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 unbalanced choices

Sam C
United States
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Soli Deo Gloria!
Microbadge: "I'm givin' her all I can, Captain!" - Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott (Scotty)Microbadge: Fascinating!Microbadge: "I'm a doctor, not a . . ." - Dr. Leonard McCoyMicrobadge: "The name of the game is called, uh... fizzbin." - Captain James T. KirkMicrobadge: "Oh, but they do give us something, Mr. Spock. They give us love." - Lt. Nyota Uhura (in The Trouble with Tribbles)
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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