Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Winning Using Mechanics

Following Shannon's post about winning, this week's post approaches winning from a different perspective, namely: winning by maximizing your position using the game mechanics. And by winning, I don't mean "placing the best that you can" or "having a good time" or "making the experience enjoyable for all participants"; I mean winning.

A warning: the raw principles of winning are for use in tournaments or when playing with manly-men (of which I am not). Adherence to these principles is likely to decrease your enjoyment of games unless your enjoyment comes only through striving to come in first place. They are meant to declutter the gaming experience, to "solve" the game. 'Tis a nasty business.

I should also preface by saying that some techniques that are used for winning, especially at tournaments or between manly-men, will not be considered here, these techniques being considered unethical. Aside from those techniques listed in the linked to article, I will add "rules lawyering" which is the technique of wearing down the patience of your opponents by arguing over ambiguities in the rules.


All games with win conditions are race games. Some have finish lines: first to reach this amount of points or that amount of money or this other condition. If the win conditions require you to have the most points or the most money, then you are racing around a (possibly imaginary) scoring track trying to be farthest along when the game ends. If the game is won by the last one standing, then the scoring track measures the number of rounds survived. Some games may not helpfully supply this scoring track, but this doesn't detract from the reality of how to win.

The actual ending score is almost always unimportant. A win by 10,000 is the same as a win by 1, which is the same as a win with a tied score where you win on the tie breaker. The numbers on the track are arbitrary. The units are irrelevant. All that matters is the win.

Beating your opponents

In order to win, you have to be ahead at the end. In a multiplayer game, it is usually more helpful to move forward one space around the track than to move an opponent back one space. This is because moving forward advances you against all opponents, not just one.

Nevertheless, sometimes it is helpful to neutralize one of your opponents so that you can concentrate your resources on beating your other opponents. It is preferable to do this in a way such that your opponents continue to believe that the neutralized opponent has a chance, so that they will continue to waste resources equally.

The mechanics you use to beat your opponents are also irrelevant. Ten points from this or ten points from that is ten points, period. All that matters are the resources spent. However, unless they reward you for having been acquired, be wary of gaining temporary points, such as Longest Road in Settlers of Catan. You don't care about these points until someone can win the game with them. You want to acquire them on the turn you win the game so that they can't be reacquired by someone else; or you want to make their reacquisition so hopeless that it is not worth anyone else's while to bother.


The spaces in a scoring track, especially the imaginary kind, are not necessarily linear or equivalent for all players.

Take ASL. The win condition for one side might be to occupy a certain building by turn 8; for the other side it might be to prevent your opponent from occupying the building until at least turn 9, or kill 2/3 of his forces. What is the scoring track?

Each player has his own track in this case, and the first one to get to their finish line wins. For the first player, he keeps score by establishing a series of goals that are required to get to that line: move to this position before turn A, take out this unit by turn B, and so on. For the second player, he marks progress in his first goal by moving his opponent's piece back spaces (or holding him in position) while his own piece moves forward one step every round. His second goal is marked on a seperate track counting the number of units killed.

Now take Puerto Rico. The scoring track here is easy, just points, right? No. Well, yes, ultimately it is all about points.

However, the game ends at a particular time and all that matters is who has the most points at the end. The last few turns can give huge amounts of points, so you can't tell who is winning by looking at points in rounds five or ten. The beginning and middle part of the game are spent "fueling" your imaginary counter to make that burst of speed before the game ends, through the acquisition of buildings, colonists, and plantations. The trick is to make sure that the fuel gets used and your counter actually moves before the game ends. Another example here would be Power Grid.

Therefore you can also imagine a scoring track with milestones on the way to victory, where first to achieve certain mileposts is ahead of his competitors. Creating the right working track is a challenge. You have to be sure that your spaces represent actual progress to your goal. In Chess you can lose to a checkmate from an opponent that has only three pieces left. Taking off pieces does not represent progress unless the removal establishes real gain. Don't fool yourself as to your own progress.


Which brings us to the "fuel" of the game. In order to win, you need to fuel your counter to cross the finish line ahead of your opponents. The mechanics of the game are your fuel.

A good example here is Cities and Knights of Catan. The win condition is: first player to score thirteen points. You gain one point from a settlement, two from a city, two from a metropolis, two from longest road, one from certain progress cards, and one from defending the city which occurs every fourteen rounds or so.

How often do you see people playing around with the mechanics but not making progress towards winning? Building more knights, playing complicated cards, making city improvements, and other actions that can't be expected to gain them points for several or even dozens of rounds. Or opponents not counting the points on the board each round. Forgetting to count the merchant as a point. Not aware of who will win if they steal the Longest Road. Not looking at who is about to gain a Metropolis.

Forget the theme. Forget the chrome. Your counter is idling on the scoring track. If you want to win, ask yourself: how am I going to win this game before anyone else? Calculate what you need to win and then do it. Use the mechanics. Don't get sidetracked by the themes wrapped around them.


Mechanics are fuel for your counter. Each mechanic contributes to your victory, some more than others, and some not at all. The game comes down to this: you have a certain number of resources each round, the most important of which is the number of actions you can take. Each action gains you a certain number of points. Almost always, the least number of resources expended gaining the most number of points equals victory. Those points don't have to come at the same time that the action is taken, but they have to come.

Deciding where to put your camels in Through the Desert? How much closer to victory does it get you? You are on an imaginary scoring track with your opponents. Where is your counter compared to theirs? By placing this camel, you will be gaining X points here, and be giving up Y points there. X points is better than X-1 points. Y points given to a last place opponent is not a problem; to your nearest competitor or to someone beating you, is.


There is no mercy in winning. Everyone else has to lose in order for you to win. The sooner each other player is out of competition the better, assuming that they do not then spend the rest of the game wreaking vengeance on you.

The best tactics first and foremost build up your strategy to a decisive win before the game ends. That gives you the most points overall per move across the entire game.

Of course, in some games points are non-cumulative, which means that there is no real strategy for positioning your pieces to gain large rewards in later rounds. In these cases, you simply need to maximize your points versus your opponents each round or over the course of a series of rounds.

Don't hand large point opportunities to your opponents and don't leave large point opportunities open for your opponents. Small points are different. You can tempt an opponent away from his strategy with a few points. The odds are that the resources wasted to acquire those points would have been better used fueling a long term strategy.

Another time when a small point loss is acceptable is when you can use it set long term plans while your opponent's choices become more restricted. As a general rule, the more predictable your opponent's next few turns will be, the better off you are. Leaving a small fuel dump that you know they will stop for, or leaving a gold on the Trader when you know they will take it, allows you to change from single round tactics to multi-round tactics while your opponent's moves are forced. The ability to plan tactics over several rounds is a great advantage.

Always choose to give advantages to your most impotent opponent if you have to give an advantage at all.


When several options are equally optimal, or at least none are proven to be sub-optimal, you are faced with a strategic choice. Your strategic choice should maximize your strengths and undermine and exploit your opponent's weaknesses.

Don't waste your time on a few tactical pluses; in a strategic game, tactics that support a long-term strategy will bear out a higher cumulative point reward by the end of the game. Don't get distracted from your long term goals unless the change in strategy offers you a better chance of winning the game even faster.

This is where you can utilize the theme to your advantage. You want your opponent lost in the mechanics chasing short term single step goals while you are working on moving your counter around the track. For instance, you want your opponent gaining two cubes at a time in T&E while you are working toward establishing a fruitful external conflict or a defendible monument (so long as it pays off more than the lost two cubes a turn by the time you have finished with it).

You want your opponent taking multi-step chains to receive non-cumulative rewards while you are pursuing the most direct path to the highest victory conditions. For instance, you want your opponent building knights to gain single points from the barbarian attack, while you build settlements and cities which accumulate resources for more cities.


Winning is not about moving around pieces, attacking, trading, accumulating, buying, or building. It is about using game mechanics to achieve the victory conditions first or best. The rest is theme.

But hey, winning isn't everything.


JMV said...

Excellent post!
Your points about Tactics and Strategy helped me solidify some thoughts that have been rattling around in my head for a week or two!

Anonymous said...

I think that you summed up why themeless games don't bother me. :-) I usually do not think about the chrome (theme) when learning a game. Internally, I always reduce it to mechanics. The score track is a good visualization technique. As you mentioned, it can be deceptive, but I think it is still a useful tool.

Now after I have learned the game, I think theme can be fun. It can be a mileiu in which to set the banter. For example, bad Italian accents in Family Business, acting as auctioneer in Modern art or requesting wood in a trade to establish housing for these poor struggling settlers. But it really usually isn't important towards playing the actual game. So I will continue to think that theme is nice, but not necssary. :-)

Anonymous said...

Perhaps it is revelatory of me to say that this is the way I think about all games, that it seems the only right and proper way to approach games, and frankly, "well duh, of course!" I'm not there to feel good, I'm there to win. It takes all sorts and people do play for different reasons.

Lewis Pulsipher said...

It's widely known in video game circles that the more experienced a player is, assuming he's focused on winning, the less he cares about story/theme. He concentrates on the mechanics of the game, on how to maximize his possibilities.