The Tao of Gaming

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What is Winning? Factorio, High Frontier and the Goals of Games

(Update — Fixed some typos, fleshed out thoughts, added links. Also, I don’t wish to imply that Mombasa or Jump Drive are bad. I like both. I use them because I played them during the same week).

During my time at the Gathering, I played 31 games. Eclipse, Colonists and 3 plays of High Frontier took roughly 21 hours. The remaining 26 games took about 20 hours.

I spent my first two games of High Frontier doing terribly. I earned 1VP apart from Heroism (aka “The Challenger Explosion card” aka “Pity Points”).

Suppose winning just involved earning VPs at a fixed rate (ignoring opponents). It takes about 40 VP to win High Frontier, so I would ‘win’ after four hundred hours of gameplay.

Let’s flip that around. Wins/hour. For those first two games I earned 0.0025 WPH.

Among the other games I played were Mombasa and Jump Drive. For Mombasa I earned about .7 WPH, since I generated enough VP to win in my game, which was about 1.5 hours. A nice rate. My Jump Drive rate was 4 WPH for the Gathering, slightly higher than my typical 3 wins per hour. But I taught the game twice.

So, for 10 hours of High Frontier (roughly 1/4 of my gaming time) I was arguably the least effective game-player in all of the gathering. I’d have to go to ten gatherings to eke out a single win. (I have some true anti-skill in that game. But I did eventually get a bit better). Apparently I did OK in my only game with second edition (although it left me cold), but we did the fast start, so I may have randomly gotten a good setup.

Of course Wins Per Hour is a somewhat ludicrous idea. Isn’t it? It seems obvious, but winning isn’t the problem. And we routinely praise games for being “tight” or “fast” or having a high decision density.

I was already pondering the similarities between High Frontier (the current hotness) and Factorio (the current hotness is not necessarily a singular). I mean, they both have Rockets, but there were other similarities. I’d been thinking about it (vaguely) even before Jeroen asked me to pitch Factorio to him over breakfast. One of the random thoughts I blurted out was its old school scoring. (It was a long pitch. In my defense, I had previously warned him that if he asked about Factorio he should set aside a day for my answer).

Anyway, old school scoring. Launching one rocket (aka “Winning”) gives you a score of …. one. Its like how the original pinball machines had scores like 1-2-3 for each bumper, but now you get a million points for simply launching the ball. But after you get on the scoreboard in Factorio, you can keep going.

Factorio is optimization, but you are free to decide what to optimize:

1) Speed (the speedrun: how fast can you win?)

2) Throughput (how many rockets per unit time can you get? This can be subdivided to a final sprint, ignoring the setup time, or over the lifetime of your game).

3) Size (How small a factory can you get a rocket out of. This is currently a challenge on Reddit. Yes, these rockets would take roughly one year of real time to be built, but they are ludicrously small factories).

There are others. People play without using robots (or just logistic robots, or just personal robots), or without lasers, or trains. Some play peaceful, some play Deathworld. Factorio has a victory condition, but people often ignore it. You can keep playing after you win. It’s a sandbox. You make what you want. I’m watching “The Belt Diva” on youtube, and its like watching Bob Ross. Happy little conveyer belts. She wants to build a mega base. I have no idea if she’ll launch a rocket. Does it matter?

Mombasa is not a sandbox. Neither is Jump Drive. You could argue that High Frontier isn’t a sandbox either, it has VP and end game conditions, but the standard criticism again Eklund’s games is: “Great simulations with arbitrary endgame/VPs attached.” (The latest edition of High Frontier’s scoring seems reasonable and at about the right time).

Ignore the victory conditions for High Frontier and just play with the system and it would still work. (Also true of American Mega Fauna, or other games like Seven Ages. You could just tell people to play in the best interest of their species/nation and not the actual victory conditions).

You could add self imposed conditions on your game. Only use solar sails, or “try to get out to Neptune with only basic cards,” or “Make the Kessel Run in 7 parsecs.” For any Eklund game, you could take a reasonable goal (“Expand your species,” “Become President of Mexico,” “Kessel Run”) and if you achieved it, who cared what the VPs said?

High Frontier feels like a sandbox (much like all Sierra Madre games).

Can you do that with a Euro? I suppose you could just say “I’m trying to maximize my red cubes and not VP” But that seems silly. The goal is to maximize VP.

Objectively, there’s no difference. You lose, the other players win. You may throw the game by being silly. But in a sandbox game it feels acceptable.

You might not even mess up the other players. (If you didn’t mention you had mentally altered your victory conditions, they might not even notice, assuming you chose something ‘reasonable’) We’ve already quietly accepted the premise that in a sandbox game the VPs are somewhat not the point when we criticize the poor victory conditions in otherwise good games.

We wouldn’t play a Euro similarly broken. Wouldn’t make sense.

I once knew someone who built a Magic deck with 58 islands, 1 mountain and 1 fireball. (Several of my readers should remember him). The point was to build a deck that could theoretically win (if you drew the mountain, the fireball, and then managed to play 20 lands). He’d pull this deck and lose and lose to people who often did not notice that their opponent never did anything except play islands. He was truly Andy Kaufman, CCG player.

Or perhaps Stanley Milgram.

When I’m losing a game like High Frontier (or Combat Commander, or Seven Ages, or Here I Stand), I may flounder and grasp for a way out of my situation, but I feel perfectly happy just exploring the system even though the time invested is well out of proportion to what I’d normally give to a game.

I’ve dismissed countless games after one play (or less), games I’ve won included. Games I won especially. Those tend to fail the test of time (unless everyone was new).  A game where I can beat experienced players probably isn’t that deep, or has too much luck.

Whereas games I lost repeatedly include Titan, 18xx, Magic Realm (counting dying as a loss), Chess, Go, Bridge.

Clearly, I’m not optimizing my wins per hour. Knizia has that quote….

When playing a game, the goal is to win, but it is the goal that is important, not the winning

Pretty Zen, but I get (and approve) the idea. Those guys who crushed that sub-sub-Mendoza line Magic deck and chortled and kept playing it again and again to rack up wins? Not great gamers.

But is the goal really to win? Usually, yes. When I played American Megafauna with non-existent or terribly wrong Victory Conditions, I don’t recall having less fun. In High Frontier I started out trying to win. Mainly I was trying to do something constructive. A Winning-adjacent goal.

Some play games to explore systems, but that requires a system worth exploring. Which is not to say that Mombasa or Jump Drive’s design is not deep. Just (relatively) transparent. You can argue about the best path to winning, but that path is well defined. With Combat Commander or Magic Realm or High Frontier, you aren’t sure what’s going to happen, and sometimes the joy is just in unlocking the secret or even seeing that rocket take flight. In fact, defining the direction of the path is surprisingly hard … the player that did best may be the one that lost, according to the rules. It’s like that old Supreme Court definition of pornography. You know who won when you played it. Who cares what the rules said?

Its like watching your factory grow, then deciding what you want to optimize next.

Written by taogaming

April 15, 2017 at 11:04 pm

Posted in Ramblings

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Beisboll is back, beibee.

We rebooted our fantasy BB league last night after a year’s hiatus. The draft went by really fast, probably because

  1. The auto-draft moderator and clock keeps it going. I remember the days of live drafts fondly, but honestly I don’t want to spend 4-5 hours drafting, and then saying “No, that player is gone,” etc. Hurray for software.
  2. Almost nobody in our group follows baseball well enough to buck the recommendations the auto draft gave.  (One player did). Whenever I wondered “why is player I know so far down the draft list,” the answer was “I know him because he’s really old,”
  3. It was an NL-only league, with 8 coaches. We originally said “NL only” because we thought we’d have 4 or 6 players, and didnt’ want to let everyone have an uber-team, but with that ratio you really have to dig into the “Who dats” early on, at which point you just check out stats (if they exist) shrug, and draft.

Net result — we got 23 rounds of drafting in under 75 minutes. BB (unlike Fantasy Football) has a lot more in-season management, just because of the number of injuries and DL rotations and even trying to maximize pitcher vs team (and pitchers who get 2 starts on that week).

But basically it gives us some water cooler fodder for five months, and you can’t argue with that. Or rather, you can’t not argue.

Written by taogaming

April 1, 2017 at 9:21 am

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Random Thoughts

Power Grid: The Card Game …. is it an exception to my rule that “X: The Card Game” is bad? I guess. It’s fine.

Played Favor of the Pharoah again, which is a nice improvement over To Court The King, but the setup is annoying.

Played another game or two of Magic Realm, but I’m slowing down on that. Still, I’ve played it quite a bit over the last few months. Traded for a copy of Hands in the Sea, so maybe I’ll get to try that shortly. But I’m in no rush.

Mildly burned out, perhaps. I started reading the review for the Colonists, which seems like its up my alley, but after reading a page or two I get distracted. Took me several sessions to read the Hands in the Sea Rules. I’m taking a break from bridge. (I do play an hour or two online every now and again, but I don’t think I’ve got a club game scheduled for two months or so).

Anyway, nothing much going on. Media — I’ve been watching the Youtube channel No Small Parts on character actors. Flash Season 2. Nothing much.

So, I’m stuck in the Winter Doldrums. It’s not so bad. It happens.

Written by taogaming

February 25, 2017 at 11:03 pm

Posted in Ramblings

An interesting Riddler puzzle this week

More of a thought experiment game than actual “Can be solved” puzzle from the Riddler.

In a distant, war-torn land, there are 10 castles. There are two warlords: you and your archenemy. Each castle has its own strategic value for a would-be conqueror. Specifically, the castles are worth 1, 2, 3, …, 9, and 10 victory points. You and your enemy each have 100 soldiers to distribute, any way you like, to fight at any of the 10 castles. Whoever sends more soldiers to a given castle conquers that castle and wins its victory points. If you each send the same number of troops, you split the points. You don’t know what distribution of forces your enemy has chosen until the battles begin. Whoever wins the most points wins the war.

They’re having a round robin tournament, but you can’t submit a mixed strategy. Just 10 numbers. An interesting question as to how many levels you want to go. I was briefly tempted to grab a genetic algorithm framework and try to evolve a good solution (against a population of other solutions and a few fixed and random-ish strategies), but then I decided to play other games instead. Still, I may think about it and submit an answer later on.

And they have a simpler, classic pick-a-low, problem:

Submit a whole number between 1 and 1,000,000,000. I’ll then take all those numbers and find the average submission. Whoever submits the number closest to ⅔ of the mean of all of the submitted numbers wins.

Now that one’s easy. I’m just going to submit one billion, because a) those things bore me and b) game theory geeks need to be reminded now and again that in the real world people are jerks.

Written by taogaming

February 4, 2017 at 7:43 pm

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40,527 Days

If I’ve done my math right, that’s the total of the “Days since last played” on the Friendless “Games you should play soon which you own,” list and that number is growing by 20 per day (since there are twenty games on the list). One of my new years resolutions is to reduce that number. My goal is to have no game listed with 1000 days (which means I play my collection through every 3 years-ish).

Now, it’s not a hard rule. But it’s a guideline. Get more games to 50 plays, get rid of games on the “GYSPSWYO” list. (In some case, by getting rid of the game, if I no longer care about it).

Written by taogaming

January 24, 2017 at 6:26 pm

Posted in Ramblings

Design for Effect — Entangled systems

I’ve played a few more Magic Realm games …. we play for an hour or two after dinner and split a game across nights.

In one game my Black Knight used the Alchemist’s Mixture (one M*** missile attack every round for one combat and the Black Knight rolls only a single die for missile attacks)  coupled with the Potion of Speed and a few rogues to kill the Tremendous Flying Dragon and six goblins, taking no losses.  But before I found the Lair the Dragon’s wife showed up (a monster roll during regeneration day) and ate everyone while the Knight executed a hasty retreat, since he no longer had the ability to damage it. Our last game had four deaths in the first week (Bats are the undisputed Pound for Pound champion in the realm. Just call them “mini-dragons” and be done with it).

I’m pondering why I’m so attached to this game.Well, I like good games, but Magic Realm is an odd definition of ‘good,’ and this just begs the question.

Do I have a type? A taste? I like experience games, but after a dozen games of Combat Commander the ‘like‘ was more theoretical, less of a ‘Hey, I’ve played this game for 20 hours this month’ nature.

I’m wondering if its the entangled systems.

Consider bridge. You have a very interesting (to me) bidding problem. Then play. But a revealing auction may allow an alert defender to find the killing defense. A stone placed in the upper right corner threatens an opponents group but also serves as a ladder breaker for a stone across the entire board.

Puerto Rico isn’t just a “take an action, one at a time” game. You manage your action and your money. You don’t need money for everything, but you can get money a few ways. You need buildings to match your plantations. Actions and money blend. Buildings tie into the various systems.

Race isn’t just spend X cards for Y. Sometimes you spend cards for military, to get Y. Race has numerous subsystems and powers. Caylus has workers, but also money, favors etc.

Now — in general any game that isn’t a single system will have entangled system (and single system games like Chess and Go entangle the pieces position). Again I I wonder if I’m not begging the question.

So I started looking at games I rate a ‘6’ and see what’s lacking. Lots of these are simply mediocre, but let’s see what separates them from similar good games, so I’ll just look at games I’ve played at least a 3-4 times.

Anno 1503 — I may be misremembering, but the lack of a board reduces the dimensions of this (as compared to Settlers).

Ascension — Because of random purchase, you can’t plan out your combinations like Dominion.

Bang — I think this may just be too long for what it is. But it doesn’t feel like there are many entangled systems. (The ‘take that’ vs the ‘who goes there’ probably counts, though).

Battlestations — I liked this, but it’s simply too long.

Beowulf: The Legend — Hm. A meh game. I guess this does have entangled systems, but honestly for a game I’ve played 9 times, I’m not sure I remember it well enough to know.

Le Havre — Felt like a much sparser Agricola, due to the missing occupation/improvement cards. Definitely think there’s a subsystem missing.

Innovation — One of the Hall of Fame “I’m not even sure how I feel about it” games, but it has lots of subsystems (points grabbing things for the win, the alternate victory conditions).

London — Wallace is interesting, he usually has a few subsystems (money, ‘misery’ or some such, time) and I want to like his games, but they don’t grab me.  Not sure why.

Pax Porfiriana — Hm. Eklund has subsystem linkage just as much as MR. Lords of the Sierra Madre was one of the first experience games I really got into, although its way too long.

Meh, I don’t see a pattern. (Other than the fact that 4 hours for a game of Magic Realm isn’t ‘way too long.’ Partially that’s because I’m effectively playing two player and it may be a fixed fun game, whereas I played Lords of the Sierra Madre (say) with six, and it is also a fixed fun game. Hm. Perhaps I should solo/co-op some Eklund games.

I feel like I’m groping towards a point or thesis, but I can’t articulate it. There’s something about linking subsystems that intrigues me, but I can’t put me finger on why some games do and others don’t. Perhaps its that the entangled systems feel ‘organic’ to me in some games. Magic Realm would never be something that people would argue could be discovered independently by other cultures or even species (a claim made about Go that is fairly easy to imagine being true), but its design for effect composition leads to a world that feels alive, despite being mostly a simple interaction of a few numbers, makes me wonder if ‘organic’ rules are better than.

In other news, I noticed an interesting VP variant. I may try it out. I like the idea for giving characters starting bonuses and then making them get much more difficult VP conditions as an option, but even just simplifying the VP may be useful for new players and I agree that once you get a feel for the game there’s probably a ‘best formula’ for VPs, which this solves.

Written by taogaming

January 21, 2017 at 6:51 am

Posted in Magic Realm, Ramblings

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Does one dimensional chess work?

As a gedankenexperiment, can one dimensional chess work as a game? Would it scratch the same tactical (and positional) itch? My gut feeling is that it would not, but let me try to reason out why.

Chess works (as a tactical game) because you have a variety of threats, and most of the threats deal with interactions between pieces. Some things in chess just don’t really work. A fork threatens multiple pieces. That can strictly be done in one dimension (a rook or bishop can fork by moving). Discovered attacks by moving out of the way become more difficult, unless you have pieces that effectively move every N squares (skipping over the square in between). These are one-dimensional bishops, although an argument could be made that modular arrays create a second dimension I’ll let it slide, since developing a one-dimensional chess variant that’s interesting is probably a hard problem. Given that some very clever people (including Sid Sackson and Martin Gardner) have tried, I’m going to just go ahead and say that one dimensional chess doesn’t work.

Why? There’s some interaction between the various dimensions. As we’ve forks become much more common and interesting, pins, discoveries, etc proliferate. You need restrictions in a game (as we’ve noted before, letting people move every piece doesn’t work). There’s nothing particularly magical about a single move — double move chess can work — but letting every piece move means you can’t fork, pin, and the like. The game falls apart.

Now, in most games (non-chess) the term “dimension” is more abstract. There are constraints. Not necessarily spatial. They may be temporal (X actions per turn), economic (a literal cost). You may have random constraints (roll and move or other randomizers). You may have incomplete information. You can like big sprawling games (ahem), but if it isn’t just a salad … if the design is actually good, you pare and trim. As the man said…

A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away. — Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Star Trek got it wrong — 3D chess isn’t an improvement over chess, but neither is 1D. Two dimensions is enough for the game to express itself. 3D chess can exist, but it exists as an inferior product. Similarly, 1D chess is inferior.

I don’t think this is particularly controversial, but perhaps I am wrong. I suspect I may be wrong trying to generalize it to other (non-abstract) games, but non-abstracts live across a huge variety of dimensions. How do you compare Food Chain Magnate (which as spatial, temporal, economic, organizational, etc) with superficially similar 18xx — both games are about building and growing a business on a spatial map, but feel nothing alike (to me). They share a few dimensions, but the dimensions they differ on (the fact that the player is 100% owner in FCM and may suffer from agency issues in 1830, for example) make the games distinct.

It’s a complex issue.

All of this propelled by the thought I had earlier tonight — If Power Grid: The Card Game works as a game, does that mean that Power Grid (the board game) is 3D chess and we just didn’t know it?

Written by taogaming

January 3, 2017 at 12:50 am

Posted in Ramblings

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