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.
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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.
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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