A month and a half ago I wrote a post about playing for first which had the basic idea that if you got enough people taking a risky line of play most of them would fail but one of them would win. So in a world where everyone wants to win everyone just takes more and more risks. But not everyone wants to win at all costs; many people just want to play and have fun and those people are not going to be taking the crazy risks. Different people have different motivations and that's a good thing. Andrew commented on Facebook wanting me to take a look at WBC metagaming strategy with regards to how you should play in the heats if your goal is to win the event.
It all comes down to different people having different goals when they sit down at a game. I've been reading a poker tournament strategy book and he talks about how you need to figure out why everyone else at the table is playing and then take lines of play to abuse their plans. If you know someone is trying to get in the money, for example, you can raise them aggressively when you're close to the money cut as they'll fold every time. But if they're trying to accumulate chips raising them aggressively is super risky because they'll often just reraise you right back. If you can figure out who is trying to do what you can make smart (and different) plays against each one.
In some events I'm sure you could do the same thing at WBC. There's a Diplomacy tournament, for example, where I'm sure there will be people trying to get a solo win and people who will be happy tagging along for second. Team up with the latter and stab the former and you'll be putting up a pretty decent result. There are multiplayer wargames that probably work the same way, but I don't really play them enough to know. Something like El Grande or Dominant Species undoubtedly has an aspect of working out who to screw at what time in order to manipulate the board in your favour. Frontrunning against people who will team up to make sure you get knocked back is a good way to lose; doing it against people who will play for second once you get ahead is a super winning play.
Some people play in an event in order to learn a game. WBC has demos for most of the events and people can play a game after learning from the GM. Often these people don't care about advancing; they just want to learn the game. Similarly there are people who just want to play a game of something and use the tournaments as a form of open gaming. They just want to play the game. They may well still be trying to win, but they may not even be able to make the finals so they don't really care. I'm big into trying to win but I've played events in both of these ways in the past. I'm a shark at many things but when I sat down to play Manifest Destiny I was definitely not someone to worry about! I'm sure identifying someone obviously new to the game and setting yourself up to take advantage of their potential mistakes is a smart thing to do.
Of course there are actually 152 events run at WBC and they all have differences. There's no way for me to pinpoint how you should play in every event especially since I haven't even played in most of them. Even in a game you could find an abusive strategy it would undoubtedly depend on the other players in the game. One of them may well find playing for second to be extremely offensive and they'll gladly come last to make sure you come second last. That said, there are certainly some similarities I could discuss to make Andrew happy...
Single elimination events don't really have a way to abuse them. It doesn't matter if it's a two player game or a multiplayer game. Win and you advance. Lose and you're out. All you can do is try to win your table. These events tend to play all the games one after the other so there's not even a chance to become an alternate with a good second or anything. Single elimination means you need to win. Sometimes these events will have a mulligan round which you are allowed to play in and lose but not get eliminated but I can't think of any way to abuse that feature. It's a safety valve in case you lose your first game but you still need to win every other game you play.
Heats winners only events are set up so there are a few different entry points where you can show up and play a game. Anyone who wins gets to advance to the elimination rounds which are then single elimination. This format is generally only used for games that play well with a wide variety of players because the number of advancers is up in the air, and again there's not really a way to abuse it. You need to win a game in a heat and then keep winning in the elimination rounds. You can play in extra heats if you want to increase your odds of advancing but you still need to be playing each heat to win the game.
Heats most wins are the events most prone to abuse I think. Most of the games I play use this format because Euro games tend to play best with a very specific number of players. You want to have 25 people playing in your Vegas Showdown semifinal. You want to have 16 people in your Settlers of Catan semifinal. It doesn't matter how you accomplish getting to that exact number; you want to advance exactly that many people. No more, no less. This means that these events will end up building an ordered ranking of every person who played in a heat and when the semifinals start they'll take the 25 highest people on that list and advance them. If you want to guarantee you make it to the semis then you need to place highly on the list so you're in the top 25 but even if you're not there you might still advance if enough people above you fail to show up. Probably the best way to 'game' the system is to just show up to the semifinals for events you played in and hope people don't show. This will depend on the game and what else is scheduled at the same time. In 2011 for example the Ra event advanced person #98 on the list to the semis in order to hit their 25!
But it's hard to know which events will work out in this way and which ones won't. Twice now I've been the #2 alternate for Vegas Showdown and didn't get in. But then one of the years I advanced legitimately they had a bunch of people not show up and some guy who happened to be sitting in the next room got to advance. Most of the alternates hadn't bothered to show up because normally everyone makes it to Vegas Showdown I guess so this guy way down the list got in. Agricola is notorious for having everyone show up, but Le Havre is the opposite and has never managed to get 16 people to bother coming to the semis. They keep having to run 3 games and advancing the top second place finisher to get a 4 player final. (I lost in the finals to someone I beat in the semis and yes I will remain humourously bitter about that until the day I die.) Last year when I won the event I think my best heat result was 3rd place, but I showed up so I got in. There's actually been some talk about changing Le Havre next year to entirely 3 player games which will both boost the number of winners and restrict the number of semifinal slots to make winning more important. In 2012 all 3 of the other finalists had failed to win a heat but advanced as alternates because winning a Le Havre heat was apparently completely irrelevant.
I think the year Pounder won El Grande he advanced to the semis off of the back of three 2nd place finishes. This may be what Andrew was looking for... El Grande is a game with a lot of throwing points to other players and it's theoretically possible that if your goal is to come exactly 2nd that you'd be able to do so with reasonable regularity. It also advances a full 25 people, which is good for alternates. Apparently they had 20 winners last year and 3 of those didn't show up to the semis so 8 people who didn't win a game got to advance. Playing for 2nd might be enough to get you into the semis? You'd need to commit to playing all 3 heats and you'd need to succeed at least twice, but you could probably do it. On the other hand you could also play all 3 heats and try for first. You only need to succeed in that goal once and it has the potential fallback of still getting a couple of 2nds. And you will need to win in the semis and the finals anyway, so being good at doing that seems right. So while I guess if you just needed to make the semis of something you could probably do so in El Grande with a 2nd place plan I'm not sure it's actually a very good idea.
You may need to look for one of the games using a crazy format to find a real winner for this plan? Dominion and Seven Wonders both have wacky advancement plans that reward finishing highly but not necessarily just winning and heavily punish losing. For Dominion there isn't enough direct interaction with specific other players to actually matter I don't think. You can't force someone else into last which is probably the best way to make sure you aren't last yourself. I wouldn't be surprised if the Seven Wonders format from last year was such that certain strategies just became better than others. Fighting for greens and reds is probably a big loser in a format where you're playing a 6 player game and top 3 advance. Spite drafting the greens from a single green player is also less of a big deal since you don't care that that guy is going to win. Good for him. Play for second or third, don't throw your own game off to spite him.
In conclusion I don't think there is really a place for 'playing for second' at WBC because it doesn't feel like the payoff really exists for it in most events. But I definitely think there are things you can do to increase your odds of playing in the semis. Play in lots of events, especially those with lagging player numbers, and then show up for the semis in case you're an alternate. Being friends with the GMs is actually probably a good advantage since they may be able to tell you historical information about their event and can let you know where you stand on the alternate list. I wonder if some sort of event wide alert system via smart phones or twitter or something will be evolved at some point to help notify alternates. Within an individual game knowing who is a shark and who just learned at the demo can provide clues to how you should be playing in order to maximize your odds of winning. Some games let you choose opponents or seating order and knowing when to sit on someone's left or right is probably a bigger factor than people care to admit. You desperately want the guy on your right to call craftsman in Puerto Rico so if you can sit to the shark's right you should do so.
Oh, and in some events owning a copy of the game is the single most important thing you can do. Queen's Gambit has it blatantly as a high tiebreaker for advancement and I got into the elimination rounds the year I won solely because I own a copy of the game. Other games are less blatant about it but in a heat you still get to set up your copy of the game and get random people assigned to you. It's a pretty safe assumption, I think, that someone who owns the game is more likely to be a shark and less likely to be a stuffed animal than someone who doesn't. So you expect to get an easier heat game by owning a copy yourself than by just showing up. I take this the other way and show up without a copy of the game hoping to get paired against someone good and get a good game! Last year I was hoping to get randomly assigned to Sceadeau's table because he was playing he 'own a game' gambit and I wanted to mess with it. Of course I don't own that game and the odds I got into his table were pretty low but I wanted to do it anyway! (It didn't happen. I ended up at a table where the game owner needed a refresher on the rules and blew them out. *sigh*)
So it all comes back to motivation. Last year I could only play one game of Through The Ages (the rest conflicted with A Few Acres of Snow which I was GMing) so I wasn't looking to win an easy game. I was looking to play a good game (and within said good game I would be trying to win because I always want to win). If I could knock my friend out, all the better! Even if I'd owned a copy of TTA I wouldn't have set it up because I wanted to increase my odds of a good game. But on the other hand if I didn't have anything else to do then I may well have been thrilled to get in an easy win and increase my odds of advancing. Different people have different motivations!