extreme. Where WMTtE still was a challenge (I won 3 out of 9 plays), Malta Besieged seems to be more pliable for dispassionate disection and I won 3 out of 3 games – which, admittedly, is a very low sample size.

Board Game: Malta Besieged: 1940-1942

Malta Besieged. Image credit: Ron A.

From reading the Malta Besieged forums here on BGG, it seems like players are losing quite a bit more than they win, while my win rate, as mentioned above, was 100% with the last game being what the rulebook calls an “overwhelming victory” (IIRC) where I drove all enemies to the last space of their tracks our even out of their tracks and I was at something like maximum resources.

I had one situation in that game, where I had a 1 in 12 chance of losing, but other than that there was never any real danger. In my other plays, I was also in a pretty safe position most of the time, but there were moments of dangers caused by me not yet having properly analyzed one of the mechanics in the game and therefore not realized how useful it was if I played un-thematically.

I’m not saying this to brag about my mad skillz, but to emphasize, that dispassionately reducing the game to its core currency and crunching the numbers based on that allows you to use (and thematically abuse) the game’s mechanics to beat it handily.

Winning the math game or winning the thematic game

So, using cold math, I seem to systematically beat Malta Besieged to a pulp and have much higher win rate than the thematic gamers and I have fun analyzing and using the game’s nature against itself, but when I succeeded 3 times in a row, it meant that the fun of the game, which I think is otherwise one of the best in the series, wore out in a few plays. The thematic gamers on the other hand lose more than me, but they were having fun with the game for a longer time than I had.

All the talk about my high Malta Besieged win rate is of course based on an assumption that I’m not making an important rule mistake that throws the game’s balance out of whack and that my three plays aren’t simply dice loving me. I’m fairly sure that I can rule out the latter, but the former could very well be the case. I have checked the Malta Besieged subforum here on BGG and have so far not found any rules that I did wrong. Wes “Game Breaker” Erni, please chime in, if you’re reading this .

No matter whether my win rate is off, though, doesn’t much affect the topic of this post, I could have used other games as examples instead.

More examples

Staying in the States of Siege family of games, the first game where I identified the pattern in the mechanics in the games, that would lead me to high win rates in some of them, was the second one I played in the States of Siege series, Levée en Masse. I started out playing that game thematically in the iOS implementation, but I played it again and again until the pattern crystalized for me and I started winning most games with something like the maximum score IIRC.

Board Game: Levée en Masse: The Wars of the French Revolution

Levée en Masse. Image credit: Kin Hassar.

Another tower defense game, that’s susceptible to the same kind of strategy is Castle Panic which isn’t surprising given that when you drill down, they both have the same kind of currency as their beating heart.

There have been a couple of other games, where I have beaten the game to a pulp using math. These are Escape of the Dead Minigame and Delve: The Dice Game In the both I found an optimal (or close to optimal) strategy that results in very high win rates. For the former, I could demonstrate my algorithm and estimate the probabilities pretty well and for the latter I could prove it by repeatedly winning in the iOS implementation.

In both cases I had fun playing the games along the way and I had fun cracking them as puzzles, but after that there was zero fun to be had. While other players, who do not approach the game that way, seem to still having fun.

Win rates vs. game longevity

It seems to me that in all the above six cases the two types of gamers get different experiences from the games, but the thematic gamers can play the same game more times than the math gamers before it grows stale.

So, using the might of combat strength beats math on game longevity, but math beats might, when it comes to win rates. I’d guess that most people would prefer getting more bang for their buck over getting good win rates.

Given that I believe that to be true, it would make sense for me to use a thematic approach to games. So, why don’t I?

Well, I actually do in many cases. Dawn of the Zeds is an example that I mentioned above, the Lord of the Rings: LCG, where I don’t min-max, when deckbuilding – well, OK, I do to some extent, but I do it within a thematic idea. A Feast for Odin could also be argued to be an example, since I will often choose a specific idea and follow that, e.g. in this play I’ll go for exploration, in the next I’ll try to build many houses, etc.

Additionally, I love randomized math puzzles like this and get a kick out of beating them, so for mere there’s a lot of good things to say about looking at games through the lens of math.

States of Siege is a bit special for me, since after playing 15 different games in the series, I can’t help but seeing the recurring gameable pattern in the games that have it. Once I identify the pattern and seeing that it’s powerful in the specific game, it’s hard for me to intentionally not use it. It would feel like intentionally playing to lose, when I could have won.

Dawn of the Zeds is an example where I haven’t been able to apply the pattern in a way that allows me to beat the game. The complexity of this game makes using the pattern much harder and there are mechanics that hinder the pattern from kicking in. Because of this, it’s much easier for me to stay in the thematic point of view in that game.

In Mound Builders is another game where the pattern doesn’t exist in a problematic way, because avoiding it was baked into the design from the beginning.

I love States of Siege Games

The above might seem like I’m criticizing the States of Siege games hard, by them gameable, but I love the series and have had a ton of fun with it. Also, the oft-mentioned pattern is only present in some of the games. We Must Tell the Emperor is in no way broken, there's just one win criteria that's irrelevant when playing to win. From what I can tell there are two of the games that with experience can be turned into walk-overs.

Even those two, where I felt I had beaten them, Levée en Masse and Malta Besieged, I’ve still had a lot of fun and for the latter the jury is still out on whether I’ve actually broken the game, have gotten an important rule wrong, or have simply had games that are statistical outliers (I hope it’s one of the latter two).

In addition, it took me a lot of time to reach this point, if you play thematically it has no influence on your enjoyment, and the pattern’s presence and strength varies a lot between the games and most of them I’ve mostly started out playing each of them thematically.

So, while I do see a flaw in some of these games, I love this series as witnessed by the fact that I’ve played 15 out of 16 of these games and own all the games, every edition, and every expansion . Which makes for 20 games and 9 expansions.

How about you?

So, how about you? How do you approach games and why? To me the distinction between the two gaming approaches is very interesting and I’d love to hear your opinion.
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