How To Win Every Game

A quick guide to winning every board game, in 3 parts: playing the rules, playing the game, and playing the opponent.

(Note that we won’t go into any stuff like cheating, deceiving, or being a bad sport, which frankly you shouldn’t do cause life is too short to be shitty).

Let’s assume it’s a game you know nothing about and you’re just learning it for the first time. You’re guaranteed to be introduced to the theme, turn sequence, and your available actions, and those are important, but before you start your first playthrough you should also make sure you know two other things: what are the victory conditions (all of them), and what are the game end triggers.

Ask for those early in the explanation, and frame the rest of the game rules in those terms to yourself. Those two things are the most important thing when learning a game because it puts everything else in context. Every action available to the player is to be understood in terms of “how does this get me closer to a winning position” and “how does it relate to the game ending”, and do note that those are quite often not the same thing.

Some games are ‘linear’, in that short term benefits are strongly tied to long term benefits. Trivial example would be Shoots and Ladders where moving farther is always good both short term and long term. These sort of games are very intuitive to learn: you take the best action for you at any point and don’t worry about things. Monopoly is a more interesting one where this still mostly applies: actions that earn you money and properties at good prices are both good in the short term, and generally good in the long term (with a caveat we’ll hit later).

Most newer games are intentionally not linear in this regard. A standard of modern design is that actions that are good short term are slightly orthogonal to actions that give you points and directly lead to you winning the game. I’ll give you a conceptual example first, then some board game examples.

Imagine a game where there’s only two actions possible. The first available action gives you 2 extra actions next turn, the second one gives you 1 point. If you invest in extra actions, the bonuses stack up: 1 action first turn, 2 next turn, 4 next, etc. Problem is that unless you actually use those actions to get points before the game is over, you’ll finish the game with a huge amount of possible points, but 0 actual ones.

Optimizing your strategy in this game isn’t particularly hard or complicated (or interesting). It comes down to the game end condition. Does the game end in a set number of turns? Then it’s just a math problem: double actions until last turn, then score points. Does the game end when a pool of 30 points runs out? Then it’s a tiny bit more interesting and depends on what your opponents are doing, but still essentially pretty simple. The important thing from this example is to understand that there are actions that make you stronger, and actions where you fall behind on potential strength, but get points, and they need to be balanced.

So famous example of this method: Dominion. Dominion has cards that give you options and more powers, and separately has scoring cards that slow you down, but are the only ones you win with. Balancing when you stop getting the first to buy the second is the point of the game.

This sounds easy, but the whole “make sure to get points” thing is easy to get wrong. Twilight Imperium comes to mind: a game where players get so obsessed with building their empire that they forget to go after scoring objectives. Or the slightly esoteric game Pax Porfiriana where being attacked gives you a type points, and trying to attack a player with the largest domain (giving them less power and options on their turn) might end up leading to them winning with those “I got attacked” points.

Btw, about 90% of euro games fall into a variation of that formula: “build engine to get more actions, then convert that engine into points at optimal moment”. That’s not a criticism.

= = =

Ok, so that was part 1: learning the rules. Let’s say you now know the rules to the theoretical game you’re leaning and want to start. Now let’s talk about the second part: playing the game.

The most important resource in every game you play is time. Chess players call it ‘tempo’, euro players call it ‘efficiency’ (and I’ll use that term cause it’s more generalized), but it really comes down to the fact that you only have so many actions to take in a game, and the fewer actions you spend getting to a position, the faster you can get to the next ones.

Efficiency comes down to the fact games are universally (I hesitate to say “universally” but I can’t think of any counterexamples and let’s be brave today) built to reward decisiveness. Moving, then taking back that move is almost always a bad play. You’ve let your opponent take two actions and gained nothing.

Next time you play a game, count how many actions you take. It’s often fewer than you think. Varies game to game obviously, but a lot of euros only have 7 to 12 actions per player in the whole game. A wasted one is a huge setback.

In board games, efficiency often comes down to getting more for each resource (and remember that your player turn is just another resource). If your choices are either get 1 ‘thing’ in a turn, or take two turns to get 3 ‘things’, the second is objectively better, all things being equal. This is often disguised as transactions or conversions in games. A famous example: Lords of Waterdeep hides this math in flavor text about heroes, quests, and gold coins, but in reality you’re just swapping cubes using formula cards (quests) trying to end up as close as possible to finishing the next quest in your hand.

The other half of efficiency is synergy. Synergy means using what you already have to get more out of each action. If you have a card that says “score 1 vp for blue things, and 2 vp for green things”, then you should obviously get green things when possible.

In most games, being very good at one or two things is better than being ok at all of them. Every turn where you get a tiny bit more mileage out of your actions than your opponents (have I mentioned that actions are the most important resource?) is a turn where you get further ahead on average.
There’s a huge caveat here, and that’s it’s never easy in practice to tell he efficiency of an action, and that’s really where the meat of learning a game lies. It’s hard to tell if you should specialize in scoring “blue things” or “green things” if you don’t know how many of them there are in a face down stack. After you play the game a few times you’ll be better able to guess at it, but at first you’re really just taking a wild guess at the distribution. Sometimes they’re even, sometimes they’re not despite it looking like they might be (like the bamboo colors in Takenoko: they are not evenly distributed).

Also, don’t get stuck only evaluating your position and not your opponents. Sometimes it’s worth taking an action or object just to make sure your opponent can’t get it. It might be worth 1 point to you, but if it’s worth 10 to your opponent, maybe that’s the right move so they have to take a different, less valuable thing. It doesn’t matter if you have a large score if your opponent has 1 more than you.

Quick note: almost all worker placement games have a “free move” where you just place a worker to score a single vp or get a single ‘coin’. Almost always avoid those unless you have to. They are very rarely the efficient action.

Oh I mentioned that we’ll have a Monopoly caveat so let’s do it now: Monopoly is really big on synergy, and weighing synergy vs efficiency is huge. Yes, it’s usually good to trade 1 thing for someone else’s 2 things of similar value, but value is relative, and if it lets them complete a monopoly then that trade is a terrible one. Usually.

So in general for summing part two: avoid partway moves or slow moves, and look for actions that get bonuses from what you already have. This is the key to being intermediate at every game you play.

= = =

So you got the first two parts: you got the rules, and you got the hang of playing the game and are now comfortably ok at it, the final step is to realize that you’re playing against people and play to beat them by making them play inefficiently.

The fundamental here is that humans are driven by anxiety more than anything else. This applies to everything, not just board games, and it’s funny that I’m burying it this deep in a post, but there you go. Huge takeaway for predicting people: we are all driven by some type of anxiety.

We are biologically biased very strongly to incorrectly perceiving our position of power compared to a different person, and even more strongly biased to incorrectly weigh how they’ll perceive our actions. The famous example of this are escalating feuds where one side’s “proportional response to their escalation” is taken as a “dramatic escalation to our measured response”, leading to inevitable worsening of the feud. A joke becomes insult, becomes a threat, becomes a shove, becomes a punch, etc.

The point of causing the anxiety is to make your opponent play inefficiently. This is pretty intuitive in games that include direct confrontation: massing forces at someone’s border is supposed to make them stop what they’re doing, fall behind on executing their plan (remember, the plan is always to play efficiently towards getting to a game end condition where you have the winning score), and instead try and defend that border. But this principle is not limited to confrontational games, in a worker placement if you play such that a resource they need in the game appears at risk of running out, they might be tricked into acquiring it inefficiently now, instead of efficiently in 3 turns.

The art of this unfortunately comes down to the fact that every person is anxious in a different way. Some people think allowing a bluff go uncalled makes them weak and over-exert in stopping threats, others assume that no one should call a bluff if you can’t be sure you’ll win, and as so let them go by unchallenged and just give up on that portion of a game.

Going into the various types of player personalities is definitely outside the scope of this already far longer than anyone will read post, but in general the universal advice for this third part is “play a tiny bit more aggressively than you usually do”. Because of the disproportional perception, you’re going to get more mileage out of it than you think. We are creatures driven irrationally by anxiety, with our rational efficient mind desperately trying to keep reigns and guide the horses on the road.

But in general, mastering a game comes down to being able to perceive bluffs (moves that are inefficient but are trying to make us play even more inefficiently) vs actual attacks that must be responded to. Picture trying to jump onto someone’s city in Carcassonne. An expert will react differently because they know the odds of you drawing the tile you need, and if it’s high they’ll know they should consider defending, while if it’s low, it’s probably best to just ignore it and play somewhere else.

Flipside to this is also (the much easier said than done) stay calm. An attack is just another move in a game and your reaction should be as normal: will countering help me get efficiently to my end game condition goal? There’s nothing special about a move that attacks you. It’s just another board state transition. Respond as normal.

Anxiety is always there waiting to drive us if we’re not careful. There’s a reason why the feigned retreat is the single most successful strategy in the history of conflict on the planet. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s the principle of showing up to a fight, attacking, soon after running away in a fake panic, and once your opponent breaks rank to chase you, turning around and hitting them from an ambush. It’s been used as far back as recorded history goes, and remarkably successful, often multiple times against people who really should have learned to recognize it as some point.

The feigned retreat works because you are providing a perceived release from anxiety: “we’re not in a pitched battle where I might die, we’ve actually won and this is just a mop op”. We want this to be true. We’re willing to abandon a lot of our cognitive understanding for it to be true.

So anyways, I suppose I should do a sum up so it’s a bit more essay-y and a bit less ranty, so yeah, to win more:

  • learn the rules, especially the how you win and how you end the game
  • concentrate on playing decisively and efficiently
  • make the other person anxious so that they don’t play decisively and efficiently

Space Ninja, review

Slightly obscure review today: Space Ninja from the English-language friendly Japanese company Group SNE.

The box art is way more violent than the game

The game is a worker placement, your workers are agents placed onto various planets in order to influence their individual politics. At scoring time, they earn you points based on who controls planets: player with most agents getting one point for every ‘civilian’ living on the planet, second place getting half that. In case of ties, the earliest agents win.

The heart of the game are the different planets available. 

The game comes with 6 though not all of them are used in each game, and they are very unique. They all follow the same basic format:

  • an area for the population to live on, with a maximum size
  • a row for the player owned ninjas to line up on
  • the effect that happens when you place a ninja
  • and the effect that happens at the end of the row

Most of the planets involve a ‘programming’ mechanic where placing ninjas gives you a say, either by moving populations to voting areas, or paying off officials to pass legislation, or rolling a dice to determine what the fate will be unless someone else shows up and rolls as well. I’m making these sound kinda plot driven, but they’re very euro in practice, heh.

Which leads us to the core mechanic: more population is more points, but only up to the limit. If the population ever crosses over it, the planet ‘explodes’. Half the people die, and more importantly, half the agents die, oldest first. This means that the game is an endless balancing act between the people earning points trying to keep the population high but not too much so, and the players whoa aren’t earning points who are trying to either crash it, or grow it over the limit. And with the complex actions possible on the planets, predicting which is easier is non-trivial.

Programming example: the mandarin planet is set to export a pop counter-clockwise, then shrink their own population while giving everyone a free ‘placeholder’ ninja. Meanwhile, Enlil in the back is at it’s final state where it grows slowly and kills of pops in the neighboring planets.

Btw, did I mention the game is very low luck? Two planets involves a die roll (one to determine the population limit, one to determine how it will behave at turn end), but generally speaking you have a very good idea of what will happen at the end of turn and the only difficulty is predicting the actions of your fellow players. I definitely would not recommend this at 2p since I have a feeling it’d turn into an AP fest.

A very good game, recommended. It takes us about 2 lunches to get through the full 4 rounds, but well worth it if you like the more experimental Japanese euro-game scene.

Mystic Vale, short review

We got to play the upcoming Mystic Vale at Kingdom Con in San Diego. A cool entry in the tiny field of ‘card builders’.

Mystic Vale. Tough to avoid glare on this one
Mystic Vale. Tough to avoid glare on this one

The gimmick of the game is the translucent card fragments. You start the game with a hand of cards which will never grow or shrink. Onto each card you then build up more and more effects which all fire whenever the card gets played. Spend those effects to gain more and better effects and acquire points. The one to finish with most points, wins.

So what’s the details? Each card is a little envelope with a single starter ‘background’. Some are blank, some contain an effect. All the starting ones are either a standard “gain 1 gold” or a red icon. The red icon is the other clever bit of the game: you draw cards until 3 of those are visible. You can then press your luck and draw more. No red symbol? Add the effects on the new card to your hand. Red symbol? Bust. Lose this hand, but gain an extra gold for next turn. Adds a nice extra dynamic to the early game especially.

The card ‘stacking’ works really well; it’s visually very much like Gloom. They’re easy to read and clear, though they don’t photo well. One mistake that’s happening in the photo above is I’m overlapping the cards on the right. I learned not to do that cause you can miss some of the trigger effects that don’t have a visual icon on the left.

The feels more like a deck builder then not: you set up combos, you hope they fire in the right order to let you best use the market. The lack of card shedding gives it a different feel obviously, but it’s familiar to make sense quickly.

My only complaint is that the game would probably feel shallow after a few plays, as you explore the range of cards. I fully expect there to be a few expansions that will help with that. Also, I’m now approaching my 200th game of Star Realms with just 1 expansion, so I personally don’t think a tight well balanced deck/card builder has anything wrong with it.

Looking forward to the final release of this. We’ll be picking it up.

Kingdom Con Loot

No game purchases at Kingdom Con this year, but we did get a nice bag for carrying stuff, and these mini adventurers for Lords Of Waterdeep

Aren't they adorable?
Aren’t they adorable?

Actually makes it feel like you hire guys instead of shuffling cubes around.

BuzzFeed-style board game meme list

Made a stack of buzzfeedy board game memes.

 

When you’re sneaking up on a science victory in 7 Wonders and no one noticed

 

When they try to connect their big meeple to your farm in Carcassonne

 

When you roll 3s even after going to two dice in Machi Koro

 

When every single one of your units is webbed in Neuroshima Hex

 

When in Tragedy Looper you enter last loop and don’t even have a theory

 

When someone publishes a paper in Alchemists and you know it’s wrong

 

When you start 1830 and first action they buy SV

 

When you solve TIME Stories on first playthrough

 

When in Game of Thrones you play Lannisters and the Greyjoys attack both you and the Starks turn 1

 

When he goes for the Scholar’s Mate against you

 

When you get a third Monster Surge in a row in Arkham Horror

 

When you’re trying to explain Mottainai

 

When in Takenoko their quest are the same as yours but worth more points

 

When you’re one point short of winning a seven hour TI3 game and the guy with 3 points suddenly has decision paralysis

 

When you banish someone out of Dead Of Winter and next turn the supply is sabotaged again

 

When literally anything happens in Robinson Crusoe

 

When they first turn gambit into a MegaHauler in Star Realms

 

When no one crashed the market for your goods in Planet Steam

 

When in in an 18XX the bank runs out of 5Ts before you can buy one

 

When you’re given a 0-clue in Codenames for the first time

 

When you’re not the Fake Artist but you don’t know what the object you’re drawing looks like

 

When in Sheriff of Nottingham they’re about to open the saddlebags before you have a chance to try to bribe them

 

When you take down a wyrm with two clones in Nexus Ops

 

When they successfully coup a 4-stability country in Twilight Struggle

 

When someone uses a Guard to guess you have the Princess on first turn in Love Letter

 

When everyone but you forgot to keep a pudding in Sushi Go

 

When someone offers to trade their wool near end of game in Catan

 

When you get at least half of these

Euphoria: Build a Better Dystopia review

We picked this guy up from our anniversary purchases. I’m quite fond of it.

Euphoria. Legitimately beautiful board.
Early play in Euphoria. Legitimately beautiful board.

Euphoria is a dice placement eurogame with a great theme and a bunch of interesting twists. You play a middle manager in a world crushing dystopian society and you’re just trying to get your job done. To do so you use your worker dice, and the larger the dice score, the better the dice works in some jobs, but if they get too smart then they will make a break for it and run away from the dystopia. Then you gotta go spend resources to birth new ones from the tanks.

The game also includes 4 factions. All buildings have allegiance to one of them, and every time you use that building it gives that faction a bit more strength. Players have employee cards, active employees give let you use those buildings more efficiently.

Your goal is to put down all your stars onto the board. Doing so requires building markets and trading ancient artifacts (from before the dystopia) in those markets. Getting those requires trading with the Icarites (the sky faction), or digging tunnels to allow some factions to steal from the other factions.

The final tier of dynamics are the aforementioned markets. They’re set up so that not all players can contribute to their building, and once they’re build everyone who didn’t help has a new game rule placed against them until they donate some artifacts.

You should start to get a feel that this game includes lots of things happening at once, and I can vouch that that’s in a good way. First you want to ride the balance of most use you can get out of your workers without losing them cause they got too smart. Second, you want to advance the factions you have employees with so that they get more efficient. Third, you want to make sure to be early to contribute to market building so that you don’t get locked out of game benefits, again for maximum efficiency.

There’s also a nice natural narrative to the game, sort of nice in a euro. The game goes through distinct phases of first general start and dice generation, then a digging/building phase, and then a maximum speed race for artifact generation and placement. This helps prevent the sensation of sameness that occurs with some euro games.

Euphoria, top down
Euphoria, top down

I genuinely like this game. Great theme, great art, great tokens, and most importantly genuinely interesting gameplay. My only quibble is that the box and board feel just a bit light and it makes me a bit worried whenever I move it, but it’s a really really minor concern and in no way makes pulls me away from recommending this game fully.

Game of Thrones, the Board Game, review

A classic, for good reason. It’s the area control game that gave backstabbing a good name. Often imitated, never duplicated.

Game of Thrones, I own the blade and the Raven. Good signs.
Game of Thrones, I own the blade, the Raven, and have ships over the east coast. Good signs.

Ameri-gaming done right: start by taking an interesting property, put a slim game on top of it, then make sure that the game ‘feels’ like the property. And that’s the secret of it’s success: GoT:tBG feels right. The backstabbing (sometimes proper invasion, more often in the form of denying support that was promised) is woven integrally into the game. The combat is deterministic which makes the backstabs sting even more as you went through and counted all the math and you have had enough if not for those awful Tyrrels.

The game’s victory condition is holding enough castles. The temporary nature of this means the game is a constant dynamic rotation of who everyone else is ganging up on. The dream is to be 3 castles behind as everyone else fights each other, then to leap across the map on a chain of boats and grabbing 3 in one turn.

Ah, the boats.

Top down GoT
Top down GoT, my boats on right won me the game

The boats allow armies to teleport across the map. They prevent the game from becoming a slow bottleneck of fighting over choke points and allow for grand master moves like distributing 3 armies across 3 different landing zones. Don’t underestimate them or you’ll find yourself with foreigners at your shores sieging your muster spots.

The game’s narrative is driven by power tokens. Instead of using a region militarily, it can be harvested for that abstract currency. That’s then used to help fight against the periodic Wildling attacks and to bid on the 3 tracks which functionally represent turn order, military power, and flexibility with orders respectively. Winning the top tracks gives added benefits: the Throne breaks ties in the other appointments and decides how some event cards play out, the Valarian Steel gives +1 to a combat, and the Raven swaps two orders in response to them displaying, letting the owner respond to someone doing something unexpected.

End of game. Baratheon rode from King's Landing to outside Winterfell
End of game. Baratheon rode from King’s Landing to outside Winterfell

It’s a great game with a caveat: it’s kinda off-balance at 4 and 5 players. Highly recommended at 3 and 6 players though.

Really, my only ‘complaint’ of any sort is that the characters don’t look enough like their TV show versions that I’ve gotten used to. Makes since the game predates it by quite a bit, and to be honest the hand painted art is much nicer than any film stills could be.

Bioshock Infinite: The Siege of Columbia review

Tomo picked this up on one of those online sales so I finally got to play what I passed on to get Evolution instead.

Bioshock Infinite: The Siege Of Columbia
Bioshock Infinite: The Siege Of Columbia

This is pretty much the quintessence of a Ameri-game. Miniatures for area control. Combat with custom dice. Completely theme based. Simple rules that involve a lot of weight up front. If you like the genre, you’ll like this.

For those unfamiliar, the board game is based on a video game of same name. In it you try and rescue a girl from a floating city while factions fight for domination. In the board game you represent one of two of those factions, while similarly to Lord Of The Ice Garden, the protagonist of the original story wanders about the map causing massive destruction.

The game was introduced to me as “basically Nexus Ops with a Bioshock skin”, and that’s a very good starting point to understanding it. The game is won by placing your 10th victory point, and they’re placed by either succeeding in a VP objective, or by holding an area of the board. The first are yours forever, the second only until you lose the area.

The main driver of the game are cards. They are dealt to players each turn and represent the units available to the faction. They can be spent to gain money (allowing purchases of units, buildings, and upgrades), to give bonuses and special effects in combat à la Game of Thrones, or to win votes to pass new laws that change the rules slightly each turn.

On top of that there’s the aforementioned protagonists. They run around the board willy nilly, sometimes knocking out entire districts, sometimes killing all units, sometimes helping whoever they share the sector with.

Top down view of Bioshock Infinite
Top down view of Bioshock Infinite

If the game sounds kind of random, it rather is. There’s the combat dice, the card draws, Booker’s movement, Elizabeth’s effects, the laws you vote for, and the victory point conditions. None of these do you have any real control over. On top of that, 1 card in either deck is game-changingly powerful: the Songbird / Airship ones. They add a giant amount of points to the fight, on top of letting the unit teleport in and bring its die with it. It means that you basically get a free win each time you draw it. I used that to win the game but taking over a needed final point, despite my opponents best efforts all game to prevent that.

I mean, it’s not a bad game. The theme is done well and it looks great. But it definitely feels a bit like everything they could think of from every FFG game they liked was picked up and throwing into a pot. Check it out if you’re a hardcore Bioshock fan, but you’re probably not and you’re probably ok sitting this one out.

The minis are ok
The minis are ok, the cardboard buildings are nicer

 

TI3

Managed to get my first win in a Twilight Imperium (3rd ed) game. Won as the Xxcha by concentrating on technology and managing to hold Mecatol Rex for a good 4 turns.

I was the green faction
I was the green faction

Pax Porfiriana (solo) mini-review

This one took a while to hit table despite my best efforts since the rules are a bit long, so I finally did the optional solo variant by myself.

IMG_3319
Pax Porfiriana, solo, in progress. Diaz on right.

I realize this really is a very mini review even by my standards but I just want to say how fantastic the game really is. It’s a card builder-style game with lots of details and intricacies that all come together to provide a consistent whole (vs feeling like distractions). I say card builder-style game cause unlike with most builders your cards tend to get killed quite often. You’re perpetually building, fixing, defending, and rebuilding, while also destroying everyone else’s cards.

This on top of a very interesting and original theme, researched with a satisfying amount of detail. While playing you learn a little bit not only about the history of the time, but also about how difficult it must have been to live at the time.

And yes, this is an Ecklund game. The manual comes with an extended political/economic treatise by the author of slightly sophomoric quality, and the cards are intimidating at first with symbols all over the cards, some upside down, some back to front. They become very second nature very quickly though, thankfully.

The solo game isn’t perfect as the bot player, Diaz, doesn’t require money and as so never builds an engine that you can attack. This makes a few of the cards not particularly useful to the player other than as self-attacks to build Outrage and liberate slaves (building Revolt points).

My only modification to the solo game rules is to change the way Diaz picks his cards away from the d6/d6 method cause there’s too much money to be made in speculating on the 16s. I have a D16 from Dungeon Crawl Classic so maybe give that a shot. Something like 1-5 buys from column 1, 6-9 from 2, 10-11 from 3, 12-13 from 4, 14-15 from 5, and 16 from 6. We’ll see.

Incidentally, I (barely) won with a Revolution victory.

IMG_3320
Viva La Revolution

So yes, this was a mini-review. Proper review after we get a multi-person game of this going.