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 opaque 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)
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: WWII European Theatre Block Game or asset chits in the Series: Fast Action Battles (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:

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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