The Tao of Gaming

Boardgames and lesser pursuits

Archive for the ‘Specific Games’ Category

A Response to Jorbs, regarding Poker and the Tragedy of the Commons

Last night I saw that Jorbs (the Slay the Spire Streamer and former pro-poker player) posted a video discussing tournament hold ’em and the tragedy of the commons. While Tao isn’t a huge poker player, I’m not entirely without skills. And mixing game theory, poker, and policy design? The kind of catnip topic I haven’t seen in years!

To summarize the video:

  1. In tournament poker (unlike in cash games) not all chips are equal value (the Independent Chip Model)
  2. In the final table of a tournament (for example) this model leads to optimal play often being to wait for you and him to fight. “Going to war” (with random hands) on net costs both players expected value. (I don’t really think you — the average Tao reader, gifted with math knowledge far above average — needs that link. Nor does Jorbs. But maybe I’ll catch some traffic that does).
  3. Jorbs provides the example of a 6 handed table folded to the small blind. In this situation, the SB may just shove all in much more often than optimal (in a cash game), because the clever BB — even if he knows that he SB is bullying — is stuck. Calling with more than the “correct” set of hands (whatever that may be) is just destroying his expected value.
  4. This is a tragedy of the commons, a known problem (Jorbs uses the “picking up trash in a public park” example). (It’s kind of a two player prisoner’s dilemma, with a small blind/big blind, but because it can be repeated with multiple actors, it extends. There are some assumptions buried in there, but for a 20 minute video or a blog post, I think its fine to handwave this).
  5. But — here is the crux of Jorbs’s frustration — Pro Poker players are some of the most strategic thinkers on the earth (in their domain at least) … So, why have they not come up with a solution to this problem via some enforcement strategy?
  6. More frustratingly for Jorbs is that apparently poker players do not apparently acknowledge this problem.

I have many thoughts….

Let’s You and Him Fight

First, this problem is a typical “multi-player wargame” issue. This is the reason 3+ player (non-team) Chess doesn’t work. If A and B trade pawns, C is better off. There’s a reason that Titan is a classic: If A and B fight, C may be the big loser (because fighting has gains and losses …. the fight’s winner can gain points, a recruit, an angel, possibly legion tokens).

In fact, I think Jorb’s simplified model over-stated how negative the EV was of going to war. He just assumed payouts of 6,5,4,3,2,1. But typical tournament payout would be something like 300,150,75,40,25,10 … the values would depend on entries, but winning is ~40% …. Running a full EV calculation is harder then, but my gut feeling is that it lessens the impact of going all, but it would still be a negative EV play. (The calculation is harder b/c the person who doubles up now has a 40% chance of winning the tournament, but also improved chances of 2nd, and reduced chances of 5th, etc. This calculation may be solved, but I don’t know the solution and don’t care to do it now. Perhaps one of my readers knows the answer).

As any bridge player has heard, Matchpoints isn’t real bridge. (See my review of Matchpoints by Kit Woolsey). So, Jorbs feeling that tournament poker has these annoying corner cases makes total sense. You have taken an open-ended cash game (like Bridge, originally) and turned it into a format that can take an arbitrary number of entries and produce a winner in a relatively fixed time frame. Why would you expect that to be a perfect translation?

Perhaps the TL;DR of this essay is “Given that this is a known problem in tons of domains, why would you think Poker is immune?” Again — hardly satisfying. So let’s dive into it in more detail

Enforcers != Enforcement

Jorbs brings up the idea that people should enforce it. Let’s define that. An optimal player in the Big Blind will know the range of hands to calldown with if the Small Blind is playing optimally (even if I don’t). This is likely solved. If the small blind is “stealing” (betting or shoving all in on more hands than is optimal) then the Big Blind can call more aggressively and still be playing optimally (assuming he has a good estimate of how much the small blind is cheating).

We’re still in game theory. But what if the Big Blind decides to change from “optimal” play to an enforcer? Now they will not only call when it is optimal, they will call sometimes when it is sub-optimal, just to hope to catch the small blind and punish them. Something I have said professionally (but not on this blog, apparently) is

“Security is paying a small cost to impose a large cost on your adversary.”

(Me)

So, an enforcer expands their range of plays (possibly to the point of just always calling anyone who appears to be consistently stealing). If all the seats agree to do this, then you have solved the tragedy of the commons, or so the argument goes. Because players see that you are willing to punish defectors

Let’s posit that some players at the final table are just lucky and not up to game theory.

If we go back to our park example. An optimal person will pick up some trash and keep the park clean for everyone (“cooperate” in the prisoner’s dilemma). If they see a defector (someone who walks past a piece of trash without picking it up or even worse tosses some trash on the ground), they will not do anything. But an enforcer will punish the defector. Call them out, shame them, fine them, something. The enforcer takes an additional cost to make things right.

So now our enforcer rushes over to the guy who tossed a soda cup on the ground, harangues them, and then gets their reputation destroyed on social media, gets fired from their job and the litter bug’s Go Fund Me explodes … (Now might be a good time to mention the “Central Park Karen” — I haven’t followed that particular story enough to know who is actually the bad guy here, but this is not a hypothetical).

The obviously true fact is at the poker table, there’s a lot of variance. “Punishing” the defector is probably taking away a couple percent from them in the long run, but in the short run you’ll double them up a fair amount of the time.

And what do the other players see? A way to tilt the enforcer (should they ever be sitting to his right). Because “Enforcer” is another way of saying “Not playing optimally.”

Enforcement may incentivize the behavior you are trying to stop. Particularly for an opponent who recognizes he’s outclassed. (This is another aspect of Matchpoints. When you are inferior to the field you should absolutely not use the exact same bidding system as the field. Why get to the average contract and let the result be decided by technical perfection when the other players are better at it? Better to flip a coin, even if you know the coin is slightly biased against you).

It would be one thing if when you tossed some trash on the ground, enforcers (cops or otherwise) magically appeared and gave you a $50 fine. But if they magically appear and give you a fine 52% of the time and give you a $50 gift card 48% of the time, you are “losing” EV, but it might take a while to catch on.

People play lotteries voluntarily and plenty of criminals risk decades (or life) of jail time because enforcement is haphazard at best, and that’s with paid enforcers.

A minor but related point — If your village has 100 people, the park is probably small but nice. Everyone knows everyone, and if Giselle doesn’t pick up the trash because she thinks its beneath her, people will talk. If your commons are Manhattan’s Central Park …. well, there’s a lot of anonymity in the big city (except for Karen) anyway. Even if you discount the bad incentives and knew that everyone would see what you are doing and react accordingly, it matters if you are playing against the same crowd over and over again (where they will learn you are enforcing) versus some people you’ll likely never see again. (Yes, this might very well be the definition of Tragedy of the Commons, but I wanted to make it explicitly).

The Elephant in the Card Room

One aspect that Jorbs touches on …. there is an enforcer. The Casino. As he mentions, there are rules against collusion. The Casino cares about that, because if word got out that a gang (etc) were colluding in their card room the game (and their sweet, sweet rakes) would dry up. The tournament rules (like raising stakes) also exist for the Casino’s benefit, because they don’t rake each hand (only the fees), so they have incentives to make it fast enough to be profitable, but long enough that players want to play.

And the Casino is a notoriously ruthless enforcer. If I became desperate enough to resort to stealing, I’d go for a waitresses tips before trying to steal chips from an area where all the players had went to the bathroom. Even for non-crime, rules of the game enforcements, casinos are tough to beat. I’ve been called out for string raising because I didn’t know the exact rules of that particular card room (for example), even though I’m usually careful to not string-raise. The dealer is often very sympathetic to me, while rigidly enforcing the rules.

A story I read in a poker book. In one of the early tournaments, a small stack pushed all in under-the-gun. The next person (a medium stack, with several big stacks behind him) pushed all in and flipped over his pair of aces. The logic was impeccable, he was likely to bust out the small stack, but a big stack might think he was also cheating and try to bust him out, and even if he had a hand, ICM theory said it might be right to call. The ace-holder might very well grab a bunch of chips, but it was at a risk and by advertising he was making the safe solid play.

This is another weird Matchpoint-esque situation. Playing for cash you’d be happy to have a bunch of callers.

Now casinos ban players from showing their cards.

Of course, there’s a whole bunch of reasons why Casinos don’t say “No cheating in the final table, tragedy of the commons situation.” How to tell and enforce? Casinos want a bright line rule. But from the Casino’s POV, this is a legitimate angle/shot, all part of the game, and not something that (most) players care about. If players did care, Casinos might try to enforce it, but mostly it takes care of itself. Chip stacks are rarely even and the blinds will increase fast enough that other issues come to the fore.

Part of my wonders if one reason that Pros (in general) don’t care isn’t a lack of awareness, its just that its a small minor corner cases that they get over (“Matchpoints”). And against that small benefit, if they ever decided to band and somehow not have it backfire, they are worried about the casino.

Because if you (and the rest of the Pros) stood up and loudly proclaimed “We will punish defectors” some Average Joe somewhere is going to go to the Casino and say “Aren’t they colluding?” (I don’t really think this is an issue, but its an interesting angle).

Some random other thoughts / Conclusion

I keep thinking back to Hirschman’s Exit, Voice and Loyalty. For any problem inside an organization or system some people accept it (Loyalty), some complain but try to work within the system (Voice) and some just give up and walk away (Exit). This is obviously a butchering and gross simplification of Hirschman’s book, which I doubt I remember enough to treat well …. Thankfully poker isn’t nearly as important as most tragedies of the commons.

My main response to Jorbs is that I think he’s correct, and I can see why it bother him, but … well, I play a lot of Matchpoints these days. What he’s describing is true, and has no solution that I can see. If it really bothered me, well, I’d be an exit-guy as well. I’m sympathetic. Whaddya going to do? It’s the rules of the game.

PS — For a great article discussing capitalism, evolution, and various tragedies including the prisoner’s dilemma, paperclip maximizers and the race to the bottom — with a stop in Las Vegas — I suggest Scott Alexander’s (very long) essay Meditations on Moloch.

I will now jump from boring game theory stuff to what might be the closest thing to a mystical experience I’ve ever had.

Like all good mystical experiences, it happened in Vegas. I was standing on top of one of their many tall buildings, looking down at the city below, all lit up in the dark. If you’ve never been to Vegas, it is really impressive. Skyscrapers and lights in every variety strange and beautiful all clustered together. And I had two thoughts, crystal clear:

It is glorious that we can create something like this.

It is shameful that we did.

Scott Alexander, Meditations on Moloch

Written by taogaming

August 14, 2021 at 10:07 am

Too Many Words about Slay the Spire, Pt II — The Characters

This article, yada yada yada. See Part I for disclaimer. This covers the basic thoughts for each character, it is not intended to be “card by card complete” or cover all possibilities. Also, while I discuss strategies and archetypes, these are intended as a “Discussion” or suggestions, not as a crutch or exhaustive list. They are just archetypes. For the most part I am not going to get into too many relics in this discussion.

One more definition — A naked pick is picking a card that doesn’t do anything for you yet. (Like taking a Limit Break which doubles your strength bonus, when you as of yet have no way to get a strength bonus). Since this violates the “focus on the near term,” taking a card that is a dead load for the near future and potentially the game indicates that the card has tremendous upside.

And I realize I didn’t really talk about density as clearly as I could. It hurts that there are interrelated concepts, but one idea that a “dense” deck also has is the ability to dump all of its mana into Attack or Defend (as desired). As I mentioned, if you only have strikes or defends (and a five card hand) you will be able to spend three mana on either, but not both. (You may want to split it up, but if you want to go all the way with either, you can’t). If you have only two cost cards, you can (with three mana) only spend two mana. If you have one “attack two” and one “defend two” then its fine that you can’t necessarily play both, because you’ll play the one that matters (and then a one cost card to round it up). Iron Wave gives you attack and defense, but poor ones. Still, with an Iron Wave and two strikes and defends, you have some flexibility. “X cost” cards also let you dump as much as desired into them (with the caveat that it has to be the last card played, mostly).

Also — Something I didn’t mention in the prior article. Sometimes you pick a card knowing that is often dead-weight, but that really helps out in specific fights. Cards may solve a problem. I’ll try to note problems and the counters.

Ironclad

The basic deck is 5x Strikes and 5x Defends. Barely serviceable cards that you should (in general) despise. Ironclad’s bonus card is Bash, which provides two vulnerable and his artifact (Burning Blood) is your healing (at 6 HP/combat). Combined with a nice maximum health, this makes Ironclad a forgiving character. In the early game you block only insofar as you didn’t get any damage, effectively trading HP for murder. Ironclad’s card pool is loaded with big hits — grabbing a quick two-energy front-loaded damage (ideally Carnage) will get you through early Act I. Vulnerable means your attack this turn (and next turn) do 50% more damage, so even with just the starting deck Ironclad can deal out 44 damage in two turns (Bash+Strike/3x strikes) if you draw Bash in your opening hand.

One of Ironclads early problems is the embarrassment of front-loaded damage riches. There are so many decent 2-energy damage cards, you’ll be tempted to load up. But (with only three energy) they’ll simply block each other. (One reason why Ironclad was such a popular “Swap Boss Relic” option for Neow’s gift … Ironclad can exploit the fourth energy, although now with so many damage interactions the original healing relic is also more valuable).

Back before I started tracking, I would often die in late Act I because I’d rely on the healing, get a bit low, hit a bit of bad variance or a rough hallway fight (Gremlin Gang, Slime Gang), and then either die outright or be poorly placed for the boss fight, missing an upgrade or two, and then poof. The classic death spiral. Ironclad can’t totally ignore defense. The healing is a boon, not a crutch.

Once you get past the early game, Ironclad tropes that often work include:

Strength Scaling — Other classes can do this, but Ironclad has numerous ways. New players are enamored of Demon Form (indeed, at low ascensions its an auto-win for me), but the high cost make that suitable for slow fights only. A simple Spot Weakness or semi-scaling like an Inflame or two) is often good enough to handle scaling in Act II. Card coordination (via Headbutt) to re-use a Spot Weakness (or start this and re-use Limit Breaks) can lead to obscene strength. Any “doubling” card can lead to geometric scaling which is why if I lack any strength, I’m still tempted to take a naked Limit Break at the end of Act I, since a single later pick can turn into tremendous upside. With the recent patch, Rupture could be close to Demon Form, because Ironclad has a number of cards that cause damage (such as Combust), and then you also get strength . (Toss in Self-forming Clay and you have the damage synergy archetype). If you have a strength scaling deck, the typical problem is that is is slow (if you are hunting for a specific card, or draw your Limit Break before you have strength) and — particularly in Act III you can be hit very quickly for 40+ damage. You’ll need defense.

The “Infinite” combo — When the opponent is vulnerable, Drop Kick does damage, recovers the mana played and draws a card. It totally replaces itself (a “cantrip”). With a small enough deck, you can draw your entire deck into your hand, then cycle two drop kicks back and forth forever. Especially for slow fights like Champ that give you time to build up, you can take the time to shrink your deck by exhausting cards with Burning Pact or True Grit over a few turns, and then go infinite. (A Flash of Steel doesn’t hurt here, either). “Infinites” have problems with Time Eater and the Heart (who blocks all damage past a certain point on a turn, and has the Beat of Death for each card play) but often you can fall into a real (or semi-) infinite when using exhaust synergies. Infinite Combos are very vulnerable to status being added to the deck, so Evolve/Firebreathing as a counter is reasonable (especially since they don’t take up any space once played).

Exhaust Synergies — Exhausting bad cards is its own reward. You’d like to totally remove them in the shop, but getting rid of a relatively weak card in combat for a long fight is fine. Even better when exhausting a card provides a tangible reward. Compare uncommon power Feel No Pain to Metalicize. If you exhaust one card a turn, they both provide 3 (4 if upgraded) block. But with Corruption the Ironclad can exhaust all his skills the turn he draws them, for free, and provide bonus block. Even without the ability to retain block (see below), a few FNPs may provide 30+ block a turn (particularly against the heart if you can Sever Soul to exhaust the trash the heart gives you). MVP Relic for this is Dead Branch, exhaust, get replacement cards with some of them free! Corruption + Dead Branch is a meme for a reason.

(Sidebar — For a while I had a fear of Dead Branch giving me random bad cards that would clog my deck. I suggest you ignore it, as I learned to. Because the second time through the deck isn’t nearly as important as the first and even without corruption the weight of the misses is more than compensated by the great cards you’ll get. Paul Graham called the Stock Market “Mr. Market” because it would just say “Would you like to Buy X?” and you can always say no. Often Mr. Market offers you trash. “Would you like to buy Pets.com?” but sometimes he offers gold. “Would you like to buy this grossly underpriced commodity?”

The number of times that Dead Branch has a run into a cakewalk — even lacking Corruption — is high, and I don’t recall many fights where it trashed my deck. Obviously with a Runic Pyramid you have to be careful. I’ve bought Dead Branch as a nearly naked artifact, having only my Ascender’s Bane, and then built around it to good effect with all the characters. (That may be overdoing it, but it shows that its possible, even without corruption. With Corruption its gross).

Exhaust strategies are fairly robust, once they get going. But they are slow. Also, since you exhaust cards their is a psychological temptation to take “so-so” cards (because you can exhaust them) and your variance grows…

Status Synergy Evolve draws extra cards for Status, Fire Breathing does damage per status. and then you load up on Wild Strikes, take Mark of Pain, Reckless Charge, use Second Wind to get rid of them all to block. (Everyone like Immolate already, so that’s just a good pick, but this makes it better). This isn’t great and has the typical variance kills, because your deck might clog before you setup.

Block ScalingBlockade (or the Calipers) let you save block between turns. Feel No Pain can easily net you a metric ton of block. Entrench lets you double it. Headbutt lets you then put Entrench back on the top of the deck. Slay the Spire limits you to 999 block, but that’s good enough. (Body Slam does damage equal to your block, but is often not necessary if you can get to hundreds of block. Normally you need it when you have decent blocking that doesn’t carry over, then you use Body Slam/Juggernaut as extra, necessary, damage). You can also toss in Juggernaut to do damage each time you gained block, but again that is not necessary.

Take it then Dish It — Eat some damage setting up your strength scaling, then Reaper later end to recover your lost health. A Feed early in the run to meta-scale your Max HP helps, because you can’t recover from lethal damage. Duel Wield or Exhaust to play multiple Reapers (or just having multiples). This is the only type of deck you can really buy brimstone with, in my experience. Brimstone gives you and your enemies strength each turn. It took me many tries to beat the heart using Brimstone and this strategy, but it usually makes it fairly easy to get to the heart….

Of course, for any given archetype you may mix and match. If you have great block scaling, you don’t need anything. If you have great strength scaling you won’t need to block for long, etc.

The Silent

Silent adds Survivor and Neutralize to her basic deck and draws two extra cards on the first turn. She is much more into counter-punching than Ironclad. Weak isn’t great at the start, but gets better as the run goes on (as it knocks of 25% of the damage and that will grow. The Neutralize saves you ~30 damage against the heart if you’ve upgraded it and hit on T2, assuming you weren’t intangible). Silent has a number of reasonable zero cost cards (like Backstab for front-loaded damage), but still likely wants at least one early big hit card, like Predator, Riddle with Holes or Skewer, or Dash (which also does significant defense). Jorbs had a discussion where he points out that Dash is much better than two Iron Waves, because its density makes it more efficient). You also will need a heavy hitter card against Lagavulin, because many Silent 0 and 1 cost cards lose significant value with even a single strength loss.

The card that is now a near auto-grab is Blade Dance. 12 damage for 1 mana is already excellent (better than Ironclad common attacks!), but the list of relics that Shiv gets bonuses (or greatly improves) by itself is amazing — Kunai, Shuriken, Pen Nib, Nunchaku, Ink Bottle, Ornamental Fan, Dead Branch. (There are others, any strength bonus is great). There are a fights where the 4 tempo to play it are a penalty (Time Eater, the Heart) but by then you may have gotten an Accuracy (or some of those relics) and /or you may have a backup scaling and simply not play the Blade Dance during those fights. An additional use of Shivs is to draw them and then Calculated Gamble them away, trading a mediocre later draw to speed through your deck the first time.

Silent — having less damage than Ironclad — has to take more damage to beat the first boss and must also worry more about the Goblin Nob fight. Many of Silent’s better cards are skills, which trigger Nob’s rage. Poison scaling and defense will usually make the Guardian the easiest first boss (Silent is well placed to simply defend and not attack on any given turn), although doing enough damage to avoid the eating the first Fierce Bash may be a problem.

Silent also has decent card control with Well-Laid Plans to hold a card for the right moment. While Ironclad does have some touchy scaling (Limit Break wants to be last), the Nightmare card can scale whatever card you want, assuming you get them into the same hand.

Silent has the following Archetypes, and typically mixes one of the offensive types with one of the defensive types.

The Shiv Deck — As mentioned above. Finisher and Accuracy (and Phantasmal Killer to double damage) add punch. Ironically, Infinite Blades (a shiv a turn) isn’t a must add. I used to auto-grab it, but there are enough opponents who have thorns or punish tempo that now I consider it more carefully.

The Poison Deck — An early Poison Stab, Deadly Poison or Bouncing Flask can help against the first boss, because they are decent damage even if you only hit them every four turns or so. If you can hit them every three turns (or get out a Noxious Fume) you are scaling hopefully fast enough for Act I. Two decent poison cards are good scaling for Act II, and once you add in a Catalyst or two you can suddenly kill almost anything (if you draw them in the right order and survive). Typically the easiest wins for Silent are those with solid poison and defense to survive. Double Catalyst+ ends fights. (Catalyst is an acceptable naked draw, given the amount of poison commons and uncommons).

The Dex Deck –Stack a few Footworks (Feetwork?), and even plain old defends are large. Dodge and Roll provides block for multiple turns, Blur to carry over block. Cloak and Dagger for block + some small attack (and Shiv synergy). Escape Plan will hit more often than not (particularly if you remove strikes for Poison or Blade Dance) and is free. Even very slow scaling

The Intangible Deck –Any character can get Apparitions from the Council of Ghosts event in Act II, but with Wraith Form (and Nightmare) Silent can load up on Intangible Turns. Which is not to say that you need more. But a dozen+ turns of intangible are usually enough with even the most limited damage production. But Silent can (more so than other characters) use even the three turns that are more routine. Silent has discard for tossing unimproved Apparitions (which are Ethereal) to save them for a later turn. Silent has Burst to double the value of each Apparition, and Well Laid Plans to get the cards in the same hand. Nightmare copies cards (effectively quadrupling them!). Six intangible is usually enough defense against the Heart, although you’ll need block for the multi-attack turns and if you can’t avoid the Dexterity loss from Wraith Form that will be a problem (along with the beat of death).

The Shuffler — The deck uses Acrobatics, Prepared, Backflips, Tools of the Trade and Calculated Gambles to race the deck (discarding curses and trashes, but sometimes also Reflex and Tactician for extra cards/mana). The Shuffler shrinks the deck by skipping over the parts that don’t matter. After Image can provide solid block and free cards (Slice or Deflect) show great value. Sneaky Strike is free-ish once you get a Tools of the Trade in play. (And is a decent early pick before hand, to provide a decent punch to Nob or Lagavulin).

The Defect

Disclaimer — My win rate with defect is something like 30% of the other two classes. And its not that I’m dying late game. I just don’t have a handle on him.

Other classes have scaling. The Defect is scaling … sometimes. Defect wins fights by pressing the “End Turn” button after getting setup. Adding orb slots and focus (even just a bit of each, say one Capacitor+ and one Defragment+) then splitting slots between Lightning and Frost is 15 damage and 12 block a turn. More focus and slots provides full block every turn.

Defect suffers the problem of scaling — spending time setting up. Taking ~10 a fight getting setup wears you down over the act. I win much less with Defect than Ironclad or Silent, and looking up my notes, I see — “no healing,” “not enough fast defense,” “too aggressive in pathing,” and then there’s the “never saw enough scaling.”

Capacitor deserves mention as the only card that adds orb slots (Inserter — a homage to my beloved Factorio — and Runic Cylinder relics also provide them). If you see a Capacitor, its a near automatic take (even on floor 1). The runs you skip it and then never see it again will haunt you. Orb slots do have a downside if you want to play and evoke orbs quickly, but its fairly limited in application.

As with orb slots, “Too much focus” is a phrase rarely uttered. Consume is a reasonable early card (early Act I is the time when ‘less slots’ is usually a plus). Biased Cognition (with no way to remove the “lose one focus a turn”) is still a great card, and its existence makes Core Surge (one artifact charge, to hopefully counter the downside of Biased Cog) and Orange Pellets strong selections, even if you have no immediate use for the artifact. (Typically you skip the Biased Cog until you are setup and then the fight is over before the downside really kicks in. And if you you eventually get driven to zero focus, you probably were losing the fight earlier without it).

You don’t need orb slots, you can pump focus and that works (but that also takes card draws). Similarly, you don’t need focus if you have plenty of (full slots). But getting both has a multiplicative effect (there’s that “doubling” again!). But there are also some oddball plays, although rare. Hyperbeam is a powerful card that costs focus, and Plasma Orbs provide mana and aren’t affected by focus loss. (Even worried about Focus Loss, Hyperbeam and Biased Cog are still worth taking, as they end fights).

Apart from focus/slot scaling, Defect has still more. Loop triggers your first orb multiple times. A great pick because for one card and one mana you get double or triple value out of one orb for the rest of the fight. Echo Form doubles your first card play (the second one doubles your first two card plays). Creative AI is long fight scaling in a can, because the “one power a turn” you get will (eventually) give you other forms of scaling. Amplify doubles powers. Scaling, Scaling, Scaling.

Which can overwhelm the deck and then you die because of a lack of front loaded block. My last run was an early Runic Pyramid, Consume+, sustain with a Self-Repair (heal 7 at the end of combat), and access to Frost and Darkness orbs. Easy boss at Act I, grab a mana relic, and then boom, dead after the first 4 hallway fights when I drew no block against a 24 point attack on Turn 1. Boot Sequence blocks when you are most likely to need it, even though it slows the time to get to your good cards by a draw. As always, there’s a balance.

In reading the above, I suspect that my problem may be the following — I am too focused on the future and not on the next five floors, so I should focus on that and not scaling. And literally after I wrote that sentence, I won by getting — massive scaling. (I also got healing in an early Bird-Faced Urn (heal 2 HP per power) and a Creative AI (one power a turn), so once I set up my frost orbs and focus, I could fully heal). Even then it was touchy, because I decided (rightly or not) to lose half my maximum HP to take the apparitions, which made fights easy when they appeared early and near lethal when they didn’t. (I actually would have lost to Shield and Spear, but I had gotten the Lizard’s Tail, which saves you from dying once). So the lesson is — I don’t know. Sometimes you just get lucky.

The Defect Archetypes

The Thunderer — Lots of lightning orbs. Electrodynamics to handle multiple enemies. Static Discharge to add or cycle the orbs. A lot of my early (pre-ascension) victories used this, but as I increased the difficulty this was too fragile. (Thunder Strike as scaling isn’t really necessary, either, unless you have no focus). But I’ve found it more reliable to …

Mr. Freeze — … load up on Frost Orbs. Any archetype can suffer a bad hit on the first (few) turns, but frost orbs at least limit the damage to that time. You’ll need a way to damage your opponents, but with enough block, cycling through your front loaded damage may be fine (albeit slow), or you can have a single lightning (or darkness) orb.

The Cheapskate — Lots of free cards, some card draw and an All For One to grab the free cards back. Often you back into this with OK cards that help with the relics you’ve got (FTL with Shuriken, a Recycle to thin out a deck) and then get the offer. Hologram — already a reasonable pick to get back a Boot Sequence you don’t need on T1 or a Go for the Eyes for weakness — can be used to redo the All for One.

All The Powers — As mentioned above, Creative AI gets one power a turn. With Heatsinks, those get you cards. With Storm they get you lightning orbs (with Mummified Hand you get discounts). And the powers will get you more stuff. The obvious downside is Awakened One (who gets stronger with each power you play) but with some careful restraint you can setup and scale faster than she can, then wait for her to die before resuming. (And sometimes your combo just goes off, you play 20+ powers, don’t care that she scales, and wins).

The Multi-Darkness — Usually mixed with Frost orbs, you simply sit and wait for a darkness orb to get big, then dual- or multi-cast it (or even single cast).

I’m sure I’m forgetting stuff, but this is already nearly four-thousand words long.

Advice for Watcher — Take some overly powerful cards, do math, make sure you don’t get stuck in Wrath form on a turn you’ll die, win!

Next Time in Part III — The Many Deaths the Spire has to offer!

Written by taogaming

March 13, 2021 at 10:14 am

Too Many Words About Slay the Spire — Part I Introduction

This article covers my (evolving) thoughts about the Slay the Spire videogame. There are (much) better players than me (many can be found on r/slaythespire or on twitch). I’ve watched hundreds of hours of Jorbs (Youtube, Twitch) who is currently tied for the world championship at A20 heart kills. You could get better advice by watching him for a long time and osmosis. But that requires, you know, hundreds of hours. (While there are other good streamers playing, Jorbs’ entire vibe reminds me of my graduate school boardgaming club, so he’s my personal favorite).

I normally play at Ascension 15, because while I can win at Ascension 20 it’s an admittedly rare event and I like having a win rate in the double digits. (With my recent improvement I may up the level a bit). Also, I don’t normally play Watcher that much, which means that there may be some watcher-specific exceptions I don’t mention (and my watcher advice is less trustworthy). I play with the goal of “Killing the Heart.”

As always, I assume you are familiar with the basic mechanisms, rules, etc. Many of these examples will use numbers appropriate for Ascension 15 (enemies values vary based on Ascension Level).

Definitions and concepts

Deck — Often when I say deck, I mean “All your cards plus all your relics and the current potions.” Just assume the latter part.

Position — Deck plus current state (hit points, number on relics that count, etc). “Positioning” means trying to win the fight and also get all of your relics “set up” for the next fight.

Front-loaded damage — “How much damage can I do without setting up a particular combination?” There’s no exact measure of this, but a decent proxy is “How much damage could I do if I played all of my attack cards once?”. Also called “Fast” damage. Front-Loaded block is similar, but just for blocking. Improving your front loaded damage is generally first thing you want to do at the game. There is also front-loaded block.

Scaling damage — “How much damage can I do once I get my combos set up?” If you only have front loaded damage, when you go through your deck a second time, you can only double how much damage you’ve done. After Act I, this isn’t fast enough (typically) to kill the elites and bosses unless you have great scaling block, which lets you chip away slowly. Front loaded damage grows linearly. You do roughly X damage per unit time (turn or deck cycles). Scaling damage grows faster (sometimes only a little faster, sometimes much). The most obvious form of scaling for each character is Strength (Ironclad), Poison (Silent), Orb Slots/Focus (Defect). Typically to improve your scaling damage you are not playing some fast damage in order to setup your scaling.

Meta-scaling — Something that doesn’t scale in this fight, but makes your position better across multiple fights. Things like Feed (which improves Max HP if it strikes the killing blow).

Semi-scaling — A small one-time bump. Inflame (with +2 strength) is semi-scaling. It makes all of your attacks going forward bigger (which is nice) but it will never scale again. (Again, this is my own coinage, but I wanted to be able to differentiate between cards like Inflame and cards like Spot Weakness, which boosts strength and may do so multiple times.

All Out Attack (AOA) — An attack card that damages all enemies (useful for hallway fights that have multiple enemies, or elites that have minions). For some reason this appears to be called “AOE” often, but my blog, my acronym.

Variance — You could have a “good” draw (all the cards in the right order) or a “bad” one. You will hit some good and bad events, relics, etc. Consider the very first fight you might have versus a cultist as Ironclad. Basically, you need to do 50 damage and he attacks for 0,6,11,16, etc. If you get a good draw, you’ll bash+strike (17 damage on T1), 2x strike and defend (18 damage, take 1) on Turn 2, and then on T3, you can either hit for 18 (and kill) or defend x2, strike (6 damage, take 1) and then kill the next turn. You have ended the fight losing 1-2 damage. The worst possible opening is to draw all of your defends on T1, when they are useless. If you draw only strikes (not even your Bash! Its your bottom card) on T2 you do 18 damage and take 6. You will likely take 15+ damage for this fight.

“High-rolling” — “Getting lucky.” Jorb’s speak (and maybe twitch speak). When someone says “Maybe I just have to high-roll this next encounter” they mean “I need something good to happen, therefore I assume it will happen.” Usually this means hitting a good event, getting a good reward, having a great draw for a combat, etc. Bridge players should be familiar with this. Once your deck gets solid you worry about low-rolling (what if the one key card I need is the bottom card of my deck? what is the worst possible elite fight I can face)) Similar to a bridge “safety play.”

Density — If front loaded damage is “how much damage can I do once through the deck” density is that damage divided by number of cards. A “dense” deck is better because you are reducing variance, and on any given turn you will be more likely to be able to have the right cards for what you want to do.

Efficiency — How much damage can you do per mana spent on damage? (OR how much block do you get per mana spent blocking). Scaling damage is often very mana efficient, but slower than a comparable front-loaded card. If you drop a Noxious Fumes, your opponent will take triangular damage (1+2+3+4+…) with no further expenditure.

Conversion — On some turns you don’t get attacked, so you want to sink as much mana as possible into damage dealing (or setting up scaling, etc). Other turns you’ll want to block for as much as possible. If you have the wrong cards (due to variance) you may not be able to convert any mana to attack or defense. A basic deck (with only strikes and defends) will not be able to convert all three of its mana to attack every turn. If you had a card “2 Mana for 12 Damage” that is two strikes, but its denser and also means that (when you draw it) you are much more likely to be able to convert all your mana to damage that turn (and other turns).

Coordination — Some cards require being in your hand at the right time (or in the right order). I’ll call this “coordination.” (There appears to be no standard phrase for this). Watcher (who holds some cards) starts with a bit of coordination, but most decks don’t start with any.

(Density, Efficiency and Conversion are all related, but slightly different. I’m not sure my thoughts on these are clear, but I wanted to define them in case I use them).

Sustain –Another word for Healing. I’ll try to use Healing, but “sustain” appears to be a common phrase in the community.

Why Slay the Spire is addicting. Its not something you notice at first, but the enemies you face in the Spire challenge your deck in multiple ways. There aren’t nearly as many enemies as in (say) Nethack, but each Elite and Boss comes at you in a different way. (Even the later hallways fights). To take a concrete example from Act III — the Giant Head gives you a few turns of relative peace, then starts hitting hard every turn, starting at over 50% of your base health and ramping up from there. He (?) takes 520 points of damage to kill. You simply can’t defeat him without scaling (counting intangible as scaling block). AOA is no better than regular attack.

Compare to The Reptomancer. Her ~200 HP doesn’t need nearly as much scaling, but her minions are going to hit for significant, life ending damage on Turn 2. ~25 points of AOA by the end of Turn 2 are a god send. If not, you’ll need ~60 points of very fast damage or lots of block. The Nemesis is a coordination problem. Some turns damage is nigh-useless. (You can often beat it with scaling block but if your deck is well coordinated, the Nemesis is easy).

Some deck builds plow through one and die to the other. A good deck can reasonably handle either (and some bad luck, as well). Jorbs (in one of his videos I can’t remember) called these various ways the game challenges the deck “orthogonal.” You don’t just need “more” of one strategy to beat both of them. You need different combinations.

General Guidelines

A good deal of getting better at Slay the Spire is just knowing the game. If you know all the possible enemies (and their attack patterns), rewards, events, then you will do much better. Most of really high level play is thinking “well, what is coming up that I am weak against?” and “what events might I see, and do I want them or hallway fights?”

Take as many elite fights as you think you can. They provide relics (and improved card rewards). Also, hallway fights get harder as you go further in the act, but Elites don’t. They are also more predictable (fewer options you can face and they are generally more scripted than hallway fights).

Hit Points are insurance against bad variance. But like any insurance there are good and bad deals. If you have a rest then a boss, being able to model the fight in your head tells you whether you need to rest. What you have (etc) tells roughly how the fight will go. If you are 99% likely to win the fight, then resting is a waste if you could have upgraded (or grabbed the key). If you are only 10% likely to win the fight (but 60% with more HP), resting is great.

Floors are a finite resource. Don’t waste them. Ideally, every floor makes you stronger:

  • Hallway fights offer card rewards. Don’t automatically take them, but you’ll need to see a good number of cards to get offered those that improve your deck. Hallway fights also offer potions (sometimes). Especially in the first three floors of an Act, the hallway fights are “easier.” (But each Act ramps up the difficulty).
  • Elites provide a relic as well as the same rewards a hallway fight can. (And the card rewards are more likely rare cards). But they are difficult. Particularly in Act I an Elite will average 30+ damage against a deck with just a starting relic and a card or two.
  • Campfires let you heal or upgrade a card. In a perfect world, you’ll not need to heal and will upgrade a great card. But often you need to heal either to survive or to take an extra elite fight.
  • Shops let you buy better stuff and/or remove a card from your deck. If you’ve played Dominion (or any deckbuilder) you’ll know that removing a starting card is incredibly powerful, improving density and reducing variance.
  • Treasures (chests) provide relics.
  • The end of act boss will give you a rare card and a boss relic (although not at Act III).
  • Note that to get to the heart you must sacrifice one chest, one campfire and take a ‘super’ elite (who will get either metalicize, strength or regeneration).

Focus on the near term. Can you handle all the potential next elite fights (or most dangerous next elite?) Make your deck ‘good enough’ to deal with it, then turn your gaze to the next problem (the boss, etc).

Good Enough is good enough. Sometimes a weakness can be fixed with a single card, maybe two. Turning a “Good enough” into a strength often weakens other aspects. Adding a scaling card means you’ll draw one less card of some other category that turn. There are lots of areas you’ll need to improve –front loaded damage, front loaded block, all out attack, scaling damage, scaling block, healing, card draw, and mana to pay for all your new cards (Few decks need all, almost no deck needs all equally). Sometimes what’s “good enough” in one Act needs to be buffed again in further acts.

If you have a weakness, the right potion gives you more time to find a card/relic that fixes it. Before I would use potions whenever they seemed to apply, but now … if a potion fixes a key weakness, I hold it until I’m desperate fight or the end of act boss. If the potion is a strength I already have, I’m willing to let it go depending on how much health it saves me and how likely I am to get another potion soon, especially if I am already full.

Skipping cards is not a bad option! Adding a card necessarily increases variance. Take a deck with a nice balance of front-loaded damage, block, scaling damage & block, healing, card draw, etc, and then double it. Still the same balance, but the variance goes way up. (Any Race for the Galaxy Fans will remember the number of explore powers grows in each expansion in the first arc, to help compensate for the increased variance). Card removal is also very good.

Be flexible! I mention archetypes below but when a reward happens, examine what you have and see if there are good/bad interactions. You can’t force the game to give you what you want, so you’ll have to make do. (This is also the “good enough” mantra).

If you are losing, take risks! Hope to high roll, etc. If you are winning, then solidify your position, consider defending against low-rolling, etc.

Of course much of the above advice depends on being able to evaluate your position. Slay the Spire strategy is an evaluation problem. Being able to model (in an intuitive way) the likely outcomes of a deck versus a specific elite fight (average HP loss, variance, etc) is hard. Better players do this much better, and that is hard to teach. You’ll learn by being wildly over- and under-optimistic. This guide can’t really help with that. Only experience can.

The (Basic) Plan

No Plan survives contact with The Spire. Good cards can be bad in the right situation. Vice versa. There are no hard and fast 100% rules. But there are guidelines. Here’s the basic flowchart, focusing on the early game.

  1. You need more front loaded damage. That’s your first weakness to fix. Even early hallway opponents take 50 damage or so to kill. Act I Elite fights take 90+ damage to kill and will deal real damage. Your starting deck does ~18/turn (if you don’t defend and draw smooth). Not enough. In particular, you need a plan to deal with Gremlin Nob who scales his damage for every skill you play (punishing defensive cards). A potion can be a big part of this, particularly if you need to hit an elite on floor 6.
  2. You’ll want some all out attack, particularly before Act II (where two of the elites and many of the hall way fights have multiple targets). But good AOA should be grabbed as early as it shows up, because its also front-loaded damage and the Sentinels elite fight is possible on Act I.
  3. Don’t just grab every single damage card you see. You want efficient cards. If you take five “slightly better strikes” then your deck will bloat and you’ll need to take more cards to block and scale just to be equal. Your variance will shoot through the roof during Act II, and you will die, and your parents will mourn you.
  4. Campfires — Upgrade key cards as possible. Rest if you are likely to die before the next campfire.
  5. Once you have a steady enough source of damage, start improving defense. Ideally this is after Nob. You can start in the middle of Act I, because the early hallway fights in Act II can hit for 20 points on the first turn. Its common to have enough damage to take out the first Boss, get a mediocre card and relic, and then get slammed right away in the first few floors of Act II and be on the ropes heading into your elite fight — a downward spiral that requires a high-roll or you die.
  6. As soon as you can, start removing cards (unless there are better options of course). As I mentioned in a comment on an earlier thread, when I win it seems like I have (on average) removed at least half of the starting strikes and defends from my deck. This reduces variance and improves density (etc).
  7. You need to be able to deal with the first Boss. Obviously which boss you face will determine how much front loaded damage versus block and scaling.
  8. By the end of Act I you should have a vague idea of what your decks strengths and weakness are, and an idea as to which relics/cards/etc “fill in the gaps.” (Your Boss Relic and Rare Card will further define your deck). By the end of Act II you’ll need almost certainly need scaling (either scaling damage or block) to deal with the Boss (and later enemies). Your deck may have an archetype … you shouldn’t force it into those, but as in Chess (or any game), if you recognize a position you will probably play it better. There are plenty of “weird” wins, but — at least for me personally — being able to say “My deck is an X type” lets me easily make the jump to “And when I’ve played X types before, I need to do A/B/C to win”.
  9. In Act II you must pick up scaling (if you don’t already have it, or have some insane front-loaded damage) and generally improve for the Act II Boss. But other weaknesses will become apparent and must be address. (Defect often needs healing by Act II).
  10. By this point you have probably added enough cards that you’ll need some card draw and/or searching to get to key power(s) or any lynch-pin cards you have. Again, you don’t want to overdo it, like the Dominion Village Idiot (the deck that adds a bunch of cantrip card draws, but has nothing really important to do with any of the cards drawn). In Act I you often play your deck a few times (especially in Elite fights) but now in Act II the second time through your deck isn’t nearly as important as the first time. You might get lucky and get all your setup cards on Turn 1, but if you low roll then being able to cycle through the deck the first time is very important.
  11. Act III is more of the same — now hallway fights can hit for 40 and the Elites are tougher, but you should have powered up to compensate. Scaling block (and being able to draw and play more cards than you could in earlier acts) really come into play.
  12. As you have more combos and items, specific circumstances likely dominate general advice. But you fix weaknesses, try to push strengths. Even by the beginning of Act II you’ll (hopefully) have relic combos, so now you are trying to find things that really work well with multiple cards (or across multiple aspects of your deck). The Elites/Boss can still kill you, but now is also the time to figure out how you are going to deal with Act IV (The Shield and Spear and the Heart). If you are doing well you may have “locked in” your potions for the heart fight. If not, you’ll have to use them to survive.
  13. Also in Act III you’ll need to pick up any keys you’ve missed.
  14. Finally, beat the Act III boss, then go onto Act IV. Last chance store for that key missing item or potion.

Pathing

Here’s an great act one path. Three easy hallway fights (to get damage and a potion), an event or two, a campfire to upgrade (or rest), an elite fight, an event, the chest, a rest, an elite fight, a rest, an elite fight, a store (to spend all that money) a rest and then a boss. I’m always looking for campfires and elites, and sometimes stores.

Upgrades are your friend. Need front loaded damage? Upgrade a damage card. Need block? Upgrade a block card. Your variance is never hurt. And by the late part of the act, Elites are often better than hallway fights. Late Act hallway fights may hit for more than elites. They get tougher as the act goes on (and you see more of them). A floor 6 Nob and a Floor 14 Nob hit for the same. A floor 14 hallway fight is more dangerous than a floor 6 hallway fight (and before you hit it, you are less likely to guess what will be there). And of course you want the Elite rewards.

So I simply look for the most campfires and elites. The hard questions are: should I take the super-elite now? Is your deck ready for it? I try to take the super elite as soon as my deck feels like ahead of average, because leaving the super elite for Act III forces you on pathing that may be terrible. Question marks are more random and could still be fights, but could also be a chest or event or store. Events are generally slightly better for you than not (“Spin the Wheel” is 66% good, 33% bad, strictly by outcomes. That’s typical), but can be bad. Hallway fights are more consistent. A lot of whether you want a late hallway fight is “Is your deck ready for the boss?” If not, a hallway fight is a necessary risk to get a good card reward and/or potion. The “Fight vs Question Mark” is definitely an area where knowing all the possible outcomes (and technical details like which events can show up where) and a good evaluation function help.

Coming In Part II, discussion of the main characters, typical deck strategies, and another few thousand words!

Written by taogaming

March 6, 2021 at 3:01 pm

There’s no good movie with a “3” at the end of the title.

Maybe not be strictly true, but I mean “Saw 3”, “Tremors 3”, “Iron Man 3”, “Rocky 3” (fun? Sure. Good? No), “Alien 3”  (I happen to think Alien 3 was a noble failure, but a failure nonetheless). Listing it on and on is just inviting tragedy. By the time you get to the third movie in a series, if it didn’t have a title and you are just making it up as you go along, then the temptation is “Well, let’s just do what worked, but more.

That’s how you get a bad movie. Or in the case of games, a JASE.

I went to my FLGS. (I wasn’t actually sure it had re-opened). I called first. So I felt like I should be a game. And, given the nature I felt like a hefty game that could work as a solitaire or 2 player game. So I got Caverna. At the time, I thought it was similar to Agricola, but I didn’t realize how much DNA they share. So, is Caverna“Agricola 3: The Dwarfening”

There’s much to like, but like any 3rd movie so much of this title is just a lot more of what worked.  That’s not necessarily a good thing.

But the box is so stuffed and heavy that $100 price tag didn’t seem outrageous. Caverna is chock full of animeeples, vegimeeples, so much cardboard to punch. It doesn’t fit well into the box. There are no random cards, the family growth always appears on turn 4 (which is kind of a big randomness in Agricola, do you set up for it on T4 and then it doesn’t show up until T6 …). The weapon mechanic is interesting and clearly is intended to be a (mild) punishment for have more dwarfs, so there’s that. There are enough buildings to feel overwhelming on the first play, but I suspect it becomes manageable. (We followed the Alan Moon rule of “True Gamers do not play introductory games”)

Now, losing the development and occupation cards means Caverna may wind up feeling samey from game to game, but I’ve definitely played games of Agricola that were over after the initial deal. (I respect that it may be better as draft, but I just haven’t played it that way). So, when I lose Caverna (and losing is what I’ve been doing) I can’t blame the cards. Agricola — by contrast — seemed much more straightforward: grow your family, do all the things. For some reason, Caverna’s slightly more things seems much more daunting. In particular, the slight variability of the harvests, when/how to spend rubies (basically wild cards), the slightly more complex layout rules, they trip me up.

That’s good.

My first problem with Caverna is that I bought it for 1-2 players, and it doesn’t shine with two. The spaces scale with # players, but I felt like there are too many buildings. I think the upper limit of seven is super ambitious (and its a fixed fun game, so …. no), but thee or four seems reasonable.

And solitaire (which I haven’t tried) …. well in that case Agricola’s occupations seems much more interesting.

Now, to be fair. I bought and sold Le Havre (“Agricola 2: Shipping Boogaloo”) because it felt like there was a dominant strategy, which I suspected after two games. If a dominant strategy exists in Caverna, I have no earthly idea what it would be. So, its likely a better game.

So, its a “Good for a  3rd title.” It suffers from the “but I’ve played Agricola.” I knew I was getting some of the game, but I didn’t do my research and didn’t realize just how much of it there was. It was my first time in a game store in six months, I was going to buy something, and its not like Caverna is bad, but it wasn’t as good as I’d hoped.

RatingIndifferent plus.

Written by taogaming

August 23, 2020 at 4:51 pm

Posted in Agricola, Reviews, Uncategorized

Tagged with ,

A followup to 1846 strategy

I have now lost an 1846 game by the scores of $6616 to $6614. So, yeah, I want my two dollars.

Written by taogaming

July 27, 2020 at 2:30 pm

Posted in 18xx, Session Reports

Tagged with

1846 Strategy by People Smarter than Tao

I have recently taken to playing 1846 online (at board18). I learned 1830 in the 90s by the traditional method: getting repeatedly stomped until I managed to hold my own and — eventually — start competing then winning. I’ve had an OK record in 1846 in games with my local group, but in this online group I am clearly the weak player at the table. (We play on Board18). So I decided to maybe use the newer method of “maybe just learn without losing as much by reading.”

After perusing the strategy articles on BGG I found that most of what was there seemed … merely OK. Well, since I had an online discussion group with people who have play counts in the hundreds, I thought — “Why not just ask them?” So, I lobbed up questions and gathered responses.

A PBEM Game in progress on Board 18 — and some doodling with extra tracks and tokens.

The below has been edited for clarity (and sometimes to turn several fragments into a single sentence or paragraph). So, this should be considered to be paraphrased, instead of exact quotes (though they often are). Occasionally I have re-ordered some comments that had others interspersed because of multiple people typing at once, and removed some examples to specific games, jokes, and ramblings. Mistakes should assumed to be mine (as I also had to untangle a few threads going at the same time).

Also, several people would agree via emoji, so I will just put “(Agreement)” after some statements to indicate these got a thumbs up or two from other participants.

I thank all the participants involved. (Some of whom I do not quote here).

The Participants (I decided to go with first names only, not because I’m trying to hide the full names — most of my readers can identify everyone — but because I don’t put my own name on this blog and it felt odd to do so for other people):

  • Dan did not provide a count of 18xx
  • Discoking7 has around 60 plays of 1846 with approximately 600 plays across 18xx.
  • Eric is a noted ambassador for 1846, posting rules videos, answering questions, and generally exposing the game to the wider community for over a decade. He has played 290 times (at the time this bio was provided) and roughly the same number of 18xx games other than 1846.
  • Jeroen has played 1846 roughly fifty times, and many other 18xx titles.
  • Joe H has played 1846 282 times, and other titles 185 times.
  • Joe R has played 1846 roughly 250 times, and many other titles.
  • Mike has played 1846 roughly 30 times, and the other 18xx titles (combined) slightly less.

Tao — One of my general biases (or learned strategies) from 1830 is to start low, run for a good P/E ratio, loot, then start a second company. I’ve witnessed several people using what I would think of as an “Endgame” strategy right away in 1846, even from OR1. This seems viable. For example, taking the Big 4 and selling it in OR1.1 is a loss, but the speed it gives your company is huge. Some of this is clearly going to be the privates you have access to, but What are your thoughts about the “fast buck” vs “aim for early E-W run” and early PE vs capitalization costs…..

Dan — Running an early company for money and then dumping it for a second company can be viable, with the big caveat that if everyone is running a company early (almost always the case) there are only two extra companies, so you have to make sure you can start one. You have limited control over the priority deal – it’s more viable in a three player game.

Tao — Yes, that is a concern, and one that is structural into the game. Being familiar with Tom (and having recently watched the interview with Tom about 1846 on Wheel Tapping) the company limit and cert limits are clearly designed to make this a tipping point of the game. But, to move from theory to practice — if you somehow magically knew you could get a second company, where would fast buck as a strategy be as compared to others?

Mike — I’ve increasingly gotten the sense that opening a second company in 1846 is a last resort – to be taken by players who are unable to buy up the great paying shares, or who need to help their first company with trains or track to make it good. The companies that open early tend to have the best token infrastructure for the endgame and the late-starting companies are rarely able to catch up.

Dan — I think ‘last resort’ is a little strong, but I agree that the classic way to lose 1846 is to start a second company too early, while there are decent shares to be bought.

Joe R — FWIW, I try to make money early. I do not equate that with “looting the company”, since I assume I will be running the same company for ever. But running well in the beginning means I can invest and invest better, which is the most important thing in 1846.

Tao — Perhaps looting is too strong, since in 1846 you can only sell for face value. It will rarely be terrible for a company to buy out privates, not like selling the Cambden & Amboy for $320. (Note — In 1830 you can sell privates for up to 2x face value).

Dan — yes, another classic way to lose is not buying enough shares early.

Joe H — Or, put another way – getting behind in the share race.

Joe H — The best way to earn money is with a bunch of shares of a company with an earning boost – Meat Packing, Steamboat, or a quick E-W run. The best way to make back your investment in privates is by buying privates with a good P/E ratio. The best way to set up for the mid-game is starting at a high stock price, so that you can get two green trains.

Joe R — When I start a company in the first round, I think of all the things Joe said. And usually I am predicting how many shares I can end up with at the end of Stock Round (SR) 2. Not just SR1. It is not difficult to plan that far ahead.

Dan — Having enough cash going into SR2 is key. (Agreement)

Joe H — Or, put another way, having enough shares leaving SR2. I looked through 18 completed games. The net position of the winner, at the end of Stock Round 2, was a total of 1 more share than the other players. The best position for the winner was +3, the worst was -4.

Tao — You mean that someone was four shares behind the “leader” (of most shares) and won? Presumably that was a fast buck player who went bankrupt (or otherwise took a major hit).

Joe H — Oh, yes – and how are you going to convince others not to buy your stock.

Discoking7— I always play 1846 with the endgame in mind. My decisions are weighted towards the long-term (with the already mentioned caveat of keeping an eye on the share count). This is because of my biased preference for playing this way, but it is also a very successful approach in 1846. I have not seen a looting strategy come to much in this game (you’ve already gotten the details of how such maneuvers are curbed a bit by the rules). To me, the competition in 1846 is on the board and in company financing. Attacks come in tile/tokens and by investing early in other companies.

Eric  — First, I focus on what my stock holdings will look like at the end of SR2. If I have more/less money in privates, I will be able to put less/more money into the corporation in SR1, but after buying in the privates, I’ll have more/less to spend in SR2. So it’s the net of all that that matters.

Second, I’d “prefer” to run only 1 corporation. I did a study at one point to compare the results of 2-presidency players with those of 1-presidency players. In 3- and 4-player games, the 1- and 2- presidency players win about equal number of games. In 5 player games, the winner almost always has only 1 presidency.

Third, our opponents’ ability to and interest in cross-buying into your corporation makes a big difference. One drawback to starting low is people snapping up cheap shares. Sometimes you have to respond to that by dumping the corporation in SR3 (typically.) If you decide after SR2 that this will be your plan, you pay out full in OR2.1 and 2.2 and let someone else worry about the permanent train.

Fourth, The main reasons to launch a second corporation: a) Provide capital to help your lead corporation buy a permanent train (or a second one.) b) Get extra track-laying power to reach an E/W or route around a token-ed out city. c) Spam tokens around to ruin other people’s routes. d) There’s nothing left to buy in the early corporations. In recent months I’ve launched my first corporation as low as 50 and as high as 112. I’ve had success with both approaches. Tom (Lehmann) has explicitly said he wants the choice of starting price to be non-obvious (unlike 1830, where you always start your first company low.) Check the Long View podcast episode with Tom Lehmann

Jeroen — Another obvious question is where is your second permanent train coming from; and the power of half-pays (especially when double-jumping: “Joe’s rule”).

(Joe’s rule is — If you can pay out half your dividends and still double jump your stock value, do it — unless your company no longer needs money).

A five player game, OR 3.2

Tao — For some reason 1846 reminds me of Go. In particular, the initial draft has far reaching consequences that are not always obvious. I am actually wondering if this may be a barrier for entry. In an auction, you can see what everyone is bidding and get an idea after a game or two. But a draft may still be bewildering to new players — even if they can’t shoot themselves in the foot as easily, that’s different from playing well. The only real advice I see is “don’t spend too much” but clearly you can spend $200 and do fine. What thoughts do you have on the draft? What is ‘too much?’

Eric — I really don’t stress over the draft. I don’t see a way to ruin your chances in the draft other than by overspending. And note that it is impossible to spend more than $380 in the draft, even with everyone colluding and playing “double dummy”. But drafting MS, Big 4, Mail, and C&WI for $380 would indeed be ruinous. I don’t think $200 is a hard spending limit; I’ve seen people spend as much as $260 or $280 and do okay. But when I’m giving advice to new players, I warn them against spending more than $200 because it takes skill to manage those situations in which you spend a lot on privates. I will admit you can get good combinations in the draft. I am fond of both the (MS, Steamboat) and the (C&WI, Meat Packing) pairs.

Joe R — FWIW, people often get hung up on some of the privates because they think it dictates what they should do. On the other hand, I will take, e.g., the Michigan Central without ever planning on going to Michigan.

Dan — Yes, the $40/15 privates should certainly not drive strategy. I think the key for beginners in the draft plus SR1 plus planning OR 1.1-2 is “how do I enter SR2 with a decent amount of cash?” (There are) lots of ways to do that but also lots of ways to not do it, e.g. buy one cheap private and then open high, buy a bunch of privates and then don’t capitalize your company enough to buy them, etc.

Tao — The player with the priority has the benefit of knowing he can open whichever company he wants. How do you react as player 4(ish) in the draft, knowing that company choice will be limited? Do you aim for teleporters, independents, huge cash?

Mike  — When I’m in the last seat for SR1, thus the first pick, I prioritize making a pick that either teleports whatever company I get to where the action is (C&WI or MS) or something that is not bound up to tightly on the map (noting that MC and O&I are tied to specific hexes but they provide just good ROI for low cost that I’d happy to take either of them even without the track abilities). That means I’m probably avoiding Meat Packing and Steamboat in that seat, unless they are still in the pack for my 2nd pick

Joe R — Suppose meat and steam boat are in the game and I can choose meat as 4th player in a 4-player game. Then I am happy if I get Big 4, MS, or CWI as my second pick. There is a good chance I will, because one of the three players may pick steamboat, leaving the other three. In addition, for companies, will I be able to get GT or PRR sitting fourth? Those are not prime choices, so the answer may be yes. Either of those can be made to work with meat. Again, I think of all this as I am choosing the first private. FWIW, I would rather go last than first. Company choice is limited, but I have more knowledge as to what to par and what others will likely do.

Dan — I agree that sitting in a later seat has its benefits. For example, in [ a recent game] I would have much preferred to be later so I could see more of the par values. I felt I had to open fairly low sitting in second seat; had I been later I would have opened higher…

Joe H — To run counter to Mike, somewhat – I think Meat Packing and Steamboat are fine choices; Steamboat + B&O is sufficient unto itself to run reasonably, and Meat Packing works well enough with PRR or IC or even GT that I assume some useful company will come my way. (The people in this chat) IMHO, seriously undervalues the Mail Contract. Knowing that, I have intentionally run plans based upon expecting to see the Mail the second or third time around.

Eric — I have put Steamboat in Toledo with NYC or Erie and gotten +20 on three trains. I think of Steamboat as a flexible (and capital friendly) option.

Tao — Its funny that you mention GT as weak, because in my early plays we found the GT very good (and BGG had several forums echoing that), mainly because its so obvious and doesn’t require any thing that goes against 1830 instinct. Just run quickly for money, then go EW in one of the shorter routes. Now that I’m playing more it does appear fragile, but still a reasonable choice.

Eric — GT is like the military strategy in Race For the Galaxy. (Note by Tao — Also designed by Tom Lehmann). It’s obvious and easy to run, so in beginner games it often dominates. Other positions require more expertise to run well. GT suffers from having only 3 tokens. If it can get one special token (ideally C&WI or MS, but even Big 4 gives a base from which to run southern routes,) it’s much better. GT is prone to running well early, having its shares bought out, limping its way to a 5T, and running for revenue in the mid-30s at the end (plus possibly the Mail bonus.)

Eric — Back to the draft. The two private companies I never draft the first time around are the Big 4 and the Mail. It’s not that I don’t like them; it’s rather that they cost a lot of money and thus limit my options so early. You might wonder why this doesn’t apply to the Michigan Southern. The MS is even more expensive, but its station in Detroit and substantial treasury will help you carry out a low capital strategy. Whereas the Big 4 is much less of a help, and the Mail Contract is something that (IMO) doesn’t go well with a low capital strategy. It wants a corporation that’s into green trains asap.

I will take the Lake Shore Line, Michigan Central, or Ohio & Indiana without regard to geography, just for the revenue. Any use of the powers is gravy (and for this purpose I rank them LSL is better than O&I, which is better than  MC.)

(Tao’s Note — The discussion also included a few “surprising maneuvers that have since been copied,” including:

  • Connecting Cairo directly to St. Louis,
  • Buying in the CW&I (in OR1.1) and then driving from Chicago to Detroit,
  • Buying in the Big 4 in OR1.1 (then going to Cincinnati in OR1.1 and Louisville in OR1.2)

Tao — Also, After a few plays with novices, when looking at online shark games, it is astounding how much you can squeeze in OR 1.2 by buying independents (and possibly privates) in OR1.1, sacrificing profit for good company/speed. Any guidelines for newer players? (This is admittedly a more specific “Fast buck vs good company” dichotomy, which may certainly be false).

Mike — I like Eric’s heuristic which is “Buy in Big4 in OR 1.1, and everything else in 1.2, unless you have a good reason to to otherwise” The most common reason I see to buy in C&WI or MS in 1.1 is to use your track lays in that part of the map right away. Sometimes you’re so close to the wire that the extra $10 or $15 in private revenue being in the company lets you lay a track or a token in 1.2 that you otherwise wouldn’t have gotten, but I’m not yet seeing those spots, because most of the time they’re pretty marginal. Hindsight can maybe teach us something on this front – how often do you have an extra $x at the end of SR2, where #x is the revenue of a private you sold to a company in 1.2? Would it have been better if that $x was in the company treasury instead?

Eric — The reason I want to buy in Big 4 early is that the 2T will run much better in OR1.2 in a corporation (usually) than in the Big 4. Plus, you only give up a single track lay. If you buy the Michigan Southern in early (which sometimes makes sense,) you give up a $60 run (you’re probably not going to do much better in a corporation, and you may lose some of it to the pool or cross-investors) and you give up two tile lays in a critical area.

Joe H — $60 or possibly better. If the MS heads west it can frequently upgrade Chicago in OR 1.2.

Eric  — Another issue that’s not separable from this is “what trains are you going to buy in OR1.1 and OR1.2?” You can’t be sure, but you can guess based on what situation your opponents are in. It’s easier late in priority order. I hurt myself last night by buying two 2Ts with IC to go with the Big 4 2T. I should have only bought one.

Joe H — I’ve begun looking at Big4 as a way to get my real company a 2T for $40 of my money. I particularly like the Big4 with a high-cap company, to secure it a 2T – though often that doesn’t suggest an immediate buy-in.

Joe R — Oh, and I still think “Fast buck vs good company” is a false dichotomy. Reminds me of people who would ask me whether I would rather get good grades or learn something. Embrace the power of “and”. Another thing about the draft: I am finally past just doing a greedy algorithm for my choice (“which of these is best”), but starting to think about what others may have chosen, what am I likely to see again, how do those answers affect my choice of major, etc. Asynchronous play and the draftbot have helped a lot.

(Note — Mike A. wrote a discord bot to automate the 1846 draft by IM’ing people their choices and requesting one).

Tao — Switching gear to the endgame….as mentioned above getting a second permanent (or perhaps a ‘better’ permanent) seems to be the key feature of the endgame. Some companies will cap out at $30-40 dividend per OR, so they will not advance as far on the stock track (and may not sell out). But how do you set up for a ‘good’ company? Not having your sells share early (so you have more capital). What else?

Joe H — Building two E/W route possibilities. One of the advantages of the NYC and Erie. It’s not required to make two trains run well late, but it does help.

Eric — Some games end too quickly for the second permanent to be worth it. It all depends on how the group plays. Our group routinely aims for two permanents (perhaps driven by Joe H, who loves to build track and run trains — not that there’s anything wrong with that.) But I wonder whether some people are hurting themselves by supporting the “two permanents” policy.

Dan — it’s also perfectly possible to win by running a 5-share (or less) presidency with one permanent and owing a lot of shares in other companies with two (Mass Agreement).

Joe R — Especially if your company started low and thus is still double jumping with a single train (say with the mail contract).

Tao — Final question. What separates the intermediate 1846 player from the shark? Is it simply experience, or is there an insight that the intermediate is missing? Any final tips?

Joe H — Maybe the shark is simply the person who learns from other’s errors and successes rather than having to try everything out themselves. I, of course, have to try everything out myself, so I’ll never be a shark.

Eric — One thing is that they not only know the standard things to do in various situations, but they know why to do them, and in addition they know when the situation is such that they need to step back and re-think their course of action from first principles. Joe H is especially good at this, and I’d classify him as a (chaotic aligned) shark. Joe has stolen someone’s presidency early in several games I’ve been in when the other player either launched a second corporation or bought a second share in Joe’s (decent) corporation, allowing Joe to dump the corporation not for the usual reasons, but to lock up the other player’s liquidity so they could not defend their first presidency.

The Tao of Gaming thanks everyone for their generous gift of time and knowledge in answering these questions!

 

With careful play, I was able to come in fourth…

 


 

Written by taogaming

July 20, 2020 at 6:46 pm

Posted in 18xx, Strategy

Tagged with ,

Some quick actual game thoughts

Karuba — Still good. I just found out about the ‘hard mode’ (you must build the paths from the explorers out) and enjoy it.

Roll to the Top! — I’m not a huge “Roll and Write” guy, but this (with it’s Take it Easy simul nature) seems like a great example of the genre.

Gambit Royale — An improvement over Ruse and Bruise, but not a big one. The problem is that there are so many 20-30 minute fillers that are actually good. Gave away my copy.

China — Web of Power is a classic, and this was the easiest way to re-acquire it.

1862 is almost a dime for the year already, but I do want to play another few multi-player games (instead of 2er).

Written by taogaming

February 3, 2020 at 9:19 pm

More thoughts on 1862

A local did not care to keep his pre-order, so I took it off his hands and (while I was messing up the solo game), the TaoLing expressed interest.

So I’ve now played four 2p games. To my surprise, 1862 plays well at 2p. The opening reminds me of pro Go players spending half their time on the first 10% of the moves spending it analyzing the long reaching implications of a particular fuseki/joseki. (I don’t do that, but I do play much slower in the first Parlimentary & Stock Round). During our second game I realized that practically any opening move I chose in the first parliamentary round (that I set cheaply) could be countered by a nearby company parring slightly higher and cutting me off (the first 8 companies were crowded along the northern border of the map), and so I passed.

Re-reading my earlier thoughts, I’m pleased with the variability, I think this is borne out by my plays — we’ve tried several different strategies and the random setup has given games different feels — a knife fight in a closet (that North map), a more languid game with locals stacking up cash in slow trains. We’ve had players open 1 company in SR 1, I’ve opened four companies in SR 1. And I have no reason to feel that these aspects are limited to 2p games. (I do wonder how well an 8p game works, but the mere fact that it may be possible impresses me).

Having also read some of discokings articles (while not being sure I understand them), I think the financial decisions are interested. In one game I dumped a company on the TaoLing (after taking its train cheaply for my other company) and got the worse of the deal. I sold at 1/2 price, and then he simply refinanced it and now its earning well. (In fact, one of the interesting things about 1862 is that a company without a train may be in a better position than a company with a non-permanent or even permanent train).

I see Eric’s comment on BGG that 1862 lacks the bomb of forced train purchases (and I worried about it myself). Now I’m leaning towards believing that the financial mechanisms contain equally powerful (but more subtle) bombs. If you make a big mistake in ’62 you’ve lost just as badly as any other game, but it won’t be the going-into-pocket of bankruptcy, just slower growth or halving shares.

Whether that’s a pro or con depends on taste.

My big thought about ’62 (and with ’46) is — do I need to play 1830 again? The (US) original’s totally fixed opening, coupled with multiple dozens of plays means that — while it’s the local father, I think it has been surpassed by the newer titles. (Certainly I had already preferred to explore newer titles, but now I think its clear). Anyway, still looking forward to more plays of ’62, hopefully a few with 3-5p.

Slay the Spire — Tomorrow the new version drops. I’m at Ascension 14 with Ironclad, 6 with Silent and 7 with Defect.

Written by taogaming

January 13, 2020 at 10:22 pm

Posted in 18xx, Uncategorized

Tagged with ,

1862

I played this with the local 18xx enthusiasts last night. I actually wondered if I had ordered this, but it turns out I had not. (I have pre-ordered 1848, but I should probably go and cancel under the theory that there will likely be 2+ copies here locally anyway). Some quick thoughts on 1862:

  • Our (5p) first game took 4h, not including a bit of rules reading. Should be able to trim an hour or so from this once the rules become second nature.
  • Lots of variability here. If my combinatorics are correct (unlikely) there are nearly 9 quadrillion possible setups, which means that if everyone on earth played a game a day, our nations would erupt into war and lose vast amounts of GDP without even making a dent in the chances of playing the same setup twice.
  • Some rules questions — Given that any player can apparently open up as many auctions as you like in a parlimentary round, why does the game open with two of them? We also spent a bit of time clarifying things, but overall it wasn’t bad given the sheer number of differences from a typical 18xx.
  • Things I liked:
    • The stock market double, triple, quadruple jumps let companies catch up.
    • Mergers as a dynamic are always interesting (see also,  Indonesia)
    • The novel train mechanism where some companies want direct routes and others want meandering routes, coupled with a tight board.
    • The “re-running track but no double counting cities” route mechanism, which rewards mergers (since companies get rights to multiple train types), which encourages mergers even though the financials force players to take a haircut in stock value after a merge.
    • The “two ways to capitalize”
    • The variable setup
    • The warranty rule (the ability to buy a few extra turns before a train rusts, but you must prepay).
  • Potential worrying aspect:
    • Somewhat nitpicky corner cases in rules (possibly)
    • It seemed like a reasonable strategy may just be “start fast cash company, buy up any IPO stock after it appreciates, then dump everything into the bank and start again.”

Regarding the last point, I was running away with the game when the train rush hit and had a company with a soon-to-expire D train, when another company got dumped on me. I could have dumped both for £2000 (maybe a bit shy, but certainly enough to found 1 or 2 big companies), but I decided to keep one and merge my new company with it to get two different permanent trains (an express and a freight). This was OK, but it meant I had ~5 less certs for 3 ORs, and despite having 70% of the best company I lost by 20% or so. I think if I’d just dumped everything and went for a boring two new companies route, I would have won.

It is early to make such a bold claim, but it is worrying. (I suspect a part of my problem is that you want to merge in ORX.3, not ORX.1, so you have timing to re-acquire a portfolio.

I take it as a good sign that Joe R. and Jeroen both rate this very highly.

Rating — Enthusiastic (and may even pick up a copy, and would certainly trade for it).

Written by taogaming

December 10, 2019 at 6:03 pm

Posted in 18xx, Session Reports

Tagged with

Can someone scan Shades of Tezla Faction Token reference?

I played a Mage Knight game with the Shades of Tezla tokens, which we don’t normally use because:

  • They are different sizes
  • They add a lot of variability (much harder, less scoring etc)

And I discovered I appear to have lost the reference sheet for the bonus faction tokens. I posted a request (with GG bounty) at the geek.

Also, I published a quick note on BGG giving an example of the math of comparing lines of play at bridge.

Written by taogaming

October 19, 2019 at 10:24 pm

Posted in Bridge, Mage Knight

Tagged with