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Subject: Thoughts on the concept of Optimal Play rss

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Matt Thrower
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Hi,

When eagle went down I went out and panic-bought copies of CotE and RRT. Since then I've engaged in a little excercise in self-flagellation where I've been reading threads on SoE and AoS and wondering if I should've bought them instead (I'm not buying, playing and storing such similar games). A number of threads on the subject bought up the idea of optimal and suboptimal play and I thought it worth exploring this concept a little.

Both AoS and SoE are lauded by many gamers becuase they punish sub-optimal play whereas RRT and (to a lesser extent) CotE do not. The basic driving force behind this is that in a game, a better strategy should always win. This I can broadly agree with, although I'd change it to almost always but the basic sentiment is the same.

In the two Wallace games - and, I suspect a number of other Wallace designs - the idea of optimal strategy is implemented in a negative way. Players who make sub-optimal choices are punished by the game system, often by limiting their income. This leads to a situation where players who make bad choices can get sidelined very early in the game.

Since I have no great problem with player elimination in games I have no big issue with this (beyond the fact that if you're eliminated at least you can go home, whereas in other games you have to sit it out knowing you've lost) but it seems to me that there's a better way to approach the concept of optimal play: namely rewarding the best play rather than punishing the worst. To take the example of AoS, why place poorer players in a situation where their income limits their every choice when instead you could reward good choices with greater income? In this scenario bad choices early in the game do not automatically mean defeat - rather weaker players still have a chance to catch up if the better players make some bad moves either by accident or through goading table talk .

Seems to me this approach is more inclusive and keeps games more interesting, but you don't see it very often. Maybe all 'geeks are masochists?

And for the record, I concluded that I'd probably done the right thing in getting CotE over SoE and probably the wrong thing in getting RRT over AoS.
 
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J. Green
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Actually, I think you've got it backwards. I'd pick RRT over Age of Steam (and did), but I like both CotE AND SoE.

RRT has better bits, and nicer graphics, and you're more likely to get people to play it enough to develop strategies period much less optimal strategies. Unless you have a die-hard gamer group that really prefers AoS, you're fine not getting it immediately, since it's not the one going out of print, RRT is.

As for CotE, you get an excellent German style conquest game with the Wallace ruleset, and an improved classic version, with again great bits, and great replayability with the cards. I also like the art and size of SoE, and I like being able to choose from all the strategy tiles at the beginning of the game so for a deeper experience after you're more familiar with all the options I imagine it would greatly extend the life of the system in terms of replayability, plus you have a completely different theme and map with SoE. I'd say get both, since it's unlikely to be reprinted anytime soon, either, and between the two I'd rather have SoE in the collection if I had to choose, but I really enjoy the Ancient Rome theme and bits of CotE. Had to have both.

I wouldn't fret about it either way: just play RRT and enjoy that and then if you can get in a game of AoS later, you have plenty of time to make up your mind about adding it to the collection too. I think the SoE and AoS systems are about the best Wallace has come up with in the past few years, so it's hard to say you made a mistake about buying any implementations of either one.
 
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Alexander B.
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A bit OT, but I almost ordered Railroad Tycoon the other day. Then I noticed that there is a new multi-player version of it coming out on computer in a few weeks.

For me, the nice thing about computer games is that, even though they tend to be inferior in many ways to board games, it is easy to allocate a few hours, find an opponent, and get a game in without too much hassle to set-up gaming time and such.

I do enjoy these games where you can invest in things early and then try to build them up (Acquire was an early fav of mine as a kid). So I'll probalby end-up getting both board and computer versions of these kind of rail games; so, thanks for the tips here in what is best on the board game side
 
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MattDP wrote:


Seems to me this approach is more inclusive and keeps games more interesting, but you don't see it very often. Maybe all 'geeks are masochists?

And for the record, I concluded that I'd probably done the right thing in getting CotE over SoE and probably the wrong thing in getting RRT over AoS.


We are masochists. If you don't fail how will you learn? I love games that are brutal to non-optimal play. That just means my next playing I will learn from my mistakes, and improve my game play. Games that are too loose in game play, become tedious and boring way fast. I enjoy most Wallace games for this exact reason(save runebound).

I like both CotE and SoE for different reasons, but I think they both have great replay value. I can't say the same thing about RRT, I really didn't find additional value in RRT over AoS, and have little desire to play it over AoS. So instead of buying one of the few remaining copies, I'm saving my pennys for AoS Disco inferno and Soul Train(And maybe tracking down a copy of AoS EXP1)
 
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Scott B
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Michael, Matt, et. al.

I think it's interesting that you say you'll learn from your mistakes for the next game. I think one of the issues here is - if you get brutalized in a game, will there be another game? Not for everybody. I totally see your point, and I agree to a certain extent. But I also agree with Matt's thoughts that it may be wiser to reward optimal play rather than to penalize poor play, just to encourage people who lose to play again, because it may not seem like such a hopeless struggle. I was thinking about this just the other day, specifically regarding Martin Wallace games, and I think this post clarifies my opinions perfectly.
 
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Landstander wrote:
Michael, Matt, et. al.

I think it's interesting that you say you'll learn from your mistakes for the next game. I think one of the issues here is - if you get brutalized in a game, will there be another game? Not for everybody. I totally see your point, and I agree to a certain extent. But I also agree with Matt's thoughts that it may be wiser to reward optimal play rather than to penalize poor play, just to encourage people who lose to play again, because it may not seem like such a hopeless struggle. I was thinking about this just the other day, specifically regarding Martin Wallace games, and I think this post clarifies my opinions perfectly.


That is true for a certain gamer mind set. Luckily I game with a group that if they are new to a game, even when they get slaughtered the whole time is "I should have done this" "That move was a bad idea" "next time". That dialog to me says I can't wait to take another stab at this. That's what I like to hear in a new game. I like games you can't perfect in one sitting.

I agree that it would be nice to award optimal play but not penalize sub-optimal play, but really, isn't that the same thing? In a zero sum equation, if someone is to win, someone has to lose.
 
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Scott B
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MWChapel wrote:

That is true for a certain gamer mind set. Luckily I game with a group that if they are new to a game, even when they get slaughtered the whole time is "I should have done this" "That move was a bad idea" "next time". That dialog to me says I can't wait to take another stab at this. That's what I like to hear in a new game. I like games you can't perfect in one sitting.

I agree that it would be nice to award optimal play but not penalize sub-optimal play, but really, isn't that the same thing? In a zero sum equation, if someone is to win, someone has to lose.


It is the same thing. Which is why I'm saying if you get the same end effect, why not make the feeling warm and fuzzy instead of cold and prickly? Though, I'm not really making an argument for or against suboptimal penalization. I'm just trying to point out one very strong reason not to use it if you don't have to.
 
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Landstander wrote:


It is the same thing. Which is why I'm saying if you get the same end effect, why not make the feeling warm and fuzzy instead of cold and prickly? Though, I'm not really making an argument for or against suboptimal penalization. I'm just trying to point out one very strong reason not to use it if you don't have to.


AoS is probably one of the worst offenders of what you stated above. Extremely brutal. But all I can say to that is play a second game, because it isn't brutal once you learned what you did wrong the first time. Other "great" games that are brutal to first plays are Indonesia and Reef Encounter. But don't be fooled, there is some real nice games in there people! meeple
 
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Alexander B.
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I am also drawn to "tough" games that aren't too forgiving. I also agree that any games that is too forgiving, is nearly bound to be boring: almost by definition.

On the other hand, I don't like games that are hard or impossible to make a comeback in, and also don't like elimination in games if possible (I once spent 2 weeks setting-up a Risk party of 6 players and got killed within 15 minutes by the first two players pounding me out of Australia!? The game lasted 3+ hours )

I guess that is one of the great skills to designing a truly great game. High skill, yet possible comebacks... both intense and yet not too heavy so as to feel like work...

These seem to be the trade-offs that make great games great.
 
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Quote:
A bit OT, but I almost ordered Railroad Tycoon the other day. Then I noticed that there is a new multi-player version of it coming out on computer in a few weeks.


Outside of the general theme (make money by building and running railway system), the two different Railroad Tycoons are completely different games so I don't think having and enjoying one precludes having and enjoying the other. I've long been a fan of the computer game and was initially put off by the board game because I couldn't see how the game could possibly be adapted to board game format. Long story short, it wasn't. The board game is much simpler financially - no bonds, no shorting stocks, no ability to buy shares in the other guy's company (or even buy him out), no buying industries and no having to worry about going bankrupt if you start off in a bad location. On the other hand, the board game has its own new elements - mini-goals that change with each play (the operations cards and tycoon cards), non-renewable resources (the red cubes don't restock every year just because there's a cattle ranch nearby) and track building limited by available time rather than just by money. IMO, they're both excellent very different games. The computer game plays like an economics game that just happens to have a train theme while the board game plays like a train game that just happens to have an economic model. I strongly recommend both! (Plus, I can get my family to play the board game; after years of trying, not even my train-mad dad has tried the computer game.)
 
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Alexander B.
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No buying shares in the other guy's company!?! Wow, that really is weak.

In any case, thank you Susan for the tips: they are very helpful. Maybe some of those 18xx games are more my style?

I'll have to research the entire area a bit more it seems... sounds like fun
 
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Robert Bowsher
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RRT will also punish you for suboptimal play, but not nearly as quickly up front as AoS will. RRT is easier to get on the table in a crowd with mixed gaming experience.
 
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Matt Thrower
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MWChapel wrote:
We are masochists. If you don't fail how will you learn? I love games that are brutal to non-optimal play. That just means my next playing I will learn from my mistakes, and improve my game play.


Interesting thought. This is going to be true even for games that can be won with much less than an optimal strategy - you can still learn and apply it in your next game. Maybe we are all masochists - after all there's usually more loosers in a game than winners!

MWChapel wrote:
I like both CotE and SoE for different reasons, but I think they both have great replay value.


I'm curious about this - from my understanding these two games are very similar - much more so than RRT and AoS - but you say you like them for different reasons?

Quote:
I agree that it would be nice to award optimal play but not penalize sub-optimal play, but really, isn't that the same thing? In a zero sum equation, if someone is to win, someone has to lose.


Yes, but it's the manner of winning and loosing that's at stake here. Making life easier for players who play well is not the same as making it difficult for those who play badly. It's a carrot and stick situation - I like the carrot, Wallace likes the stick.
 
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Quote:
I'm curious about this - from my understanding these two games are very similar - much more so than RRT and AoS - but you say you like them for different reasons?


Hey, I'm a total Romaphile, it's about theme to me for the reasoning, as SoE is a superior game, RotE has Rome. meeple



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Yes, but it's the manner of winning and loosing that's at stake here. Making life easier for players who play well is not the same as making it difficult for those who play badly. It's a carrot and stick situation - I like the carrot, Wallace likes the stick.


I guess i wouldn't consider those types of game a zero sum game. Games that have close scoring or could award all players means that players play with different pies, and may reach in for a taste of others pies from time to time. Games like AoS there is only one pie, and everyone has to dig in efficiently or you won't get any pie. mmmm...pie.
 
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MattDP wrote:
In the two Wallace games - and, I suspect a number of other Wallace designs - the idea of optimal strategy is implemented in a negative way. Players who make sub-optimal choices are punished by the game system, often by limiting their income. This leads to a situation where players who make bad choices can get sidelined very early in the game.

Since I have no great problem with player elimination in games I have no big issue with this (beyond the fact that if you're eliminated at least you can go home, whereas in other games you have to sit it out knowing you've lost) but it seems to me that there's a better way to approach the concept of optimal play: namely rewarding the best play rather than punishing the worst. To take the example of AoS, why place poorer players in a situation where their income limits their every choice when instead you could reward good choices with greater income? In this scenario bad choices early in the game do not automatically mean defeat - rather weaker players still have a chance to catch up if the better players make some bad moves either by accident or through goading table talk :).


At heart this is a simply and well known problem:

- rich get richer

or

- run away winner

There are two ways this pattern can be created:

0) (Disproportionately) reward the players who play well

1) Slap down the players who make errors.

Both activites result in the same pattern: a game whose conclusion can be determined early in play.

Quote:
Seems to me this approach is more inclusive and keeps games more interesting, but you don't see it very often. Maybe all 'geeks are masochists?


I don't think there's much actual difference, but there is a strong subjective element here. Even tho the number ratios and actual results may be identical on either side of the fence, perception rules the day.
 
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bookgnome wrote:
RRT has better bits, and nicer graphics, and you're more likely to get people to play it enough to develop strategies period much less optimal strategies. Unless you have a die-hard gamer group that really prefers AoS, you're fine not getting it immediately, since it's not the one going out of print, RRT is.


I'm told that AoS supplies in the distributor chain are getting thin on the ground. I expect it to be OOP again quite soon.
 
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Rusty567 wrote:

Outside of the general theme (make money by building and running railway system), the two different Railroad Tycoons are completely different games so I don't think having and enjoying one precludes having and enjoying the other. I've long been a fan of the computer game and was initially put off by the board game because I couldn't see how the game could possibly be adapted to board game format. Long story short, it wasn't. The board game is much simpler financially - no bonds, no shorting stocks, no ability to buy shares in the other guy's company (or even buy him out), no buying industries and no having to worry about going bankrupt if you start off in a bad location. On the other hand, the board game has its own new elements - mini-goals that change with each play (the operations cards and tycoon cards), non-renewable resources (the red cubes don't restock every year just because there's a cattle ranch nearby) and track building limited by available time rather than just by money. IMO, they're both excellent very different games. The computer game plays like an economics game that just happens to have a train theme while the board game plays like a train game that just happens to have an economic model. I strongly recommend both! (Plus, I can get my family to play the board game; after years of trying, not even my train-mad dad has tried the computer game.)


If you like the computer version of Railroad Tycoon, Roads and Boats might be for you. It doesn't deal with the 'shares' economic element, but it uses a very similar industrial model, with primary and secondary industries. It's the closest thing to a computer strategy game I've ever seen.
 
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MWChapel wrote:
We are masochists. If you don't fail how will you learn? I love games that are brutal to non-optimal play. That just means my next playing I will learn from my mistakes, and improve my game play. Games that are too loose in game play, become tedious and boring way fast. I enjoy most Wallace games for this exact reason(save runebound).


Success is the result of good judgement. Good judgement is the result of experience. Experience is the result of bad judgement.

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I'm saving my pennys for AoS Disco inferno and Soul Train(And maybe tracking down a copy of AoS EXP1)


Spend some time hunting small game stores in backwoods. There are quite a few AoS:London/Ireland still haunting smaller stores.

No Age of Steam Expansion: Sun / London? Wahh!
 
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Landstander wrote:
I think one of the issues here is - if you get brutalized in a game, will there be another game?


Yes, but if and only if I can see how it was my own damned fault for getting brutalised. A problem you can do something about is interesting and rewarding. A problem that capriciously hands you your arse is neither interesting or particularly rewarding.

I failed miserably in my first game of Age of Steam and was very confused. I thought I'd made reasonable decisions throughout and yet I ended the game with a final score of 7VPs. After some reflection I realised that in fact none of my decisions had been reasonably correct, most had in fact been grossly wrong, and that there was in fact something I could do about it. It was at that moment that I joined the Church of Steam. I could do better and I had some notions on how.

Quote:
But I also agree with Matt's thoughts that it may be wiser to reward optimal play rather than to penalize poor play, just to encourage people who lose to play again, because it may not seem like such a hopeless struggle.


Games are definitionally zero sum. The rest is just foibles of perception. At this level penalties and rewards are largely the same thing and it comes down to how it [ifeels[/i]. The explicit exception is that penalties impose a negative delta for one player in relation to the others, and rewards give a positive delta to one player in relation to the others and this division of delta can disproportionately skew the subjective experience.
 
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Landstander wrote:
MWChapel wrote:
I agree that it would be nice to award optimal play but not penalize sub-optimal play, but really, isn't that the same thing? In a zero sum equation, if someone is to win, someone has to lose.


It is the same thing. Which is why I'm saying if you get the same end effect, why not make the feeling warm and fuzzy instead of cold and prickly?


While tension is good, different people tend to like different flavours of tension. For instance I find horror movies entirely uninteresting and mildly distasteful. Ditto roller coasters. Other people like those things...

Quote:
I'm just trying to point out one very strong reason not to use it if you don't have to.


This would rather depend on your target demographic, no?
 
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I'm actually beginning to feel that gaming isn't a zero sum equation at all. Initially in this discussion, I thought, well, yeah, there's a winner, and one or more losers. After reading everything that's been posted here, though, I'm not so sure this is the bottom line anymore. There's at least two broad ways of looking at it: either, you're there to win, or you're there to enjoy yourself. Most people will say they're there for both, which means they can lose and enjoy themselves. Well, that sounds like there's at least two winners, and that's not a zero sum experience. The point? I'm of the opinion that games like AoS, and others (see the geeklist!) that penalize suboptimal play, will more often result in people not wanting to play again, than games that reward optimal play. As has been said, that's fine depending on the target demographic of the game. I've always felt, though, that the goal of any game designer should be to get a person to want to play a game again, not to just want to play the first time. But, there's a tangent argument forming here, and it is that some players (most Eurogamer types) like to analyze their losses, and realize they could've made a wiser move at a certain spot, and ultimately performed better in the game. Great, and I like to do that too, and it is probably true that the best way to do that is to penalize a poor choice. BTW, I think the same effect can be seen in wargames. I've read many reports where the player that lost can trace the beginning of the end back to one screw-up.
 
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I find I enjoy games whether I win or lose, as long as I learn something by the lose or feel I've played well. IIRC, I pretty much cratered on my first game of RRT, but I learned the economics, allowing me to develop a winning strategy.

On the brutal vs. kinder issue, I tend to favor games where the "punishment" is proportional to the mistake. I neither like it when a serious mistake can be brushed aside nor when a slight early mistake makes the rest of the game pointless for a player.
 
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Tall_Walt wrote:
On the brutal vs. kinder issue, I tend to favor games where the "punishment" is proportional to the mistake.


Proportional to the mistake or proportional to your subjective evaluation of the magnitude of the mistake?

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I neither like it when a serious mistake can be brushed aside nor when a slight early mistake makes the rest of the game pointless for a player.


If the mistake was serious and could yet be brushed aside, was it really a serious mistake or a minor ignorable error? If a slight early mistake dooms a player, was it really a slight mistake or a critical and fatal error?
 
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Landstander wrote:
... either, you're there to win, or you're there to enjoy yourself. Most people will say they're there for both, which means they can lose and enjoy themselves. ... I've always felt, though, that the goal of any game designer should be to get a person to want to play a game again, not to just want to play the first time. ...


This is something that varies depending on the crowd that shows up. I often have a "light" gamer crowd, and the games that take your early mistakes and turn them into a limiting experience (by preventing them from participating in the mid and end game in anything but a perfunctory manner) just don't go very well. I suspect this is often the cause of king-making in such games: the downtrodden player becomes so bitter that they have no hope that they just start screwing around because it makes them feel like they have some power left. Frankly, I find that no fun at all.

Meanwhile, games that reward the leader seem to allow more "pile on the leader" game play, which is just like king-making, minus the bitterness. At the end of the day, perceptions do matter, and for "light" gamers they would prefer to feel like they are co-operating to take down a colossus than making petty strikes from a position of weakness. Even if mathmatically they are the same thing.
 
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I find it funny that alot of people on this site (espeically Eurogamers) decry Player Elimination, and yet seem to have no problem with sub-optimal decisions early in a game keeping you from being able to ever feasibly win the game.

They are essentially the same thing, ones just a bit more up front about it.
 
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