Saturday, April 6, 2013

Discussion: In Which I Discuss Indiviual Risk vs. Risk to the Whole Table

We've been playing a lot of Clash of Cultures around these parts. Nothing really odd about that. It's a great game. However, we've had a situation come up a little while ago that made me think about the way we analyze risk and reward in certain games. My best friend Mike is my most common gaming partner only just below my wife. I love playing games with him and I love the fact that we have very divergent strategies and ways of looking at games. We butt heads occasionally about gameplay theory, but honestly, I think those discussions make us better gamers as we understand game theory better because of it.

Not a good situation to be in.

Anyhow, a situation in Clash of Cultures came up a little while back. Mike was working on a single city strategy in the early game, pushing very hard for new techs, but without building infrastructure. You can argue the merits and flaws of this strategy, but it's moot because that's not what this topic is about and we were less familiar with the game at the time and were still testing different paths. Anyhow, pushing for techs created a situation where more events popped out for him and, invariably, he ended up with a barbarian encampment within striking range of his only city as a result of the event cards.

Now, here is the divergence in our game play. I would have built military somehow tried to alter my strategy to react to the risks that came up. However, in Clash of Cultures, whenever you have to "waste" an action reacting to anything not part of your strategy, then you are set back. So, defending against the barbarians is a suboptimal move for the engine development, but provides a better chance of survival.

Mike's strategy, however, was to risk it. He would continue to build techs with his only city at risk. IF he drew an event card that activated a barbarian attack (roughly a 16% chance, though we didn't know the breakdown or odds at the time), then they would attack his only size one city and they would only have about a 33% chance of hitting and therefore destroying him. It was still very early in the game, so the other players were not a threat. The only threat to disrupting his engine was drawing a barbarians attack event and then rolling a 5 or a 6 on the attack. Calculating the odds, it seemed like they were insignificant enough to continue with the strategy.

Well, of course, he drew a barbarian's attack event card. However, the barbarian's attack missed. Warnings were made about the risk which now presented itself clearly. However, with one barbarian's attack card out of the mix, the odds of drawing another diminished. But he did. And the second attack hit and his only size one city was destroyed. He was out of the game for taking a risk with this strategy that obviously did not pay off in this instance.

Now, that would be fine. Risk did not pan out, player punished. There is nothing to debate about that other than if it was the optimal move to bank on the low odds risk. However, with Clash of Cultures, if a player is eliminated, the game then auto-ends at the start of the next Status Phase. So, in reality, his risk also effected the other players. Our game would suddenly end three rounds early.

It would be a different matter if his risk came with the consequences of forcing him to sit around and watch the game played for another hour and a half to two hours. But it is a different matter when you can take a risk that would simply mean everyone has to stop and restart the game and then you could potentially try the exact same thing again until the odds panned out to your favor. And to point out, this was NOT Mike's intention. Lesson was learned and cities are now defended, or an action is used to make a quick second "back-up" city. However, a situation may still arise from time to time in an early game where someone still may be confronted with taking that calculated risk--do you break your early engine development to defend against an annoying variable or do you wait just that one turn to defend against it with more optimal action use, but risk ending the game for everyone (with no real punishment for your action)?

So, this is the question is, which is the good play to make in this situation?

Should you defend yourself against the risks at the cost of suboptimizing your actions? Or should you take the low percentage risk?

In and of itself, this is a decision of playstyle. However, how do you factor that in when you are not just taking risks for yourself, but everyone at the table. You are potentially ending their game. Your "punishment" of the risk is greatly diminished because you won't be sitting out for long, but you add the punishment of the other players because you are ending their experience early.

I appreciate that Clash of Cultures works to cushion the blow of player elimination. And, in fact, we've seen games where it has created interesting decision points. Player One could have eliminated Player Two, but Player Three had more points. So it was in Player One's interest to foster and protect Player Two to give him more time to amass points. However, when it comes to taking risks knowing that there is a reset button moments away, it takes away the sting of the hard decisions. Knowing a bad draw and die roll would make you sit out of the game for the next two hours may weigh more on you than knowing that you'll just have to wait twenty minutes for a full game reset, regardless of how other players were with their early engine structure settings.

So, in this instance with Clash of Cultures, do you play for just yourself, or do you have to play for the table? And how does this factor into other games that end with player elimination? In a competitive game, how much should you still need to play for the other players at the table?

I'm curious what people think.

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