The Tao of Gaming

Boardgames and lesser pursuits

Popularity, Puerto Rico & Poker

I’m thinking about Chris Farrel’s session report on Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico taunts you with strategic elements, but it’s really just a brutal short-term optimization game with a minimal strategic component.

In the comments, Chris expands:

“Strategic” and “Tacitcal” are of course notoriously tractable terms. I could probably redefine “strategic” on a case-by-case basic in a way such that no game would ever be considered strategic.

But one concept I might use is “can I take a short-term loss for a long-term gain?” To me, the answer in Puerto Rico is always no.

Although I bloviate about Puerto Rico strategy, I agree. While you have to be able to look ahead (a bit), winning means evaluating, prioritizing and optimizing. Puerto Rico leaves plenty of room for skill, to be sure. But forward planning? Pshaw. Given the decision set, the skill is interesting enough, but I’ve stopped looking for games of Puerto Rico face to face. A single strong player usually wins, but if you get two (or more) strong players the game turns on the choices made by the others. Either way, my interest suffers. I’m left with online play for the most part (the game takes half the time, and players have 50+ games under their belt. At that level, I’m not sure who is making the weak plays, me or my opponents?

Then I thought about the Puerto Rico tournament at the Gathering last year. I lost in the first round by (I believe) 2VP. I have a recollection of several plays that struck me as strange. Not particular details, but I remember the basics. And, once I got to thinking about it, I could remember some friends describing their games.

I was struck by the similarity to poker. First, I can remember some poker hands I played years ago. But there’s another connection. Both games flatter the players. Ask a poker player how he did, and you get two answer: “I won $X” or “I’ve had terrible luck.” I don’t play much poker; but how often have you heard the following story? “Yeah, so I completely misplayed the hand. I had QJs and I put my opponent on a small pair, or maybe Ace small suited. Anyway, my opponent read me like a book, but I sucked out with runner-runner full house, so I turned a small profit.”

I’ve heard plenty of bad-beat stories, but nowhere near as many good beat stories (despite the fact that each story requires both sides). Why? They aren’t flattering. I’ve walked away from a poker table a winner, and a loser. When I lost, I can shoulder the blame onto luck or a few bad beats. Obviously, the variance in poker does explain the losses, but it explains many of the wins. But I never think of that while I’m at the table, winning.

I witnessed the same phenomenon in Puerto Rico. I just didn’t notice it.

I realized this about Settlers of Catan after owning it a few months. It’s easier to spot how the game “gives you an out” when chance is involved, I guess.

The “Flattery effect” must contribute to the massive popularity of these games. In each case, you can be handed a win or a loss. If you lost, you still may have played well but the (other players/cards/dice) just (played oddly/hated you/took a funny bounce). Strategy matters, of course. You need to be able to congratulate yourself on winning. A world-class PR player at a four player table should expect a much higher percentage of “winning sessions” than a world-class poker player. (I’m not sure how the champion Settler’s player would fare. Do the opponent’s recognize him?)

On the spectrum of skill versus chance[1], I think that all three games hit a sweet spot that just appeals to human nature. You can crow when winning and complain about outrageous fortune when losing. Given human nature, I suspect it’s a large spot.

[1] I don’t normally include player choices as chance, but as the number of players increases and the number of reasonable decisions grow, they both fall into a similar category of “things you can’t control and can’t predict exactly, even if you know trends”.

Update: Fixed the quote, had the last one of Chris’s comments as my own.

Written by taogaming

February 8, 2005 at 9:33 pm

Posted in Ramblings

Tagged with , ,

12 Responses

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  1. I totally disagree, but probably because we need to clarify the difference between strategy and tactics. It sounds to me that your definition of strategy is just “long term tactics”.

    Here are my definitions:

    Tactics: the planned actions that you take given a particular situation to advance your strategy used to fulfill the objectives.

    Strategy: the general principles guiding your tactical decisions to reach your ultimate objective.

    What is the ultimate objective in Puerto Rico? It is to have more victory points than any other player, and if not, then to have the most cash/goods.

    What are the strategies? Several: Large shipping through production, large shipping through storage, large trading through markets, large trading through cash crops and office, many quarries, flexibility through hacienda, agility through hospice and/or university, phase jumping through factory, etc…, etc… Some of the strategies have proved to be better then others over the past two years, but there is still no one fixed strategy that always wins, and there are some under-utilized strategies that may make comebacks over time. I have been wipped soundly by Hospice recently, even though it is generally regarded as a poor strategy. And when you take into account the expansion buildings (and when you add my own seven expansion building sets), each game requires a reassement of the viable strategies to play.

    Also, Puerto Rico sometimes requires you to change strategies in mid-game, when the one you were following is no longer viable.

    Tactics: An example of a tactic could be: I will take this role and block the trading house, then he will take that role, and then I will become governor, and then I will trade again, giving me enough to build Factory. If your strategy includes “get Factory”, then this is a viable tactic for moving your strategy forward. If your strategy includes “get Wharf”, then the tactical decisions will have to change to reflect this.

    If you are not playing with any focussed strategy, then every time it is your turn you will look at the board and say: how can I make the most number of vps over the next few rounds, or most gps of the next few rounds, compared to my opponents? While this may work once in a while, it is unlikely that you will win the majority of games this way.

    Puerto Rico is not stategic? Hogwash. You would be more correct to say that El Grande is not strategic, but even EG has a few different strategies: concentrate on a few places and the castillo, or try to get second place everywhere.

    Yehuda

    Yehuda Berlinger

    February 9, 2005 at 1:50 am

  2. Yehuda,

    Couldn’t have said it better myself.

    Anon

    February 9, 2005 at 6:48 am

  3. Which game has more strategy Settlers or Puerto Rico?

    Leonardo

    February 9, 2005 at 12:30 pm

  4. I don’t agree with the definition:

    Strategy: the general principles guiding your tactical decisions to reach your ultimate objective.

    By that measure, Craps has a strategy (called Probability Theory).

    What are the strategies? Several: Large shipping through production, large shipping through storage, large trading through markets, large trading through cash crops and office, many quarries, flexibility through hacienda, agility through hospice and/or university, phase jumping through factory, etc…

    Ok, can you write down your strategy before you start, follow it and consistenly win? I’d write down “Take good opportunities, following the outlined evaluation procedure”.

    I often do wind up with a building or a shipping strategy, but that’s just because I believe that’s my best option at the time. (And yes, I recently lost to a mid-game hospice, too).

    Given Chris’ original definition “Can you take a short term loss for long term gain”, the answer is clearly no.

    Brian

    February 9, 2005 at 4:17 pm

  5. I love the word “bloviate”. I’ve been looking for an opportunity to use it myself 🙂

    All the recent chat on Puerto Rico has inspired me to maybe give it another go sometime soon, before I again forget everything I just re-learned. But even so Puerto Rico is, for me, just never going to exist in the same stratosphere as what I consider the true classics, things like Modern Art, Settlers, El Grande Lord of the Rings, or even Tigris &Euphrates. For me personally, a classic, but not a “true classic”.

    Chris Farrell

    February 9, 2005 at 4:57 pm

  6. >>
    Ok, can you write down your strategy before you start, follow it and consistenly win? I’d write down “Take good opportunities, following the outlined evaluation procedure”.
    >>

    If ‘get early doubloons, diversify production, get key buildings (small market / small warehouse / harbor etc)’ is a strategy – then I would say yes.

    >>
    Given Chris’ original definition “Can you take a short term loss for long term gain”, the answer is clearly no.
    >>

    I can think of a few scenarios where you might do this. Buy the last Coffee Roaster to deny it to the Guild Hall owner (even though you lack Coffee plantations). Buy the Customs House to deny it to the shipper. Neither of these help now, but they’ll help in the final scoring.

    Anon

    February 9, 2005 at 5:46 pm

  7. If ‘get early doubloons, diversify production, get key buildings (small market / small warehouse / harbor etc)’ is a strategy – then I would say yes.

    I don’t consider that a strategy (although it’s good play). That’s just correctly evaluating the value of a move and buildings. Like winning the exchange in chess (trading minor piece for a rook). The rook is more valuable…

    I can think of a few scenarios where you might do this. Buy the last Coffee Roaster to deny it to the Guild Hall owner (even though you lack Coffee plantations). Buy the Customs House to deny it to the shipper. Neither of these help now, but they’ll help in the final scoring.

    That does qualify, but is just evaluating net advantage. Presumably you are in a zero-sum situation (the other opponents not being worth hurting) and are giving up a few victory points to deny even more. Again, sort of like winning the exchange (you lose a knight, he looses a rook).

    Brian

    February 9, 2005 at 8:06 pm

  8. I can think of a few scenarios where you might do this. Buy the last Coffee Roaster to deny it to the Guild Hall owner (even though you lack Coffee plantations). Buy the Customs House to deny it to the shipper. Neither of these help now, but they’ll help in the final scoring.

    I dunno, but I still see these as tactical decisions. You’ve made the choice that given the immediate, short-term circumstances, that this is the best thing to do right now, albeit in this case because you’re hammering someone else instead of helping yourself. But there is no fundamental difference between a choice you make to give yourself the most immediate points and a move that will take points away from the person in front of you.

    Compare with Settlers, where you might trade off the immediate gains of a settlement built on a nearby, high-quality number with longer-term gains of spending a bit more to get a less valuable settlement next to a 2:1 port. This is a legitimate strategic choice, with pros and cons either way. Puerto Rico doesn’t have this sort of thing.

    Chris Farrell

    February 9, 2005 at 8:11 pm

  9. Chris,

    >>
    This is a legitimate strategic choice, with pros and cons either way. Puerto Rico doesn’t have this sort of thing.
    >>

    OK – I am kind of understanding where your thinking is.

    I am not sure I agree with it though – I am not sure how deciding between which building to buy (‘I need that small warehouse NOW, but damn that Harbor is going to help me in a few rounds – which to buy?’) is fundamentally different to your Settlers example. As well, the driving force between the tension in your Settlers example is presumably that if you don’t take the ‘high cost’ option then someone else will take it and cut you off – PR has that quality in spades due to the limited building options.

    Note that the Coffee Roaster / Customs House example was to point out that ‘Can you take a short term loss for long term gain?’ can be answered yes in PR. Brian appeared to me to be stating that ‘Can you take a short term loss for long term gain?’ was Chris’ original definition of strategic (I can’t find that myself, but I didn’t look hard). To counter my example by pointing out that those decisions were tactical kind of ‘begs the question’. If the definition of something is such that something can satisfy the criteria of the definition (which is what I was trying to show) and yet not be it (ie ‘but thats tactical’) then the definition may be flawed. Or so it seems to me. 😉

    Note that I am not saying PR is a good game or a bad game (I personally would generally play SoC over PR, but I like them both). I am just trying to get my head around the whole ‘is PR strategic’ issue.

    Anon

    February 9, 2005 at 8:45 pm

  10. I have found that a great way to lose is to take the maximum benefit for yourself Right Now.

    If I have a better shipping situation set up, say Harbor/Wharf, I am often tempted into taking Builder right now because it will give me a few more VP’s than my opponents. Crafting will give me nothing Right Now.

    But because of the cyclical nature of the game, it is crucial to continue the craft/captain cycle as fast as possible. Failing to take Craftsman will result in a long term loss later on for my short term gain.

    Good players can see this by turn 6 or 7, right when midgame is starting. I think defining the concept of strategy away by substituting the goal of the game – “gain vps” – is a strawman argument.

    I am not contradicting Alex; I don’t go into a game knowing that I will play “harbor shipping”, or “guild hall building”. In the same vein, I don’t go into a chess game knowing I will play “X offense” or “Y defense”. The situation changes, and you have to adapt. Nevertheless, the patterns are there and you have to know them.

    “guild hall building” is something to think about on turn 3 already, because it is stronger than “residence settler”. This doesn’t mean I won’t take residence settler. It means that I have several strategic game plans, and I aim towards them. “diverse production factory”. “corn wharf”. Of course there are stratgies.

    If you play PR by dropping yourself into every turn with no plan and just do whatever give you the most vp’s within 2 rounds, you will lose against better players, period.

    Yehuda

    Yehuda Berlinger

    February 10, 2005 at 5:12 am

  11. Just one more note:

    It is possible to destroy the term strategy by just calling it “long term tactics”.

    Let’s say you have to take a city. You could employ the “siege” strategy, or you could employ the “direct force” strategy, or you could empliy the “raise dissent” strategy.

    Does this mean that when it actually comes down to taking the city you have to stick with “only one” and make no changes? Can’t you do all three? Can’t you assess how things are going each day and maximize your position from whatever the situation is?

    OK, you could look realy far into the future and say that “if I do this, and then this, then the city will fall.” Does that deny the concept of strategy, just because you employed tactics? No. You just used your tactics wisely to implement one or more strategies that are best suited for the situation.

    If the city has stockpiled food, the strategy of siege will probably fail, and it will be a tactical error to attempt to employ this strategy.

    Yehuda

    Yehuda Berlinger

    February 10, 2005 at 7:35 am

  12. Yehuda and I are not always on the same side of gaming discussions, but I strongly agree with his very well argued positions in this thread. I think taking a short-term advantage, rather than one whose long-term consequences will give you a better chance to win, is a common mistake for beginning PR players. I guess I really don’t see the difference between, say, buying a Small Market on Turn 1 (when it might take you half a game or so to turn a profit) and Chris’ Settlers example of building a less valuable settlement next to a 2:1 port. In both cases, you are building for the future.

    I’m also puzzled as to why “get money early, get points late” is any less of a strategy than “control the center” is in Chess.

    I usually prefer to play games tactically, but I almost always look several turns ahead in PR. Is that “enough” to count? I have no idea, but it’s certainly more than I usually do in games. One key point that really hasn’t been emphasized here is that a good PR player not only projects his own future moves, but needs to accurately anticipate what his opponents will do. That, in fact, is the game’s defining characteristic (at least, I think it is). Once the players all get a good grasp on the game’s strategies, I think most games are decided by who did the best job of predicting how his opponents will act.

    Then again, as many of you have said, it may all come down to differing definitions. It does seem as if there are many competing ways of using the terms “strategy” and “tactics”. But I’d still say that, based on most of the definitions of “strategic” I’ve seen, that PR has a pretty strong strategic element (particularly when compared with most German games). I’d certainly call it more strategic than Modern Art, Settlers, and El Grande, three games that Chris cites. (Actually, he just called them his “classics”; I don’t know if he was implying that they are more strategic than PR.)

    Larry Levy

    February 11, 2005 at 10:49 am


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