The Tao of Gaming

Boardgames and lesser pursuits

A little panda told me good things

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Open thread — Pandánte. I saw a post on DIGgers that intrigued me, so after reading reviews I’m now soliciting opinions. Good, Bad, Indifferent?

Written by taogaming

August 13, 2014 at 9:20 pm

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Russian Railways — бездушный

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I’ve been hearing Russian Railways described as a game I’d like. After ducking it a few times just to show everyone whose boss I finally played it last night. And the describers are partially right, this is a game that was in my wheelhouse about 4-7 years ago, when worker placement games ruled the earth like Tyrannosaurus Rex terrorizing bigger dinosaurs despite their bizarre tendency to constantly soak their hands in a small soap dish (to keep them supple).

But these days are not those of legend. Oh, we all remember the heady days the gnashing of teeth after you placed a worker was a new sound, but now we hear but the gentle smacking of gums. So now a worker placement game has to leap through hoops to prove itself by topping the legends of the genre.

And Russian Railways does no such thing. It is not a bad design, but the exact same action went first each round (Strike). Some actions are just superior to others (pet peeve). Granting people their own personal action in a worker placement game seems frought with danger, from a design perspective. Throwing a Feldian soup on top of the game may or may not be a good choice, but I don’t care for it. And frankly, the idea that the start is balanced by gifting the last player four extra victory points (winning score, ~350) demands scoffing.

(After I played it I tried another game of Impulse, which still seems like a broken down electric car in 1050 AD. Sure, it just sits there, but its mere existence commands attention. I may break down and get a copy. Both games suffer from Analysis Paralysis; but Impulse is faster, more streamlined, and full of chutzpah. Even if it borrows heavily from his other designs).

But back to Russian Railways — A dry game, with a workmanlike design that seems several years old, coupled with lots of ways to gain points.  And, as my one word review indicates, soulless. Indifferent.

Written by taogaming

August 12, 2014 at 5:58 pm

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Too many words about — Acquire

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I’ve been on a mini-Acquire kick, and thankfully the local gaming group is happy to indulge me, so I’ve been revisiting this classic. Acquire should be taught in schools. It’s a classic game design that I put on par with Backgammon: it appears to be all luck but the skill just shines through more and more. As I’ve played the last few games I find myself thinking about things that I’ve never seen in writing. Then again, when it comes to Acquire strategy little is written (at least online) beyond basic strategy.  So, as always, my random thoughts about Acquire in non-condensed format.

As Acquire has a few rulesets with subtle differences, some clarifications — when a merger happens, the merging player decides first, and then it goes around the table. No three-way mergers (the new rules allow this). I use the classic names … Imperial and Continental are the expensive companies, Tower and Luxor are the cheap companies, with Worldwide, Festival and American rounding out the middle. (What can I say, I appreciate the classics. One of my few upgrades has been finding a copy of Acquire with wooden tiles.) This article doesn’t include any variants, either.

What you already know (because you are reading this here)

  • Running out of money (for more than a turn or so) is the kiss of death.
  • Better to fight for a few stocks than evenly invest in everything. Majority and Minority payouts are Acquire’s “Bombs”
  • Even if you can’t remember the exact distribution of stocks (I rarely bother) you should know the distribution of stocks you are invested in.

The Early Game

Like many games, Acquire has an early game, midgame, and endgame. (Like most good games, Acquire has a long and complex mid-game. Early game and endgames are usually cut and dried, and can be played well with a few heuristics). In the early game, a company could be founded on almost any turn. In the end game, no more companies can be founded.

In the early game, the basic rule — Always found a company if you can. Free Stock is great. And if one player forms a disproportionate share of companies, that player has a huge edge. (Rolling well is good strategy in backgammon, too. You heard it here).  It may very well be possible to come up with an early game situation where starting a company is wrong, but thinking about the exercise proves the rule. (The midgame is another story).

The real (and often debated) question — Which tier of company do you start?

What is missing from most of the other articles is any sense of board reading. Acquire’s board is so simple and elegant that people don’t discuss it. But that would be like analyzing Risk without mentioning Australia. Now, if it’s the first turn of the game you have little to go on, but little isn’t “nothing.”

  1. How close are you to the seeded tiles on the board? (They will all likely be companies in a round or two)
  2. How close are you to the center of the board?
  3. How many tiles do you have near the company you start?

Taken together, these should give you a good idea of the tempo your company is going to have, and if you’ll control that tempo or not. A central company near to a few loose tiles where you have lots of central tiles has great tempo. You’ll be in a position to have that company absorbed … and quickly. In that case, you hope to have a payout soon, and you’d want an expensive company. On the other hand, if you are in a corner/far away from other companies/have no nearby tiles you expect a slow tempo. Your money will be locked up a long time, potentially the entire game. Buy cheap.

You buy cheap for two reasons. The obvious one is that you don’t want to lock up your money. But the other reason is that the cheaper companies have a better Return On Investment if they never get bought. Suppose you could magically convert (at no time) $2,000 into a company as it founds. If you do that for Tower, you have 10 shares. At the end of the game, it’s safe at ~25, so it’s now $800/share, so you make $16,000 (assuming you win majority). If you get a similar ROI on the other $4k you start with, you’ll wind up with $48k, a respectable score (whether it wins depends on the games tempo).

Let’s do the same, but with Imperial. Now you only get 5 shares ($400 each). At the end of the game, the company is safe at ~25. The company is $1,000 share, so you make $10,000 … and that’s still assuming you won majority shareholder bonus. (Unlikely, unless you invested further into it). You are already $6k behind the Tower investor.

Each investor gets a free share, but in the endgame that only matters to the tune of $200. ($800 vs $1000/share). In the long run, negligible. But in the short run….

Look at a company that’s going to plop in the middle of the board and get bought out quickly. You get a free share, buy six and then get bought. For Tower you spend $1200 and get $2000. For Imperial you spend $2400 and get $4000. The same rate of return. But now when the company forms again, the Imperial investor is way ahead (assuming you keep the stock), because your “free” stock is now worth twice as much. Even if the second founding of the stock winds up growing into a safe company, you still get more from the double dip.

Now, what if you are wrong? You found Imperial, buy up your 6 shares and suddenly Imperial has gobbled up a chain and is well on the way to safety. Well, you aren’t in a great position. You bet heavily … and lost.  Too much illiquid money. But in Acquire you only control a fraction of the board play, and the best you can do is estimate the tempo by looking at what you can see. You can’t see that the next player is going to form another company and control the merge temp. You rarely have all the tiles necessary to guarantee or block a merge.

The midtier is less committal.  This says you aren’t sure about a company.

(If players read this and believe it, you can estimate what a player believes by how expensive his company is).

Incidentally, buying a double batch (6 shares) of an expensive company is borderline extreme (with fewer players) unless there’s really no other company worth fighting over. Players should be fighting for minority positions as well as majority.

(Sidebar — You have some implicit collusion. The rest of the players should (if good) keep people honest. A company that is about to get bought out will have a minority shareholder and a stock fight (possibly for majority, or minority). Someone with 13 shares of a company shouldn’t be able to see it bought, restarted, lathered, rinse and repeated unless they have a perfect storm of tiles. They trick to benefit from this (more of a guideline) is to make sure that it’s not “you win, everyone else doesn’t” for a merger. Usually the minority shareholder is happy (or maybe they just miscounted). But this is more of a midgame point…)

When you can’t found a company in the opening

For the opening, especially if you don’t have a lot of control, be happy with multiple minority stakes. Taking a huge position in a company is asking to watch it grow fat but keep all if it’s money in the bank while someone else merges, then uses their assets to take the majority away from you. You don’t want to have a few shares in every company, but minority in multiple companies can beat a rock solid (7-3 lead) in two.

On the turns you can’t found (whether you’ve founded or not), don’t just play tiles randomly. You want to place a tile somewhere you’d be happy to see a company start (near yours, particularly if you control a merging tile). You don’t want to play a loose tile near a company you have no stake in. However, growing a company you have no stake in (especially an expensive one) works well. And don’t give up potential merging tiles recently.

If you have a pair, you can play one and hope to start it next turn. However, consider if both tiles have the same number of neighbors (that you don’t control) and what would happen if someone founds the company before it gets to you.

Barring any of that play a tile away from everyone else, preferably in a corner. If your company is fresh, you may want to put an isolated tile near it (to make a potential chain). Or make a company near yours a bit bigger, ideally reaching it toward you. (You may still wind up absorbing them, but then other people had to grow your company for you).

Tempo and heading for the middle game

Unless your game starts with a barrage of mergers, you have to worry about the position.

If the game seems like it will be particularly slow, consider conserving cash, especially if the game is fluid or you aren’t threatened (and can’t threaten) right now. You may be able to snipe later if others spread to thin. Don’t be overly invested in a company unless you are sure it’s folding (or maybe if it will guarantee you majority at the end game for a not too expensive price). Holding up money means admitting you aren’t sure what’s going to happen, and hoping that you’ll have better information next round. But again, tempo. If you are going to be flush next round then you may as well invest now.

The standard rule for “which company to compete in” is your right hand opponent. There’s a natural logic to this. Often, it will be a new company and three shares gets you minority stakeholder and (somewhat) discourages anyone else. If it’s the only choice, by all means. But there’s a logic to fighting the player on your left, too (if nobody else has). Consider a two player fight. They have four, you buy three. They buy 3 more. You buy one (say) to prevent anyone from contesting minority. At no point would any merger have seen you win. So that doesn’t matter.

Suppose your company absorbs another one. And now suddenly there’s a stock fight for this presumed safe company. There aren’t infinite shares, and situations arise where everyone wants to grab into this company. Maybe it’s a good deal (trading two Tower for a size 6 Imperial). Now you trade into your minority position first, which may deplete the stock and let you tie/win. And if not, you buy first. If the merger happens by anyone but the majority shareholder, you get two chances to snipe the last available stock for the tie/win. Obviously this matters more when the stock is close to running out.

Now if your company is absorbed, you tend to want to follow the other player. If he trades or sells, you can keep the now majority position and hope to re-open it. You don’t want to commit first. But if you are the one merging, you are always committing first, and the left/right doesn’t matter. So, overall, the left-right coupling of the game is important and should be a consideration, but it’s not nearly as cut and dried as other articles imply.

The end game

( I skipped the middle game. You have to know where you are heading).

In the end game, many early-game rules are reversed if everyone is flush with cash. In that case quickly kill any small companies you don’t have a winning position in, so that the shareholders get the smallest payout. But if you own the companies, grow them. The most extreme example I’ve seen of this is (simplifying to a linear board) and assuming that all American Stock is gone.

WW.FF.American(safe)

If you don’t have any worldwide or festival, want to merge Festival into American and then Worldwide into American. You definitely don’t want to worldwide and festival to merge. Look at what gets paid out.

If each merges into American, your opponents get $6000 in bonuses ($2k + $1k, twice) plus $300/share. But if Worldwide folds into festival (or vice versa), you have $3k + $9k in bonuses, and the big company will sell at $600/share. That’s a lot more money to your opponents.  If Worldwide and Festival can grow (on the Y-axis), then killing them is even more important.

Of course, that assumes that there’s no fight for American. In that case, you may want to give up the bonuses. Why, because Any shares to convert Worldwide–>Festival–>American convert at 4-1. In that case you may very well want to toss off a bit of extra cash to your opponents to keep them from being able to convert everything to American.

In the real world, positions shade grey; you have to determine what is important. But the idea remains. In the endgame, merge what you hate to get it off the board ASAP, unless it provides much needed liquidity to opponents. The ideal situation is to have a company you don’t care cornered and control the merge tile. It can’t grow (or, if it’s 6, you don’t care) and you keep your opponents from gaining cash or converting the shares into a company you are fighting over, until the fight is won.

The Last Share

Toward the endgame, the last available share becomes important. Even if you don’t know exactly who has how many of what, start counting the available stock. Aim for the last share. Sometimes you can squeeze someone (particularly your left hand opponent) by threatening to get near them. For example, if your LHO has 10 shares of a safe Tower and you have 6, buying even a single share represents a major threat, particularly if you have 6 shares in a company that may fold into it. Because you convert first (unless they merge), you can trade for 3 (up to 10) and then buy three (up to 13). But even without that people may buy some shares, and then you can tie with the last share. Particularly if your LHO is viewed as more of a threat, your opponents may do this rationally. Often it comes about when they’ve lost count.

If you know that everyone would trade 2:1 (because it’s profitable) you can predict when the company will be out of stock well if you know the distribution of the absorbed company; that can influence your decision. If you think the next player will merge and there’s just enough shares (of the survivor) for you to trade, buy something other than the survivor (if that helps you, if not you may buy the shares hoping that the next player few players can’t merge and you get a double dip). And again, if you control the merger, you may be able to squeeze out by buying shares and then merging them at a time when you know you’ll get to trade and the (former) majority shareholder won’t. So, watch the dwindling stock pool carefully.

Finally, the mid game

Given how many caveats I’ve said about the opening and endgame, you shouldn’t be surprised that I have little to say about the midgame. There are some tricks and tips, some general advice, but each game you have to weigh things. Still, there are things to note.

The first company bought out usually reforms, often because it’s the only available company or sometimes because the people with shares will try and reform it. People have a healthy fear of starting up a company that others will benefit from, but usually I see people not start the company, and then sigh when the next player (or two) starts it. If possible, you should start it in a place where it will be isolated for a while (if possible), or where you can keep it from merging. Just as in any bureaucracy, delay is the strongest form of denial. If you can control the tempo, by all means do so.

After a merger, the complex decision is often how much stock to trade/sell and keep. The closer you are to the end game (and the more companies available to be founded) dictate how risky it is to keep. If this is the first merger and there are plenty of potential start up spots, you can often get by with keeping it all. Trading 2-1, even if you lose value, will often give you tempo for a company that could easily be permanent. Selling often occurs towards the late endgame, or if you need the cash, or if the company was fairly big (5-10), as the next company will not often grow quite so big as the board gets more crowded. The exact decision depends on the position, but if you aren’t sure, consider how well you are doing. If you handily win, trading most of your stock may lock in gains. If you are losing, may as well swing for the fences and hold.

The player with significant stock who trades in last is in a good position. (Which does give a small benefit if you are fighting your right hand opponent for the stock). Note that if a company is owned by two people in a row, it could easily by merged by the first opponent then reformed by the second. (Possibly swapping primary/secondary in the process, but both opponents are probably doing quite well versus the field, and there should be a concerted effort to freeze them out).

And if you aren’t sure if the bought company is going to reform, consider what the next player to place a tile did with his stock. If he kept everything, particularly if it looks risky, odds are it’s starting again with the next tile.

Miscellany

Look for forking plays on an opponent. If one player is pressing one of their positions, press them on a different stock.

Just because you get little or nothing for a merger doesn’t automatically make it bad. Particularly if the merge forces the leader to commit to a trade/keep/sell position earlier. Also, putting a 2nd (3rd) stock back in the available pool may make the people who held onto the early target nervous. But, unless its very close to the endgame, not merging is probably a bad play.

If you have nothing in the available companies, consider growing companies into adjacent (unformed) blocks, such as

AA.X

If you play at the ‘.’, then you’ve kept something from forming next to American. Sure, you’ve also made American bigger, but presumably you’ve kept some tempo. (The position past the X matters a lot, but lets assume it was an edge).

Thoughts on player count — I almost always try to play with four. With more, you will have less control, and you’ll likely need more stock to guarantee winning a company. Unlike 18xx, money is not fixed. More players, more capital, less control. What would be ludicrous with 3-4 (buying 8+ shares in a single company early on) seems reasonable. If it hits, you’ve got a vast windfall, and it wasn’t like you could compete for many companies anyway.

Being the 3rd person to buy into a company isn’t ideal, but it can work out surprisingly well. Tying for second with three shares may spur both of the others to overinvest. (The founder buys again, then the minority holder, and the founder may buy another batch, just to be safe). In a slow game if you hit your other company first you can swoop in later. Having a position may let you trade 2:1 either into or out of that company. And after a merger (particularly if you go last) you may find you are suddenly the primary or secondary stakeholder as others dump. You may get similar results by buying two shares or a single share. However, often I buy a single share just to deny someone from getting both 1st and 2nd. Particularly early on, an isolated/expensive company looks safe, but you take out insurance. And then someone buys two shares to “take out your second place,” which then drives the primary holder to buy a few more shares.

The converse: don’t be afraid of taking second place, especially in a company that you didn’t have much hope for. Take half a loaf. If people want to outbid you for a dire company, let them. Just as in poker, you can defend your blinds with a bit less than normal, but don’t defend them with any garbage.

Conclusion

Beyond the basics, Acquire comes down to tempo, board reading, counting (unless you play with open holdings, but even then the last available stock matters), and risk. I feel that Acquire has more positional play than many modern classics. Much like Go, an Acquire position has an Aji (taste). The thing about taste (as opposed to sight) is that it lingers. Playing a tile over here versus over there has a profound influence, one that’s difficult to explain. I’ve barely scratched the surface; it’s difficult to define and I don’t know if I have enough experience to speak to it. I find myself having deleted a few hundred words because they meandered. I’ve said all I know how to put into words.

I stare at a simple grid board and my six tiles — none form a company, none merge companies — and I find the decision fascinating and subtle.

Written by taogaming

August 9, 2014 at 8:51 pm

Posted in Specific Games, Strategy

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I need to find a good way to balance Dungeon Lords as a solo quest

Been playing a lot of solo Mage Knight (while the kids are away, and Jacqui is now working a non-standard schedule). I really like the Dungeon Lords scenario … lots of dungeons means lots of spells and artifacts. But how to make it a solo?

Removing one of each tile still means you can have to deal with a lot of tombs (depending on the number of monasteries). My first game had every monastery show up in the country side, and was night impossible. One possibility is to let the game go to the 3rd night. But I think the other answer is to make the FIRST monastery only produce a secret dungeon (brown token) instead of a secret tomb (dragon token). That way there won’t be a nigh impossible dragon that you have to double back to deal with later.

If I ever do play competitive, I’m going to suggest this scenario. (Or as a coop when the TaoLing returns). Ending a game with ~15 spells and artifacts is amusing.

Written by taogaming

August 3, 2014 at 12:17 pm

Posted in Mage Knight

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You do know Austria-Hungary declared war 100 years ago today

Of course you do. You play (or know people who play) Paths of Glory.

I only know it because I was reading a Churchill Bio during Summer vacation. I knew it was vaguely around this time…

And today NPR announced that it was Jim Davis’ Birthday. You know, because that’s important.

Written by taogaming

July 28, 2014 at 9:09 pm

Posted in Ramblings

Follow up to last week

My second game of Impulse and I’m beginning to sour.

One player, as his start world, builds “Move [1] Transport” and then explores “Sabotage a fleet with [3] bombs” as his next world. Then he sits on the center with a cruiser and sabotages anyone near him. Yes, I should have seen the “move back home with 2 transports, then resabotage my 2 cruiser fleet” but that basically ended the game.

Impulse feels like all opening and endgame. A build up, then one player unleashes a monster turn and wins (which isn’t so bad) or almost wins, as everyone tries to find a stop next turn (which is agonizing).

Basically, we’re playing Fool’s Mates and Scholars Mates, but I’m not getting the feeling I want to play the game enough to get good.

On the other hand, I am starting to like Sail to India, and I may trade for/pick up a copy.

Also played — Hansa (fine) and Piña Pirates (ugh).

Written by taogaming

July 28, 2014 at 8:43 pm

Sail to India

The other new game I liked yesterday. Enjoyable, easy to comprehend, lots of different ways to score points. A nice, minimal card action game using a dozen cubes and two cards per player, and a dozen cards for the deck. I think there’s enough going on to warrant further plays, but it’s not one of those games that grabs you by the throat and makes an impression.

Rating — Suggest for now, but probably indifferent+.

Written by taogaming

July 22, 2014 at 6:33 pm

Posted in Ramblings

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