Resource Management

Josh and I had a delightful game gathering over Memorial Day Weekend. In attendance were Me, Josh, Katie, Nicole, Fraley, Perich, and Sylvia. 7 people can be a tough number for a gaming group, as none of the games we’ve brought fit 7. Fortunately, we’re able to move past that “what are we going to play” phase of game night and get to playing in different groups and configurations. Among the games played were Factory Fun, Innovation, Castle Panic, Dixit, and Galaxy Trucker. Galaxy Trucker is the one I’d like to talk about.

Shipsmiths

It’s a work in progress. But I swear she flies.

I love Galaxy Trucker. I love playing it and I love teaching it. It was Nicole’s third game, Perich’s first, and my… I dunno, 37th? Well, enough that Perich referred to me as a “practiced shipsmith.” The game specifies that it can be punishing, and that any player who made a profit by the end wins (though “some are bigger winners than others”). I confess, dear reader, that I did not adequately pull my punches when ship building. I don’t think I stole critical pieces or put time pressure on anyone, but I did come out with superior ships, though in round 3 large chunks broke off mine, which was simultaneously frustrating and exhilarating.

After the game, Perich asked Nicole and me what general guidelines he should be following in building ships. For what it’s worth, he took second place with a very respectable score. And he did it with very slim ships.

I’m not a genius, but I fancy myself a pretty good Galaxy Trucker player. I told him, “it’s important not to block off sections of your ship by placing pieces with too few outward connectors. Each square of your ship should be looked at as a resource, a place to put something in your ships of some use. Specific ship pieces are important as a resource, but your most important resources are time and space.” Then I thought, “Wait, was that poignant?”

Resource Management

Resources are defined as “a source of supply, support, or aid, especially one that can be readily drawn upon when needed.”  All games have at least one resource. No, seriously. Every game you will ever play has resources. Some are obvious; wood, grain, ore, cash, energy, etc. Some aren’t called resources, though of course they are; workers, deeds, territory. Some aren’t even considered as resources, though again they are, and sometimes more important than the obvious resources you’re given. For example, Scrabble is a game about building words to get points. You draw letter tiles from a bag; that’s an obvious resource. It’s also the least important one in the game. The biggest resource the Oxford Unabridged Dictionary, or more specifically, your ability to memorize and access those words.

Here’s a more eccentric example. The Resistance is a game about hidden roles and espionage. The game itself is fairly simple; two teams, resistance fighters and spies, try to win three missions. The spies know who’s on whose team, and the resistance has to smoke them out through accusations, extrapolation, and sometimes outright guessing. The game has no traditional resources, but that doesn’t mean they’re not there. I would say the most important resource you have is trust. You earn it through lies and clever play, and you lose it through missteps or simply being in a bad situation with more consummate charlatans.

What I’m getting at here is that being aware of what’s available to you is important in understanding a game, and in making strong decisions. Good games are all about interesting decisions, and those decisions are informed by what you can do in a game, and what you can do is defined by what resources to bring to bear.

The Wide World of Gaming

Athletes and professional video gamers view their time, their physical endurance and their mental acuity as resources. The French Open is happening right now, and already there are talks of Rafael Nadal struggling to close out his first round. It happens every year, and every year since Rafa’s 2005 victory he’s won the French Open (except 2009, and we’re all happy Federer finally got one). I don’t think Nadal is struggling, I think he’s conserving himself. He doesn’t need to use all his strength to defeat lesser opponents.

The other day I was reading an old book on Pac Man strategy. Yes, really. The book talks about using your time well, resting during the intermission scenes, and staying relaxed and focused. Fighting game professionals don’t go all out for their opening matches, as the mental fatigue drastically reduces their strength in later rounds, though sometimes they’ll attempt to finish matches quickly to give themselves more time to rest. RTS masters are as concerned with time and momentum as they are with the game’s endogenous resources. And anyone who thinks the resources in poker are limited to your chip stack will be sorely and expensively mistaken.

Billy Mitchell knows what I’m talking about

But Back To The Point

My advice to Perich crystallized a thought that I sort of knew but never put into words. For my part, I love games where the resources aren’t just measured by tokens or currency, but also by creativity and time-management. Every game has a resource, and as such, resource management is part of every game. And sometimes the key is to be aware of which resources are the important ones. After all, if we hadn’t managed our time so well we may have never gotten to play at all.

I’m pretty adamant about the importance of theme and story in games. A fun game (and a great game night) is more than the sum of rules, pieces, and mathematical combinations that make up the game system. Games are a sort of living art. But I also hold in high regard the actual quality of the play itself. So next time you play a game, keep in mind that you have a lot more to work with than the cards in your hand, the cash under the board, or the tiles in the rack. And of course, be brief with the jawing and debate of the evening’s game selection, and get to gaming!

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Talking It Out

I’ve said it over and over again, but the most fun part about games remains the actual human interaction you get while playing. And while any game will allow you to talk about the local sports team while you play, not every game lets you talk about the game you’re actually playing. Some games, like Settlers of Catan, force you to talk about what you’re doing; you have to talk to each other to trade. Other games aren’t as encouraging, but allow for it by giving everyone enough information to discuss moves (Stone Age, Industrial Waste), which leads me to say things like “really? I thought you’d be going for the field this turn.”

I played a game of Chess a few days ago for the first time in what has to be years and was struck by the way my playing of other games had influenced how I treated it. Chess is similar to Puerto Rico (alright, Puerto Rico is similar to Chess, it’s been around much longer) in that there is no randomness; every play can be analyzed on a “if I do X then you do Y then I do Z and you…” train of thought until the end state of the game (potentially, of course, unless you’re playing Deep Blue, then it is definitely). It’s strange how this affects table talk. You could tell your opponent when they are leaving their queen vulnerable or you could try to talk them into making a mistake, but neither is very satisfying. The latter feels mean and the former feels like you’re just playing yourself.

Talking strategy ended up costing me, as I told my opponent when they made a particularly bad play, and let them take it back (Also costing me: the hubris of thinking I was a superior player). Later when I made a play that was not obviously bad but led to me losing a rook and being out of position, my opponent’s first words were  “wow, that’s a great move” rather than what I ended up saying “Man that was over aggressive. That probably cost me the game.” (Spoiler alert: It Did). If I had shut up I would have been in a much better position, but, well, I enjoy talking too much.

A much more fun game happened a couple of weeks back, when my friend Mark, Brandon’s friend David and I took a first crack at Snowdonia.* Mark had only played it a couple of times and it was the first time for both David and I. Snowdonia was very Euro in that everything you could do would give you points (or cards that would make other moves stronger further down the road), and the game was entirely about maximizing what points you could get with your two workers each turn. I found it agonizing in the best kind of way.

My agonizing and talking about each individual move ended up making the game take longer than it should have, and David, apologizing profusely, had to leave with the game only midway through. What followed was one of the more interesting things I’ve done gaming-wise in quite some time: Mark and I decided to play David’s turns for him, as well as our own. This allowed us to discuss how the game was progressing, what moves might be optimal and why, but doing it in the third person rather than asking for our opponent’s help with our own moves. It didn’t feel like that game of chess, it felt like a co-op game where we happened to be playing against each other. “David’s” moves were never to block the other person’s or to directly get out of the way. We played “David” as we thought the real David would play. I walked out of the game with a better appreciation for the strategy than almost any other maiden voyage with a game. I got indirect advice and answers to my “why isn’t this the obvious play?” question without giving away what I wanted to do. Digging deep into the game was one of the more enjoyable experiences I’ve had boardgaming in quite some time.

From this unique experience I made a realization that bums Brandon out. His new favorite game is Android: Netrunner.** The game seems pretty well put together, and even while seeing that it has potential I didn’t find myself enjoying it. I’ve come to realize that it actively discourages table talk.*** The megacorporation plays cards face down. Everything it does is in secret, and the hacker can spend significant resources only to find that what the megacorporation has been hiding was a trap the whole time. It requires bluffing and has numerous important pieces of information that are hidden. Any discussion had about the game has to be taken with a large game of salt, as it starts to feel like the battle of wits from The Princess Bride.

"Listen, the never get involved in a land war in Asia line was CLEARLY about Risk strategy"

“Listen, the never get involved in a land war in Asia line was CLEARLY about Risk strategy”

The tension built up from a game of Netrunner is probably what some people love about it. I’m not here to say that they’re wrong, just that I need that tension released. A game that should have no table talk but still felt fun was a recent game of Noir**** that I played with Brandon and Katie (Brandon’s fiancé). The game is fairly simple and not without its flaws (the game ended in a 2-2-2 tie as we all figured out who the other person was and there was no way we’d then end up next to each other without getting hit first) but it led to a beautiful moment where I moved Katie’s character out of the way of Brandon’s (I had figured out who they both were but Katie didn’t seem to have known) and whispered “I’m saving your life” which caused Brandon (and then me) to break into hysterical laughter. This tension breaking discussion about the game was probably not helpful in terms of winning. If Brandon didn’t know that I knew who he was, he may have been more reckless about his own movement and let himself end up next to me. But because the game moved quicker (and because I had had a couple of beers), I was more willing to give myself a slightly lower chance of winning to get some more enjoyment out of the game.

Watch out for Ryan, he only looks young and innocent…

Watch out for Ryan, he only looks young and innocent… 

Now, obviously, not everyone gets pleasure from boardgaming the same way. Some people want their game to tell a story and hate that euro games use little wooden cubes. Some people want to wreck each other’s shit and some people want to play Dominion without any attack cards. Brandon loves the mindfuck that is ever present in Netrunner and I hate the way it makes me shut up. Before Innovation took the crown of my new favorite game, Stone Age was the reigning champ for quite some time in large part because it encouraged me to ask why someone made the choice that they made, because if I were them I would’ve gone the other way. In improv, its bad form to talk about what you’re doing, but in boardgaming? I find it delightful.
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*Snowdonia is a very Euro-style worker placement game, but unlike most worker placement games I’ve played, you only get two workers per turn (eventually you can get up to 4, but it is costly).

** Netrunner is a card game set in a dystopian future wherein a Hacker tries to get into a megacorporation’s mainframe. It isn’t really a deck building game, but I don’t know how to describe it.

***To be clearer: it discourages helpful table talk. It highly encourages you to lie to your opponent and to get them to make mistakes. Given the option between antagonistic table talk and none, I find myself (personally) wishing for none.

****Noir is a game where the board is a grid of faces, and you are trying to figure out who everyone else is, and then move your card next to theirs so that you can kill them, before they do the same to you.