Monday, August 14, 2017

Degenerate hunting

I have a strategy for the board game Shadow Hunter.  It can be roughly summarized as Git Em.

I played Shadow Hunter a few times this past week and the other players seemed surprised at the level of aggression I displayed in the game.  The way the game works is you have hidden roles and identities for each player.  You can either be a Shadow, a Hunter, or a Neutral.  Generally Shadows win by killing all the Hunters, Hunters win by killing all the Shadows, and Neutrals have weird win conditions.  In my five player games there were 2 Shadows, 2 Hunters, and 1 Neutral.  Throughout the game you have opportunities to figure out which team or individual the other players are.

My fellow players seemed to really like the idea of playing it cagey.  They would pass up opportunities to attack other players on the basis that they didn't know who they were attacking and thus the attack might make their situation worse rather than better.  They usually waited until they knew exactly who to attack before getting aggressive.

I, on the other hand, came out swinging.  I figured that since I was a Shadow and I had to kill 2 Hunters to win I should always be attacking somebody.  If I kill the Neutral that is probably just fine, and if I kill my fellow Shadow that is bad, but if I attack a Hunter then all is well.  That means that I am happy hitting 3 of my 4 possible targets so I might as well hit whoever I can whenever I can.  I will of course try to figure out who the other players are but I don't need to wait to be sure before bashing some faces!

I won both games in part because of good luck, but in part simply because my aggressive strategy worked out.  I did injure my ally in both games but I put far more damage onto the Hunters I was trying to kill and they ran out of hit points before I did.  In a game with five players and no second place I think you usually want to favour high risk, high reward strategies.  Especially if the other players are being really timid you will do very well by spreading out damage on everybody but yourself, and while occasionally you will kill your ally and lose badly most of the time you will win.

I like to think of it in extreme terms.  If I do nothing then I stay even with everyone else and presumably have a 20% chance of victory.  If I lay out an absurd beating and everyone else dies I am a heavy favourite to win, probably 80%+.  (You might think it would be 100%, but the game has weird mechanics I am not getting into.)  The closer I can swing the game towards that 80% win situation, the better off I am.

The unfortunate thing about this conclusion is that everyone should employ it.  The neutral characters sometimes really don't want other people to die because of their weird mechanics but for all the Hunters and Shadows you generally want to attack all the time.  If everyone does this then the game doesn't work all that well because everyone dies in an extreme hurry and there is little in the way of strategy.  By the time you figure out who some of the other players are the game has ended one way or the other.  It feels as though the game creators wanted to build a game where people spent time ferreting out their opponent's secrets and working out complex guesses about hidden information, but what the players should be doing if they want to win is just murdering anyone they can as fast as they can.  That results in a game that is quick, random, and thoroughly uninteresting.

This sort of issue crops up all the time in games.  Puerto Rico is a good example, where the game designer clearly had ideas about large scale production and shipping dominance, as evidenced by the design and cost of the Hospice, Large Warehouse, and Wharf.  But instead what usually happens is one person builds all the production facilities and quickly ends the game with enormous Mayor phases and the Guild Hall.  The optimal line of play is not actually one that makes the game enjoyable because it forces a narrow style of play that leaves much of the game in the dust.

The base set of Dominion is similar.  There are all kinds of interesting cards to buy but most of them flat out aren't good enough to be worth it.  It is far too common that the optimal line of play is to buy a single copy of the best Action card on the table and then just buy Silver - Gold - Province.  What a snooze fest.  Thankfully for Dominion the expansions are much better.

If you want a game to have any longevity and good replayability this is important.  Clearly optimal play is going to be different from weak play, but it is important that optimal play incorporate all the major game elements and have good feel.  For example, in Agricola an optimal player still wants to build some rooms, grow the family, and collect some of all the types of goods in the game.  That player is going to do all the things, they are just going to do it more efficiently, and they are going to make lots of interesting choices in the process.

It is important that optimal play support both interesting decisions, varied lines of play, and allows for a high skill cap.  Shadow Hunters fails on all three counts.  Optimal play involves few decisions that have little effect, the same experience every time, and makes the game highly random.

It is too bad, because I like a lot of the lore and the ideas behind the game.  I just can't get behind the final design.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

A concession in the real league

Last week I played another round of Blood Bowl in my real league against a bunch of people I am connected to IRL.  My dwarves were 2-0 so far, but both of my previous opponents were Dark Elves, and that is a great matchup for early progression dwarves.  This past week I was up against Undead, who are a much more difficult matchup.

In theory.

In practice I smashed the Undead from one end of the pitch to the other.

The Undead received the first kickoff and KO'd one of my dudes on the first turn.  It wasn't a good start, but I returned the favour, KOing one of them.  Then I got a couple of dwarves next to the ball carrier and knocked down a bunch of their team.  My opponent decided to run a Mummy over to rescue the ball carrier but they failed a Go For It, used their reroll, and then the dwarf knocked the Mummy down on a double Both Down result.

That sort of thing is rough.  It meant that on my next turn I got the ball away from the opponent, scooped it up, and knocked down most of the enemy team.  My opponent tried a crazy Dodging Mummy play (roughly 7% to succeed) and it failed and he left the rest of his team on the ground.  I ran the ball to the end zone and my dwarves spent the rest of the half standing menacingly over his prone players while we each hit End Turn.  I scored on the last turn of the half and was up 1-0.  I had KOd two of his units and injured another, but he had a huge bench so he was still fielding a full team.

We started with me grabbing the ball and knocking down a few of his dudes.  He tried to fight back, but ended up in a terrible position where I pushed one of his two Mummies off of the field and injured or KOd another two random dudes.  I had the ball in a safe position and was definitely giving him the beatdown and my opponent said that he thought he should concede.

This was a difficult spot.  I was up 1-0, in scoring position, and clearly dominant in the hitting game at that point.  My opponent had only a tiny chance to win.  However, even if he was a real long shot to win, staying in the game would give him 5 experience from earning an MVP and would also get him the cash from the game.  Conceding gets him out without any serious injuries but left him without any experience from the game and still broke.

I wasn't sure how to respond.  I wanted to continue to play, and I really wanted to play in a league where people fight to the bitter end, but his position was terrible and the most likely result is that I beat his dudes up for another five turns and beat him 2-0.  I think my opponent would be better off fighting on, mostly because he had lots of cheap linemen to spare, so if I injure them it hardly matters.  Getting more experience on his important units was critical enough to stay in and take the beating, I think.

But I don't want to be pushing people to play if they don't want to play.  If a person wants to duck out, then I don't like harping on them to fight on.  I did well with his concession - I got 17 experience in total, tons of cash, and a win.  You can't ask for better, especially since I took no injuries.

Now I am 3-0, like two other teams in the league.  I am among the highest in team value, and my team has a max bankroll and no injuries.  I am in a great spot to compete for the trophy, and that makes me happy.

I am of two minds about this week overall.  On one hand I like winning and doing well in a tournament.  On the other I like games that are hard fought and tight, and this one felt like a blowout where I just smashed my opponent.  The concession two thirds of the way through cemented that.  I don't exactly know if I want other opponents to go the same way or not!  I want to win... but I want to win *just barely*.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

What kind of game is it anyway?

At WBC this year I was introduced to a variety of games, of which two in particular stood out:  Orleans and Terra Mystica.  Orleans was enjoyable, and fairly obviously an engine game where you have to set yourself up to have lots of powerful actions to generate points in the later game.  I liked it a lot, but don't have a lot more to say about it.

Terra Mystica, on the other hand, was a bit confusing.

I showed up for a TM heat and Umbra had approximately 2 minutes to teach me the game.  If you know TM you know that you can't possibly teach it properly in 2 minutes, even to someone who picks up games really fast.  What Umbra managed to get across to me was that the points scoring turn tiles are the key to the game, and I should just listen to them and do whatever they say.  Umbra insisted that TM pretends to be an engine game, but it is lying, and it is instead a game where I build points based on what the turns tell me to.

Cool.  I didn't know what the resources were, or in fact what most of the game mechanics were, but I was ready to play.  Obey the turn tiles!  I can do that!

I ended up leading through most of the game but ended up third in the final scoring.  For someone who really didn't understand how most of the game even worked before starting to play this is a pretty solid result.

Later on I played another game of TM and ended up winning by a substantial margin, though I think I got kind of lucky in terms of being able to capture the territory I needed.

Afterwards I talked to Pounda about TM and he gave me a totally different speech.  Pounda told me that people will tell you that TM is not an engine game, but in fact it is an engine game.  You get a temple, buy the favour that gives you bonuses for each dwelling you put down, and then put down as many dwellings as possible.  Don't even worry about what the turn tiles say, instructed Pounda, just get your dwelling engine online and win.

So now I have a conundrum.  Two strong players gave me different instructions.  Now, Umbra did tell me that the favour that Pounda liked so much was the best one, so they aren't that far apart, but their philosophies differed quite substantially even if their actual game choices seemed similar.

I want the game to be the way Umbra paints it.  I like the idea of a game where you have shifting priorities in each playthrough so you have to develop a different strategy based on what each set of turn tiles brings.  So I know what I want the game to be, the question is:  which game is it really?

Is TM an engine building game where you just focus on doing the same thing each game, trying to be slightly more optimal than your opponents, or is it a game of shifting priorities where each playthrough you must develop a new strategy?  Damned if I know, I have only played twice.

I guess the solution is to play it one hundred times until I actually know what I am doing.  Rough work, but somebody has to do it.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Expectations of success

Last week was World Boardgaming Championships week.  I had thought I might write gaming posts from the event itself, but the wifi was shoddy enough and the games were distracting enough that I never did get around to it.  This week I am to remedy that to some extent.

The short version is that I racked up eight semi final qualifications, played in six of those semi finals, advanced to the finals twice, and have a third place plaque for Castles of Mad King Ludwig to go with my second place plaque from last year.  I also got a fourth place in Santa Fe Rails, though for that I didn't get any hardware to clutter up my home.  Maybe that is a good thing?

Overall it was similar in terms of success to last year.  Both years saw two finals tables, though last year had better results at those tables.  In both years my team game was Puerto Rico, and in both years I failed my team by scrubbing out in the semi finals.

Also in other silly news I skipped the semi finals of Lords of Waterdeep both years to participate in a Puerto Rico heat.  I also missed the semi finals of Monsters Menace America for a heat, but that game is kind of silly and fluffy so I didn't mind so much.

Overall the experience at the convention was a good one, but I had a few moments that really weren't great.  The first was in a semi final for Santa Fe Rails where it was me, my teammate, the GM of Santa Fe Rails, and a dude I didn't know.  The game was about to end and the GM had a decision to make.  He could either give four points to me and to the random dude, or give fourteen points to my teammate.  Now normally this is an easy choice and you give four points to two people, especially when one of those two is clearly last place.

But instead of doing that the GM explained that he was sure that my teammate was winning, so he wanted to hurt me as much as possible to secure second place for himself.  He handed my teammate fourteen points and the game ended.

I felt almost ill.  I felt like I had played well, and was pretty sure my teammate was really close behind me, so it really sucked to have someone throw points away from me in such a fashion.  It would not have been fun to lose like that.

But instead it turned out that I was way ahead, more than anybody thought.  I won the game anyway, with points to spare.  But because my teammate got those fourteen points he pulled ahead of the GM and got second.

Ouch for the GM.  Onward to the finals for me!

Then later on in the week I was in my Puerto Rico semi final, and again I was playing against the GM of Santa Fe.  He was fourth chair and quickly sold a corn, bought a coffee roaster, and sold coffee.  His game was looking amazing.  However, I decided that it was my mission to prevent any more coffee sales and I jammed the trading house as hard as I could.  This was helped by lefty and righty both having tobacco to sell so nobody was able to safely craft.  I managed to wrangle selling sugar, and it was the third last turn of the game before someone finally sold a tobacco to clear the trading house.  When the game ended there were two Offices that had never been used, a Small Market that had never been used, and a Small and a Large Market that got used once.  Totally nuts.

I realized on about turn six or seven that all three opponents were going hard for Guild Hall.  Everybody was buying up production buildings as fast as they could.  I decided that the only chance I had was to get it myself, so I saved up cash and snagged it right before two other people could step in and buy it.  All three opponents were unhappy as all of them would have gotten far more points from it than me.  I ended up getting six from the Guild Hall so it was still the best choice for me but two of the others would have gotten the full ten.

The GM from Santa Fe Rails then announced that he was deliberately throwing the game to my right hand opponent because he had been jammed so hard this game.  He ended the game instead of trying to score more points himself, and was left in last place.  I came second and failed to advance to the finals, though I did crush lefty and the GM across from me by huge margins.

So this one guy went to great lengths to throw the game away from me in two semi finals this year.  Once it worked and made me lose (though I might well have lost anyway, to be fair) and the other time it just screwed him over and did nothing to stop me.

Not the ideal way for games to go.

Thing is, I don't regret losing Puerto Rico that way.  I think I played a brilliant game.  I stopped my opponents from running their game plans, I had perfect tempo when I grabbed the Guild Hall, and I wrangled a strong endgame position from a terrible early game situation.  I played great, and crushed both downstream opponents mercilessly.  The guy upstream of me really isn't my problem - I can't do much to stop him, that is the job of the player to his right!

But despite doing things right I lost, partly due to spite, partly due to the other two people not jamming my righty enough.

So while I wish I had managed to win to help support my teammates, I don't find any blame for myself here.  I did the right things and I lost anyway.  That happens.  However, next year I am definitely not making Puerto Rico my team game.  It is so frustrating to have a game where you do it all right and lose anyway, and Puerto Rico really jams up my schedule.  Maybe I will make my team game Castles of Mad King Ludwig next year.  I am apparently consistently good at that, and I love playing it.

Lessons learned.