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Subject: I'll soon be smarter than you: strategy ideas after each play. rss

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Nick Bentley
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This is a living compilation of strategy/tactics thoughts to myself as I learn the game. The posts start stupid, and get better, as my understanding grows. Here goes:

After 2 plays. This game makes my light saber glow bright throbbing red. It's like playing 9 simultaneous games of gin, all using the same hand. But more exciting. Rules are few, but I feel compelled to consider so many factors during play that the first game left me feeling utterly blind. I was deeply in love by game 2, when the relationships between various tactical considerations became a little more clear. Seems like you don't want to have two cards in front of a flag before your opponent does, unless you *know* you can beat him to that flag, because those two cards tell the opponent exactly what he needs to do to beat you to it, if he can. That makes it much easier for the opponent to plan, not only for that flag, but for the others as well. But if both opponents play according to this dictum, then it seems it will become a matter of deciding which flags to "tip your hand" about, and which not to. One potential strategy that I will try is to treat 4 flags like discard piles, that I won't even attempt to capture. I'll burn cards on these, and if I do it artfully, get my opponent to use good cards on these (of course, these "discard piles" should be spaced far apart so that my opponent doesn't threaten to get a breakthrough victory with them). Then I'll concentrate all my power on on the five remaining. We'll see if this is just delusion...

After 4 plays. It was delusion. I wasn't able to sucker my opponent into playing her good cards to the flags that were my "discards", and I was destroyed - my plan was too rigid for the kind of game that Battle Line is. You have to let the cards tell you what to do, instead of the other way around. I won the following game though, after a long struggle. I learned one important thing there: in long, close games, the number of spots available to each player near the end can be decisive. I had 3-4 more spots open than my opponent near the end, and we both had bad cards, but I was able to burn mine in a much less damning way, because I had more open spots to play with.

After 6 plays. Yet another of my recent games tipped in my favor because I had more open spaces in the endgame than my opponent, so this is looking to be very important. The main mechanism by which one gains this advantage is just to have captured more flags than your opponent, since capturing a flag also usually takes away spots where your opponent could have otherwise placed cards later in the game. This leads to a general tactical point: don't wait to claim a flag that you can win; if you do, you'll be needlessly ceding flexibility to your opponent. By the same token, if you think your opponent will win some particular flag, consider burning a bad card on one of the empty spots there before she does. An unrelated strategic point: if your opponent has more tactics card in hand than you, and your opponent has played one more tactics card than you, don't play any tactics cards if you can avoid it - your opponent will be playing with an effectively smaller hand than you for the remainder of the game. It's not clear to me how significant the resulting advantage is, but it seems big. Experienced players probably wouldn't let themselves get caught that way, so it may be a moot point. Relatedly, the tactics cards may not in practice introduce nearly as much randomness into the game as I first imagined, since you've got to be judicious about their use. Finally, I've reconsidered a thought I had in my first session. I said that it "seems like you don't want to have two cards in front of a flag before your opponent does..." This isn't always true, and it becomes less true as the game goes on. As more cards are played to the table, the easier it is to prove that various formations can beat other formations. Even if you only have one card on the table in front of a flag, other cards may come out elsewhere that are sufficient to prove that your one card can never become a winning formation.

After 9 plays. Woah. My last 3 games were an eye-opener. I've been playing exclusively with my girlfriend, and in our 1st 6 games, I won five times. I thought I was King. Then in the last 3 games she changed her approach and obliterated me. I didn't grab more than 2 flags in any of them. Specifically, she started completing select formations early in each game. Previously, we'd both concluded that "holding back" early in the game was a more or less uniformly good thing to do across all flags, because if you complete a formation early, you also tell your opponent exactly what she needs to do to beat it. But it turns out that there are advantages to completing formations early that can outweigh the risks. First, when you complete a formation early, it ensures that you will not lose any empty slots if your opponent happens to beat it. Having as many or more empty slots as your opponent has turned out to be critically important. Second, it ensures that more empty slots will be open across the other flags, so the loss of flexibility in front of one flag is compensated by an increase in flexibility in front of others. This compensation is even stronger if, by completing a formation early, it allows you to avoid having *any* cards in front of other select flags. Having no cards at all in front of a flag seems much more powerful than having one card in front of it. Finally, even though completing a formation early tells your opponent what she needs to do to beat it, in practice it isn't always easy to act on this information - the randomness in the card-draws sees to it. This is especially true if you complete a formation early for a flag where opponent already has a card. That one card means that the opponent may have to draw a very low probability combination of cards in order to win that flag. Anyway, the revelation of these last games makes me love Battle Line even more. The eureka moment is the reason I play games, and Battle Line has already provided me with some nice ones. I wonder how far down the rabbit hole goes? Opening strategy still eludes us, so I'm sure there are at least a few more eurekas to be had.

After 11 plays. Lost a 2 game set to my girlfriend by a combined score of 5-8. The first game I played according to the principles that my girlfriend pioneered in the prior 3 games, and won, but just barely. The end came down to a precarious position in which the outcome depended on my drawing the right cards. The chances of drawing them were low, but then I got the Scout, and used it to get what I needed, but whew. Probably the most white-knuckle game we've played, and they've *all* been white-knuckle, even the drubbings. The second game, I decided to see just how far the "complete formations early" idea could be taken. I completed a purple 6-7-8 before laying any other cards anywhere, in front of a flag where my opponent had only a green 9. Then I completed a 4-5-6 in purple on another flag where my opponent started out with only a red 1. At that point I had 6 cards down, all in front of two flags. I lost the first to a green 7-8-9. In the second case, my girlfriend redeployed the red 1 elsewhere before I got my 3rd card down, followed with an orange 5-6-7, and thereby won the second flag. She went on to take the game with a breakthrough before I got a single flag. It's hard to tell where my errors end and my opponent's lucky draws begin, but it does appear that it's not hard to be too extreme about making formations early.

After 13 plays. The last two games played out in eerie parallel to the two before them: I won the first game 5-3 by envelopment, my girlfriend won the second 5-0 by breakthrough. We noted a trend to which our games seem to conform: the winner typically manages to achieve 3 of the highest-value formations and the loser does not. I've no idea the extent to which it's due to luck, but my girlfriend seems to think that luck is a pretty important factor. Is it? What does the trend say about the way we play? On a related note, this has become one of the few games with frequent in-game chance events that I really love. But I'm not sure why. The line between where strategy ends and chance begins is almost totally obscure to me so far, and the game just dares me to try harder and harder to find it. In other games, this kind of thing annoys me, but here it's delicious. wtf?

After 16 plays. My girlfriend won this last series, 2 games to 1. She easily took the first two and I barely bagged the last. She seems to have developed an advantage - I win narrowly and she wins decisively, so she wins all the series. Curiously, she can't tell me what she's up to, and attributes her advantage to luck. I don't buy it. I think she's developed an intuition (that she doesn't understand), and I haven't. Either that or she's keeping her secrets close to her vest, but that would be out of character. Though I disagree with the common idea that Battle Line is similar to Lost Cities (It's not), I think the two are united by the primacy of intuition. This is one of those games where calculation can get in the way in certain circumstances - hence you'll see posts by exasperated players who can't understand why their non-gamer opponents are cleaning their clocks. Alas, I'm an analyst, eager to understand what she's doing in analytical terms, so I'll continue to try my analytical best. Things I noticed in these games: first, it seems that whoever wins the first flag goes on to win the majority of the games, highlighting the strength of snowball effects. This observation has again changed the way we approach the tactics cards. When we first learned the game, we played the tactics cards promiscuously, just because it was exciting. Then, we learned to use them more sparingly, so as to avoid giving the opponent an advantage in hand-flexibility. Now, because we're placing high value on the first flag, we're playing the tactics cards more aggressively again, the idea being that getting the first flag is so important that it's often worth giving a hand-flexibility advantage to the opponent for it. Since the tactics cards introduce a greater element of chance, our games are becoming more chance-driven (but no less exciting. This is one of the few games wherein chance events really, truly work for me). Second, we're placing higher value on making sacrifice plays, and are making more of them. That is, we deliberately lose a flag in one spot, in order to increase our chances of winning a flag in another, more strategically valuable spot. A player will usually do this in order either to win by breakthrough or to prevent the opponent from doing so. The most common type of sacrifice play involves losing a flag on the end of the line, in order to strengthen the position in the middle of the line where breakthroughs are most likely. Finally, things I'll try in the future: 1) I'll try to capture my first flag in a spot such that I don't have any cards on adjacent flags. If I can exert enough control to do so, then I may have dramatically improved chances for a breakthrough win. I suspect that my girlfriend advantageously pays more attention to setting up breakthroughs than I do. 2) I'm going to pay more attention to opportunities for what I call "proof-sacrifices". This is when you know you can beat your opponent to a flag, but in order to prove it, you must play a card that'll weaken one of your formations, and possibly cost you a flag. Such sacrifices may be valuable because, if you delay the proof moment, your opponent can either turn the tables with a tactics card or burn her weak cards there. If a flag is strategically important, it may sometimes be worthwhile to proof-sacrifice a less important one for it.

After 18 plays. The last two were close. We each won one. Final score: 7-7 (5-2,2-5). I could've won 8-7 if not for a blunder. Losing this game is blindly excruciating, and that's a good thing. As promised, I paid more attention to sacrifice opportunities and breakthrough opportunities. The opening strategy (described in the last post) failed, and I haven't figured out why. Once again, my girlfriend won by breakthrough and I won by envelopment. I did notice something about sacrificing. I realized that battle line shares a strategic consideration with Chess. In Chess, if you've captured more of your opponent's men than he has captured of yours, it's a good idea to force piece-exchanges. The reason is that, as the number of men on the board shrinks, the *relative* importance of the remaining men grows. The same is true of the flags in in battle line, both because it makes the remaining flags more critical to your opponent, *and* because differences in the number of empty spaces becomes more important as the game goes on. As a result, if you've captured more flags than your opponent, try to force 1:1 flag captures through sacrifices (like the proof-sacrifice I described in the previous post). But make sure that you have at least as many empty spots as your opponent when you do (which is usually the case, though it is possible to have a situation where you've captured more flags but have fewer remaining empty spaces than your opponent. In that case, exchanges will be riskier)

After 23 Plays. The new wrinkles just keep on coming. I learned a massive amount of stuff in the last 5 games, (I won 2, gf won 3 - I'm definitely improving, but she still has an edge). Here are 6 things:

---First, I think I can now confidently state the First Strategy Rule Of Battle Line: strive for (and defend against) a breakthrough first, and worry about envelopment only if breakthrough fails.

---Second, I discovered a tactic which was instrumental in helping me win the two games I won: Late in the game, if you're on the verge of breakthrough victory (like you need one very particular card to get it), and you can afford to lose a flag or two elsewhere on the line, and it's possible to lay a tactics card, and you know that there's one or more tactics cards in the deck that would allow you to win the breakthrough, start drawing tactics cards like crazy. That may sound like a lot of conditions that need to be met, but this situation arises often.

---Third, a straight flush has a strength that 3-of-the-same-number doesn't have: a straight flush can be turned into a 3-of-the-same-color, thus somewhat salvaging a busted formation in the endgame, but a busted 3-of-the-same-number formation is really busted.

---Fourth, the 8s might be the most powerful cards in the game. The reason is that an 8 is the only card involved in all of the three highest straight flushes for any given suit.

---Fifth, during the opening, try to infer which of the flags your opponent thinks she can make a strong formation for, and which ones she's less sure about. In addition to noting what cards she putting down and where she's putting 'em, pay attention to little things, like how much she thinks before making a move, or how uncomfortable she looks. For example, if your opponent puts a flag down without any hesitation on her turn, she may have a strong, complete formation for that flag in her hand. You can learn alot about your opponent's hand through such observations. If your opponent is a real "playa", she may eventually catch on, but it'll be worth a few wins in the meantime.

---Sixth, if the first card your opponent plays to a flag is a 1 or 2, and you have the 2 or 3 of the same color, play that as your first card to the same flag. It's a strong play because you've both ensured that your opponent can't get a straight flush there without a tactics card, and also ensured that you'll win if it comes down to two 3-numbers-of-a-kind formations. It's a crushing move. The same tactic works well (though not quite as well) even if the card that your opponent plays is higher than a 1 or 2. If your opponent plays a red 5, and you play a red 6, then you've decreased the likelyhood that either of you will get a straight flush, and you'll win if comes down to 3-numbers-of-a-kind.

After 26 plays. Grrr. Lost 2, won 1. But in the old fashion: I was bludgeoned mercilessly twice and barely squeaked out my one win. Never has the gap between what I want to understand about a game and what I actually understand been greater than it is for this one. My girlfriend plays Battle Line by the seat of her pants, never gives her moves much thought, just sorta plays what feels right, and it trumps all of my careful analysis. Some sort of black magic going on here. Every game player in the world owes it to himself to explore this game deeply. I wish I had new insights to offer following these games, but for the first time, I'm flummoxed.

After 31 plays. Eureka! A big step forward in my understanding. I won the last 5 game series, 4 games to 1. A couple of my wins were crushing victories, of a kind that had completely evaded my grasp previously. I attribute it all to a single change in my game: I became more willing to lay the first two cards of a straight flush even when the third was no where in sight. I went from being very hesitant to do so, to doing it more often than not when the opportunity arose. It turns out that it is both easier to actually get the straight flush when in this position than I had previously assumed, and has a bunch of other side benefits that often makes it a worthwhile thing to do. My discovery highlights an important aspect of this game: there are many different probabilities to consider, nearly all are difficult to calculate or intuit, and if you get just one systematically wrong, it can completely throw your game despite sound play in other respects.

The final game of the series was probably the most interesting and unusual game of Battle Line I've played. First, the game opened with my GF claiming 2 flags before I could claim any. This is a difficult hole to crawl out of. But I came back a little, and heading into the endgame she was leading 3 flags to 2. Then, soon after the endgame began, I ran out of slots, while she still had 4 left. Normally, this would spell my doom, but due to a bizarre set of conditions, over the course of her next three consecutive turns, she was forced to concede two flags, while grabbing one for herself. So then it was tied, 4 flags to 4, and my GF had one move remaining, to determine the winner. She played a card that caused an exact tie for the final flag. Under those conditions, the player who completed his formation first wins the flag, so I won it, and won the game. A game can't in theory end more closely than that. The victory was especially sweet because my position was desperate on two separate occasions, but I still somehow won. An instant classic that I won't soon forget.

Since this post is getting long, I'll post subsequent updates as comments below.
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James Fung
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Re: Watch me learn: strategy/tactics thoughts after each play session.
Agree with you on all your points. The reason you don't treat a flag like a discard pile (except, as you point out, later in the game when it's impossible to win, and then you should immediately discard into it to buy time) is that it relieves pressure on your opponent to hold back on those flags as well.

Good luck exploring this wonderfully elegant design.
 
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Joe Stude
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Re: Watch me learn: strategy/tactics thoughts after each play session.
milomilo122 wrote:


I learned one important thing there: in long, close games, the number of spots available to each player near the end can be decisive. I had 3-4 more spots open than my opponent near the end, and we both had bad cards, but I was able to burn mine in a much less damning way, because I had more open spots to play with.


Space is a huge advantage. I prefer letting my opponent play the first tactics and then lord the advantage of being able to play the next one before he/she can play again until just the right moment. However, if I have the opportunoty to claim a flag with no opponent cards on the other side of it by playing the first tactics card of the game I'll usually go for it. The loss of those three slots gets more and more heartbreaking as the game goes on.

milomilo122 wrote:
It's not clear to me how significant the resulting advantage is, but so far, it seems pretty big. Experienced players probably wouldn't let themselves get caught in such a situation, so it may be a moot point with more experience.


It depends. Occasionally in games I'll play the luck game and draw a number of tactics cards in a row looking for a particular one that will really give me a leg up. Generally, though, I don't keep more than two tactics cards in-hand at any one time (one to play first and the other to respond immediately to my opponent's tactics play if the situation warrants).

Glad you're enjoying the game. I've probably played close to 100 games now and it's still one of my favorite games to bring to the table.
 
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Nick Bentley
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After 35 plays. Last series of 4 games was tied 2-2. I had only one new half-thought about the game. In some games, both you and your opponent will end up trying to make breakthroughs on completely separate sections of the line. In these cases, the game can end up with a race-like quality. In these situations, how should you modify your play? I don't know. One thought is: if you think your opponent will complete the race before you do, then you should focus more on defense against her breakthrough. But I don't really know how easy it is know who is ahead in the race, nor how easy it is to redirect your resources at that point in the game. So this thought isn't going anywhere for now.

Also, in the ratings comments, someone said: "It's important to leave yourself as flexible as possible for as long as possible because you won't get most of the cards you want." I disagree with "as long as possible". Trying to not commit to too many hands for too long can have 2 negative consequences: you can end up making your hand quite weak in an effort to stay flexible, and you give your opponent more opportunites to screw with you via the tactics cards (e.g. traitor and deserter).
 
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Nathan James
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This is how I picture flexibility in Battle-Line: your first card played to a flag has you 66% committed, your second card either makes that 100%, if you play a pair, or about 90% if you play for the straight-flush. The third card is less a commitment than simply a success or a failure.
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Jonathan Rosenberg
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I've been playing this game for about two weeks now -- twice each with my brother-in-law and father, and a half dozen times with my 9-year old daughter (who has a pretty good intuitive feel for it). Just wanted to say that I loved your post, and your clear description of (1) your analytic approach, (2) your joy even in the game's apparent elements of luck, and (3) the evolution of your appreciation for it.

It's clearly a great game, and I look forward to following down this path. My daughter was stymied toward the end of a game today; she had won 4 flags but couldn't figure out how to win a 5th with only two flags open. I had her open her hand and showed her how by playing one card (an orange 6) that sacrificed a flag to me, she could simultaneously claim her needed 5th flag because that orange 6 was the only card that could win for me at her 5th. Great stuff!
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Ben Master
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"---Fourth, the 8s might be the most powerful cards in the game. The reason is that an 8 is the only card involved in all of the three highest straight flushes for any given suit."

I would also argue that 8's are the strongest card to start off the game with on a given peg. It threatens a wider range of straight flushes while still allowing the possibility of the strongest hand (8-9-10 flush). In contrast, starting a peg with a 10 card is weaker than it would appear, as you are less likely to be able to complete a straight flush there, and your opponent may learn it before you do.

"---Sixth, if the first card your opponent plays to a flag is a 1 or 2, and you have the 2 or 3 of the same color, play that as your first card to the same flag. It's a strong play because you've both ensured that your opponent can't get a straight flush there without a tactics card, and also ensured that you'll win if it comes down to two 3-numbers-of-a-kind formations. It's a crushing move. The same tactic works well (though not quite as well) even if the card that your opponent plays is higher than a 1 or 2. If your opponent plays a red 5, and you play a red 6, then you've decreased the likelyhood that either of you will get a straight flush, and you'll win if comes down to 3-numbers-of-a-kind."

This is a good point, especially the 1-or-2 situation.

I'd suggest a broader tip which is that if you can place a card 3 (or more) higher than your opponents first card, that is the ideal situation when you've each placed one card on a peg. So whenever possible, match a 1 with a 4+, 2 with a 5+, and so on. Obviously, higher is better and you can't do this all the time, but my point is that situations where you are 3 higher are far stronger than situations where you are just 1 or 2 higher.
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