Thursday, March 16, 2006

The Problem with Luck II

Last year I wrote about luck in board games, with attention to the fact that most well-designed luck in games actually asks you to balance risk versus reward.

Last week I played two luck-filled board games, Parthenon and The Settlers of Zarahemla and in each case I lost due to some "bad luck". But, I was entirely happy with the results because the losses were ultimately the result of me risking and losing, and that's exactly how I think it should be in a game with a random factor. Thus, I'd like to use these two game sessions as case studies, to show what good, controllable luck looks like, and how you can risk and lose.

In the process, I'm going to talk about several different types of unpredictability in games: randomness, which I define as sample with replacement, such as a die roll; arbitrariness, which I define as sample without replacement, such as a deck of cards; and chaos, which I define as player interaction. (A fourth type of unpredictability, uncertainty, which depends on hidden information, didn't really come up in either game.)

Case #1: Parthenon

Parthenon was one of the more interesting games released in 2005. I wouldn't say it was high profile, but that's mainly because it came out from Z-Man who is still building their Eurogame creds (though they came out with a pile of great games in 2005). Nonetheless, if this game had been put out by Rio Grande, everyone would have been talking about it. Parthenon got quite a bit of good, early press as either a Civilization-light or a new Settlers of Catan. Then, as it reached a larger audience, people started complaining about the randomness, saying that it ruined an otherwise good game. As of today Parthenon is still ranked #586 on BGG, which is entirely respectable, and in the same area as Relationship Tightrope and Around the World in 80 Days, both good games. I personally gave Partheon a solid B.

The basic idea of Parthenon is to build 16 buildings on your home island. This is done through resource management. You collect various goods, among them the hard-to-get gold and papyrus, and use those to build your buildings, and at the same time you're influenced by current events, and the harbor status of the ports that you want to trade at.

In my recent game of Parthenon I had a very strong position going into year 3. By the end of the first season I had 15 or my 16 buildings built, with my second Wonder of the World being the only obstacle. But when I drew the plans for that second Wonder, I learned that the conditions for building that Wonder were very difficult given my particular setup and the particular conditions of the game.

In order to finish the Wonder I had to give away one gold, then one papyrus during the island trading phase. Unfortunately I didn' thave either in hand at the time, and the papyrus was very hard to get. It could only be traded for at Egypt, and Egypt had a "tribute" harbor status, meaning that you could only carry two goods there to trade, unless you had an army to protect them.

I had no army which meant I was indeed limited to those two goods in Egypt. I further had no way to build an army because I'd elected not to construct the Fortress building which would have allowed me do so. Since I was limited to trading just two goods in Egypt, I wouldn't be able to trade for both gold and papyrus on the same turn, and I'd further never built a second ship, which meant that I couldn't trade for gold somewhere else on the same turn that I got papyrus from Egypt. Oh, and the other players were embargoing me because of my strong endgame position, which kept me from trading for basic goods that I could have used to create gold at my marketplace. In other words, I was all-around out of luck. It would be at least season 4 before I could finish up my wonder, and if I met a single hazard-related setback, I'd never finish at all. And, I did.

It would be easy to say that I ended up in such an untenable position because of a bad card draw, and I suspect that many detractors of Parthenon's randomness would say exactly that. However, looking closer, I think it's pretty clear that my downfall was entirely my fault. Parthenon is at heart a logistical game of efficiency, as many resource management games are. This means that you try and make better use of limited goods and turns than your opponents. I had chosen to try a path of minimalism during this game. I hadn't bought any armies (or gifts of Poseidon or warships), because that would have slowed my path to victory. I hadn't bought any extra ships for carrying my goods for a similar reason.

If I'd drawn a better Wonder plan, I might have won in year 3, season 1 thanks to my superb efficiency to that point. Contrariwise if I'd taken a safer path, it might have cost me a season or two or efficiency, but I would have been in a better position once I got the Wonder I actually drew. With a ship or an army I had an opportunity to win the season after I drew that plan.

I didn't lose because of the card I drew. I lost because of the risk I took.

As I said in my previous article on luck, good luck in games should be controllable. There are a large number of different luck factors in Parthenon, but I believe every one of them is controllable. You takes your chances and you reap your rewards. Or not.

Here's a chart of those luck factors, which will probably be more meaningful to people who have played the game:

EventsArbitraryNegotiate with the Archon.
Build appriopriate structures.
Hold appropriate goods.
Buy Nihilism.
HazardsArbitraryBuy Gifts of Poseidon, Warships.
Buy Stoicism.
Harbor StatusesArbitraryBuy Armies, Warships.
Buy Epicureanism.
Wonder PlansArbitraryBuy plans early.
Buy Materialism.

One of the players in our Parthenon game mentioned that Stoicism is often the first Philosophy bought, because hazards come up so often. However, I'm no longer convinced that's the best strategy, because hazards can be controlled in other ways (especially through the all-purpose-hazard-avoidance Gift of Poseidon card), while other arbitrary card draws are much harder to control. If I'd purchased Materialism instead of Nihilism, I would have been taking my chances with events, but I would have been able to finish off my Wonder.

Before I close out on Parthenon I'd like to mention that the risk/reward structure is slightly more complex than what I discuss above. You have to expend resources to purchase the various cards which can allow you to offset risks, as I already mentioned. However, for all the aegis cards (that's the Army, Gift of Poseidon, or Warship) you actually have to put it on a boat, taking up one of your 6 cargo slots, in order for it to take effect. Since I've often had cases where I needed all 6 of my cargo slots in order to achieve the trade I wanted, this can be another large risk/reward decision.

Of course you can have your cake and eat it too. You just buy a second or third boat (cost: 1 or 2 gold), and then you will have to buy the correct aegises to protect that boat too, and you're set; you can now carry an extra six cargo, minus the slot(s) for those aegises. Of course you've spent more resources at this point, to lower your risk further.

Because of its multiple levels of risk decisions, I increasingly think that Parthenon is a very fine example of this particular genre of risk/reward game.

Case #2: The Settlers of Zarahemla

The other game that I played on my "lucky" game night was The Settlers of Zarahemla. It's a licensed version of The Settlers of Catan that I'm more likely to carry around when I'm interesting in a Settlers game because it's very beautiful and it has one slight addition: a pyramid to build, with a 2-point "best builder" VP bonus in contention. There are a few terminology changes: instead of sheep you have water as a resource, and they call ore stone.

As is often the case in Settlers my bad luck came about because of my setup decisions. I was greedy, and I made my initial placement decisions in order to try and corner two scarce-looking resources: stone and water. In the process, however, I placed my two settlements pretty close together, and right in the center of the board.

As the game proceeded I very quickly realized that I was in a bad position. I was getting cut off in multiple directions and every time I started to build in a direction, someone else got there just before me. I eventually had to build four road segments (off of a bad production of brick + wood) before I could get a third settlement down. I don't know that this all cost me the game, per se, because we had some strong players, but it definitely ensured that I was out of the competition.

Now I'm sure a lot more people are familiar with Settlers, and it's thus a lot easier to see some of my decisions as plain bad. For a start, if I was going to put myself in a board position where I needed to build out quickly, I should have made sure I had the brick and wood to do so, not the exact opposite resources. Further, striving for longest road (which I did, and which I held for a time) was pretty dumb when I had no wood resources. Instead I should have been working on the temple, which took brick and ore. I had brick, and as you may recall I made an effort to corner the ore market.

However, I can also measure my choices as risk/reward. I took a bad risk--hoping that the other players wouldn't cut me off before I really got my resource machine going--and I'd balanced it against a questionable reward--grabbing a set of resources that I'd decided were nice. And this is how risk/reward games are often lost: in measuring your risk or reward incorrectly, not in drawing the wrong card or having an opponent cut you off at the wrong time.

During my game of Settlers I also got hit by the robber 2 or 3 times, losing my hand when I had 8 or more cards. As with my building choices, this often comes down to greed. I was building up for the big win, rather than buying a development card or doing something else less efficient. If I'd taken a more tactical approach to the game, I might have been able to inch ahead a bit, but instead I took the risk of long-term strategy, and lost out.

As with Parthenon, the luck and the control of Settlers can be mapped out in a chart:

Development CardArbitraryNone. (Or perhaps: Buy more.)
Die Roll: ProductionRandomSpread out settlements by production number.
Die Roll: RobberRandomBuild, even if it's suboptimal, to keep hand size below 7.
Opponent BlockingChaosSpread out settlements by geography.

Controlling the luck of Settlers doesn't map out quite as cleanly as controlling the luck of Parthenon, but it's still there. You just have to work a little harder to achieve it, and you have to think a little more about it because the game system is a bit more tightly woven, and thus you don't hae elements that scream out, "I'm here to control luck for you", as is the case with Parthenon.


Luck is a fine element in a game if it can be controlled, and Parthenon and Settlers provide two great examples of games that were designed with controlling luck in mind; if anything writing this article has assured me of how deliberate this design was in Parthenon.

If you can't deal with randomness, fine, but let's stop hearing about how you lost due to bad luck, when there were options for control that you could have taken advantage of and opted not to.


Anonymous said...

This was a wonderful article. It's refreshing to see a gamer recognize the positive effects of luck, and the hard decisions it can engender. I feel that too often, we only hear luck spoken of disparagingly. Thanks so much!

ekted said...

Luck can give games texture. Each game unfolds differently, and you must react to the changes rather than memorize "poplular patterns". The right kinds of luck keep gaming intuitive, which for me is a good thing.

Nice article.

gamesgrandpa said...

I prefer a bit of luck in my games, but not too much. Designing a game with just the right amount of luck factor, especially with obvious mitigation options, will produce a real winner for me. I've not played Parthenon, but you make it sound very attractive.

You write great articles, and I look forward to each one. Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

I strongly agree with your comments on Parthenon--I think the game's detractors are totally off-base. Regarding the observations from your individual game, I think waiting until Year 3 to get to Athens for that second wonder plan could have been a key mistake.

Greg J. Schloesser said...

I'm not sure I agree with your opinion. Yes, there are things you can do to TRY to protect yourself against disasters, but there are SO many possible disasters and adverse cards that it is quite impossible to protect yourself against most of them, let alone all of them. You would spend all of your resources and time trying to build the buildings necessary to protect yourself, and then using the resources needed to secure the cards
needed to protect you. I postulate that you would fall SO far behind the other players, there would be no catching-up.

Decisions must be made as to how best to use your resources and time. One must make those decisions based on probabilities, and the progress being made by your opponents. It is impossible to protect yourself against everything from the start, so you remain vulnerable to other hazards and disasters until you are able to build those protections.

As an example, in order to protect oneself against pirates, a player must first build the harbor, which requires some difficult-to-obtain resources. In order to obtain those resources, a player must sail abroad and take some risks. He is immediately at risk from storms and pirates, not to mention the four season cards, which can be devastating. Once he acquires those resources, he builds the harbor and on a future turn spends more resources to acquire a warship. He is now protected against pirates. This probably took 4 or 5 turns to complete this process. However, the player is still at risk against storms and those dastardly seasonal cards. Acquiring protection against each of these perils requires a similar process that can take numerous turns.

No, I'm not in the camp that says that a player can properly plan to protect himself against all of the risks that this game tosses at the players. I think you have to get lucky. Yes, be prudent, but you cannot play a highly cautious game and expect to win. You must take risks and hope to get lucky. I won my last game of Parthenon primarily because I got lucky and my opponents did not.

Anonymous said...

There's already a workaround built into the system: The philosophy "Materialism", which lets you complete one (and only one) Wonder in the game by delivering six goods of the same type to any of the local islands.

You also could have bought an army from another player, or traded for Papyrus from another player, or taken the Philosphy that lets you ignore harbor status.

Once people get familiar with the options, the way to overcome the obstacles becomes more clear.

As to Greg's worries about the seasons, I need to mention that each year is a stacked deck of 3 good and 3 bad events, of which you draw 4. If you've drawn 2 bad events in the first two seasons, it's 75% likely you'll draw a good event next. At most you'll have 3 bad and 1 good event in a year.

Just as Settlers forces the players to go from building villages to gathering stone and iron to build cities, changing the economy of the game, the yearly events strongly encourage the players to start building new things, changing the economy of the game as they do so. Persian Wars strongly encourages all the players to build an army before year 3. After you've played the game once it's pretty easy to fufill this in advance.

Anonymous said...

There's 16 buildings in the game. You win by building all 16. The Harbor is one of those required to build.

I don't get why Greg is complaining about building the Harbor. You can't win if you don't build it. It's like complaining that in Settlers that you just can't make a lot of resources cards if you decide not to build cities. Building a Harbor is part of the game, thre real decision is choosing what turn it's build and when it's completed in the build order.

If you really want a warship before you have built a Harbor, sail to Carthage with 1 gold. They sell warships there at 1 gold each, all game.

But really, until your economy is going strong enough that you're sending out fleets with more than 2 goods on them, going for Warships prematurely will stall your economy.

Out of the deck of 24 sailing Hazards, 6 of them are Pirates that a Warship can prevent:
2x Every Fleet lose one commodity
2x Every Fleet lose half commodities.
2x Ship with most rare and gold commodities loses all (ignore if no rare or gold)

Most people agree that if you're only hauling around 1-3 non-rare goods, it's cheaper to just pay the loss of an occasional good. Once your economy grows larger and starts producing rares is when to invest in warships --which is also when the Event card that rewards those with a Harbor comes up in the game, in year 2.

Note also that the last Hazard only targets 1 player --the player with the most (usually the game leader). Even if you are hauling rares and gold --which seldom happens before mid-game --all you have to do is have 1 less of them on board than the guy who does have a warship. He's the only one targetted by the Hazard (whether or not he can deal with it). The rest of the players trying to catchup get to ride free in his wake, since he takes the hit for everyone in the game.