Vegas Showdown and the “Suboptimal” play

The Setup

Brandon has invited us over. It’s the day after the anniversary of AnyGameGood.  His former boss Taran is in town, and they used to play games together at/after work. So we came, Taran, Mark, Nicole and I, to Brandon’s place to celebrate with a day of boardgaming.

As Brandon has pointed out, five isn’t always the best number for most games. We also have an interesting variation of experience in the room. Mark is a Gamer at a level that I’m not sure if Brandon or I match (Brandon may disagree). Taran, from what I can tell, is a gamer and has a mind that is used to walking down the paths of “If you do this then I’ll do that and you’ll do this” and Nicole is just starting to get used to thinking that way. I suggest Vegas Showdown as a game that seats five and has depth but will be generally easy to pick up for those who haven’t yet played it. I’m by no means an expert, but I’ve enjoyed the few games of it I’ve played.

Midway through the game we’re all pretty close. Taran has a slight lead, Mark is behind but has two rooms that he needs the prerequisites for before he can place them, and Brandon, Nicole and I are in the middle, well within striking distance.

“Oh my god that was so stupid.”

Mistakes happen. Gamers rarely talk about mistakes though, Gamers talk about “moves that are suboptimal.“ And so when I find myself repeating over and over “Oh my god, that was so stupid” and generally beating myself up, Mark tries to console me with “No one likes making a move that’s suboptimal.” He’s not wrong. However, I’d like to argue that there’s a difference between suboptimal and downright stupid. And I just made a move that was downright stupid.

Like in most games like this, I have built a strong economy. The most population, the most revenue, but only one lounge. No Fancy Lounge, no Nightclub, no Theatre. My points are coming from filling my casino and hotel, having the highest revenue and population, and hopefully ending the game on my terms, with my competitors unable to get something they need at the end. I’m in a position with a few turns left in the game where this is looking reasonable. Taran is ahead, but not by much, and I’m going to get the most bonus points at end of game. Brandon or Nicole could certainly come in and snag it, but I’m pretty happy with where I am.

Things are looking good. Look at all those slots!

Things are looking good. Look at all those slots!

This fateful turn Taran and I are the only two who have enough money to buy a room, we both have 33 cash, and only two rooms are within our price range: A Fancy Lounge starting at 25 and the Dragon Room starting at 33. For those who don’t have photographic memories, here are the stats for those two rooms: Fancy Lounge is worth 4 points (and is required to build a 12-point Theatre) and the Dragon Room is worth 6 points and gives 4 revenue. I was in the first seat, meaning I could bid the minimum for the Dragon Room and take it, or I could bid on the Fancy Lounge. Looking at the population and revenue tracks, I have a population of 15 and a revenue of 12, meaning that the Dragon Room not only is worth more points but also will help my economy (which also is worth points at the end of the game).

What did I do? I bid 27 on the Fancy Lounge. Taran bid 33 on the Dragon Room and I started repeating “Oh my GOD that was so stupid of me.”

In the moment I had half thought that since I was going to get the Dragon Room it was too bad that Taran was going to get the Fancy Lounge for only 25. This half thought caused me to try to make him bid a little higher for his Fancy Lounge, which put it at the same price for him as the better Dragon Room. Needless to say that play took me from a chance at the victory to a distant 3rd place.

Technically, I still had all those slots AND a Fancy Lounge. But this is what my casino felt like.

Technically, I still had all those slots AND a Fancy Lounge. But this is what my casino felt like.

“Nobody likes to make plays that are Sub Optimal”

Mark is right. No one likes to make plays that aren’t the best possible play. But sub optimal plays happen all the time, in fact, for most games there are often numerous moves that are all valid options, with personal preference being the deciding factor. Do I pick up a lounge this turn? Do I pay 9 for slots this turn when next turn I could get it for 7? Do I save my money waiting for a high value room to get flipped? These are all questions that get asked and will have different answers depending on the gamer.

Brandon likes to talk about them as “interesting decisions” and I’m inclined to agree. There may be one play that is superior, but there is rarely a wrong answer. Often, these decisions are ones that you wouldn’t be able to figure out if they worked or not until much later, and are based on a number of factors that you can’t quantify. For example, sticking with Vegas Showdown, you might have a play that is optimal knowing what cards are left in the deck and could be quantified, but knowing what choice the other players are going to make in similar situations can’t be.

Suboptimal plays do happen and can hurt you a few points on the final score, whereas mistakes mean the difference between winning and losing. Winning is important to me, but far more important is playing my best. Some games my best isn’t good enough, either because luck isn’t on my side or because someone is a superior player. This can be frustrating as well (unfortunately Brandon had this happen to him the other day when we played Seasons online. He played well as best we could both tell, and neither of us was particularly unlucky, but when the final scores were tallied, I had surprisingly ended up on top. He didn’t take it so well. I don’t blame him), but nothing is worse than a game where you can point to the exact reason you lost an otherwise winnable game and it was because you did something completely boneheaded. That’s the kind of loss that sticks with you through the next game you play and can mess with your mojo. I like to think of myself as a smart guy, and I think that’s not an uncommon thought amongst the gaming community, and it hurts to be proven wrong, even if only for a single stupid moment.

About Last Night

Last Night Brandon and I and 6 other people got together to play Boardgames and it was a great deal of fun. I played Dixit for the first time and an old favorite Citadels. Brandon played Puzzle Strike twice. (You can always see what games we’re playing over on the Standings page) Here are some thoughts we had that didn’t deserve their own full on posts:

  • Describing Dixit 

    Dixit is better described as “Balderdash with pictures” than “Apples to Apples with pictures.” Both because its more true and because it makes people more likely to play. It’s still more of a “social activity” than a “game,” but I found it much more enjoyable than Apples to Apples. (Thom asked “so Dixit is like getting punched in the face rather than kicked in the groin?” and I said “No, it’s more like getting slapped in the face. Sometimes you don’t mind getting slapped.”) 

  • The Cult Of The New 

    I feel like with many activities, there’s a sort of cult of the new, and boardgamers do this a great deal. I’ll get OBSESSED with a new game and play it until I get OBSESSED with another game. I’m much more likely to want to buy a new game than to play one I’ve had for a few months. So it was a delight when I realized that we had 5 people which is a perfect number for Citadels, one of my old favorites. Even more delightful was remembering why I loved the game so much – the nerves of “will I get assassinated? Will I be stolen from?”, the feeling that you’ve made a terrible mistake after you pass the cards… It was great to break out an old favorite.

  • It’s The People, Stupid 

    I was once again reminded that playing with the right people is the most important part of gaming. Brandon and I didn’t play the same game as each other the entire night, and instead I played with Melissa (who is a good friend and who I know well) and three strangers. But those three strangers were invested, competitive and fun to game with. A special shout out to Katie, who got absolutely demolished in Citadels, mostly for reasons that were unlucky or random and still seemed to enjoy the experience overall. It is hard to be stolen from seemingly every turn and still not only let everyone else have a good time but have a good time yourself. Bravo.

Josh’s points are sort of chronological.  Since I want to talk about that last one first, I’ll go the other way.

  • The Host With The Most 

    Having a bunch of people at a game night usually means you won’t be socializing with a number of people for the night.  Which I knew would happen.  I was very happy that, at the end of the night, everyone had fun playing games.  But I also know that next game night I intend to make it more focused, so that I’m not concerned with playing host to a large group and I can sit with everyone at a single table and enjoy everyone’s company.

  • Puzzle Strike is way better in person.Online the game tracks players’ discard piles, your current bag’s contents, and it automatically remembers your ante.  It doesn’t forget rules, it keeps your hand organized and easy to use, and the components don’t sprawl out over the table.  As a game qua game the online experience is far superior.  In person you play with friends.  No contest.
  • Dixit Part Deux 

    Dixit is not my favorite game.  But in keeping with the Cult of the New, it has become my favorite social construct to share with friends.  It’s imaginative, easily accessible, Katie’s family (my GF, different from the one mentioned above) loves to play it.  So the disdain on my more hardcore gamer friends’ faces regarding it can easily be overlooked.  We’ll always have Puzzle Strike.

Playing for second

Friends of mine would probably never describe me as conservative. I unabashedly call myself a feminist. My headshot for a theater group I was in had me reading Marx. If you let me, I’ll tell you my criticisms of Obama from the left, and hell, my twitter handle is @TheSocialest.

Recently, however, I’ve been noticing that when it comes to games, that instead of playing to win, I’ve instead been playing not to lose. Semantically, they’re pretty similar, but in actuality, there is a significant difference in the manner of play.

Everyone who plays games with the frequency that I do is going to lose games, but by playing “smart” you can generally avoid big losses and put yourself in a good position to win by the end. Or so I’ve been telling myself. But I’m starting to think that playing not to lose is less about winning and losing and more about avoiding embarrassment. It means playing conservatively, sticking to a strategy I’ve seen work before and one that I know will get me a respectable score, if not the winning score. Its the football equivalent of 4th and 1 and punting even though you’re on the opponent’s 40. Its the type of decision that coaches make to avoid criticism. Its the safe call rather than the best call. And not for nothing, but it goes directly against the way I played in the All Trains Go To Helena game that I’m so proud of.

Even worse, playing overly cautious means that you expect your opponent to screw it up. (Which isn’t effective even when you think they’re screwing it up) Playing for a victory via opponent error is not only a bit disrespectful, but also isn’t that much fun. (This isn’t to say you can’t have fun if you’re losing, or that winning is the only important part. But in a game where the competition is taken “seriously”, the serious doesn’t have to be tournament level, it just means you care about the outcome.)

And that may be the true crime in all this and why it merits a post. Its not fun to lose most of the time, and yes, coming in last can be embarrassing, but if you aren’t stretching your brain a little, why are you playing? Its just a game! It is there to be enjoyed! Playing for second is like being the wallflower at a dance party. Sure, getting out there on the dance floor can a little scary, but only by putting yourself out there and taking that risk are you going to have a good time.

Too Many Ingredients Spoil the Soup

I hear about looking at the past through rose-colored glasses with movies a lot, but it happens with board games too. It’s a part of why I still love Monopoly. Solarquest, a similar game but in space (not space-themed Monopoly, the rules and board were different), held a lot of my childhood attention, but quickly faded in college when I realized how broken the system is. Some games hold up; I still like Settlers of Catan, and Risk is alright for what it is. But one game that has not held up so well, as evidenced by a recent play-through with a couple friends, is my previously loved expansion to Settlers; Cities and Knights of Catan.

This old tarnished box contains the set of Settlers, Cities & Knights, the 5-6 player expansions, strategy notes, and 13 years of memories.

Overview

Nearly everyone is familiar with SoC. Not a lot of people have played with expansions. C&K is a nice idea on paper, expanding previously nebulous concepts into larger game mechanics. Specifically, development cards and “largest army” are replaced with progress cards and knights. Cities now produce commodities for certain resources, and those commodities buy city upgrades. These upgrades provide players with a chance to earn progress cards in one of three categories; commercial, scientific, and military. This is where the previous development card powers go; monopoly, road building, year of plenty, etc., are now expanded into a number of different powers, some good, some great, some not so good. They’re earned by using a third die, the “event die,” which shows what type would be produced, and a red d6, which represents what level of that upgrade you need to earn a card.

Knights are no longer one-shot cards. You build knights, feed them, and place them on the roads you build. They can block cities, sever longest road chains, displace other knights and oust the robber baron. They also serve to protect the island of Catan; that event die has 3 spots that show a barbarian ship. After 9 total rolls of that, the barbarians show up, with strength equal to the number of total cities on the board (everyone starts with 1). All active knights become inactive, and you compare cities vs. knights. If the knights equal or beat the barbarians, the one who contributed most gets a victory point. If there’s a tie for contribution, those players get a progress card. If the knights aren’t enough, the one who contributed least loses a city, replacing it with a settlement. For ties, everyone who contributed least loses a city.

There’s a lot more “player interaction” in the game. By that I mean there are more ways to screw your opponents over. Knights can bounce the robber baron around, and a number of cards take resources, cards, or even knights from other players. The delicate balance of social interaction is negligible here, because everyone generally has what they need, and trading isn’t nearly as useful. The barbarian ship is a rough addition as well. If you’re in a position to get knights, chances are you have a lot. It’s not uncommon then to be in a position where you could activate all your knights and get the static victory point, or just contribute some and let the barbarians destroy somebody else’s city. If you’re lucky you can get multiple cities down, and everyone losing a point and a city is way better than gaining a point that doesn’t do anything.

Recap

We talked a bit about “tactical bitching” in a previous post. I’ll admit I was in a good position early on, but not so good as I thought I should be targeted. In retrospect, most of my bitching was of a calculated variety. I ran away with the game, which is what usually happens in a C&K game. There are ways to screw your opponents, but it’s generally a “rich get richer” setup to the game. Once I got one of the super-powerful commodity upgrades (produce a resource of your choice when a roll gives you nothing) I probably should have been hit with every card, baron, and trade designed to block my progress. And it would have been miserable. As it is, I got hit with every spy and many theft cards. And it wasn’t enough to stop me, not even close. And I still felt pretty put upon.

I remember the game as a super-fun addition to a game I already love. More toys, more powers, and more interactivity make for a better game, right? When it was over, I enjoyed myself, and I won, but I also felt bad, almost guilty for winning. Josh and I discussed it afterward. One thing he said stuck out:

“Nobody likes it when their stuff is torn down. In Catan you build roads, you work towards a goal, you have that feeling of progression. In C&K your stuff can get torn down, and nobody likes that.”

I think that’s a big part of it. There are a couple other little things I could point to. The Progress cards are imbalanced; some are crazy powerful, some are flat-out useless except for specific situations. The game has many avenues for points, so the game goes to 13, but it’s much more obvious who’s going to win earlier than that. In the end, the overall issue with me is that, where SoC is more often than not a slow-burning, close race throughout the game, C&K is a vicious scramble in a sand pit, with a king of the pile sussed out early, and a number of people getting bulldozed over the course of the game.

Final thoughts

I think it’s a shame that the C&K expansion isn’t out for the Xbox Live version of the game (it exists on other online sites that use the rules but eschew the licensing issues). But there’s a reason it doesn’t exist in a larger arena, and why there aren’t tournaments for it. The expansion is fairly imbalanced, not quite broken, but in the end it isn’t worth it to lash a bunch of pieces to a simple game.

I still think the expansion is neat, but yeah, it’s a lot of components that clog up an otherwise elegant game. The new stuff isn’t balanced, in game power or game pace. The game takes longer, and those extra minutes aren’t filled with a lot of joy. I think it’s going to be a while before this gets pulled out of the box again.

The time I told my girlfriend she could concede. Then she beat me.

As someone who plays games in a variety of settings, something that comes up often is the relationship between winning the game and having fun. While in a perfect world, everyone would have fun all the time when gaming, whether they won or not, sadly, reality sneaks in and finds you in a game you know you’ve lost but isn’t even halfway over yet.  I’ve been in a game of Dominion where my opponent had taken a path to drawing his entire deck each turn and in doing so, would make sure to attack me with multiple cards. Or the game of Race for the Galaxy where my opponent had multiple six cost developments working in tandem while I was still struggling to get my consume x2 VPs engine going. In either case, I see no issue with stopping a two player game when its clear who the victor is going to be.

Well, I’ve been on both sides of these games plenty of times and so in a game of Dominion recently where I was trouncing my girlfriend, G, I told her that she could concede if she wanted to. Here’s that story:

Game: Dominion

Cards: Transmute, Vineyard, Apothecary, Scrying Pool, Courtyard, MenagerieSteward, Coppersmith, Smithy, Fairgrounds

Pregame thoughts:

So there are three important things to notice about this set in my estimation:

  1. There are no split buys
  2. There are no split actions
  3. There are no five cost cards

These three things make me assume that it’ll be a generally boring game, especially since the steward allows you to clear out your estates and coppers fairly early on. Then it just becomes a race to golds and from there a race to five provinces right? The alchemy cards are relatively weak without any extra buys, which makes the cards I’d focus on be the Steward, Silver, Smithy, and Gold (in that order).

The Game Itself:

We both buy Stewards on our first turn, while I buy a Silver, she buys a Smithy. We both begin cleaning out our decks and while I buy almost nothing but currency, she buys, well, everything. A Potion here, a Menagerie or two there and suddenly I’m buying my first Provence while she has no Golds. I’ve had a couple of nice draws (turns where I had exactly 6 while she kept getting stuck at 5) and I’m buying my second Provence when she decides to grab a Transmute even though she Stewarded away two Estates already. In short: things look grim and she’s already mentioned more than once that she screwed this one up.

I don’t disagree. Instead as I buy my third Province I sheepishly tell her that she can concede if she wants to. She won’t hear it. We’re both a bit stubborn, but this is the sort of situation I worry about when trying to bring someone into gaming. If they weren’t a big boardgame person before and they have enough bad experiences, then they don’t want to play anymore. So even though G is mildly obsessed with Dominion, I worry about the 6-2 beatdown I feel is coming.

But it never comes. She hits the Transmute/Estate and then a Transmute/Vineyard. I start getting 5 instead of 6 and foolishly buy a Coppersmith rather than a Smithy (honestly, an incredibly dumb move that I have no real reasoning on what I was thinking. I think I had two hands of Gold, Silver, Copper, Copper, Provence in a row and rather than just grabbing the Gold I thought maybe I’d grab a Fairgrounds later). She buys her first Provence and her second Provence in consecutive turns. She buys her third on her next reshuffle. My Golds that had been paired together earlier in the game now made sure never to be in the same hand, and with my 1 Smithy and one courtyard I found myself getting a Duchy “just in case.” She’s meanwhile grabbed an Apothecary that hits three Coppers and Transmutes a Transmute into a Duchy. She buys a Fairgrounds for good measure but by the time I get my fourth Provence its too late, she has me by a Duchy and a Fairgrounds and I’m left trying to go back a few moves to see how on earth that just happened. Final score: G 31 – Josh 28

The Post Mortem:

I don’t have the suckerpunch feeling that might happen if this was in a tournament, but afterwards the general feeling I have is just confusion. How did that happen? G, meanwhile, is doing a little wiggle of a happy dance in triumph. Overconfidence can bite you, and that’s the only explanation I have. Rather than buying that third Provence, when things were looking so good, I should’ve bought another Gold. Rather than taking the Steward’s +$2 later on, I should’ve trashed the Estate and Copper in my hand to grab another Silver. Rather than seeing the mess of cards in G’s deck, I should’ve realized that those Menageries she bought early would be hitting a lot more often now that she had diversified.

Really though, its as simple as this, just because things look bad doesn’t mean they’ll stay that way, especially in a game like Dominion. And if you don’t mind a good beatdown every once in a while, you’ll steal a few victories that will leave your opponents scratching their heads.