Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Attacking The Leader

Back before WBC this year I spent a week in Pounder's basement and we played quite a few games with Robb who was also living there at the time. One of the games we played was Chicago Express, which is a relatively short economic train game. You start the game off by buying shares in different train companies and then you take actions to sell off more shares or to make the train companies improve themselves. The companies spend the money invested in the shares to get better and as they get better the shares become worth more. After a set number of actions all the companies pay out dividends which provide the players with more money to use buying new shares in the companies. Player money is only ever spent buying shares, is only ever earned through the dividends (there is one way to get a bonus dividend payout for a company when it gets to Chicago), and is the only thing that matters when it comes to winning the game.

In our game through a combination of not knowing the game so well and/or misplaying we let Pounder get into a very good position. He was the sole owner of two different train companies while Robb and I were stuck sharing a company. I think Robb and Pounder were sharing a 4th company and the 5th company had yet to appear on the board. Because the only thing that actually matters in the game is personal money and Pounder was set up to make the most money thanks to owning so many shares he was on the fast track to victory. His only downside was going to be that he had a limited number of actions to spend making companies better so he was going to be stuck earning base value for some of his shares while Robb and I could use our actions making a single company really good. We'd have to split the benefit but if we're able to use twice as many actions on making it better that's reasonable. We'd also be sure to get the 'connect to Chicago' bonus. Pounder was set up to win for sure, but if Robb and I worked together one of us might be able to take him down. Probably me since Robb had that extra share in the 4th company that surely wasn't going to get any better since Pounder had two other solo owned companies to work on, but maybe later turns would see shares sold of other companies that would change that fact.

Instead Robb decided that since I had nothing else to do with my actions I was going to be forced to make our company better and he'd stick the work on making it better solely on my shoulders and went off to make his company with Pounder better. This meant Pounder got the benefit from 1.5 improvement actions to Robb's 1 and my .5. Pounder ultimately won. We got into an argument over if Robb should have been working with me or not. My stance was Pounder was in a good way and would win if he got extra help from either of us in the early game. Economic games are often snowbally so you need to reign in the leader. Maybe not beat him up the whole game, but reign him in a little after he had such a good initial share phase and then reevaluate the board on the next turn and adjust. Both Robb and Pounder disagreed because they hate playing games where frontrunning is punished because it encourages smarmy actions to disguise if you're actually winning or not in order to trick the other players into reigning in someone else.

I can't say I disagree with that stance, because I hate when a game encourages you to sandbag. But I didn't think that argument actually countered my argument either. I think Chicago Express, as an economic game, is designed such that the individual players have to be constantly evaluating who will win if 'standard' actions are taken and then shifting off the standard actions to stop that from happening. You either do that or the first auction phase determines victory! Really I think it means Chicago Express is a game that we shouldn't be playing because we don't like to work in game states that it creates.

A similar situation came up in our one Civ V game which is nearing completion. It was a four player game where I was stuck on my own land mass, Matt was stuck on his own land mass, while Dave and Robb shared a third bigger land mass. Dave was a strong early game civ and was certainly the player between the four of us with the most knowledge of game mechanics at the start of the game. He very quickly eliminated Robb and started snowballing his strong early game position into a really dominating position. He became allies with most of the city states and then declared war on Matt and I which meant Dave had a stranglehold on votes at the council. He made way more science per turn than either of us. He even went so far as to switch which tech he was researching so that he didn't enter the renaissance era (which would give us spies) until he was able to get almost all of those techs one after the other. It was inconceivable that either Matt or I could win a diplomatic victory before him, or a science victory either. A culture victory was theoretically possibly but his large culture gain from getting so many wonders coupled with his declaring war on us (and therefore removing a lot of tourism multipliers) made that practically impossible.

This meant Matt and I were backed into a corner. There was no way either of us could hope to win without Dave losing his capital. Taking Dave out would open up a chance for one of us to win in any of the ways (including militarily) but if Dave didn't die neither of us could win. Even taking his capital alone probably wasn't going to be good enough since he still has a vote lead over Matt, his culture still exists to block my tourism, and his replacement capital could just start working on spaceship parts long before we'd be able to do so ourselves. Taking Dave's capital slows down his path to victory but our own paths probably require him to die completely unless we're going for a military victory. (Once either of us take his capital then anyone losing their capital would have the other one win.)

We both acknowledged this was the case and then set off to work together against Dave. Talking about how to vote at the council, trade routes, trading luxuries, research agreements... We didn't work together optimally (Matt built a constabulatory to slow down my spying on him and I researched the same techs as he did instead of diversifying for optimal spying for example) but we put in a pretty good showing of it. I don't know about Matt but I also made a lot of sacrifices as time was winding down to try to hurt Dave at the expense of my own board position going forward. (I sold all my research labs and public schools so I could afford to rush buy more units and pay upkeep on those I'd built. I also sold all of my subs once Dave was no longer in a position to build boats even though doing so means I've lost control of the sea against Matt in the short term.)

We ended up capturing Dave's capital the exact turn he was about to win the game by building the last space ship part. We knew we had this many turns and saved a bunch of suicidal bombing runs for the end just in case, but we did it. Dave was understandably annoyed at this, since he was the heavy favourite to win the game almost the whole way through but he was barely denied at the end. He asserts that I am going to win the game now (an assertion I agree with, for what it's worth) and that because of that fact Matt shouldn't have worked with me. Matt should have spent the final few turns before Dave was eliminating setting up a sneak attack on my capital so that if I pulled off the miracle on my own to stop Dave then Matt could have taken me out right away and won instead.

It goes back to the age old question of what should 3rd place do? Let 1st place win by standing aside? Work with 2nd place to make sure 1st doesn't win even if it means 2nd wins instead? For me I continue to assert that ganging up on 1st is often the right thing to do, especially early in a game or if the game has variable length. We're going to get at least an extra 6-10 turns out of this Civ game and it could go much longer than that. Matt has the fast track to a diplomatic victory once Dave is eliminated since he was getting 2 extra votes each failed UN meeting. My tourism win is going to come home before that can happen, I think. But it was obvious that neither Matt or I could win until Dave lost his capital and it was really tight on making that happen as it was. I don't think either of us could have afforded to divert much off of what we did or Dave would have won.

My big problem with the argument that Matt shouldn't help me because I'm a 'clear 2nd' is that it encourages me to sandbag my second place position in order to get Matt to help me. If 2nd and 3rd only work together when they each think they're the one in 2nd then you need to hurt yourself (and therefore help 1st) in order to keep up appearances. But I acknowledge that it's the same argument against ganging up on 1st. If Dave had sandbagged his own position then maybe he isn't such a clear 1st place and we don't work to stop him?

It's hard to say what should be done. Maybe we have the same problem with Civ V that we have with Chicago Express. Maybe it's a game that just fundamentally has a kingmaker problem. I strongly feel that if someone has a big lead they need to be held in check by the other people working against them in this sort of game. Otherwise a small early game edge is a guaranteed victory. I don't want to play a game where we concede to the person who builds the great library. On the other hand I also don't want to play a game where building the great library is a bad idea because it just gets you killed.

I do think Civ V has enough catch up mechanics going on that someone can get ahead without it being a guaranteed victory. But really all Matt and I did was making use of those mechanics to keep pace as much as we could with Dave and we're still ending up facing accusations of kingmaking. The winning odds in this game were probably something like 90%-9%-1%, but Matt and I only get our 1% and 9% chances to win if we go all in on working together. I guess the problem is if the winning odds in this game were actually 90%-10%-0% what is Matt supposed to do? If you're certain you can't win then you basically have to choose who does. Some people advocate for standing aside but I will always assert that not taking an action is an action itself. Games can have kingmaking positions in them and you can't just ignore them. Often I'll see people advocating for improving your position, which generally means 3rd beats up on 2nd and you kingmake for 1st instead. Oddly enough in this specific game Matt both improved his position and kingmade for 2nd since I'm pretty sure most people will look at the end state of this game and say Matt came 2nd if I end up winning. Sometimes people want you to improve your own score, which works way better in a Euro board game with victory points to earn than it does in a game like Civ V, but I guess there's a score number in that one and you can certainly work to make it bigger. Like by taking Dave's cities! (Though taking my cities might have been more score efficient since I sure haven't been defending myself at all!)

I donno. I think if you're against kingmaking game states you can work to avoid games that have them, especially games that have them as a core element like Chicago Express. I think Civ V is probably more on the side of having kingmaking game states than it is the side of avoiding them... So maybe it's not actually a game we want to play? I guess we probably need to have a few more games get closer to the end of the game to find out? I do think Civ V can get into game states where ganging up on the leader isn't good enough. I think Dave had guaranteed wins earlier in this game if he plays differently, for example if he built a lot of mid game boats he could have crushed me when I was way behind on tech. But with more experience we probably just become better at recognizing those game states and have to start collaborating earlier and earlier? Time will tell!

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