Friday, December 15, 2006

Cleopatra and her Psychological Traps

The latest new game I’ve played is Cleopatra and the Society of Architects. In my first game, I ended up with the fewest victory points.

You’re shocked, I know. You think that anyone who can write such witty, perceptive, and knowledgeable commentary on this hobby of ours must be a gaming god. Alas, I must disillusion you. I’ve had my share of defeats, especially when the game I’m playing has a psychological trap into which I am prone to fall.

What is the psychological trap in Cleopatra? The corruption mechanism, of course. If you haven’t played the game, all you need to know is that it is a card-collecting game in which all of the most powerful cards come tainted with corruption. To use the powerful cards, you must take one or two of the dreaded corruption markers. At the end of the game, the player with the most corruption gets fed to Cleopatra’s crocodiles (in our game, we tried feeding the loser to the fat Corgi that lurked beneath the table, but the waddling canine deity was in a benevolent mood).

I was determined not to become a croc snack. And I ended up with only one corruption marker. But my caution was so exaggerated that I failed to use many powerful cards, and so I also failed to build many of the structures that create victory points. The winner of the game had a goodly number of corruption points, but he kept them under control through the mosaic mechanism.

My poor showing started me thinking about how certain games have psychological traps that can entice players into pursuing failing strategies. Now that I know that fear leads to poor performance in Cleopatra (hmmm, that phrase has more meanings than I expected) I can try to modify my strategies. But the dread of instant defeat will always lurk at the back of my mind, pressuring me toward a timidity that could cost me the game.

Other games have their own psychological pitfalls as well.

In my blog about shopping within games, I mentioned that the special ability tiles in Struggle of Empires are so tempting that I spend an excessive amount of time collecting them, and can easily neglect ordinary empire building--and so lose the game. This trap is the Seduction of Infinite Empire Improvability. It’s the large number and wide variety of tiles that proves my undoing. They are like potato chips; I always promise myself I will stop—right after I get just one more.

I’ve lost the last two games of Union Pacific I’ve played because of the Lure of the Concrete Payoff. In both games, I was the player with the most Union Pacific stock. The certainty that having the most Union Pacific stock will create a $20 million payoff at the end of the game is a dangerous temptation that caused me to waste too much time acquiring UP stock.

In both games, the player who won employed a version of the Second Place Strategy. A player employing this strategy tries to acquire a wide variety of stock in the hope that he will be the second-place stockholder in a large number of railroads. The advantage of this strategy is that all the first-place stockholders will be making their railroads grow, and the second-place stockholder gets the benefits of their labor for free. I realize now that this can be a winning strategy. But I also know that if I play Union Pacific again, the Lure of Concrete Payoff could again tempt me to become a Union Pacific stock junky.

In my last game of Railroad Tycoon, I fell victim to the Temptation of the Northeast Corridor Killing Fields. In a three or four player game, the profitable cities of the Northeast can be a great place to build a railroad because there is at least a chance that the other players will choose to develop their railroads in their own areas of the country. But in a five or six player game, there is virtually no chance that a player building in the Northeast will not encounter competition. And so it was in my game. While all the non-Northeast players developed their railroads in peace, I was locked into a mortal struggle with an opponent for every cube in New England. I hope that in the future I will be smart enough to avoid the Northeast--at least in games with large numbers of players. But I know that the cube congestion in the New York area always has the potential to be an unshaded lightbulb and that I could become the moth in a spiraling death orbit around it.

Fear and temptation are the common denominators in all these traps. I’m smart enough to recognize pitfalls in these games, but recognizing them and avoiding them are two different things. If logic trumped emotion in our lives, we’d all be thin and healthy non-smokers who never talk on cell phones in cars while observing the speed limit.

7 comments:

MWChapel said...

A couple more I see:

Ticket 2 Ride -- going for the longest train, even at the cost of not finishing ticket of long 6 routes. Must stay contiguous!

Gloria Mundi -- When to use the goth, and when not to. efficiency says not to, but what if the next guys does it. A ticking time bomb!

Chris Farrell said...

Cleopatra does have an inherent psychological trap, although when explaining the game I usually mention to people to remember that the goal is generally to have the second-most corruption.

But I think there is a big different between a game with psychological traps and games that are just unbalanced. A lot of Martin Wallace game sucker you into doing stuff you shouldn't be doing, but that's because most of us playing German games assume that if the designer presents you with an option, it's at least viable. Such is not always the case; but that's just a design flaw.

My favorite recent "psychological trap" game, and one that I think exemplifies this sort of thing, is Knizia's recent Great Wall of China.

Kris Hall said...

So Mr. Farrell, what is the trap in Great Wall?

Fellonmyhead said...

When you mentioned Struggle of Empires Kris, I expected you would focus more on the accumulation of unrest. Not wanting to gain more than the other players is often one element which prevents me from going all-out to fight for control in whatever region I have an interest.

The best example I could think of, off the top of my head, is Web of Power. Two aspects of that game - the opening of a new region and switching from building cloisters to garnering influence in the courts - are psychological traps which are often difficult to measure. In the first case, you feel you dare not open a new region because the rest of the players will probably dominate, but if you don't then somebody else might open it just when you cannot take advantage. In the second case, it's a matter of when to switch from concentrating on cloisters to advisors - a problem not present in the updated China because of the progressive scoring.

Chris, I think it's a little harsh to call a non-viable option a design flaw; and in the case of most of Wallace's games (for instance) the viability is typically changeable.

Fraser said...

The word to remember Kris is "balance". Remember to balance things. The aim in Cleopatra and the Society of Architects is not to have no corruption, it is to not be the person with the most corruption, in fact as Chris said the ideal is to be the one with the second most corruption.

It's one of things I love about Union Pacific, do you go for more Union Pacific, do you go for control in a company or do you increase the value of a company? Every turn you need to make that decision with the added uncertainty of not knowing exactly when the dividend payment is going to occur.

In my relatively limited experience with Great Wall of China the pyschological trap is going for long extended escalating battles for an expensive piece of wall when you could just give up on that section of wall and get many more points for less resources by an alternate strategy, but you don't because you don't want to be seen to be giving up - or you are just too pig-headed to give up :-)

Dr. Matt J. Carlson said...

Around the World in 60 Days always suckers new players into finishing "first", no matter how much I emphasize that it isn't the primary concern. (It even eggs you on with those bonuses to the first player to arrive at a location...)

Friendless said...

Lots of games have what you're calling psychological traps. Whenever there's an auction you want to win it, whereas the real aim is only to make sure that the winner pays too much. The trap comes about when you don't understand a game well enough to know when you've achieved the strategic goal, rather than the proximate goal.