Friday, April 7, 2017

What is my win condition?

A few weeks ago I played a game of El Grande.  (Thinking about a game that is called 'The Big' makes me giggle inside.)

I got blown out.  I haven't played El Grande in a decade or so and I certainly didn't play perfectly so I can't say I am surprised that I lost.  However, the game did illustrate one mechanic that I found frustrating.  Oftentimes I try to figure out how I could change a game to avoid mechanics that bother me but in this case I think the mechanic is inherent to the game.  The mechanic that troubles me here is the freedom to attack any player you want, without a clear way to figure out what you should try to accomplish with your attacks.

Early on in the game I was in a terrible spot.  I got blown out by one spectacularly brutal card coming up at the absolute worst possible time, and I was dead last at 15 points while the leader was at 35.  Not only that but she had far more units on the board than I did so I rated to get a lot less points on each scoring round thereafter. Given that my chance to win was vanishingly small at that point I decided that my new goal was to not come last.

Once my goal is to not come last, everything changes.  Instead of trying to smash the leader, my optimal play is to punish the third and fourth place players, those just ahead of me.  Of course those two players aren't going to like this conclusion as they would quite rather I attack the leader, giving them the best chance to win.  But if I spend all my efforts attacking the leader then I rate to end the game in last place.

It is frustrating to be in last and to have to reevaluate your win condition, but it is just as frustrating to be in third and have the last place player clawing you down, gutting your chance to win.  The key problem here is people don't agree on what your win condition is.  If you don't agree on what you are trying to do, you aren't going to agree on what course of action is reasonable.

You might have a particular idea about how a player should play when and if they conclude that they are out of the running for the win, but there simply isn't any widespread agreement.  Even then, players also have to be concerned about table presence.  If a person attacks you to set you back, you can either ignore it or strike back.  Retribution is often terrible in the game in which is occurs but its primary use is to build a table presence for later games.  Who wants to go after the player who will strike back relentlessly, starting a cycle of mutually assured destruction?

There are ways to get around this problem.  Some games just make it difficult or impossible to strike at a particular player.  For example, Le Havre is a game in which attacking one player is possible but difficult.  It doesn't suffer from this issue.  Settlers on the other hand has the revenge problem all the time but because it is so random you can rarely conclude that you are completely out of the game.  Even if you are behind it is quite plausible that you could run into a really fortuitous run of the dice and be back in contention, so going after the third place player is rarely a good choice.

One other way to deke around this problem is lack of information.  In Castles of Mad Kin Ludwig you can see who is ahead on points but you don't know what cards people hold.  This hole in your knowledge makes it far harder for you to figure out who is winning and also to be sure that you are actually losing.  That sort of arrangement, alongside the fact that the game doesn't often present you the ability to smash particular people, means that you don't have that same problem of figuring out who you want to attack.

You can make it really hard to do anything to the opponents like Dominion does.  Or you can obscure people's positions like Castles does.  Or you can make the game really random so that everyone can always win and attacking the leader is always right.

However, none of those solutions can be easily implemented into El Grande.  Even then, this isn't the sort of flaw that everyone sees as a flaw.  Some people like always hitting the leader no matter what, or just having fun punishing people at random while cackling like a madman.

Any of those is fine, if that is what winds your clock.

But for me, I really like to know ahead of time what my goals are.  I like to know what my opponent's goals are.  I don't want to be in a situation where people will be going after completely different goals partway through the game and knowing that I will be a casualty of war.  I also don't enjoy a game where partway through the leader is already determined and the rest of the group spends the game spiting each other, squabbling over second place because they have already given up.

It doesn't mean that El Grande is bad, but it does mean that it has a lot of potential to be really irritating, and I try to avoid games like that.


  1. If I can't win, my default purpose becomes "end the game as soon as possible" because that way we can start the next game and it's kind of justified and people understand.

    That works for something like Stone Age where the game ends when certain resources are depleted. But it doesn't work for El Grande.

    I think it's rare that someone of your skill level is ever entirely out of it. El Grande has the option for you to convince everyone else to leave you alone thus giving you a chance to recover. But only when they have a roughly equal choice, which isn't too common.

    I can often be satisfied with a solid 2nd place finish if I have a horrid start, but normally that's from building myself up as if trying to win vs. tearing down the 3rd and 2nd place players.

    I don't like the "beat the 2nd and 3rd place" folks plan. At least, it felt weird in El Grande. It feels normal in online Agricola where there is ranking so 3rd is different from 4th. But for a game where you win or don't win, 3rd vs. 4th isn't a difference I want to emphasize because then it encourages play like you're describing - 4th beating on 3rd - and I don't think that's a positive influence on the fun levels.

    I don't have a really good answer. It's tough to be knocked out early and have no mechanism for coming back. But I'm also wary of the trend towards games where you can't influence each other. I guess the optimal game is one with secret, high variable points that allow for come backs?

    1. Yeah, this is why I like the points system in Castles so much, I think. There is enough guesswork that you really don't know who will win until the final card drops. In most games, at least.

  2. (In general, I play to maximize my score when I can't try to win. I find this to be a fairly good simulation of what I'm trying to do when I am trying to win. Exceptions to this is if I'm in a unwinable position because of one player - then I play for spite - or *maybe* in a tournament setting where I've been given a "play for place" instruction)

    As for El Grande - I'm guessing that you got hit by "Decay of Authority - return all" when you had a lot of guys (8+) in your court in round 2-3? I think that this is really the only blow-out situation in the game. One card in an 11-card deck can come up at a bad time... And you can play around it.

    1. Yes, in fact it hit me for 11! I didn't know the card was in the deck, or I certainly would have played differently. As soon as it flipped up I realized I was doomed, because Vienneau was first to play his card and he dropped 13 to guarantee that he got to ruin me with it. My first couple turns didn't go well, but I thought because of my huge bankroll I could recover by playing high cards and spewing dudes. When Decay of Authority hit, I lost.

      A lot of that is skill, of course. If I knew that card existed, I wouldn't have chosen the line of play that I did.

      I agree about playing to maximize score, but often you have a situation where you can get 3 points a couple different ways but you have to pick who you smash. This is the sort of situation I am talking about, because if one line gives you personally a lot more points then it is the obvious choice when you are trailing the pack.

    2. The tricky thing with El Grande is often the move that blows another player out is just wrong. He probably could have taken a card to gain himself 7+ points on the table instead, and chose to kill you.

      I'm not 100% convinced you were killed, but I'm pretty sure in that situation my goal wouldn't become 'not last' it would become 'Matt comes 4th'. Or at least that would be my vocal goal...

    3. He also blew up 5 and 7 dorks in two other people's courts. And he had a decent stash himself, if he didn't take it then he would lose 2-3 dudes. One person (the person in the lead) had zero dudes to kill with the card, but he wanted to punish the table and everyone felt like it was obviously his best play to do so.

      There were three people to bid before me, and all of them wanted the card, so I wasn't getting it in any case. (Everyone else used low numbers to try to recoup from the blowout.)

    4. Losing 2-3 dudes while scoring a region of your choice is still a good deal, and it's not like the rest of the table gets spared if he didn't zap you all. The card is still there, you'll still get hit. He still has to bid high if he has a court too, don't get me wrong, but once he's bid high (and not gotten many new guys) and taken his action to put guys on the board he probably doesn't actually need to take the card itself defensively.

      Though I will say, if there were that many dudes across everyone's courts then there was probably something very wrong going on in the game. So I'm not so sure this is a flaw with the game itself and more just a problem of everyone still learning the game.

      It's a little like getting really upset in Settlers because you were hording all of the ore and then someone rolled a 7 and you had to discard half your hand, or got hit by a monopoly. It's justified to be bitter in the moment but I'm not sure it's really the game's fault.

      That being said, I don't like El Grande very much for kingmaking reasons which is essentially what your complaints boil down to. So I agree with the conclusions about the game even if I'm picking nits about this specific situation.

    5. The first turn was super weird. Everyone picked low rank cards that awarded a lot of dudes, and I picked last. All of their cards were adjacent so I had the choice of going first with a highish card, or last with a one. I decided to go with the one, which may well have been wrong. When Vienneau blew up the courts it may well have been wrong, but the person after him would have taken it in any case, so I was getting screwed on any play.

      Not saying we all played perfectly! We were mostly new and bad at the game. However, I don't think we played terribly either. At any rate, I think that card is out of line with other cards in the deck, but my real complaint is the kingmaking thing, as you said.

    6. I was writing out a big thing about how you shouldn't be wasting your 1 early but it kinda sounds like you guys were playing the game wrong?

      Whoever played the lowest card in the previous round plays the first power card in the current round. So if you went last with your 1 then you were the person to first play a power card in the next turn. You were the one able to play your 13 and punish the table. (And in order to save 9 of your own guys I definitely would take it over scoring a region.)

      That's what makes the 1 so powerful. It guarantees you get to play the 13 in the next round. Of course most of the time you want to play the 13 in a scoring round, but that decay card can change things.

    7. The Decay did not come the turn after I played my 1. It came two turns after. Believe me, if I had the option to 13 to save my court I would have. I should have saved my 1 for tempo, but I have only played the game a handful of times, and not in the past decade, so I spent it to get the maximum number of dudes.

      I am bad enough to mismanage turns ahead and such, not bad enough to ignore a card like Decay when it flips up. :)

    8. I guess I'm just not seeing how you end up with 11 guys left in your courts without playing pretty badly if it was a couple turns later. I guess you also played a low card on turn 2? Or didn't draft a card that let you put a bunch of guys on the board?

      If decay was on turn 3 then it really seems wrong for Matt to have taken it. Not being the one to put 5 guys in play and lock the king in on a scoring turn costs a _lot_ of points.

      It just seemed more likely you were playing the rules wrong than that you were playing that badly. Especially with your previous assertion that no one played terribly. ;)

    9. I'm late to the party...
      So ya, turn 1, definitely play high. Often turn 1 sees a 12, 11, 10, and 9 played, with the last player choosing between their 13 and something low (like a 3/4), and I'm not sure which is right - on one hand, the 13 is a valuable resource - but there are 3 times when you *really* want to play it, and 5 players, so it isn't that valuable, and this is probably the 4th or 5th most important turn - and there are cards that let you get it out of the discard, so playing it early sets you up for those - on the other, playing low when everyone else has played high might mean you can go first next round for cheap (but probably not, since the guy who played the 9 probably only gets to drop 2 guys on the board? So maybe the 13 is just right?). Getting dudes out on the board is pretty important. It also protects against DoA-All.

      As for 3 pts a couple of ways, but you choose who to smash? I mean, I assume if you're only getting 3 pts, you're only smashing someone for around 3, and so it isn't a huge deal who you choose - if it's early, it's somewhat arbitrary, and if it's late, then maybe you can evaluate who's winning. (Settlers isn't a bad game because you have to choose who to trade with, right?). I'm having a hard time thinking of ways that are minimal points for you, huge smashes for others, where you have choices on the others.