Saturday, February 18, 2017

Economic Domination Games

I know I keep referencing the Six Board Games That Ruined It For Everyone article on Cracked.com, but it's such a good article. The Top 100 list on Board Game Geek is awesome, but it doesn't compare bad games to good games the way the Cracked article does.

As an interesting side note, I saw that, if you reverse the order of the Top 100 List so that it shows you the Bottom 100, five of the six games from that article are listed. The one that's not? Risk. Which is interesting, given what I'm about to say.

Anyway. Here's what the Cracked article has to say about Risk:
The worst part of Risk is victory by excruciation. A well-designed game has tactics and skill building to a climax, a thrilling race to victory, and when someone has clearly won, it's because the game is over. In Risk, someone can win hours before it ends, and they will not let you just admit it and leave. They spent hours carefully planning this victory, and by God you are going to sit there and patiently lose for just as many hours so that they can enjoy it properly. They've turned having fun into a zero-sum game.
This ties in with a recent experience I had. I was learning to play Wallenstein a couple weeks ago, and it did not go well for me. In case you don't know, Wallenstein is a game set in the Thirty Years War, which ravaged central Europe (the areas known as present-day Germany in particular). It was an absolutely brutal conflict, claiming eight million casualties by the end of the fighting. The game captures this aspect very well, as any battle devastates both sides.

At the beginning of the game, I was in a pretty good position, and by the time we reached the first of two scoring rounds, though I wasn't in first place by any means, I was still doing fairly well. Very shortly after that, however, I was attacked by several other players and lost so much territory that I was no longer able to take any effective actions. The dynamics of the game meant that if I fortified my territories to defend against my opponents, I would score no points. If I attacked other players, or neutral territories, I would leave my defenses so weak that I would almost instantly lose not only the territories I had gained, but the ones I'd had to start with as well. If I built palaces or churches to try to score more points, I would have made myself a target for the other players without the ability to defend myself.

Perhaps, had I found myself in this situation closer to the beginning of the game, I might have been able to recover. Having a few turns to build up my defenses before trying to score more points might have made the difference. But as it was, I had insufficient time to try to recover the loses I'd suffered late in the mid-game.

I'll probably give this game another try some day, after my initial anger has faded. But for right now, I can only think about the games I used to play with Stephen many years ago.

Stephen used to be my best friend, He can be described as 'incredibly intelligent, but with absolutely no common sense.' He's the one who ruined Go for me; he tried to teach me to play one day, but rather than giving me any advice on strategy or the intricacies of the game, he merely explained the rules, then proceeded to absolutely thrash me. Twice.

I will happily admit that I am no strategic genius. I seldom do well in games of pure strategy, like Chess or Blokus. I'm ok with that, as long as I feel I have a chance. If I lose because of my own actions, that's fine. It's when I feel the game is so stacked against me that I have no good options that I start getting irritated.

I know that Go was not a case of 'I have no good options available.' But because Stephen, who is a strategic genius, countered me so effectively at every turn, and never explained to me what mistakes I was making, or what a better strategy might have been, it very much felt that way to me. That feeling has persisted, decades later, and I will likely never play Go again. I know it's irrational, but that's the way it is.

Anyway. Getting back to my point. I played several games with Stephen, including Axis and Allies and similar games. Many of these are similar to Risk in that, the more territory you control, the more resources you have available. This means that, by about the halfway point of the game, one player has more economic power than the other(s). At this point, as long as that power is dedicated to garnering and maintaining more of that economic power, that player cannot lose.

Let me explain a bit more in depth. In Risk, there are 42 territories on the board. That means that, in any single round, a total of about 126 reinforcement armies are awarded (not counting the bonus armies from controlling an entire continent). If there are six players, who control 4, 6, 6, 7, 8, and 11 territories each, that means the the player with 11 countries will receive 33 armies this round. That's 9 armies more than the next player, who has 8 territories and gets 24 armies. That's quite a significant advantage.

Sure, in this setting, the other players can gang up on the 11 territory player, but if that player is able to defend his holdings, it's likely that he'll go on to win. But even more important, the player with only 4 territories is in a really bad position. He only gets 12 armies per round, and that's not enough to make any significant gains. The only way he can win at this point is if the other players screw up by letting him gain a lot of new territory whilst they're fighting each other.

That's what bugs me about some games. Eventually, you lose so much ground that you have no chance to recover. At that point, the game stops being fun and becomes a case of waiting until defeat has finally arrived.

That's one of the things that I really enjoyed about Power Grid. The way the game flows, it's entirely possible for the player in last place to surge ahead at the very end and steal victory. You're never truly out of the running; there are always options that can enable you to win if you play your cards right (so to speak).

Anyway, that's just a thing I was thinking about. I hope this post didn't end up sounding too bitter. That wasn't my intent. In a way, it's meant as a warning to game designers: don't make it so that, if the game goes poorly for a player at the beginning, he no longer has any chance at all of winning.

So that's it for this week. I'll see you here next time. Until then,

Game on!

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