I'm coming to realize that there are 2 different types of planning you can do... Precise planning and Conditional planning.
Precise planning is when you have all the information you can, and the only variables are player-created chaos: what will the other players do?
Conditional planning is when there is an element to plan around that you do not know for sure, based on chance. Often you can use probability to decide how to go about planning around this element.
Some gamers prefer to have all the information, they prefer to plan precisely, dealing only with the chaos of the other players' actions. Other gamers much prefer preparing for the random element as well. Let's look at some examples...
Railroad Tycoon is one of my favorite games, so I'll use it as an example. There are 2 instances of Conditional planning in RRT:
- Random cubes which come onto the board via City Growth/Urbanization/New Industry
- Whether or not a particular Major Line or Service Bounty card will come up.
Similarly, you can build track such that you can connect Baltimore and Toledo, Atlanta and Richmond, New York and Chicago, etc... and then whether you win or lose the game can come down to whether the Major Line card you've prepared for comes up. The player in the Southeast could get an 8 point boost because the Atlanta-Richmond card came up early, while the player who's built from New York to Kansas City is in last place because that major line never came up. While it's true you can't expect any particular card to come up. just the benefit gained by a Major Line coming up early in the area you're dominating is a huge advantage, and without knowing which Major Line will come up or when, there's no way to know where to build so as to take advantage of that boon.
Recently I tried playing Railroad Tycoon with a couple of variants to turn some of the Conditional planning into Precise planning:
- Remove Major Lines from the deck and make them all available from the outset.
- Display 2 cubes from the bag to be used whenever the next 2 "random" cubes are needed.
Reiner Knizia tends toward Conditional planning in many of his games. Ra for example is a perfect example: you evaluate each auction lot and make the decision to bid, or to wait for a better lot. This is something of a press your luck mechanism because whether the lot increases or decreases in value and by how much is entirely based on chance, not on player actions. A friend of mine cannot stand that, and feels "why should I even play if I'm just guessing if this is the right play or not?" While it's clear I prefer Precise planning to conditional planning, I don't mind as much as that friend seems to - I like evaluating the lot in Ra and thinking about the chances it'll improve. I likened my friend's play to "being greedy."
I think the main difference between Conditional and Precise planning is the idea of "working with what you've got," and it's tied to the difference between Tactical and Strategic thinking. In a game with precise planning, you can plan out a long term strategy, and your tactical play can deal with the chaos brought in by the actions of your opponents. In a game with Conditional planning you have to play a more tactical game, and there's less (if any) semblance of a coherent long term strategy.