The Tao of Gaming

Boardgames and lesser pursuits

Defining Strategy

We’re clearly having trouble coming up with an acceptable definition. I’m still trying to find one, and I’ve been using the “I know it when I don’t see it” arguement.

Yehuda Berlinger’s comment helped:

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.

Let’s talk about chess. Yehuda is right, a player can’t completely control the opening, but they can often pick a style: open, closed, attacking, positional, gambit. And while you may not be able to pick the opening, you can usually push the game into a style. You may wind up outside of the style you liked, but your moves determine the style of the game that results. In addition, you can predict the resulting game’s style based on your moves.

Can you say the same about Puerto Rico?

I think this definition matches (at least tangentially) with prior discussions — one of the styles is ‘gambit’ where you sacrifice material now for future considerations (an attack, an open position, etc).

I can go into a Chess game and say “I’ll play a closed, positional game.” Now, I may fail or be outmanuevered, but my intent matches my position. I think it’s safe to say that if you go into a game of PR saying “I’m going to use a building strategy” then you have put yourself at a significant handicap, because you aren’t flexible.

Similarly, once you have a won position in chess, you can try to close it out by going for a brilliant mate, a quiet endgame or a smother. With Puerto Rico, once you are winning you are pretty locked in to how you got there. In either game, sometimes tactics take over, but in only one of them do you have a chance to impose your style on the game.

Once in the mid game, my plan (Building vs Corn Wharf vs whatever) comes from my position. I wasn’t aiming for a building victory (or whatever); but it’s there. No planning required.

So I don’t have a formal definition.

I play Puerto Rico successfully simply by evaluating the current position and making a move. I look ahead to judge the best move, but I don’t have enough control over the game to impose a long-term plan. You can win in chess just by making good moves, but there you can also predict the future game states based on your move.

Incidentally, I think I danced around this with prior definitions (“Can I play vastly different styles with roughly equal outcomes of victory” and “Can I sacrifice short term for long term”).

My style is defined in my strategy guide. I don’t very it, the details are all in implementation. It’s not perfect; but I find two facts enough to contend that PR isn’t strategic:

  1. that people who deviate from it often lose

  2. using my plan, I don’t know going into the game how I’ll get the bulk of my points.

In Chess, I can vary my style going into games without appreciably altering my playing strength (at least between a few styles), and knowing my opening possibilities, I can tell you “I’ll probably have an open/closed game”.


Written by taogaming

February 10, 2005 at 5:07 pm

6 Responses

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  1. I hear your position as follows: that Puerto Rico is a short term optimization game. That you cannot force a game of Puerto Rico into a “style”, in contrast to, say chess. In chess, for instance, you can force the entire game to be quick and brutal or defensive and positional; you are saying that you cannot do that in Puerto Rico. In Puerto Rico, you can only look at the current state of the board and make your best move from that point forwards, even if you are looking several rounds in advance.

    Therefore, you conclude, based on this lack of style enforcement … based on the fact that while game styles do show up as the game progresses, but you cannot absolutely enforce which one you will be playing from the outset, the game is “not strategic”.

    I hope that I am not rewriting your arguments as a straw man argument. I have to say, that, assuming that I understand you correctly, I am kind of bewildered.

    I guess the lesser bewilderment comes from the conclusion, that the game is “not strategic”, because that brings us back into having to define what strategy is. I don’t think that is necessary, because even I prove to you by some definition that PR is strategic, it doesn’t answer the criticism being leveled at it, which has to do with style enforcement.

    The greater bewilderment comes from the argument you seem to be making altogether.

    Doesn’t my style choice in chess depend greatly on whether I start out as black or white? If I don’t know what color I’m starting as, my game play and strategic choices will be completely different. OK, chess doesn’t have any other random game situations other than starting color. Nevertheless, isn’t it possible that when I start a strategy in chess, that as the game progresses, I might re-evaluate my position based on my opponent’s moves and change my strategy? Perhaps I started off playing a “wait and hunker” strategy, but then I see a series of brilliant plays, so I switch strategies to be “advance through the side”.

    In other words, my strategies in chess can change during play, through no intention of my own, because of what happened either through the random nature of the game or due to my opponent’s choices.

    OK, obviously in chess there are almost no random choices. But if I understand your argument about strategy correctly, then tell me: what games are strategic?

    Princes of Florence? If you lose the bidding on the builder, you will have to play jesters, and if you lose jesters you will have to go for prestige cards. If you come into the game thinking “I will play jesters”, you will lose.

    Settlers? If the positions you want are taken, you will have to switch from road building to development cards. If you come into the game thinking “I will play road building”, you will lose.

    Tigris and Euphrates? If you get a certain series of tiles, your best choice is to move your leaders, rather than leave them where they are.

    Pente? You may try for five in a row, but if the right choice to capture occurs, your play style has to switch to take advantage of it.

    Checkers? Tournament checkers begins with the first three moves made randomly. You can’t decide between hunkering or exchanging. You have to do what best shows up.

    Look, I can’t convince you, or Chris, that PR is “strategic”, and it doesn’t really matter. You are trying to say something about what bothers you with the game, and that is that you don’t feel like you have a tremendous influence of how the game progresses. For instance, that you are in the middle of a game, and if the Harbor is suddenly up for grabs, well, you guess you have to go buy that before my opponent does, regardless of what you would like to be doing (shipping, crafting, etc…)

    I just think that claiming that this is the experience for all people who play the game – that grasping and influencing the flow of the game – is rather insulting to the game. Isn’t it possible that other people understand the game better than you do, or that the game is sufficiently complicated that it takes several hundred plays before you enter “the zone” of PR – and that some people won’t “get it” even then?

    If you say that about Tic Tac Toe, Connect Four, or LCR, then I would agree with you. Heck, if you said that about Torres or Citadels, I would agree with you.


    Yehuda Berlinger

    February 11, 2005 at 2:26 am

  2. I think straegy is simply a way to selectively narrow down a vast decision tree into a more manageable one.

    If I look at every possible choice in Puerto Rico and try to figure out the best move, it will be hopeless.

    If I decided, however, that I will be persuing a shipping strategy, and that I really want to get mr production level up quickly, I have removed a large portion of the decision tree, and I can concentrate on making correct decisions based on my strategy.

    I think all games are inherently tactical. Player add strategy to make the tactics more managable.

    Mark Haberman

    February 11, 2005 at 8:42 am

  3. I really suck at typing…

    Mark Haberman

    February 11, 2005 at 8:43 am

  4. I still think that these definitions are all confused. Just to throw it out there, the classic defintion of strategy by Moltke as “the practical adaptation of the means placed at a generalâs disposal to the attainment of the object in view”

    Tactics are defined most commonly as the means and manuevers to achieve strategic objectives.

    Now adapting these for gaming, it might become moot because the objective for most games is to achieve the victory conditions. Tactics are what you use to achieve those victory conditions. In chess, your positional decisions to play closed or open are tactical choices that you are hopefully making on your strategic desire to win.

    I would argue that only in games with multiple victory conditions that are distinct would there be strategy at the classic definitions. In those games you must make strategic choices on the victory type you wish to achieve and then enable tactics to best achieve those results.

    Does any of this have anything to do with is PR strategic, probably not, but hey, it’s a blog. 🙂



    February 11, 2005 at 9:36 am

  5. Yes, Brian, it does appear as if the problem is our very differing definitions of the term “strategic”. Yours is as valid as anyone’s, but I have to admit it’s very different than any other one I’ve encountered. It also seems very narrow, and I agree with Yehuda that it’s hard for me to think of a multi-player game that would fit your definition of “strategic”. But at least I understand your arguments better now.

    I would still say that, despite the lower control that is endemic in any multi-player game, that PR does has player styles, that these DO have an impact on how the game plays out, and that this effect is somewhat predictable. For example, I’ve played against players who ALWAYS take the role with the most coins and against those who are much more prone to base their decision on the role’s action. Very different kinds of games arise when playing with players of the first kind than when playing against the second type of player. And while these are extremes, I do feel that both styles, when applied sensibly, can be winners.

    Like so many other multi-player games, it’s very important in PR to get a feel for the groupthink of the table. Now according to your definition, any game that depends on groupthink may not be strategic. Again, that’s a perfectly reasonable position to take, but it does seem to tremendously reduce the number of multi-player games that can be considered strategic.

    Larry Levy

    February 11, 2005 at 11:11 am

  6. It’s funny, since we’re having the same discussion at work and are encountering the same difficulty with multiple definitions of “strategy”.

    Let’s define a Strategic game as one where a plan you devise previous to the game has a great effect on the outcome. Whoever comes up with the best plan wins. A ‘pure’ strategic game would have each player come up with a plan, and run the plan through an algorithm to determine the winner.

    A Tactical game is one where the decisions you make on each turn, based only on the current state of the game, affects the outcome more than a previous plan.

    The choice of roles in Puerto Rico is mostly a tactical decision: what is going to help me the most and my opponents the least? I’d argue that the order in which people buy buildings in Puerto Rico is strategic, they are trying to fit their actions to a plan. If I’m going for the factory, I’m going to try to diversify my production as much as possible. If I’m going the wharf route, I’m going to take plantations and production buildings of the same type. If someone buys the building I was going to buy I might be forced to do something else, but I definitely have a build order based on the strategy I am going for.

    Chris Esko

    February 14, 2005 at 4:55 pm

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