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Empire Builder» Forums » Variants

Subject: Gameflow and luck balance fix rss

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Lee M.

Washington
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This game is very fun in my opinion, but suffers from two fatal flaws:

1) The game runs far too long, especially if you are playing with 4 or more players.
2) There's too much luck involved in what could otherwise be a beautifully skill-based game. People can fall hopelessly behind or even be dead in the water if they mess up their tracks, and then they have to sit through 2 more hours of the game during which they know they are doomed to lose.

Three simple fixes to address these problems (playtested, worked great to the acclaim of all players)

1) Begin the game with $70m in cash instead of the usual $50m - this allows people greater flexibility in laying a track that will work well for the future instead of just what will work with their initial contract cards.
2) Each turn, allow the player to trade in one contract card without having to skip their turn. If a bad event card such as a derailment comes up, it will only affect the drawing player. This allows people to ditch their dead cards without having to also lose the ones that are actually useful to them. Players can still skip their turn and replace all 3 cards normally.
3) Agree in advance on a time at which the game will end, and then tally up their value as follows, with the player with the highest value winning the game:

Player value = Cash on hand + $10m for each train upgrade + $10m for each major city connected + the value of the highest contact the player holds which they could fulfill using only their own tracks, and for which they already have the necessary cargo on their train

The weights for determining player value can be changed around to suit individual preference - The last part which gives credit for an as-yet undelivered cargo is to smooth out the problem where a player might win given one more turn to make that final delivery, and other players purposefully delay the game in order to not let that happen. The time based win can be played in addition to or in lieu of the normal $250m + 6 cities win condition.

Try it! You'll like it.
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Daniel Corban
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devilnis wrote:
There's too much luck involved in what could otherwise be a beautifully skill-based game. People can fall hopelessly behind or even be dead in the water if they mess up their tracks, and then they have to sit through 2 more hours of the game during which they know they are doomed to lose.

You say there is "too much luck", but your example of this is a player "messing up their tracks". There is no luck to track building.
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Eric Brosius
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My favorite 18xx game for six players is two games of 1846 with three players each.
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This is a game with a difficult learning curve.

If I play this game with four experienced players, I expect it to take not much longer than 2 hours. But when you're just starting, it can take much longer.

I don't agree that there's too much luck. Actually, I think your complaint is that there's too much skill, so that beginners can fall hopelessly behind.
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Chris Bender
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I think your variant actually decreases the skill factor. By increasing the amount of starting money you decrease the skill required to budget successfully. I also think that being able to draw many more cards decreases the skill required to find an optimal route to maximize contract income.

There are some optional rules I like. I like to play with the optional rule of being able to borrow $20 at 100% interest. I also use faster trains and we don't draw replacement contracts until the end of the turn. The last two options reduce play time, but not the skill needed to play, IMHO.
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david landes
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This is NOT a luck game. The better players win over the course of a complete game. Rather than decrease early game skill with more money, I would suggest using the variant where a player can borrow $$ from the bank but has to pay back two for every one dollar they borrow (or even three). This loosens the 'dead in the water' possibility, enables advanced players to make dollar-for-track trade off decisions for accelerating their early construction, but punishes players who abuse it.

Additionally, while setting a time limit helps with finishing in a set period, I think it arbitrarily forces winning conditions very different from the potential overall strategies of the game. In a typical game, players should spend the bulk of the game scraping for money, upgrading train speed at every possible opportunity and investing in track that increases load value potential and flexibility. Keeping money on hand is typically anathema and invites a higher payment during taxation as well. The end of the game is then a movement based amortization of the track investment from a potential delivery, but also track efficeincy perspective. As you have changed it, there will be a critical clock-watching where play turns from the all-but-one city / 250 million winning condition and becomes more about cash on hand. I would suggest your first winning condition should actually be most cities connected in order to more accurately secure the intent of the original conditions.

Additionally, while a number of players have criticized the luck factor associated with event cards (and perhaps more pointedly, the irritation factor), I think managing to the event cards is an additional skill factor all players should be equally exposed to.

With the extra card draws, much of the skill of hand management, the marginal value of specific deliveries, and the critical 'punt' decision leaves the game and it becomes much less skilled oriented.

We play in under 1.5 hours in North America (On maps like Nippon rails, India Rails, etc where we don't know the geography it can add 30-60 minutes).

I would argue that almost all of your suggested changes remove skill as a factor in favor of luck. It may be a great game and suit your group of players, but it is a different game. I love this game also.
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Lee M.

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The skill in the game is a matter of translating the luck of the cards you draw into a plan. If early on you have no combination of cards that yields at least 2 contract finishes from your initial track builds, you have been lucked out of the game vs. anyone who did have 2 contracts they could build with initial starting cash, because their good start will accelerate them to a more and more lucrative track. If you infuse the game with more starting cash and make it easier to ditch useless or mediocre cards in favor of better ones, then the game becomes almost pure skill, a matter of making the most efficient track that will bring you to various regions and commodities, instead of trying to make do with cards that will never bring you the victory against someone luckier.

Perhaps my perspective will change as I play longer and with better players (I've played about 10 games and won all of them), but I stand by my stance that the extra card draw reduces the effect of luck on the game - *all* of the luck comes from the limitations you face due to the cards, and from the occasional event card. Making it easier to draw more cards will inevitably reduce the influence of luck. You can say truthfully that it changes the KIND of skill that is needed into something more like an architect designing a building (how cheaply can you make a building that will both fulfill its purpose and be structurally sound) rather than the skill of trying to make the best of a bad situation. Other than that,there can be no logical stance that doesn't correlate greater flexibility in card draws with increased leverage of skill.

This mod (discounting the time limit which is really dealing with something completely different) essentially minimizes the effects of bad luck (OR poor planning) in the beginning of the game, and its effects become basically negligible later in the game when almost every contract card will be usable on your track with little need for additional rails.

Anyways, I don't mind the original rules of the game, but I'm a pretty hardcore gamer whereas many of my friends aren't. Experientially, this mod has caused my friends who didn't really like it in the first place (because they would fall so far behind so quickly) to decide it's really fun and keep playing, and that's the main reason why I dreamed it up
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david landes
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I think your own statement hangs you up a little. You've played about 10 games and won all of them? That sounds like skill to me.. if it were truly luck, you should win 1 out of 4 (or however many players you play with). 10 in a row is statsistically significant that you are doing something better.. luck would even out sooner.

As to the extra card draw, I would agree that on any given draw, luck can play. But I think you are undervalueing the statistical leveling out of volume across the game. The cards are pretty well designed, and you turn over enough of them in the course of a game that the luck of the moment evens out over the course of the game. The skill then becomes knowing how to evaluate the cards-in-hand value versus the one turn cost of a punt versus the likely return of the new cards. Everyone will have bad moments, but a relatively even run cross the entire game.

As to starting hands, I am not in agreement with your analysis. Very early in the game, one good delivery is sufficient. I think either two smaller deliveries or one longer delivery enable you to build the track foundation and generate enough money to position well for the next cards coming. Additionally, if your initial deal is truly horrendous, you have two turns of track building without movement to use for punting and getting three new cards.. without appreciably losing ground to the other players. Sure, you might lose a dollar or two due to slightly higher csts for being second to build through a terrain, but this is relatively small in the grand scheme. Punting is not, as it may appear, a negative event, but something that every winner should likely do a few times per game. Punting during the initial two turns of building does not even truly "cost" a turn.

You state "Other than that,there can be no logical stance that doesn't correlate greater flexibility in card draws with increased leverage of skill." A bold statement. While we may never choose to agree on this, let me propose a "logical" stance. It takes greater skill to manage well the moments in the game when you have a weaker set of cards. Every player faces these moments over the course of the game. By artifically improving the average hand, you narrow the scope for a good player's skill to make a difference. Instead, the more skillful player reaps only a minor reward for their differentiation as everyone always has more optimum cards to use. Managing the inevitable weaker cards situations is the primary differentiating factor in Empire Builder. While not 100%, I would argue that almost every player every game has plenty of weaker moments.. the weaker players just fail to capitalize on theirs and blaim luck.

I would completely agree that the mod minimizes the effects of poor planning, but that's the point, poor planning is poor skill and should not be minimized. In addition, I completely disagree with your statement that almost every card is useable on your track late in the game. Unless you mean that it does not create a situation where a player runs out of money and can't deliver. Trying to be brief (I am already an abject failure here), winning Empire Builder is not about deliveries or track building. It is all and only about building sufficient track to connect the large cities and generate 250 million IN THE FEWEST POSSIBLE TURNS. Delivery cards late in the game aren't evaluated on a 'could use' basis, but on a dollars per turn of movement basis. Connecting more track in Empire Builder than is necessary to win is the primary mistake of new players. Critical decisions have to be made to ignore building track and reduce the number of delivery cards that will fit well in the late game... and then selecting/punting to get the ones that work. If you find late in the game that almost every card has good deliveries without building additional track, I would argue you have way over-built your track, driving up the total number of deliveries you will have to make and thus the total number of turns you will need to end the game.

Your last point, I totally agree with.. if the tightness of the system drives casual gamers to dislike the game and feel punished, loosening it and making it fun is entirely worthwhile. Note though your own statement of the problem.. "Because they would fall so far behind so quickly" merely emphasizes that the 'luck' is one sided.. you never get bad luck and they always do. And THAT'S the definiton of skill differentiation.

By the way, I found myself very passionate on this topic.. Apologies for the diatribe.
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Lee M.

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No need to apologize, it's a good discussion. Let me first address the part about the beginning of the game - When making an assessment of what kind of a blow bad luck will strike you, I make that assessment on the assumption of all players playing a "perfect game". Mistakes made by the players just obfuscate the influence of luck. I win all these games because I have a good mind for seeing patterns and translating that into efficient tracks, and I was able to quickly learn when to ditch cards, and do fast intuitive cost/benefit analysis on which contract on a particular card to pursue. That is skill for sure, but when I speak of the effects of luck, I'm taking it as a given that in this theoretical game realm where you are actually trying to quantify the significance of skill vs. luck in the game, all players are equal. If that is true, then my point about the beginning of the game is that a very small change in the luck of your draw has a huuuuuge influence on the profitability curve of your track, and it takes a large swing in luck later for the unlucky players in the beginning to surmount that. A little bit of luck is nice, keeps the game from ending up like Tic-Tac-Toe in "Wargames", but I want the influence of luck to be smoothed out over the course of the game instead of front-loaded right at the beginning.

Your next point I already addressed in my post - you can't claim that it is "greater" skill to make the best out of the bad cards you drew. It is certainly a challenge, but it is just as challenging to eke out a victory when EVERYONE has good cards for their tracks, so the comparison isn't valid.. You can't quantify one type of skill and another type of skill and say one is greater than the other, that's just a subjective opinion. You can however say that a game is more or less influenced by luck because of its own peculiar dynamics. If you remove factors of luck from a game, all you are left with is skill, so it follows quite logically that removal of luck makes for a more "skill-based" game, even if the skill it takes to win it seems less challenging to you than the skill it takes to win in the face of bad luck.

Still and all, this conversation is teetering on the edge of philosophy I agree that it does take plenty of a certain kind of skill to manage the effects of bad luck and still forge on to victory, and that's exactly why I enjoy playing Magic the Gathering, for instance, where a game like that is pretty much par for the course. This mod makes the game more like a race to finish a solitaire puzzle, and as such is a good way to introduce people to the game in a non-frustrating way. Before we started using the mod, people weren't having as much fun, and now that we are using it, people love it. Every group of people is different of course, but remember this mod if you ever want to teach the game to someone who might not like it otherwise

In other news, bought Iron Dragon last night! I'm so psyched to try it out, it looks like it'll be really fun!!
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Steve Okonski
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Interesting discussion. Lee's argument that "If you remove factors of luck from a game, all you are left with is skill, so it follows quite logically that removal of luck makes for a more "skill-based" game," is a strong one. The deck of contracts provides the only significant luck element in EB, therefore if a player is given a level of control over the contracts drawn, luck is reduced and skill is rewarded.

It is not only the luck of contracts drawn at the start of a match, but also those drawn during that match that strongly influences the outcome. A player receives three contracts to begin, and roughly another 15 via deliveries during the course of the average match. If a player pitches his set twice, that's 3 + 15 + 6 = 24 contracts total.

That the contracts drawn during the match have a big impact is illustrated by simulation runs of Empire Builder Pronto. When that software's AI is allowed the simple cheat of, upon delivery, selectively drawing from the deck a contract demanding a load supplied by the city of the AI's current location, the average number of rounds to win is reduced by over 25%. So, even if just 15 of the 24 contracts drawn are good ones (something that could happen at random), enough of a difference is yielded to routinely defeat even the most expert EB player.

Allowing players to discard one contract for another as Lee proposes will reduce the luck factor. The player must decide not only which contract to discard, but also judge whether those remaining the deck are likely to offer something better. Both are skill factors. Another benefit of such a variant is to reduce the duration of the match, since with better contract combinations more cash will enter the game more quickly.
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david landes
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Back again for more fine fun this Monday.. . I think we are close to having reached 'heated agreement'.

First, we are totally in agreement on fun for players who would not otherwise have it. Any change in that respect is a good change.

Second, a quick thought for Steve.. if I read his statement correctly and having never accessed the software to which he refers.. he posits the computer having a near-perfect draw throughout the game as making a 25% difference. I have played an awful lot of this game and I have never come anywhere near drawing a load from the city I am already in 15 out of 24 times, not even 5 out of 24, so I think it nowhere near could happen at random. Additionally, if a perfect draw simulation only enables a 25% improvement in turn speed over a haphazard luck draw.. I would definitely not wish to narrow the differentiation of skill any further by giving everyone better draws. And I would argue that if a real-life-impossible, perfect draw only makes a 25% difference, then there really isn't that much luck in the game. Again, without an empirical (lol) model and just based on experience, in a few hundred games across many different geographies, the luck of good-draw / bad-draw within a given game does tend to even out. Especially for US only Empire Builder (where most of my games have been played), the cards are very well designed such that if you are generally constructing good track on the way to shortest turn victory, you can absolutely manage the vaguaries of deck-draw. As a side note, I would love to see the rules the AI is using in that software. I have played the quasi-Euro-rails version from the web and I beat it like a drum.

Third, I am not sure we are talking about the same thing, or maybe we are saying the same thing differently. You mention the 'blow' of bad luck when all players are playing a perfect game. I am not seeing this. The entire point of skill differentiation is that all players only play to their level of skill. If all players always play a perfect game, then the game becomes all and only 100% luck. If I over-metaphor it, two perfect players at chess come down to a mimimal advantage of who randomly gets white and gets to go first. And noone would argue that chess is a luck game (well.. this is BGG, there are probably any number who would be glad to argue that.. )..

I prefer the cost of bad play and the reward for excellence to have a greater scope of impact. Drawing cards that fit and building relatively obvious track-connections (yes, I am overstating a little) does not give as much scope for skill to differentiate as the several times per game when the cards do not quite fit and tough decisions need making. Ultimately, it sounds to me like you and I might love a tight, difficult brainburner of a contest, while most people.. not so much. So yes, I do claim it is greater skill to be better at making the best out of bad cards. Because I also claim that over the course of the bulk of games, every player will face a roughly similar number of bad situations. By eliminating many of these, or the worst of them, you have narrowed the area of skill a player needs to grasp to just playing between perfect cards and mildly suboptimal cards. I am not saying that bad-card skill is greater than good-card skill, I am saying that having both requires more skill than having one.

Perhaps we are merely talking past a hinge point.. which is that I believe bad and good card draws even out over the course of most games.. in which case how you handle them is what matters, and you do not believe it evens out.

On the flip side, where two players do find themselves close very late in the game, it can and does come down to who flips the best card, and that is clearly a function of luck. I do not see where any of your corrections impact that, and I would also argue that players in that situation have failed to distinguish themselves from each other throughout the game, and it looks like the luck of the last draw as to who wins.

As for starting hands, I would say that if a person does not think they can get a reasonable starting set in three draws (opening set plus two track-building turns), then they may not actually have that much skill.

As for Iron Dragon, boy do I love that one. It does tend to take a little longer, so beware of that.
 
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Steve Okonski
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Using standard rules, the most common/popular EB series titles each play to completion in about 60 rounds. Finishing in just 45 rounds, a 25% reduction, happens infrequently, I'd estimate just 2% of matches. Consequently, I'd have to say a 25% reduction due to pulling 15 better contracts is a significant difference.

In the AI cheat example I gave, the AI does not give itself the perfect/best contract, but merely one that demands a load supplied by the AI's current city and has an above average payoff. No consideration is given to how that contract meshes with the AI's other contracts, nor whether the AI already has track to the demand city, nor whether sufficient loads are available for pickup, etc. Adding such considerations would reduce the rounds-to-victory even further.

I'd rate the current Empire Builder Pronto's AI at its max skill setting to be less than expert, perhaps instead an "advanced" player. True expert EB human players will be able to beat it more than half the time, but will lose some percentage of matches, enough to create a fun challenge IMO. If an expert wants a serious challenge, he can play in blitz mode: all players keep taking turns until someone wins. Since the AI can play an entire match in a couple seconds, a setting is provided to slow down the AI and give the human a chance. Ten seconds per round (about 10 minutes for the match) is about the fastest anyone has been able to beat it.

When the AI is told to play vs. itself to collect stats, and does not cheat, as already mentioned the average win takes 60 rounds. After about 10,000 matches, the minimum rounds-to-victory is usually around 35; after about 100,000 matches the min is usually in the upper 20s. The quickest AI win I've ever seen took just 19 rounds.

Since the AI plays all these matches using the same algorithm, all the variance in rounds-to-victory can only be attributed to random factors (i.e. luck), the biggest factor being the contract draws.
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david landes
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Nifty Stats. Thanks.
 
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