Monday, July 26, 2010

Blind Learning: Playing Unknown Games on BrettSpielWelt

I play board games on a very regular basis online via BrettSpielWelt (BSW), a German site with full implementation of a number of popular strategy games including Carcassonne, Settlers of Catan, Pandemic, and Dominion. I've learned each of those four games in person and only later played the online versions. Recently, however, Tom and I have taken to a new strategy for gaming on BSW, namely learning games we've never played before by starting them up on the site and playing through them with no previous knowledge of the rules. For lack of a better term I've been calling this technique 'blind learning.'

The Games...

For instance, several weeks ago we tried the simple 2-player strategy game Drachenherz. Simply by observing what the game system will allow us to do and analyzing the results of our actions we have been able to decipher the vast majority of the game (actually, with this title we're pretty sure we understand the complete rule set without having actually read any of the rules.)

After Drachenherz we jumped into Atlantis, a somewhat more complicated eurogame. Tom seems to have understood this one a bit better than I as he defeated me both of the time's we've played the game. I understand the basic concept and goal of Atlantis, but it will certainly take me at least a couple more plays to fully understand the rules governing the game, and to then actually start to develop an effective strategy.

Our latest attempt at blind learning a game through BSW was a fairly basic worker placement title that has been getting quite a bit of praise lately called Stone Age. This game was significantly more complicated than Drachenherz, yet considerably easier to learn than Atlantis. I'm not sure if this latter fact is due to Stone Age being a simpler game or perhaps just more intuitive. It is also possible that Stone Age is simply more similar to other games I've played (namely Agricola, which also involves worker placement) and therefore easier to understand right from the beginning.

My Thoughts...

  • With blind learning alone I'm fairly certain it is possible to fully understand how to play any given game on BrettSpielWelt. Some details required to play the actual physical board game, however, may not be fully clear from simply playing online. The most obvious incidence of this phenomenon is in game setup. In Pandemic, for instance, the player deck of cards has to be constructed in a particular way that may not be fully understood with only BSW play as reference. The particular rules governing how many special event cards to include and how to select them, and when and how to distribute the epidemic cards seem to require some reading of the rules.
  • Combined with reading the actual rulebook after playing through a game several times, this method has great potential as a way to learn new board games before I buy. With the traditional way of learning a new game (buying, reading rules, playing through game to understand) it can often take a great deal of effort to comprehend how the rules translate into game play. Using this blind learning technique I can experience game play (though without fully understanding it) and only then read the rules to clarify what I've already experienced.
  • Blind learning a game on BSW is strategically much different than playing a game I already know. In a known game I begin the session with formulating some amount of strategy, which then gets honed and reworked as the game unfolds. In the first play of an unknown game on BSW the key to success is less based on your strategy (no knowledge of rules = no initial strategy) and more based on how quickly you can learn the basic rules of the game by paying attention to actions and results on the board. As some of the rules are understood some basic strategy begins to be employed based upon that limited understanding, and is drastically revised as game knowledge increases. The skills needed to succeed at unknown games are significantly different from the most important skills involving more familiar ones.
I do love the first few plays of a new game, and also greatly enjoy playing games tens and even hundreds of times fine tuning strategies and more fully appreciating the nuances of game play. The chaos, confusion, and ultimately the challenge of being thrust into a completely unknown game, however, is also a great deal of fun, and fits very nicely into the beginning of that game play progression.

Is this for everyone? Certainly not. But most people don't even really like board games in the first place. For me I'm excited to continue to explore blind learning on BSW.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Some Strategy in Carcassonne

I've managed a fair amount of game play over the past month, including ongoing weekly games online, a several day trip to Vermont while Toph was visiting from Kansas, and a few other odds and ends.

I've been playing a good deal of Carcassonne--3 games in VT (winning all 3 I might add!), a couple with my family (Abby & Link both enjoy the game), and a pair last night with Ben online.

Though I feel I am decent at the game I'm still developing a more aggressive strategy. It is altogether too easy to just go with the flow here and work on your features to score points. Though it is important to develop creative ways to score in Carcassonne, it is even more crucial to control the way the board layout unfolds as the game goes on. For instance, controlling how open and/or segmented the farms play out depending on if you're focusing on them as a central strategy or not is very important. It is easy to just let farms develop randomly as the game progresses, but a huge layer of strategy is lost when you do so.

When it comes to scoring points mid-game in Carcassonne (here I'm disregarding the farmer points scored during endgame), I see three levels of sophistication:

  • 1) Beginner When a player first learns the game they try to build big features and score as many points as possible for them.
  • 2) Intermediate As a player grows more familiar with the game he begins to appreciate the power of weaseling in on other players' features. That huge city your opponent has been building for the first half of the game can be completely neutralized if you can get one of your meeples into the action before the city is completed. This strategy is especially powerful if you can wait for an opportune moment and weasel in your BIG meeple to wrest full control of the city before it is completed.
  • 3) Advanced Even more powerful at times than the strategy in #2 is simply placing tiles near your opponents' features that make it more difficult for them to score those features. This strategy is particularly useful because a) it doesn't require you to tie up one or more of your meeples in the attempt to neutralize an opponent's feature, and b) rather than simply getting a share of a completed city as in #2, you can tie up your opponent's meeples in a feature that may never be completed throughout the duration of the game. This is huge, as it is crucial to success in Carcassonne to have a good flow of meeple placement--if you are not cycling meeples onto the board and then back to your supply you will almost certainly lose. If you can force your opponent to have 2 or 3 meeples on the board in positions that are nearly impossible to close, you gain a massive advantage over the course of the game.
So yes, I'm loving the game and look forward to playing it enough to get a good feel for the three expansions that I have severely underutilized--Traders & Builders, Princess & Dragon, and Abbey & Mayor.