Friday, September 05, 2008

strāt'ə-jē

Strategy (strāt'ə-jē): A plan, method, or series of maneuvers or stratagems for obtaining a specific goal or result

In a discussion online today I encountered a speed bump in communication between myself and 2 of the people I often chat with, JC Lawrence and Ben Keightley. They said they didn't believe in "multiple paths to victory" - that it was a bewildering concept, and in the end had no actual meaning. Rather it's one of those catch-phrases that people adhere to without ever bothering to look back to reality.

In my mind that's not the case at all. To me, Multiple Paths to Victory means more than 1 distinct strategic approaches to the game. When I mentioned this, Ben said something I found interesting, and which explained to me why we weren't seeing eye-to-eye:

< cocadieta >: Puerto Rico has one dominant strategy. The dominant strategy, documented flawlessly on BGG, is to first establish income sources, then generate income, then turn that income into points.

To me, that's not a Strategy, it's simply how you go about games with economic engines. It's like saying "My strategy is to win the game!" No shit.

I guess in a general sort of definition, what Ben proposes is a Strategy, but to me that's not useful for discussion of any game in particular. At the genre level sure - "establish an income engine and then establish a VP engine" is a way to approach economic engine games. I could say that in Agricola you need to get a food engine going before you start increasing your family and building up your farm. In Puerto Rico you need to get some kind of cash crop in order to establish income before you can start shipping or building in earnest. To that extent maybe this overarching plan is the "Strategy" you can go into the game - any game - with.

On the game level though, when discussing a particular game, I find it more useful to consider more local strategy than that. Once you determine what type of game you're playing, the global - genre level - strategy becomes common sense, and now you need to consider game specific strategy. In my mind there's still room for both long term strategy as well as short term tactics at the local, game level, and that is distinct from a genre-level general over-arching strategy.

So when I say that Puerto Rico has 2 main strategic paths, Shipping and Building, I'm referring to local (game level) strategy. I agree that as a game in the Economic Engine genre there's a global (genre level) strategy of "establish income, then generate VPs," but to me that's not useful for any kind of discussion.

One thing I like in a game is multiple paths to victory. By this I mean more than 1 distinct strategic approach at the game level to establishing that engine, or to acquiring those VPs. When designing my games, and when looking at other designs, this is what I'm considering. To me it's more useful than general strategic commentary such as "score more points over the course of the game than the other guys."

5 comments:

Isamoor said...

For what it's worth, I firmly believe in multiple paths to victory. Enemy Chocolatier is a small cheapass game that I think best exemplifies this. In that game, you can win on points, or win by completing your recipe. By about the 5th turn, you pretty much *have* to commit to one goal or the other. If you try to straddle the fence, then you lose. I've seen both strategies work multiple times.

Scurra said...

I think it's that perhaps we're missing a third term to straddle the divide between "strategy" - what you need to do to win the game, and "tactics" - what you need to do on an individual turn in order to progress towards your strategic goal of winning the game.

I tend to agree with the argument that economic engine games don't have multiple paths to victory - you win by having the highest score, and that is achieved by optimising your engine. But there are clearly several different actual engines (one of the strengths of Puerto Rico, as opposed to Agricola, is that those engines can be spotted and intercepted - sometimes even to your own benefit! - which is why I think it is still the better game.)
Choosing which one to use and why (and sometimes when to switch to another one) is that middle-level choice that I think you mean by "Strategy" but others do not.

Games that have more than one utterly different winning mechanism are inherently much more challenging to design - but may be more satisfying for that reason. But I don't think it's possible to design a mid-level or above Euro-game like that. (Someone please prove me wrong! I don't know about the game Isamoor cites, but it sounds more on the "filler" end to me.)

Anonymous said...

King of Siam, Mordred and Liberte get quite close to having discrete win conditions. All three however have external systems define which win condition applies.

Tim Seitz said...

I think you guys are conflating objective with strategy. A strategy is a plan to achieve a specific objective. You can develop different strategies to achieve a single objective.

Games with multiple winning objectives are rather rare: Dune and Napoleon's Triumph are the only two I can think of off the top of my head.

A game with a single objective (most points, last man standing, etc.) can still (and usually does) have multiple strategies to achieve victory.

However, this whole semantic discussion reveals what I consider a typical Geek flaw: a desire to "play" the game rather than play the opponent(s). I hear a lot about people giving up a game after several plays when they have "figured it out." To me, that sounds more like a puzzle than a game. The game part is overcoming an equally skilled opponent.

This is why a chess master can play thousands of games of chess. Or why I can enjoy tons of games of Through the Ages.

Seth Jaffee said...

Tim brings up a very good point. I guess I should clarify that when i think about Multiple Paths to Victory, I'm really not thinking about distinct objectives - rather distinct approaches to a single objective.

Multiple distinct objectives would also be cool, a game like that might be a bitch to balance properly :) Maybe one of these days I'll give it a shot.