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Perspective: A Gamer's Guide

A look at game design from the perspective of a serious gamer who appreciates social interaction in games. Everything in this blog will be either a general overview of my opinions on games or a specific view of a game as it relates to those opinions.

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A Gamer's Guide to Race for the Galaxy

keith bateman
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Race for the Galaxy (RftG) is a game that is very difficult to teach, but as I've spent a lot of time playing games in general and RftG specifically I find more and more that it fits the bill for the kind of game I like. I'm not going to explain how to play it for those who don't know, but rather I'd like to talk about why I like it so much and some of the more interesting nuances that one can find in the base set.

My Thoughts
The first several times I played RftG I didn't like it. This was before I had played Puerto Rico, and I really had no idea what was going on strategically. Looking back, I attribute this to factors at the time that prevented me from seeing what makes it so great. The main issue was the use of cards meaning that you can't see every strategic possibility in a game at once. So when you play RftG for the first time, it's easy to become frustrated because you don't know when you should explore to get the cards you need. As a new player I was drawn to the military strategy, which is very difficult to work with if you don't know what military cards are in the deck. Most other strategies are built around 6? developments, and if you don't know which 6? developments are in the deck, you'll be similarly disadvantaged. This all could have been prevented by having somebody take the time to explain strategy to me before or after the game, and I really do think that this explanation of more important cards and primary strategies is what is needed to teach RftG to new players. I did actually have somebody sit down with me after a game back then to explain some of the more valuable cards, but I didn't think to ask about strategies because I didn't really know much about them. After I had played Puerto Rico, I returned to try the game again through the Keldon AI, and this is where I really found everything clicked for me. Role selection made sense because I had seen it in Puerto Rico, where the options you have are much clearer because all available buildings are on the table. Further, I was able to figure out how the deck worked through repeated play against the AI.

I think the theme is done quite well, and I've discussed that before. The theme is "race" not "space", and is expressed through the lack of victory point chips in the pool. The game often ends just as the players start to get everything working, which is infuriating and leads to the "just one more" feeling. The reason that the game plays so fast is because of a deliberate design decision, and it works very well.

RftG is different from other games on the market in ways that are very difficult to understand when you play somebody else's copy. Specifically, it's a heavy (or complex) card game for 2-4 players. When playing somebody else's copy or against the AI, it's easy to miss this. The reason that I ended up looking into this game instead of others is that I needed a quick but complex game that I could take with me anywhere and played the same number of players as a typical game (around 4). Since the only components are cards and a few chips, RftG is very portable. Since it's a "race game" deliberately designed to play fast, it plays quickly. The complexity of the game, of course, speaks for itself. If RftG wasn't as quick, as portable, or as complex, it wouldn't be much more interesting than any other typical Eurogame to me. Sure it has some neat mechanics going on. I like the simultaneous action selection in particular (it's another thing that speeds up the game). However, ultimately the interaction in RftG is just as indirect as it is in Puerto Rico. There's a lot of nuance in the interaction in RftG, and I do like the ideas of leeching other actions or holding onto a powerful card your opponent needs. Leeching is when you get an ability in an action so that you benefit from an action call more than the person who called it. In the end, though, the interaction is still indirect interaction, and my preference is for direct.

And now, this. Let's say you've read the rules and want to know some things about RftG or you know a lot about RftG and want to know a bit more. Well, look no further. This section is a bit long so skip to the bottom if you don't want to read it. Also, I'm going to do my best to detail all the interesting cards involved in these strategies in base set, but I have to gloss over some stuff that's less important.

There are four main strategies in base set: military strategy, produce/consume engine, trading strategy, and discount strategy. Military is building lots of red worlds, produce/consume is calling produce and consume x2 over and over again, trading is calling trade a lot and building expensive worlds with the spoils, and discount is getting discounts which are usually used to build a lot of developments. It's important to remember when I'm discussing these strategies that they can all be used separately or together with each other.

The one most beginners like is the military strategy. It revolves around settling lots of military worlds to develop a strong synergy in your plateau. You want to be settling military worlds when other players don't have enough cards to settle worlds so that you gain the most benefit. The best way to do this is to call settle over and over again. This means that in the early game, you shouldn't be settling so much. Instead, focus on exploring to get the big military worlds (alien worlds or rebel underground (3 cost / 4vp), rebel outpost (5/5), rebel base (6/6), rebel homeworld (7/7)) and some military power (drop ships is 4 cost and gives +3, expedition force 1 cost and +1, and space marines 2 cost and +2). Usually you only need to build one of the developments to get enough military to ramp up through planets, and sometimes you don't even need that. You can mix military with other strategies as well (maybe you do some trading from uplift windfalls or alien robot sentry (a 2 cost military alien windfall)). You'll need to get some 6? developments for the strategy to actually work. The best are rebel imperium (+4 military for rebel worlds only, 2vp for rebel worlds, 1vp for other military worlds) and new galactic order (+2 military and 1vp per military). If you can't get your hands on either of those, try galactic survey: seti (1vp for development with explore power 2vp for world with explore power, 1vp for any other planet), which works well with expedition force (explore power) and settling lots of planets. The other thing to try is pan galactic league (2vp for green world, 1vp for other military world, 3vp for contact specialist), which works best if you build uplift worlds and contact specialist, but also fits into a pure military strategy because of the 1vp per military world.

The best strategy in the base set is produce/consume (P/C) engines. You have a lot of control over how the game ends and are often very flexible in terms of options. The key here is to set yourself up so you can call produce and consume (x2) over and over again. The good thing about this is that P/C engine players rarely need a 6? development (although these developments can help if you play correctly). There are lots of ways to build this strategy correctly, but you usually want to be looking at other players to find out if you can get more from a consume than they can. The best planets to settle are production worlds that also have consume abilities. The scale for better consumption abilities goes something like: 2vp > 1vp + 1 card > 1 vp > 2 cards > 1 card, with abilities that cost more effectively split into multiple abilities (3vp for 2 goods is equivalent to 2vp for 1 good and 1vp for 1 good). Also, abilities that take generic goods are better than those that take a specific good (there's some murkiness though in whether 1vp for a generic good is better than 1vp + 1 card for a green good). The best cards, then, for a P/C engine player are earth's lost colony (novelty good 1vp consume), plague world (genes good 1vp + 1 card for genes good consume), prosperous world (novelty good and 1vp consume), and new earth (rare good and 1vp + 1 card consume). Getting plague world or prosperous world early can be a defining moment for a P/C engine. If you can't get one of these cards, you'll have to settle two planets usually to get what you need. There are lots of production worlds (and sometimes windfalls work too), but few with great consume powers. The best are galactic trendsetters (2vp consume) and tourist world (3vp for 2 goods consume), and just one of these can be enough to win the game. Pilgrimage world (consume all your goods to get that many vp - 1) is a last resort if you can't find enough consume abilities to pair with your production. P/C engine players don't need 6? developments, but the best ones for them are galactic renaissance (1vp for every 3vp in chips, rounded down plus 3vp each for some cards chosen almost randomly, but including galactic trendsetters), free trade association (2vp for novelty production worlds, 1vp for novelty windfall worlds, and an up to 3 novelty goods for 1vp + 1 card each consume ability), mining league (2vp for rare element production worlds, 1vp for rare windfall worlds, and a 3vp for 2 rare goods consume ability), and merchant guild (2vp for production world, 1vp for good at game end in 2nd edition RftG, and 2 cards in produce phase). Some of these 6? developments showcase some synergy options for P/C engines. You can have a novelty good focus or a rare good focus. Genes goods usually have too many windfalls and alien worlds are usually too expensive, but you can build P/C around these if you must. The other thing you can do is to build around diversified economy (a 4 cost development which gives 3vp for 3 kinds of goods consumption and 1 card for each type of good produced during produce phase).

The trade strategy revolves around calling trade to get cards which can be used to settle expensive planets. Players using this strategy usually want to settle a lot of windfall worlds and immediately trade the good away. One thing to be careful about is that if you call settle to settle a windfall and somebody else calls consume (either trade or consume x2) and you have a consume ability, you lose that good. The best way to handle this is to leech consume with either black market trading world or trade league. Trade league lets you sell a good with $ bonuses during consume, while black market trading world lets you sell a good without $ bonuses during consume. If you can't leech consume like this, but still think that somebody else is going to consume, then you'll want to try calling trade yourself and hoping that somebody else calls settle. The trade league card is also a 6? development (2vp for development with trade power, 1vp for world with trade power) which could be very useful if you have a lot of trade powers. Trade powers ($ powers) can be useful to a trade strategy, but if you're trading expensive goods like you should be (genes or alien) then you rarely need them. The other 6? developments you'll probably naturally want in this situation are pan galactic league (discussed above), or alien tech institute (3vp for alien production world, 2vp for alien windfall or other alien card). These work well if you're trading a lot of genes goods or alien goods respectively. There are two more cards you probably want in the trade strategy, and those are merchant world and deficit spending. Both let you discard up to 2 cards from your hand for 1vp each (not doubled) during a consume, and if you have both of them then you can discard up to 4 cards from your hand for 1vp each. Since you'll have a lot of cards from trading, these will come into play a lot (also merchant world has a +2$ ability). Merchant world is expensive (with cost 4), but deficit spending is rather cheap (cost 2).

Finally, the discount strategy. There's not much to be said for this one, but the point is usually to get cards that make other cards cheaper. There are plenty of specific discounts that work well when building synergy (alien tech institute, rebel imperium, mining robots, etc). If you're going to build a discount strategy, however, you probably want generic discounts. Galactic federation is a 6? development that has one of the best generic discounts, with -2 for building developments (and 2vp for each 6? development and 1vp for each other development). Investment credits gives you -1 towards building developments, and if you're going to go that route then it might be a good idea to get public works, which gives you a card every time you build a development, or interstellar bank, which gives you a card every time develop is called. If you just need to settle cheaper planets, then you want replicant robots instead (it costs 4, but gives you -2 for all planet settling). There are also "one-time discounts" like new military tactics and colony ship, which give you +3 military and let you settle a planet for free (non-alien) respectively, but you have to discard them. These can be useful but not really applicable to a long-term discount strategy. The key to a successful discount strategy is basically the same as a successful military or trade strategy: to settle more planets (and better planets) than your opponent. One more card I should mention here is contact specialist. It gives a sort of discount, since it lets you play military worlds as regular worlds at -1 cost, but the real cool thing about it is that those military worlds get your regular world discounts (basically, replicant robots -2 ability or mining robots -1 on rare non-military worlds).

Race for the Galaxy is an excellent game with a lot of depth. Recounting all the different strategies and nuances I've found just playing the base set has reminded me just how deep it is. Nobody needs to understand everything I've stated in the strategy section to enjoy the game, but the fact that it's there is wonderful. As a bonus, my favorite card in base set is plague world. I love that it gives you no victory points, but has an excellent P/C ability for how cheap it is. Anyway, this post has already run double length. I love Race for the Galaxy, and so should you.
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Sun Mar 3, 2019 12:48 am
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What is a Game?

keith bateman
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I've recently been playing a lot of the solitaire game Onirim, and it has prompted some interesting thoughts for me about what differentiates games from other media. Onirim, for those of you who don't know it, is basically a stripped down Pandemic with no board. In it, you try to collect sets of the same color while dealing with "bombs" in the deck. However, the major distinction is that Pandemic is designed to be cooperative (with different roles) while Onirim is designed to be played solo.

The traditional conception regarding games is that they are a form of entertainment or competition. Onirim and Pandemic in their own ways make it clear that competition is not necessary for something to be a game, which leaves only the vague idea that games are a form of entertainment. What kind of entertainment? What differentiates this beloved art from plays, movies, books, or music?

A game is an activity which presents the player with a series of decisions. These decisions lead to either a win or a loss for the player. Adding other players does not break this definition, since each player experiences the game from their own perspective. For each player in the game, that player is presented with a series of decisions. We can't even say that winning or losing is an essential component of games, since that would restrict our definition from applying to role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons. In other art forms there is no decision-making involved whatsoever (with the possible exception of choose-your-own-adventure novels), making this the true distinguishing factor for games. Our definition then is that a game is a form of active entertainment which presents the player (person experiencing the game) with a series of decisions.

One may say that this definition is inadequate, and a game must have rules. Indeed, many games do have rules, but these rules only serve to force the player to make specific decisions within a restricted set of options, so the decision is still the primary unit of action in a game.

This definition accounts for differences in taste, since players taste in games ultimately boils down to their taste in decisions. Some players like games with lots of decisions or few. Other players like games with meaningful decisions. Still others like decisions presented in a specific way. This way of looking at taste is wonderfully generic in scope.

Ultimately there are many types of games based on the components used to present the player with decisions. Board games have a board, card games have cards, dice games have dice, video games utilize a video display, and role-playing games use a set of conventional components including pencil and paper, polyhedral dice, and books. All of these follow the traditional notions of a game.

It's also important to note here that games are typically considered a form of play. Play is typically a type of simulation, where events real or imaginary are simulated. This can be seen even in the forms of the word that have nothing to do with games, as in "to put on a play", which is to act in a simulated narrative.

Finally, I'd like to end by asking what makes games relevant to the everyday human being? Games can be a social experience with or without conflict, and this gives an outlet for members of society who are typically socially introverted to interact with each other in a safe setting. Not every game presents people with those benefits though, so the general answer is that games are a way to practice making decisions. Making decisions in the real world is what life is all about, and games allow human beings to learn how to make good ones through repeated play. If one is good at learning games, then one is good at life. There can be no greater achievement.
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Sun Feb 17, 2019 6:17 am
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A Gamer's Guide to Diplomacy

keith bateman
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I love Diplomacy. The system underlying it is the most brilliant game system I have ever played, and I really don't think that will change. It has everything I enjoy in a game with no flaws which bother me. It has been imitated a lot, but most of the imitations seem to fall flat for me in a way that Diplomacy doesn't.

How to Play
In Diplomacy you control one of seven powers in Europe during the leadup to WWI: Austria, England, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, or Turkey. The game starts in Spring 1901, and proceeds through each year, with turns being divided into Spring and Fall phases, and supply center captures and unit builds occurring after Fall. Players need one supply center for each unit they have on the board. The objective is to control 18 or more out of 34 total supply centers at the end of a Fall phase. However, the game can also end by agreement for a tie result among all players remaining on the board. During a turn, the players go away from the board to negotiate with each other. After they're done negotiating, players return to the board and write their orders down on paper. Orders are then submitted and evaluated simultaneously. Orders can be one of Hold, Move, Support, or Convoy. Units are either Armies (A) or Fleets (F). Armies can move on land spaces, while fleets can move in water or on coastal land spaces. Only one unit can occupy a space. The writing and resolution of orders is something of an art form, so I'm not going to attempt to explain it perfectly. If a unit is given a Hold order, it doesn't move (units without orders are assumed to Hold). If a unit is given a Move order, it tries to move from one space to another. If a unit is given a Support order, where lets say unit A is supporting unit B, then unit A lends its strength to unit B, giving B more strength for its Hold or Move. Only Fleets can Convoy, which allows Armies to move over the water (potentially multiple spaces in one move) across a line of Fleets to a land space. That's the gist of what these orders are and do.

My Thoughts
Diplomacy is a social game. In fact, it makes other games look really antisocial by comparison. This is a game where you actually physically get up from the table and engage in real backroom deals with the other players. There is a level of intimacy involved in these backroom deals that is missing in other games, and I've never seen it imitated. In Diplomacy, you share secrets with other players as it suits you. You make plans and deals and you ultimately either honor them or betray them based on your own choice. There's a certain freedom in the structure of negotiations of Diplomacy, where anything goes. The players decide whether it's a good idea to be trustworthy or ruthless, and the game reflects this collective decision. The way my groups have typically played is to build firm alliances (secret or otherwise) and backstab only when we're certain that the betrayal will be final.

There are lots of complaints about Diplomacy, and I agree with many of them. That said, my own experience has been that these apparent flaws do not detract from my enjoyment. The silliest arguments against Diplomacy are those that attack the game length and player count requirements. For player count, every game really has requirements in this area, and there are good reasons for the seven player requirement. The reason is, in short, to allow shifting alliances. With seven players, play is allowed in solo, two-player, or three-player alliances. These alliances allow the game to consist of either 3v3 or 2v2v2 situations which get tighter and shift as the game goes on. In addition, there's an odd man out that can be picked up by any side during the game. There's just enough room for things to shift around, and this is why the seven player structure works. There are also reasonable alternatives if seven players is infeasible. The variants designed by Edi Birsan in particular, "Escalation" or "Chaos Italy", play very well with six. Game length is another silly argument. There are times when a longer game is appropriate. Particularly for fans of negotiation games, there is no better experience than Diplomacy, and the length is a reflection of the scope of game that Diplomacy represents. The more reasonable complaints are aimed at player elimination, player conflict, and the system of writing down orders. Player elimination sucks when you get taken out early. There's really no defense for this. Regardless, it's not a major issue for me because I appreciate the game. Even if a player gets eliminated early, they still get a chance to play the opening. In my opinion, the opening is the best part of Diplomacy, where deals are still nascent and the world powers are on even footing. There are people in the world who will never like Diplomacy because they just don't like the kind of conflict Diplomacy inspires. I understand this argument; I don't like to see my friends behave ruthlessly either. However, this sort of situation is highly dependent on the sort of people you play with. This possibility for intense conflict in Diplomacy allows for the exploration of real world problems in a game setting, and I don't mind that. Finally, some people don't like writing down orders. This is a bit messy, but it definitely feels satisfying. It's neat to sign the fate of your enemies with a pen rather than a sword. Nevertheless, it does lead to errors which are frustrating when they happen (writing "pic" instead of "pie", etc).

I've talked at length about what people don't like about the game, but what do I like about it? First, the way combat is resolved is beautiful. Simultaneous action resolution allows for betrayal at the last possible second, and the support system encourages players to actually work with each other. It's also very simple, since each unit has only three or four actions it can take on a turn. Ultimately the game revolves around the interactions between the players, and the combat system is designed to emphasize those interactions rather than to overshadow them. Second, backroom dealing. The level of intimacy in Diplomacy is unmatched by any other game I've played. These are the "wow factors", and the things that keep me coming back to Diplomacy every time. It's a game I think about often even when I'm not playing because it's just that good. I like negotiation games, and Diplomacy is the best negotiation game I've ever played. I've never had a dull game or a dull moment in Diplomacy, and that's why it's my favorite game. I still remember games I played years ago.

Many games have tried to improve upon Diplomacy, but none has really succeeded for me. There's a lot of fuss made over Game of Thrones the Board Game, Rising Sun, and other similar games. Of these games, I've really only played Game of Thrones (GoT), but I understand the approaches they all typically take. I don't really like GoT. The simplest way I can put it is that the system is quite convoluted so that there's a lot more going on than just negotiations, and one can often win through pure military might and winning the right auctions at the right time. My biggest concern about GoT is that there are no joint victories. Joint victories in Diplomacy are great because you can go a whole game without betrayal if you wish. In GoT players are always forced to betray each other eventually, with the end result that trust is rare. Talk in GoT feels cheap. Further, there's no mention in the rulebook of discussion made away from table, which means all negotiations are supposedly public. This takes away the sense of intimacy found in Diplomacy. It's easy to play a variant where backroom deals are allowed, but the game was not built for that. I will decline to comment on Rising Sun or other games inspired by Diplomacy since I haven't played them, but my guess is that they would not appeal to me because of a lack of joint victories, often due directly to the use of the common victory point system where one power wins at a certain number of points.

So, should you play Diplomacy? I obviously think so, but only if it seems like the good things about it appeal to you and the things that people criticize about it seem like non-issues or only minor ones.
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Sun Feb 10, 2019 2:37 am
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What Makes a Good Game for Me?

keith bateman
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There are a lot of good games out there in the world, and people have different opinions about what they like in them. There's a lot that goes into making a game generally appealing, and this sort of universal appeal is more properly called "accessibility". However, as a serious gamer who plays games specifically for the purpose of social interaction (an area where I feel games have helped me to become a better person in the real world), my specific opinion of what is a good game is not directly tied to accessibility. Personally, I like games with a high degree of social interaction, which present a challenge, and which have a well-integrated theme.

Social interaction is a lost art in the modern era of multiplayer solitaire Eurogames. I love Eurogames as much as anybody under the right circumstances, but they often feel less like games to me and more like puzzles. Once I felt I had figured out Puerto Rico, for example, the game lost something for me. If the game is only a framework for social interaction, then there's much more game there to play even once the major strategies have been found, and it will be interesting every time. The poster child for this kind of game for me is Diplomacy. It may be unreasonably long, but I never get tired of talking with other people in the context of the game. It's such that we often talk about the game after we're done playing, which is an experience I would never turn down. A minor element that ties into this social interaction is joint victories, where players have an incentive to work together to accomplish a goal. Joint victories make me feel like I have something real to offer other players besides immediate gain, with alliances being permanent or not depending on what the players choose to do. I recognize different levels of victory in negotiation games where alliances can be formed and broken, and I don't think there's anything wrong with saying that a solo victory is better than a joint victory while also allowing for times when one should take the joint victory.

Good games are challenging. One struggles against the other players and either wins or loses based on skill in the game. It's not enough for the game itself to present a challenge to the players, because the game either presents random situations for the players to overcome or does not. The random case is dissatisfying because skilled players may lose, and the nonrandom case is dissatisfying because skilled players always win (making the game more of a puzzle). The only remedy for this is to have players against other players in conflict. Direct conflict provides the highest level of challenge and interaction. Further, luck should be minimized in a game that hopes to provide a real challenge to players. There are three kinds of luck in games: tiles, cards, and dice. Dice are dirty probability, and often thrown into games with little concern for probability distributions. With dice, any event can occur at any time, with the result being that it's entirely possible to roll a bunch of 2s in a row. Cards are cleaner, provided that the deck has no replacement, because any result can be generally expected to occur in a game, but there are often "trump" cards that are simply unbalanced. Tiles are the most sophisticated form of probability, since they are often too small to put overpowered abilities on, but have all the lack of replacement of cards. If a game has to have probability, I prefer it to be more sophisticated, which does not mean that it strictly follows my hierarchy of probability, but that actions in the game have a reasonable expected chance of success. Catan is a game that fails to have clean probability out of the box, since placements can be ruined by bad dice rolls, but with the event deck from the Traders and Barbarians expansion, the problem is solved.

Theme is something that a lot of people don't understand very well. Theme is not chrome or flavor text. Theme is when a game evokes the appropriate feeling through its mechanics. For example, in Race for the Galaxy the theme is not space or science fiction. The theme is racing. Race for the Galaxy is a well-themed game because by the end, I feel like I just had a race with the other players, and either pulled through or came up short. This is directly owed to the shared victory point pool and open scoring. Dice games can accomplish this sort of strong relation to theme by using push-your-luck aspects to create tension which is usually associated with whatever setting the game is trying to convey (like Cthulhu or sports).

I tend to like games that fit these criterion more than games that don't. Games that check every box are rare, but the aforementioned Diplomacy is one of them, and that's why it's my favorite game, and why I don't expect that to change anytime soon. The next post in this series will explore Diplomacy, and why it fits all the design aspects I explained in detail here.
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Wed Jan 30, 2019 8:26 pm
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