Friday, April 06, 2007

Short-Term Gain, Long-Term Loss

The other night at the meeting of the Appalachian Gamers I had what may have been the single greatest blow-out victory of my gaming career. I played Industria for the first time, and ended up with so many points that my score was way off the scoring track. I may have had more points than all the other players put together.

How did I achieve this fabulous victory? By brilliant strategy? Cunning tactical ploys? Actually, no. I stumbled onto my game-winning plan, and was allowed to carry it out only because none of the other players was willing to sacrifice his short-term gains for long-term profit.

If you haven’t played it, Industria (designed by Michael Schacht, published by Rio Grande Games and Queen Games) is an auction game in which players bid for spaces on the board that represent factories and technologies. Control of spaces that are connected by roads, railroads, or technology lines generate extra victory points. Early in the game, I gained control of the two technology spaces that came up for auction. And once I had two, then going for the rest only made sense. Technology spaces are especially valuable because they have low start-up costs, and because they tend to award high victory points.

I should mention that money is usually very tight in Industria. Players not only need cash to win auctions, but they need to set aside money every turn to build the factories that they’ve acquired. This lack of cash makes bluffing during auctions a risky endeavor. If someone calls your bluff, you may end up with a factory you don’t need and not enough cash to build any of your new acquisitions.

This explains why the other players were reluctant to fight me in a serious way for control of the technology spaces. Getting a technology space might not give them as many points as getting a factory near their other assets. They wanted to save their money for their own projects.

But eventually, they started realizing that this was a short-sighted strategy. “You let him get another technology!” someone would say after I won another space in my technology chain.

“I didn’t see you bidding him up,” the other player would reply.

I kept winning auctions even as my opponents pointed out to each other how foolish they were all being. They all knew that someone should challenge me, but no one wanted to be the one to bell the cat.

Thinking about the game later, I realized that what the game had illustrated was the basic human flaw that keeps people from sacrificing immediate gratification for long-term benefit. This inability to do what is in our own long-term best interest can help explain everything from the national obesity level, to the dismal American savings rate (which is in the negative numbers), to the human race’s probable inability to do anything meaningful to combat global warming.

It may seem like I’m throwing a ridiculous amount of significance on a game of Industria, but it’s not the game that’s significant—it’s the human behavior revealed by it.

If I wanted this story a to reveal a more positive human trait, I probably would only have to play another game of Industria with the same players. I doubt very much that they’d let me get away with the technology strategy again. The second game would most likely reveal something more cheerful—our ability to learn from our mistakes.


Unknown said...

The reason why nobody stop you is not because the other were not ready to sacrifice in short run, it's because individually, they rather have one of the other player stop you so they could reap the benefit without sharing the cost.

They could have cooperated. For exemple, they could all agree on a certain plan, let say win one auction against you each. But still, they all want to make sure that they win the cheapest auction. Even better, they rather not individually stop you during an auction and let all the other player do it. The player not following the plan then have a better chance at winning at beating you and it at least give him a distinct advantage against the other player who had to waste money on trying to stop you.

In the end, the other player rather use their money to be second then to spend any cash on trying to stop you and finish last.

Philippe said...

Weird, I was going to answer the exact same thing as abobe... and my name is also Philippe. With one L and two Ps...


Gerald McD said...

Congratulations on the win; nice write-up; and good analysis. I agree with your conclusions and your examples of related real-life issues.

Of course, the game situation is not unique to Industria. Many Eurogames, I think, present this dilemma to players, when one player begins to build an advantage. Even older games do this to some extent. It is a fequent issue in our 5-player games of Hearts, when it appears that one player might be planning on running the hearts -- who will be willing to take the Queen of Spades or maybe five hearts, to stop the run? In Through the Desert, who will sacrifice some plays to block the attempt by one player to enclose a huge area? In Settlers of Catan, will the players be able to sacrifice personal gain by refraining from trading resources with the player who has eight or nine points? In Hacienda, who will use their turn to block the leading player from reaching a market or completing a long chain? In Royal Turf, who will use their turn to prevent one horse from finishing, rather than bringing up the trailing horse upon which they have a bet placed?

In real life, how much damage will we allow to our planet, before it becomes politically advantageous to deal with global warming? Of course, in politics, long-term goals are almost always sacrificed for short-term gains (like re-election).

Smatt said...

Nice article, Kris. Also, nice comments by Philippe and Dr. Matt.

Isn't human behavior crazy? I don't know how many games I've been in when someone gets an edge or a lead and gets all but ignored. After the game, it's so easy to see where we went wrong. During the game, we get wrapped up in the outcome and our own plans. I find myself trying to choose options that benefit myself while possibly inching on the leader's territory, but it's usually not enough.

I typically feel like a kingmaker if I act directly against the leader. If I can do it without edging myself out, then I do (in fact, people would expect such a self-benefitting action). But in the multiplayer Euro-games, it's so easy to work on your own task without messing with anyone else's. In casual Ticket to Ride games, I rarely block someone else unless it's part of my own track.

After most games, I usually count up the number of offensive plays against each player. In many instances, the player with the least or no offensive plays made against him or her wins the game. Not always, of course, but there's usually a correlation.

But take a simple game like Risk or Monopoly. Your goal is clear. Take out everyone. Small alliances are made, but the overall goal is to eliminate everyone else. Perhaps this 'runaway leader' phenomenon is a part of the simultaneous development games.

As a side note, it's not a great solution to talk about coming together to tackle the leader. In a game of Bohnanza, my partner suggested not trading with me because I was a threat; that is, that was her solution to the "runaway leader." Well, guess what? Everyone agreed. It worked, and I felt like complete crap. I couldn't do anything. If everyone had decided to stop trading with me of their own accord, I wouldn't have felt half so bad.

This idea of a 'runaway leader vs. everyone' is a common dynamic in multiplayer euro-games. That's probably why I divide my time evenly between two-player games and the multi-player euros.