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.

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Innovation

The digitization of board games is something Brandon and I have talked about as a topic for a post since we started this blog over the summer. I finally took on posting about some of my feelings on it a while back, but when Brandon and I were talking about what should go into the post, we kept talking about the games that suffered immensely. You’re always going to lose part of the game when you’re playing online, the question is how big a part you’re losing and what you’re gaining. Dominion plays better online than most games because it saves you all the time of shuffling, as opposed to Stone Age, which doesn’t really save you time but still makes you miss out on the social interaction that is a large part of why I play games in the first place. The game that we kept coming back to for what a good online experience could be was Innovation, which wasn’t featured in the previous post because it wasn’t online.

“Wasn’t” is past tense though, and it turns out that in the months since I first went in depth on playing board games online, the game that Brandon and I both thought would translate really well to the internet has been brought to the same place you can play Dominion (the other game that gains a lot by going digital): isotropic.org

Innovation is my current favorite game though, so I may be a bit biased. And in honor of its new e-availability, I’m giving you a full-fledged review.

The Basics

Every man's gotta have a codeEvery turn in Innovation you get two actions of the 4 possible. You can Draw a card (from the stack equal to the highest card you have currently played), Meld (play) a card from your hand (it goes on top of cards of the same color if you already have a card of that color), Achieve (if you fulfill the requirements. Achievements is how you win) or use Dogma (use a card you’ve played). First to 6 achievements (in a 2 player game) wins. The rules are slightly more detailed but that’s the gist.

We are men of action, lies do not become us

Each card in innovation has three important things: Its color (Red, Green, Purple, Blue, Yellow. And yes, there are small symbols that let you play if you’re colorblind), its icons (3 icons on each card, of six total icons: Castles, Leaves, Coins, Lightbulbs, Factories, Clocks) and its Dogma effects (what it does). Here’s some cards, see how they have these things?

Knowledge of Anatomy keeps others from wanting to score

Ok can we get to why the game is great now?

Michael Bay's favorite cardFirst off, the theme is one I always enjoy. Yes Sid Meier’s Civilization is an amazing video game, but I think even if it lacked some of its depth I still would’ve really enjoyed it. Thankfully it did have depth, as does Innovation. In the beginning your options are limited, you’re trying to get all five colors on your board, you’re trying to see if you can jump up to the higher leveled cards before your opponent, but usually there’s a “right” play. As the game gets a little further along, it becomes a lot more nebulous. Do I want to use this dogma that lets my opponent jump an age, even if it lets me jump two? Do I want to tuck these cards in my hand? Do I want to cover my strong card with a card that doesn’t do as much but will give me more icons than an opponent? The answer to each of these questions depends on everything else that is in the game. The ability to draw a bunch of cards is good, but if you also have the ability to score cards from your hand? Well, then it gets a lot stronger.

The variability of the game is excellent, and the variability is unlike, say, the cards I love in Dominion because what can be considered a strong card varies not only game to game but turn to turn. The mechanics of scoring and achieving and tucking are all such that many cards don’t get used as you climb up through Prehistory and the Renaissance towards the Postmodern Age. Some games are won with a crazy string of cards played using Mathematics, some games you don’t see Mathematics at all. This variability is a core mechanic of the game and as such it is something that can be a legitimate turn off for some people. I take Innovation less seriously than I do other games because while strong tactical decisions will help lead you to victory for often than not, there are some games where things just don’t go right. You’re stuck with cards that don’t help and your opponent jumps ahead and never looks back. If you can’t let go of losses I’m not going to make a moral judgment, I’m just going to say that sadly, you might want to skip Innovation. But for those that embrace the randomness in the game, there is some really solid and interesting gameplay.

Strategy versus Tactics

Everything in its rightful placeThe first time I teach someone Innovation, I give them one piece of advice: If you’re losing, you want to either collect more icons or get to higher levels of cards. And it really is that simple. Sometimes having a lot of cards in your hand is great, sometimes it’s a liability. The same goes for your score pile. But getting to a higher level of card or having more icons is always good. That’s all the long term planning that Innovation allows. This may seem like a flaw, but it is actually a strength for the game.

A game like Puerto Rico has good tactical decisions but all of them are based on the overall strategy of the game.  No choice stands alone, and the better your overall understanding of the paths to victory and when to take one (shipping) versus the other (buildings) the better you’ll play. The individual decisions are important, but the path can be studied in excruciating detail. Innovation has no study guide. The game changes too much move to move for much long term planning. The joy of the game can be found in finding clever moves you can do with what you have in front of you, or maybe what you think you’ll have next turn. Any planning beyond that will usually be for naught as your opponent demands you trade hands or suddenly has more icons than you of the type you wanted or takes the achievement you were going for.

The Online Experience

Innovation.isotropic.org, I play as either JoshProv or jorsh. See you there!And to bring this full circle: This is why I thought this game would work so well online. Every turn you could examine the board and take your move accordingly. You would have time to read what each of your opponent’s cards are without asking them to “reread it, out loud, just one more time?” You would have a real-time count of icons to make sure you realized that your opponent had more coins than you now or that you were one leaf away from tying it up. And most importantly, you wouldn’t have to say, “Wait, what was I doing again?” because it wouldn’t matter, whatever you can do this turn is what you’re doing.

And it delivers. Innovation isn’t as popular as Dominion on isotropic, but a game can generally be had at any hour, and all the things I could’ve hoped for in a client are there. Yes, the chat features are still rarely used and it isn’t the same experience as playing in person, but there’s no set up or clean up, and once you get the hang of it you don’t even accidentally click a card that gives you no benefit this turn. It allows for more careful counting of symbols and better splay planning. It totals your score. It gives you the automatic achievements when you might otherwise forget them. Playing Innovation online is a really enjoyable way to spend 30 minutes.

And yes, of course, the game is also really fun in person, and once you get the hang of it, plays pretty quickly. I recommend it with two or three players, and the first expansion (Echoes of the Past) makes it even more ridiculous (and I take that as a good thing). I highly recommend Innovation, and will totally teach you if you haven’t played it yet.

On Monopoly part 2: Beyond Boardwalk

I love Monopoly. This puts me in the vast minority of people in every gaming group I’ve been in since I was thirteen. And while I do enjoy the game, and defend it at every turn, I do also understand that it’s a pretty shite game. I have a lot to say about Monopoly, both good and bad.

This weekend was no exception.

Lots of people in the world love Monopoly. Some like it for its artistic merits, some appreciate the history (did you know that Monopoly games sent to POWs in World War II had hidden cash, maps, and tools to help soldiers escape?), and some crazy individuals are really excited about playing the game itself. A couple of friends named Noel Gunther and Richard Hutton got together with some friends around 1985, and realized why they stopped playing when they grew up. The game has issues; too long, too much luck, too much dead time. They set out to create a list of rules changes that would give the game more skill, more risk, more challenge and, ideally, more fun. They published a book in November 1986 called Beyond Boardwalk and Park Place (and you’ll have an easier time finding the book at your local library than that Amazon link), which codified their rules changes, added some history and a few gags, and made out to change the face of Monopoly. I’m told it didn’t sell well.

Cut to 2009. My friend and fellow games nut Toby (name changed to protect him) sends me a PDF of a book he found at the Worcester public library. I’m hooked on the idea, but I can’t get anyone to play the damn thing until years later, and that breaks bad due to a massive divergence in investment at the table. But I never lost hope, and this last weekend, in a campground it Pittsfield MA with a group of like-minded nerds, I finally got the session of Beyond Boardwalk I wanted. The results were mixed, but positive overall. I think.

Gentlemen, I’ve brought you here to discuss a proposition…

The Rules

I’ll assume you know most of the rules of Monopoly, but I’ll highlight a few overlooked ones. We didn’t use every rule Beyond boardwalk states, but we did use most of them. I’ll explain them here, as well as why I think they work so well.

1) Deeds now cost twice their list price to purchase outright. Otherwise they go into auction, starting at half the list price plus $10.

In Monopoly everyone starts with $1500. The total cost for every deed in the game is $5690. There’s enough money in the system to buy everything, and there’s very little consequence to buying everything you land on. This changes that. It Introduces a lot more auctions, yet gives an option to buy the deed with no contest. This way, every purchase you make is important. Buy too much too soon and you’re busted. The auction base price insures nobody can buy a deed for less than its mortgage value and sell it for a quick buck. On that note:

2) No mortgages. Deeds can be sold back to the bank for half price.

The way most Monopoly games work is, once you have your winning Monopoly, everything else gets mortgaged for cash. $10 and $20 rents are insignificant at that stage. So the board looks like a wasteland with a few high value locations designed to crush an opponent. With this rule, you need the cash, you have to lose the deed. And since you probably paid more for it than what you’re getting, it’s a loss some cannot afford to take.

3) $1 bills are gone; round all fees up to the nearest $5.

Everyone was all for this. Sometimes it’s fun to gripe over 2 dollars, but Monopoly has never been decided by single digit fees.

4) While in Jail, you cannot build, you cannot bid on deeds, and you only collect half the rent to which you’re entitled.

In the late game, Jail is super awesome. There’s nothing to buy, the Go money isn’t significant, and moving only increases your chances of hitting an opposing player’s monopoly. Not moving for up to 3 turns is great, usually, so this rule makes it much more of a risk.

5) Fees from Chance, Community Chest, Income and Luxury tax are paid into a Free Parking Pot. Hit the spot, get the pot.

This is in there because money exits the system so quickly, so this is a way to put some back in. Plus it’s fun to hit, honestly. Nobody landed on it, so it’s irrelevant.

6) You can only by houses immediately before you roll on your turn.

The optimal strategy in Monopoly is to build right before an opponent who could hit your spaces rolls. You minimize risk of getting hit with rent you can’t pay, and maximize the chances of that invested capital paying off immediately. Now there’s risk. It also speeds the game up, and gets around house auctions when there’s a housing shortage.

7) Uneven building

This house rule has been floating around for a while, and for a game with little disposable cash it’s a good strategic and pragmatic inclusion. Basically, once you have the monopoly, you can build freely. This means you can get a 3-house hard hitter without buying the other stuff up. It allows for another strategic element and, mini-spoiler, if one of the players used it better he would have won soundly.

8) Cash on hand is hidden information

The standard rules of Monopoly state that money is on the table, and if someone asks you are obligated to tell them how much cash you have. For a game with a lot of auctions, it’s important information, especially when you play with aggressive players who like to bluff you with up-bidding when they’re effectively broke. It’s another strategic element, and benefits those who are paying attention.

9) Trading options are expanded beyond assets.*

Officially, you can only trade deeds, cash, and that the “get out of jail free” card. This game allows house rule trades. A few quick examples are; immunity, short or long-term; forcing opponents to not trade with others; split income for Monopolies; etc. This can lengthen the game, but the wheeling and dealing is a critical component of Monopoly, and this has the chance to reward savvy players greatly. Our own addendum to this: trades and deals were fully binding. No promising free rides and reneging.

We didn’t use a rule that made the utilities part of the railroad system, because we felt it made railroads too powerful. We also updated the Income tax and Luxury Tax costs to current Monopoly standards ($200 and $100 at all times, respectively), and we were off.

The Four consulted the Codex, and did consign themselves to the Fates. The Game had begun.

Before The Storm

Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

There were four of us: me, John Fraley, Auston Habershaw, and John Serpico, in that order. A prototypical game many months prior showed me that Fraley and Serpico would play with the kind of high-level competitiveness I was looking for. And based on stories of past games and what I knew of the man, Auston would be a strong fourth. He was also willing to play. Early on a small fight about starting pieces leads me to believe that I have picked the right men. Right next to us a rousing game of Cards Against Humanity was being played. The massive juxtaposition of these games, in play and in community, did not escape me, and while laughter was had, my stalwart companions and I silently agreed to solder through this gritty expanse that is a Monopoly game.

Early Play

I try not to discuss strategy too much when playing a game. If someone is new, and they ask my opinion, I’ll give it, but not otherwise, for many reasons. One is that it bogs down the explanation of the game. Another is that it’s usually un-welcome; you don’t sit at a game to have it played for you, and God Damn it if I can’t get that thought through to some of my hard-core gamer acquaintances. And unless you’re trying to sweet-talk and subtly manipulate other players into doing what you want (a somewhat dirty, but totally legal tactic; I call it Silver Tongue, and Ted Vessenes is a master of it) it hinders your chances of winning. The Beyond Boardwalk game I envision is full of cutthroat men eager to leverage every asset they can bring to bear. So it was with a small amount of trepidation that I kept mostly silent when I saw some dangerous early mistakes being made.

Everyone at the table seems to think that, now that deeds cost twice their list price, that they’re actually worth that. Auston plows through with the habit of buying everything he lands on outright, while auctions see deeds going for very close to double the list price. That’s all well and good when these are deeds you need, but nobody really needs them. If you land on a deed, send it to auction, and buy it for less than twice the list price, you saved yourself some money. But if someone else landed there, and you dropped that cash , you’re kind of shooting yourself in the foot. So it was that I held back, hung on to my cash, and waited for people to drain themselves. Auston was tapped fairly quickly. Serpico and Fraley lasted longer, but their purchases were too unfocused. I fought to get a couple of the light purples and little else. To be fair, they never panned out.

At one point I have one yellow, Serpico has the other. Someone lands on the third, and Fraley and Auston bow out of the bidding quickly. Up until now deeds have been going for hefty costs. So when Serpico bids around $200 for Ventnor, low by any standards, I simply let him have it, to some confused looks. Now I decided it was time to discuss a bit of strategy.

“Anyone know why I did that?” I ask, in my best educator’s voice. Silence. I’m not hiding my money that well, so they know it’s not lack of funds. “Serp and I already have the yellows. Whether he or I have the third, we still have it between us, and one is just as good as two.” Auston picks up on what I’m getting at, Fraley gets it a minute later. I hope I don’t sound condescending in my explanation; I genuinely want the people I’m playing with to learn Monopoly and play it better.

I wasn’t bragging. I swear.

Somewhere along the line Serpico gets Boardwalk. When Park Place gets hit, Fraley and Auston aren’t in any position to bid. I convince Serp to let me have it for the low price of $250, and in exchange I give it to him in exchange for the yellows. It’s good news for me and Serp, bad news for Fraley and Auston.

Mid Game

All I have for deeds are two light purples that didn’t pan out, and the yellow Monopoly. And I couldn’t be happier. In plain Monopoly, you can buy deeds crazily. Even when you don’t need them, the trading fodder is a wonderful thing to have, and the ability to simply block Monopolies is often reason enough to sit on a deed. But what many people don’t realize is, once you have a monopoly of sufficient strength, everything else is ancillary, if you have money to develop it. And all my not-buying is paying off now.

With uneven building I decide to spread a few houses between two deeds. It’s early enough that I could spend heavily on development and not worry about hitting a big rent, but also early enough that too many deeds are out there to be out of bidding power. Still, I try to take advantage of the situation; a couple of players are coming up on my area, with a 6 and 7 putting them on Atlantic and Ventnor respectively. The timing is too good to ignore. I don’t recall if it paid off the first time, but it did at least once, and in a game as cash-strapped as this, once is enough.

Fraley and Auston are suffering, but they have potential between them. I have cash to develop, but I wait. And it’s a good thing I do; the third Orange goes up to bid. Auston can’t get it, but if Fraley can they’ve already talked out some trades that give them monopolies. So I do what might be the most tactical and vicious thing I do this session; I buy it. I have the money to outbid, and I have every intention to sit on it. Without that lynchpin to make the trade, Fraley and Auston don’t have a deal to make.

My yellows begin to pay off. The writing’s on the wall for Auston. Cards Against Humanity roars on in the background providing numerous raunchy laughs to everyone, but here in Atlantic City we’re settling in for the grind.

It’s hard to determine when Serpico is feeling down, or when he’s trying to garner some sympathy through tactical bitching. What’s tactical bitching? Flashback…

BBQ’ing in Serpico’s backyard, a bunch of nerds are talking nerdy stuff. A discussion of the game Small World comes up. Erik is telling a tale of a friend who would whine and moan every time he was attacked. “Oh come on,” “Aw Jeez,” and my all-time hated one, “I’ve lost now,” all come spilling forth. Until the last turn.

“Okay, I’m going to attack [REDACTED].”

“Aww, damn, I… oh wait, I’ve taken all my turns, never mind.” His whining is that calculated kind of manipulation to throw people off his scent. I’ve known players like that. I hate players like that. Serpico hates players like that. So imagine my surprise when…

“The game’s pretty much done, I’m screwed. I just wanna build my house, just to be part of something.”

Here’s the thing; whether or not you think you’re out, you’re not out, so I don’t buy it. We know the score. You stamp three houses on either dark Blue, you’re not out. The one thing that throws me, however, is that he builds on Park Place, not Boardwalk. My guess is that, at the time, a 7 would’ve landed an opponent there, and once he committed to building there he stuck with it. But Boardwalk isn’t that much different from getting hit, probability-wise. In fact, it gets hit more, on account of the Chance card that sends you there. Hindsight is 20-20, and a couple of people did hit Boardwalk while it was still undeveloped. That would’ve been the turning point for Serpico. And while he moaned about being out, I was quick to note that he only needed one person to hit him and he was essentially the victor.

Therein lays one of the problems of Monopoly. You only feel good when other people are getting screwed. Every time someone skirts by your properties it’s a kick in the teeth. No matter how much you tweak the game, at its core you’re still at the whim of the dice.

Feels this way sometimes

End Game

Things are looking down for Fraley; he hits Serp at Boardwalk for a decent amount. But now is the perfect time to enact another one of Beyond Boardwalk’s more interesting rules

10) Voluntary Bankruptcy

The way it works is, at any time when you’re not in debt you can voluntarily declare bankruptcy. You turn in all cash and deeds to the bank. You then get Baltic, Mediterranean, and $800. If anyone owns them they get $120 per deed, plus full price for any houses and hotels on them. Auston gets $240, Fraley passes go and has $1000 to work with. He doesn’t build on the Browns (another change in the new Monopoly sets; the “dark purples” are now brown).

It’s a funny scenario. There are now a bunch of deeds in the bank that nobody but one guy can afford. He’s able to buy the same deeds that got him in trouble, but way cheaper. It’s like Freddie Mac all over again.**

Auston bankrupts on my spot. There’s a bit of argument as to what happens with his deeds. The official rule is this: when a player bankrupts on a player, all his assets go to the player who took him out. I get the deeds, but I don’t have the cash to improve on them. Not letting others have them is good enough.

Fraley can’t get a monopoly. Serpico finally hits my yellows and has to break down his dark blues. That’s effectively game end, so we call it. I win, and I thank everyone profusely for the game.

The win doesn’t feel like I thought it would. I think it’s because Monopoly is a game about crushing your opponents, and it doesn’t feel great to do that. You want everyone to have fun, and it’s hard for everyone to have fun in Monopoly; it’s usually just the one guy at any given time.

Post Mortem

One exchange Fraley and I had during the game I found very heartening:

Fraley: “Hmm. I learned something during this game.”

Me: “…Uh, are you going to tell us what that is?”

Fraley: “No.”

Me: “Hmm. Well, let me ask you this. Are you not telling me because it’s information you hope to use against me in a future play of this?”

Fraley: “Yes.”

Me: “Well that’s way better than knowing what it is you learned. I look forward to our next game.”

I still love Monopoly, from the stretches of tedium to the brief moments of triumph and defeat when that one (un)lucky roll hits. I’m becoming more acutely aware that I may be the only one, or at least one of a few, too few in my circle to get a game going. But I won’t stop fighting for it.

* Auston told us that when he used to play with friends they would sell die rolls. Like, if another player needed that 7 to hit a deed they wanted, and another player rolled it, they’d look at the dice, look at the player, and say, “for $100, that could be YOUR seven…” It never occurred to me that your roll could be a sell-able asset. I think I wouldn’t like it, but it’s a neat idea.

** It’s not like Freddie Mac

Knowing Just Enough To Completely Screw Up

Imagine you’re visiting a city you’ve been to before, but not in many years. You recognize some streets and landmarks. You have a vague sense of where things are, but you still need directions on how to get around. You decide that for dinner you’re going to go out to a restaurant you went to once before. On the way, you realize you don’t quite remember where that restaurant was, but you have a vague sense, and you recognize some of the buildings nearby. Rather than stop and look at a map and reassess where you are and where you think you’re going, you rush in the general direction of things that look familiar. Your actions are bold! But, if we’re honest about this scenario, your actions are also likely to find you hungry and eating whatever fast food is around when you realize that you’ve been lost for the last hour and a half.

“Ok, so if we’re at downtown crossing, and we’re trying to get to the Aquarium…”

Sadly, I’ve had this experience recently in boardgame form. Let me explain:

Over the past two weeks when Brandon and I have gotten together to play board games, we expanded from the two of us to a small group of 4 or 5. And with the varying levels of skill and relative newness to board-gaming among the group (Brandon and I being huge nerds, John being an experienced player, Dan and G having played a few games but still relatively new to Euro style games) we decided to go with one of the classics: Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico is one of my favorite intro games because it has a lot going on but has the relatively simple mechanic of role selection. In addition, it seats 5 and has very little in the way of directly screwing someone over for the sake of screwing someone over; these are all things that I think were beneficial knowing the personalities of all who were in attendance. And while I hadn’t played PR in years (2009 is my best guess, but it very well could have been 2008), I had a sense for the general flow of the game and only needed a quick refresher on the rules. After all, I had played a great deal of Race for the Galaxy in the interim, and Race is basically just Puerto Rico in Space… right?

Amusingly enough, what I had done was set myself up for the opposite scenario as to what I did so well in my Ticket To Ride post. Rather than re-examine the game with a fresh set of eyes, I tried to follow strategies I had floating around in the back of my head. Rather than focus on the tactics of what other people were doing, I focused on what I thought they should be doing based on my flawed strategy* based on vague recollections from years past.

Turns out, Puerto Rico is a game based on a strategy of getting money early to develop an engine that gets you victory point chips late (if you want to read waaayyyy too much on the strategy and tactics of a game of Puerto Rico, I highly recommend that link).** And while I did build an engine, it was clunky and slow and by the time it got going, I was easily outmaneuvered in the late game. My very first play of the game was builder so I could get a building that I remembered to be strong (everybody’s gonna be jealous that I got the hacienda!) was a poor one, and by the time I had gotten some goods worth trading, no one was trading anymore.

Relative newbies to the field of boardgaming had figured out the underlying pitfalls of focusing on shipping much faster than I did. I had knowledge from Race that not only did not serve me, but blinded me when it became clear to others. Knowledge is power, but having only a little bit of knowledge and making assumptions off of it is dangerous.

A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool. – William Shakespeare

In sum: When playing a game, getting stuck in a routine rather than reexamining where you are won’t win you many games. And just like revisiting a foreign city, its best to double check the map before you go, and if you can’t find that favorite restaurant, you might be able to find a new path towards a good meal.

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*Quick note on terminology here. I’m using strategy to mean a long term philosophy that can be followed over the length of the game. Tactics are individual moves based on the current (and a few upcoming) turns. So for example, both PR and Innovation are tactical games, but Innovation does not lend itself to much strategic planning.

**In doing a little reading on Puerto Rico for this post, I ran across this and have a lot to say about it. Its coming in another post.