Sunday, September 24, 2006

Second Place for the Win

With a nail-biting, come-from-behind victory today in Caylus, it causes me to pause and reflect upon a common occurrence in Eurogames. Often, the best position to be in is second place. This isn’t true in every case, games with very little player-player interaction such as Puerto Rico can have a run away leader with very little penalty and two-player games are most often played with each player going flat out for the win from the start. As player interaction increases within a game, being the frontrunner as you near the final stretch of the game becomes less and less desirable. As in cycling, the front runner often has to accomplish everything on their own, while those coming along second or later can drift along and try to take advantage of first place while conserving their resources for the last mad dash. In games with moderate player interaction, such as Caylus or Settlers of Catan, being in a reasonable second place as the game enters the endgame is more desirable than being the actual leader. Once the endgame looms on players, they will often cooperate to “bash on the leader”. The thinking is something like this: “Sure, the second place player may be able to win, but I am SURE to lose if I don’t spend an effort to prevent that first place player from winning now. Perhaps something will come up later to take care of the player in second… “ In games with heavy player interaction, such as I’m the Boss or possibly Bohnanza, it is almost a given that the player in first place (or the person perceived to be in first place) will be hindered enough to prevent them from winning the game. Note that I’m trying to avoid the topic of kingmaking – where a player who has no possible chance to win the game but is in a situation to decide which of their opponents can win. I’m trying to focus in on situations where players are, for the most part, still in contention for winning and are willing to cooperate for what is perceived as the “good of the group”.

This entire attitude relies on a few factors. First, the game must have a minimum amount of player-player interaction. If there’s nothing your opponents can do to you, they won’t do it. Second, players need to be going for a game win rather than for an optimal finish. That is not always the same thing (and a topic that would fit well within an entire column.) Players in competition for first will typically be willing to penalize themselves a bit to bash on the leader in the hopes that they will be able to pass by and win. However, a very cautious player may give up the hope of winning and instead conserve all their energy to try to guarantee second place and let their opponents spend resources and effort in taking down the leader. Finally, if the players begin to separate themselves into various “packs” on the scoreboard, individual players may have their hands full fighting for a third or fourth place finish and decide to let the leader or leaders settle their own problems. This is one reason I enjoy face to face gaming far more than online board games. Face to face gaming allows me to read the other player’s attitudes and emotions to help me predict whether they would be more likely to join in on a round of bashing the leader and hoping for the win or whether they would rather hoard their resources and try to guarantee or possibly mildly improve their current position.

Now for the big question, how should this affect your game? Obviously, each game should be analyzed for the possibility of leader-bashing and it should play a part of long-term planning. Any game that has significant player interaction and consumable resources (cards, goods, actions, whatever) that can be stockpiled from round to round are good candidates for the second-place strategy. This is especially true if the stockpiled resources can be kept secret or at least out of sight . During the game, don’t let the leader get too far ahead, but also be aware of your other opponents. If there are only two people vying for first place, you will have a hard time convincing others to help knock down the leader, only to give you the win. Many deep strategy games have resources that are valuable at the start and nearly worthless at the end (money in Puerto Rico for example), and a good player will be able to determine when that value switches over from priceless to useless. Playing for second place can be very similar. An astute player may set themselves up to be in a friendly second place position to lull opponents into a false sense of security, right up to the point when it is time to race ahead for the win. Timing that transition from second to first is very important. Too soon, and you become a target, and too late and you will fail to catch up. Now, I’m not saying that you should pass by good opportunities if they are going to launch you into the lead. But once you are in the lead, you may need to adopt a less risky strategy. In Caylus, for example, it is usually not wise to try to take advantage of those buildings out there in front of the provost when you are in the lead, as nearly every other player will be willing to give up a small amount of resources (cash) to prevent you from advancing further into the lead. Keep in mind that a large part of multiplayer games are the actions of the other players. If you are in the lead, every other player at the board is going to need to pass you by before they can win, making you a juicy target for everyone. If you take the lead in the mid or late midgame, pour it on strong and don’t look back, but also manage your risks wisely and don’t give the other players an opportunity to shoot you in the back.


Anonymous said...

What a coincidence. I was thinking of exactly the same thing just yesterday after two games of Settlers. In both games, I had a strong lead from the beginning, only to be stuck at 8 or 9 VPs at the very end. The games were both won by the persons in 2nd place.

I guess that this is because in Settlers you can gain your resources in 2 ways: 1) via dice-rolls, and 2) via trading. Once you're in the lead, option 2) rapidly vanishes, leaving you with only option 1. Meanwhile, options 1) and 2) are still available to the 2nd place player, making them the likely end-game winner.

Granted, you can still trade 4:1 with the bank, or 3/2:1 with your ports, but my point is that to get those resources to bank/port-trade, you're still relying on option 1 to gain you the resources you need to trade in the first place.

huzonfirst said...

Very good article, Matt. I agree with everything you say, except for the difficulty in catching up to the leader in Puerto Rico. PR has a good deal of indirect player interaction, so there is very rarely a runaway leader in our games. If a clear leader is established by midgame, it's a simple matter not to set him or her up with choosing the Overseer, or not to Captain if they can do well with shipping, or definitely TO pick Captain if it means they'll have to dump a lot of barrels in the briny bay. Just as in the other games you mention, the leader in PR must do all the heavy lifting themselves. All it takes is an awareness of how the other players are doing and a basic understanding of how your actions affect others.