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Subject: Basic Strategy for Initial Worker Placement rss

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C F
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Troyes is a much underrated game here on BGG. Although it is a bit dry, it is in my opinion the best-designed worker placement game in existence. Much like a vintage Knizia, Troyes is a deceptively simple game with low levels of luck that encourages emergent strategies that cannot easily be “cut and pasted” from one game to the next.

I’ve played close to 300 games of Troyes in person and online (at boardgamearena.com). With this and maybe some other posts, I’m going to try to outline some of the game’s basic strategies and decisions (using the base cards from the first edition), the first being at setup: where is the best place to position your initial workers?

I think the solution to Initial Placement lies in “playing the odds” by anticipating the likely sorts of Activity Cards that will be available in a game. In the base game, there are nine Activity Cards associated with each color of dice, but only three of the nine cards of each color will be used in a game. Understanding the possible Round One and Round Two Activity Cards allows a player to “bet” on the most probable outcomes when placing his workers in the available sites during game setup. To “win” the Initial Placement, the player must know how to win the game’s first few rounds.

City Hall (Yellow Building)

I’ve noticed that beginners at Troyes often believe that having money is very important, and therefore think they should aim to have at least two—or perhaps three—workers in the City Hall at the end of the Initial Placement phase. I disagree with this strategy for two reasons.

First, there is only one Round One yellow Activity Card, The Merchant, that rewards having multiple workers in the City Hall at the end of the Initial Placement phase. The Merchant allows players to gain 2 points (for the first player to place a worker on the card), 1 point (for the second player), and twice the deniers the player could get from converting yellow dice to deniers through Agriculture. This obviously rewards players who can use two (or better three) of their own yellow dice during the first round.

However, neither of the other two Round One yellow cards provide a major benefit to a player with multiple yellow dice after initial placement: in fact, they reward the opposite.

The Artisan allows a player to convert four yellow “pips” and a point of influence into six deniers. This causes a major problem for players who have three yellow dice, because while it would be amazing to convert those three dice at once into 18 deniers, a player is unlikely to roll 3 “4s” or higher to obtain the necessary 12 “pips.” This means that—to actually use three dice at once—a player will have to (1) use influence to re-roll a die or two, or (2) purchase a die from another player. Option (1) is nearly impossible in the early game, because re-rolling a die will likely eliminate the influence points necessary to use The Artisan; and option (2) is counterproductive because purchasing a third die will cost more than it will gain (i.e., buying the third die for six deniers will produce a net gain of 0 deniers and a net loss of one influence, and, unless it is bought from the neutral player, will cause the player who buys it to lose standing relative to the player whose dice is purchased). In other words, The Artisan punishes players with 3 initial yellow dice.

It is not much better for players with two initial yellow dice, for the same reasons. Again, it is unlikely that the player will roll two 4s or higher, requiring use of precious influence to pay for the worker on the card and to pay for the card’s effect. Purchasing a second yellow die is also not a good option, because it will reward the player from whom the die is bought far more than the two net deniers it is worth in the ordinary situation.

In contrast, consider the position of a player with one worker in City Hall. That player—rather than attempting to use multiple yellow dice, can either buy one of the highest available yellow dice from another player (or better, the neutral player) for 2 deniers, or attempt one or two re-rolls of his initial die to get the “pips” necessary to activate the card. Meanwhile, the player will retain multiple red and/or white dice to obtain the influence necessary to activate the card again in future turns.

The Miller, like The Artisan, actively punishes players who overfill the City Hall. The Miller, like The Artisan, requires a die roll of 4 or higher, thus likely requiring a player with multiple yellow dice to re-roll one or more of the dice to take full advantage of the card’s effect. And The Miller provides deniers based on how many of the player’s workers are in the Bishopric or the Palace—again rewarding players who have fewer workers in City Hall.

Second, the Round 2 yellow cards do not help with this predicament. Two of the cards: The Innkeeper and The Blacksmith, reward players who have either influence or red dice, respectively. The Militia helpfully allows a player to convert yellow dice to red dice, but it is most helpful when Chivalry (the Round One red card) is in play, and then mostly when the player has multiple red dice. None of these cards significantly rewards multiple dice, because the activation cost of these cards is low enough to allow one “6” die to provide significant benefit.

To make matters worse for the City Hall player, there are two other cards (one white, and one red) that create a sort of “inflation” that devalues deniers relative to other resources. The first, The Monk, allows a player to use one white die as three yellow dice. This collapses the value of yellow dice, because it is nearly always more efficient to use one white “6” than to obtain three high-valued yellow dice. The second, The Mercenary, allows a player to use red dice to gain deniers at a 2 pips / 3 denier exchange rate (better than The Merchant’s 2/2 exchange rate).

In short, in at most 33 percent of the games played does a player benefit from multiple workers in the City Hall as of Initial Placement. In the remaining 66 percent of games, the player with the most City Hall workers as of initial placement will be slightly (in games with The Artisan) or significantly (in games with The Miller) disadvantaged. Moreover, even in the 33 percent of the games in which The Merchant is active, the value of yellow dice is likely to be diminished by either The Monk or The Mercenary. This makes the City-Hall-focused initial strategy viable in only around 15 percent of games played.

Bishopric (White Building)

Compared to the City Hall, the Bishopric offers immediate benefits to a player with multiple workers following Initial Placement. This is because a player with multiple workers in the Bishopric has access to an early, exclusive scoring option: the Cathedral.

The Cathedral

At the beginning of the game, the Cathedral is empty and inviting—providing at least 5 net points (and up to 9 net points) for any player who can use 3 white dice at once to construct it (one point per die, plus two net points for avoiding the end-game penalty for not having at least one cube in each level of the cathedral). Even better, playing three dice into the cathedral provides at least three and up to six influence, which is especially valuable in the early game to add additional workers to Activity Cards and other buildings, and to re-roll dice.

You might ask: given the power of the Cathedral's early-game scoring option, why not always pursue a Bishopric-focused strategy with at least three workers in the Bishopric as of Initial Placement? The answer is that the Activity Cards do not significantly reward multiple Bishopric workers.

The Priest, the first white Round One card, provides 3 points but otherwise no immediate benefit. It allows a player to convert 3 white pips to one cube that can be used in a future action to add three to the value of each yellow dice in a group of dice. This presents a dilemma for the Bishopric-focused player: should he use his highest valued white die (preferably a 6), or multiple white dice, to activate this card, hoping to have enough yellow dice in the future to account for the cost of the card? Or should he use all three dice to construct the Cathedral? In any event, like The Artisan, The Priest generally rewards a player who can purchase one high value die, rather than use multiple dice at once. It does not significantly reward the use of multiple dice because the preconditions to taking full advantage of its effect (obtaining at least two and preferably three yellow dice) are not easy to achieve and require a later-game switch in focus from the Bishopric to the City Hall.

The Monk is even less friendly to white-focused players, because it is a delayed effect card and the delayed effect requires that only one white die be used. The eventual effect is very powerful, but like The Priest, the card can be activated sufficiently by a single “6” and reactivated later if absolutely necessary. Again, it does not seem to reward the use of multiple white dice.

Tithing, in contrast, is an especially powerful Activity Card that rewards multiple activations. After activation, the card allows a player to “steal” yellow dice from other players without payment. This is incredibly powerful for a few reasons. For one, the activated card acts something like a “pin” in chess—effectively forcing opponents to prioritize the use of yellow dice or lose them. Second, unlike other cards, once activated the use of the effect can be free to the player and detrimental to other players. Besides using an action, there is effectively no downside to applying the effect in future turns. (Of course, using an action can be costly in some circumstances). Because the activation cost is relatively high (requiring at least two dice for multiple activations) it provides a benefit to a player with multiple workers in the Bishopric.

Finally, unlike for yellow dice, there are no cards that significantly deflate the value of white dice. Thus, having multiple workers in the Bishopric is a solid investment that has very little downside, and potentially some significant upside. The player with a Bishopric-focused Initial Placement will nearly always be better positioned than the player focused on the City Hall.

Palace (Red Building)

The final option—and in my opinion the best—is the Palace. Like the Bishopric, the Palace provides immediate scoring options that increase with the number of dice acquired; but the Palace also provides better upside.

The Event Cards

Like the Bishopric, the Palace provides access to a significant scoring option: the Event Cards. These cards randomly appear at the beginning of each Round, and come out in a pattern: there is always one red card, and one card that is either yellow or white. Thus, each round will provide a guaranteed way to score points—at no immediate monetary cost—with red dice, by fighting the corresponding red event cards.

The Black Dice

The second significant advantage for the Palace is that the red dice it provides are doubly effective at getting rid of the black dice that the Event Cards generate at the beginning of each Round. Each pip of a red dice is worth twice the pips of a white or yellow dice in this regard.
This has two significant benefits. For one, fighting black dice provides influence points. More importantly, however, having red dice available to fight black dice allows a player (especially one going first in turn order) to assert some limited control over the outcome the following round. It is much easier to force opponents to fight just the right number of black dice if a player has twice as many options for fighting those dice himself. This allows a savvy player to influence what dice remain for actions in the upcoming round.

Finally, two of the three Round One red Activity Cards significantly reward a player with multiple red dice. The Archer, with its low activation cost of 2 pips per roll, practically begs for the player to use three high-valued red dice to spam cubes on Event Cards. Meanwhile, Chivalry nearly invariably requires multiple red dice to be of any significant use.

The final—and relatively weakest—Round One red card also rewards the use of multiple dice. The Diplomat requires a steep cost of one influence per cube placed on an event card, and for that reason is not a great early-game move, but still provides a decent benefit for the player with multiple red dice.

In Round Two, the options get even better. Hunting provides influence points and victory points (to at least the first player) at a very reasonable cost, and The Mercenary makes red dice very cost-efficient. The Palace-focused player should beware The Tax Collector, which in certain circumstances can severely punish players with multiple red dice. Nonetheless, because The Tax Collector requires red dice to activate, it is not likely that a player with only one red dice will be able to activate the card enough to harm the Palace-focused player. (Exceptions can occur when The Blacksmith, The Militia, or The Templar are in play).
Finally, the Round Three red scoring cards greatly reward the Palace-focused player. Like The Diplomat, The Joust rewards a player who has many red dice; and The Captain, with its relatively high activation cost, requires more than a single red die to effectively generate significant victory points.

So why not always focus on the Palace for a minimum of three workers? First, paying 2 deniers in salaries for each Palace worker can in certain circumstances hobble a Palace-focused player, especially a beginner who is not as savvy about the game’s economy. For example, in games with The Merchant and neither The Monk or The Mercenary, deniers will be hard to come by and the Palace-focused player may not be able to generate enough cash to stay afloat until the latter stages of the game—where it may be too late. Second, the combination (although rare) of The Diplomat, The Tax Collector, and The Troubadour is almost invariably the death-knell for a player banking on red dice, as the player will be strapped for cash and have only a costly scoring option in Round Three.

Final Thoughts

So what does this all mean for the player trying to gain an advantage in the Initial Placement? Well, that depends. Troyes is a great game because it is not entirely predictable, and strategies that dominate certain games are ineffective in others.

(You may notice that I barely mentioned the Round 3 cards in this post: that is not a mistake--by the time that Round 3 occurs, players will have had ample opportunity to change their position in the City Hall, Bishopric, and Palace to take advantage of the best available options, making it somewhat ineffectual to try to make an Initial Placement based on the “best” Round 3 cards)

My current opinion—and this may change as I play my next 300 games—is that:

(1) In a 3-player game, players should try to have at least two workers in the Palace and two workers in the Bishopric at the end of the Initial Placement, with the last worker in City Hall. This can change based on turn order (which would require an entire additional article to explain), but this is a solid initial placement.

(2) In a 4-player game, players should attempt to get at least two workers in either the Palace or the Bishopric, and split the final two workers between the two remaining buildings. Here, turn order is even more important, because it is likely that the first player will gain more benefit from red dice (to fight the black Event dice) than a player later in turn order.

(3) In a 2-player game, players should try to have at least three workers in either the Palace or the Bishopric, with a clear preference for the Palace. The remaining workers can be split between the two remaining buildings, with a preference for the Bishopric rather than City Hall.

Thanks for reading!
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Morten K
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Thank you for your advice. Much appreciated
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Joe Pilkus
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CF,

This is a wonderful analysis, and while I've played a quite a few games in-person and a few over at BGA. I'm closer to 20, not 300. Anyway, everything you've conveyed rings true with the games I've played and I hope to play with you over at BGA some time.

Cheers,
Joe
 
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[maˈtiːas]
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I’ve played about 150 games (a few 2p, 110 3p, 35 4p - most at BGA, too) and can basically support your analysis and recommendations (red >= white > yellow in most cases).

Just one thing though:
3d6 >= 12 pips => 37.5 %
2d6 >= 8 pips => 41,6 %
Both don’t fit my definition of 'unlikely'. Your point regarding Artisan and Miller though is valid anyway.

Another problem of many and especially high yellow dice is turn order. Your precious yellow 6 will be gone in most cases when you’re 3rd or 4th.
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Ty Wyman
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I've played over a thousand games on BGA. Turn order is very important in deciding initial placement. Top players typically rush the Bishopric.
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[maˈtiːas]
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Yep, the first two workers are going into the Bishopric in (nearly) every game. These are the most secure spots, so nothing astonishing there.
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Joe Sallen
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I know this may shake the moral fiber of everyone's being, but has anyone considered playing with the activity cards revealed from the start? I always feel like the initial draft is scripted for the most part as is (first leftmost bishopric, then middle bishopric, then left city hall and high number palace, then fill in where you aren't already at).

Every time I start up a game on BGA (especially 3-4 player) I'm reminded of how long it takes to cycle through everyone's turn playing asynchronous. All of that time with relatively low variation leaves me wanting more.

Also, let's get Ladies on BGA!!!
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Joe Pilkus
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Joe,

That's an interesting point...despite the low number of games I've played, I didn't realize there were standard openings (I'm actually more familiar with Chess...there I have thousands of games played). We, from the very beginning, revealed the activity cards before placing our meeples to avoid the very thing you're talking about.

Cheers,
Joe
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