Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Popeing Consequences

A few years ago I posted some thoughts about 'Popeing', the practice of using potentially deceptive words during a game to convince an opponent to take an action better for you than the one they're likely to choose on their own. I certainly am guilty of doing (at least) my fair share of Popeing, and I actually really like games where Popeing is a key part of the game. (Diplomacy is pretty much entirely Popeing with a little bit of tactical movement. Battlestar Galactica has a really core Popeing component while there are unrevealed cylons.) But I tend to get annoyed when otherwise 'normal' games devolve into a Popefest. Puerto Rico is like that for me. I don't like playing the game when every move has comments from every player because I find it adds too much time to the game and makes it mentally draining in a way I don't enjoy.

A couple of situations have arisen recently where someone said things and/or made 'deals' that they later rescinded when the game state changed favorably for them. In both cases I'd argue that the game state only reached that position because of what they'd said, and that by then taking the actions they did they broke their word and acted unethically. In neither case were there any in game consequences for their actions, and I don't even know what could have happened. Both cases were very distasteful for me, but both are things that could well have happened in a Diplomacy game and would have been hailed as great plays there, and not as cheating in any way at all. So maybe the problem is just with me and my black-and-white way of looking at things. Maybe I need to learn that just because someone says they'll do something doesn't mean they actually will and that I have to analyze a board state assuming they'll go back on their word?

The first one happened in a game of Risk Legacy. It's a Risk variant where you play to 4 points instead of to global conquest, and where you play 15 games in a row and the goal is not just to win an individual game but to have won the most games after 15 are played. In one of those games Pounder established a treaty with someone else to not attack each other. The other person didn't defend that border and left a juicy path to their home city (and a victory point). Pounder hit 3 points from other sources and went for the 4th by breaking his truce. He did it, won that game from out of nowhere, and is in a good position to win the entire campaign thanks to the snowballing effect of wins and the fact the rest of us are unwilling to properly punish him for his lie. I want to lower Pounder's chances of winning a given game, but I'm not willing to significantly lower my own to accomplish it. That would just help Sky win, and we can't have that now can we?

So the moral of that story seems to be that breaking a treaty for a win carries no consequences at all. In fact, it mostly seems like the end result of Pounder breaking a treaty isn't that no one makes treaties with Pounder. It's that no one makes treaties at all. The unwritten social rules of our games have changed to line up with the way Pounder played. So it seems like his play was just a smart one. Treaties clearly weren't something the table actually cared very much about, so his willingness to break them worked well for him.

The second one was in a game of Blood Bowl that I was watching. Brent and Robb were playing and Robb was in a commanding position. Brent was down on men (he had 7 left in play and 2 in the KO box), Robb was up 1-0 and had the ball in an unassailable position. He was able to score trivially and Brent didn't even have a low percentage shot to stop it. All but one of Brent's guys were on the ground and Robb was about to hit the last one. Robb is a methodical player and tends to take the full 4 minutes for his turns. Brent sounded frustrated over voice chat and asked Robb to not waste more time than he needed to. With 6 turns left this request would probably save everyone 15-20 minutes of time. But even in such a dominant position there's lots of things the winner needs to consider:

  • Can I prevent my opponent from getting any 2 die blitzes with his guys on the ground? (Important because having guys get hit risks getting them injured.)
  • Can I prevent my opponent from getting any 1 die blitzes with his guys on the ground?
  • Do I even want to score a second time? Scoring means having to kick off, which means three of my guys are going to get hit. I think the answer is going to be yes almost always, but it's still something to consider.
  • If I score, when should it be? Can my opponent score 3 times to win? Can they score 2 times for the tie? Are they so beaten down that I can reasonably score again myself?
  • Can I choose who on my team is going to score? Personally I like scoring with 'unlikely' guys like the agility 1 saurus on my Lizardman team. 6 of my 8 touchdowns on that team have been scored by such players. (You do this to level up important guys since scoring a touchdown is a key way to earn experience.)
  • Should I foul someone? A successful foul on a good player will often change some of the above answers. I could totally see fouling a dude and then scoring fast if it works and stalling until the end if I got kicked out because the difference in player numbers will have a big impact on my odds of scoring the third touchdown versus their odds of scoring twice.
Robb was going to end up taking a lot of time thinking about these things (and probably more). Brent didn't want to sit around while he got dominated. So he told Robb straight up that his plan was to leave all his guys on the ground. If somehow his one standing guy stayed standing he was going to dodge around until he fell down too. Robb has been on the receiving end of some brutal games (my Skaven beat his Dark Elves up pretty badly recently) so I imagine he felt a little sorry for Brent. No need to prolong suffering in people, especially if it might drive them away from the game. So Robb stopped thinking about most of the positional stuff. He decided to score with his Ogre (after a little pressure from Sceadeau and myself) and tried a risky hand-off. It failed and the ball ended up in a somewhat vulnerable position. But that shouldn't matter, because Brent was going to just pass his turn...

Nope. Brent stood a guy up and went for a 1 die blitz in an attempt to get at the ball. The ball was in a vulnerable spot, but only because Robb didn't bother spending time to secure the location first. Because Brent asked him not to waste time. Brent justified his play by saying he only told Robb what his plan was, not that he'd promised to go through with that plan. Now that the game state had shifted (it was now entirely plausible for Brent to tie the game) he didn't feel like he should be tied down with his previous statement. And given the board state at the time it's absolutely right to try to get the ball and score. If Robb had made a catastrophic misplay then absolutely you should pounce on it. My problem is that Robb didn't really make a catastrophic misplay. He played quickly to do Brent a favour. Is there really a difference between the two? For me there is, but maybe that's a greyer area for other people.

It ended up not mattering since Brent's 1 die blitz resulted in an attacker down result. Robb then took the time to set up better positioning and went on to score with a blitzer instead of the Ogre after several handoff attempts to the Ogre (closer to the end zone) failed.

Will there be consequences from this one? Maybe the metagame should shift the same way the Risk Legacy one did, with no one giving their opponent the benefit of the doubt. But I think Blood Bowl is such a relatively long game and causes such intense feelings of despair in some people when they get into a bad spot that going skate to throat on them isn't really a good idea. I've had people say they were just going to end turn with all their guys on the ground in the past, and they've done it, and I think it was good for the health of the league that I let that happen. So I hope things don't shift to prevent that from happening. On the other hand, if I ever get Brent into such a situation I'm going to assume he's just playing possum and plan accordingly. He's shown the willingness to ask for mercy and then stab for the win if it becomes viable. Which is an awesome trait for a Diplomacy player to be sure, but maybe not so good for a Blood Bowl player who might actually want mercy at some point. 


Matt said...

The Blood Bowl incident seems sketchy, but it would be perfectly valid to me in Magic ("just finish me already" "oh look, now that you've played too quickly I have a trick"). It seems like there should be a "concede" button in Bloodbowl, otherwise, don't trust anyone.

As for Risk - no treaty is forever. If someone can win by breaking a treaty, they should probably go for it. I wouldn't get too worked up about that one.

This doesn't seem like "Popeing" as I understand it. No one is encouraging someone to take Mayor to stop Nick from winning so that they can win. This is just deal making and breaking.

pounder said...

I (unsurprisingly) view the Risk case a bit differently. I think you and Sky play by different unwritten rules in Risk than I do.
I keep my agreements slightly more than I do in Diplomacy but not much.

So I wouldn't say: "The unwritten social rules of our games have changed to line up with the way Pounder played."

I'd say: "We've standardized on Pounder's unwritten rules."

Nick Page said...

There is a concede button in Blood Bowl, but it's a terrible idea to use it. If you concede you don't make any money after the game, and you lose out on 5 XP from the random MVP. And your opponent gets your share instead! So if you started making a habit of conceding when you fell behind people would really start abusing you I think.

Nick Page said...

I think it is Popeing, at least in the Risk case, for exactly the reasons Pounder said. The deal on the table was "Pounder and Sky won't attack each other without 1 turn warning" but the deal Pounder was actually playing under was "Sky won't attack Pounder without 1 turn warning and Pounder won't attack sky unless it becomes highly advantageous to do so". Pounder used deceptive words to convince one of his opponents to make a different play which opened up a winning path. It's entirely possible if Sky defends his border with Pounder (and hence undefends his border with Robb) that Robb ends up with a winning play instead.

It may not have been explicitly worded in a PR friendly manner (if you don't defend your border from Robb he'll win) but the end result was pretty similar I think. Sky took an action based on Pounder's words which ended up favouring Pounder more than Sky.

(If it was even Sky in this case. I don't remember who got stabbed!)

Brent Oster said...

Well, obviously I feel differently.

First off, I had 6 guys left on the pitch. They were all prone, close to the middle of the field, and I felt (and still feel) that Robb's line of play did not require thought. All he had to do was walk his guys down close to the end field.

He didn't need to do a lot of thinking... my guys aren't fast. If I stand one up and try to run for it, he's not getting that far.

So I basically asked Robb not to take 4 minutes every turn. So with 5 or 6 turns left on the clock (TONS of time) he tries to pass the ball to an ogre reasonably close to my guys instead of walking them down field another turn.

Apparently Nick took my request to not take excessive amounts of time to mean that I would not take any more actions or stand my guys up. What I actually meant was "come on dude, this doesn't require thought, just do the obvious and I have no choice but to lie here and suck it up."

(For people not familiar with bloodbowl: This is because lying on the ground is safer at that point for my guys than standing them up and having them all knocked down again. On the ground he can only foul me once per turn, but if I stand them up every guy will get knocked down again... and then he can still foul a guy a turn.)

I believe what I said to Robb was something along the lines of "Robb, my current plan is just sit on the ground. If you don't knock that one guy that's still standing down, I plan to dodge him around until he falls down himself."

Brent Oster said...

Oh, just to be clear. When I said things to Robb I had 1 guy standing. When he dropped the ball, I had no guys standing.

Nick Page said...

And I listed a bunch of things he'd need to think about, many of which would have made his handoff to the Ogre safe. Do you disagree that those are things he could have thought about if he wasn't pressured into playing fast?

You're right, he didn't make a good play. He could have waited another turn and walk his guys closer to the end zone. He could have moved more dudes into the area to screen the possible drop ball locations. He could have covered your guys on the ground better.

He didn't, because he played fast, because you asked him to do so because you were frustrated with the game state.

Your case seems to be that he didn't think about his play and deserves to be punished for it, but that he also needed to not think about his play by taking the full amount of time. I really don't understand how those two statements line up. It's like you're making a judgment call on which things he should be punished for forgetting about and which things he should not spend time on.

As for what you said, you started by saying in a very frustrated voice "Robb, not to be unsporting or anything, but could you not take the whole time for each of your turns?"

Sceadeau then chimed in by saying "This is where Nick would be trying to score with his Ogre."

Robb kept thinking, so you followed up with "Robb, listen, my plan is to leave all of my guys on the ground. And if you don't knock that last guy over I'm going to dodge him around until he falls down."

At which point he knocked the last guy over and tried to score with the Ogre. And you tried to take advantage of the situation that you caused with your words.

Brent Oster said...

How can I possibly disagree with that? If you said "Robb could have thought about blowdrying his hair with that time" I can't disagree with that either.

"You're right, he didn't make a good play."

Actually it wasn't even that bad. If I get up and go for the ball I only have a 5% or so chance of picking it up before rerolls, and me standing my guys up might actually be the best result for Robb. I can't throw the ball because of blitz, and he can pretty reliably knock down my guys if I do. This is probably his best chance at extra xp for his guys if he's not planning on trying for a third goal.

His win was assured. The chance of me scoring was pretty much zero even if I do manage to pick up the ball.

"I really don't understand how those two statements line up."

Robb is capable of thinking about something without taking the full four minutes. He's also incapable of saying "hang on, I need to think about this turn." He's done that in board games before, so I don't see why he wouldn't do that here.

"And you tried to take advantage of the situation that you caused with your words."

So your argument seems to be that because of what I said, I am no longer allowed to take actions in the game without being a backstabber.

Let's think about that for a moment. I haven't actually conceded, but did I concede in effect?

Well, let's think about that. What happens if Robb ignores the ogre and scores right away. It's pretty reasonable, he has a huge man advantage and would be 2-0. My guys would be stood back up so he can punch them more, and he has a good shot at scooping the ball and scoring again, even if I get both of my KO'ed guys back and field 8 guys.

So, what would you expect me to do in this situation? Stand there, do nothing and not punch back or try to run the ball? Of course not. You'd call me stupid to do that without a formal agreement with my opponent and you'd be right. So if after he scores and we've reset the field I'm supposed to do things and give it my best shot, then obviously I haven't actually conceded, have I?

Ok, so I haven't conceded the game either technically or in actuality. So what's going on? Have I made a deal or promised anything? Nope, haven't done that either.

Maybe you could argue that I've "conceded the touchdown"? That I should basically act like I've conceded until he scores a touchdown? That's a reasonable deal to make, I think... but it's awfully specific for something that was never put into words.

What I did do is say something to Robb which may have affected his game play. At what point do I stand back and say "you did that because of something I said, so I shouldn't take advantage of it"? If I manage to convince someone to do something dumb and then take advantage of it, that's obviously unsporting. If I ask someone to play faster though... does that mean I'm not allowed to take advantage of anything I see, ever?

For that matter, when I told Robb that I was planning on leaving my guys on the ground was I promising that I would do that? I didn't think so, at the time. I felt it was currently in my best interest to leave them there, and I shared that information with Robb hoping that it would simplify the stuff he needed to think about to the point where he wasn't taking the entire clock every turn.

In the future, if we don't have a deal of some sort you really should assume that I'm willing to stand my guys back up if the situation changes. Something like "tell you what, don't foul my guys and I'll just lie here till you score" seems reasonable. If we don't have a deal like that, then don't assume we do.

Nick Page said...

Which was exactly what I said in my post. I am going to ignore your pleas for mercy, no matter how frustrated you may sound, and assume you're just playing possum and act accordingly.

Most people I've played against in the same situation would not have blitzed after sounding so deflated and asking for the opponent to not think about their plays because they don't matter. I will extend mercy to those people because I understand that Blood Bowl can be a frustrating game some of the time. I will continue to give them the benefit of the doubt. Yours is gone.