Hey, that’s my strategy! (part 1)

It can be annoying when other people copy a strategy that you came up with, especially if random events cause it to work out better for them than for you. One of the best ways of ensuring that no-one steals your boardgame strategies is obviously to write a series of blog posts describing them all in detail. Of course, readers may question the quality of the strategic decision making that would lead to writing such a blog, and therefore avoid following my strategy tips – unless they think that I was already taking that into account, in which case they should follow my advice, and so shouldn’t, and so on…

So, let’s examine some of the key questions about using pieces of other people’s strategies: when is it a good idea, how do you make the best use of both their and your own strategic thinking, and when you are shamelessly copying one of your friends’ approaches to a game what are the best things to say to really really annoy them?

Of universities, fire, and peeing in the shower

In 2009 a Brazilian environmental group ran an ad campaign encouraging the population to pee in the shower. You can still find the videos online if you look for them – just google search “peeing in the shower” and I’m sure you’ll get to the right place… The idea was to save water in order to help preserve areas of rainforest, by avoiding an extra flush of the toilet. Some years later the idea was picked up by a group of students at the University of East Anglia, who tried to encourage students living in halls to pee in their showers*.

Another interesting incident occurred here in Nottingham, where the university decided to build it’s new chemistry building out of a sustainable building material – wood. Luckily the building burned down before it actually opened as chemistry department, which probably saved a fair few lives.

The key point about both of these events is that you have to be careful about shifting things to a situation they weren’t designed for. Peeing in the shower may be worthwhile in the privacy of your own bathroom when there is a major environmental problem to tackle, but doing it in communal facilities in a country where it famously rains all the time seems to me to be a step too far. Wooden buildings might be a good way to build sustainably in most cases, but I would suggest that they probably aren’t appropriate for a building that is going to be continuously full of highly flammable solvents, toxic chemicals and professional pyromaniacs.

So, this is point 1 about employing elements of other people’s strategies: make sure they actually work in the situation you’re trying to apply them in. Think about what it was that made it a good strategy in the situation it was originally used in, and whether or not the same is true in your case. Also look out for pitfalls and conflicts that weren’t originally there.

Monkey vs Crocodile

On a visit to Berlin zoo I was once appalled to see a group of monkeys inside the crocodile enclosure. Surely they would be eaten? A large, dangerous looking crocodile lay dozing on the bank of a pond, directly under a group of extremely and understandably agitated monkeys, who were perching on a tree branch. I was considering finding a keeper and asking them what was going on, when I saw something very interesting happen.

One of the monkeys, seemingly being goaded on by the others, climbed tentatively down the tree and onto the ground next to the crocodile. It picked up a small stick and stealthily approached the sleeping crocodile. A couple of times it looked like it was going to turn back, but a few encouraging shouts from the other monkeys spurred it on. Once it got close enough it poised itself carefully, glanced at the other monkeys in the tree to check that they were watching, then batted the crocodile firmly on the nose, dropped the stick and ran back up the tree.

The poor crocodile woke up looking rather startled, snapped angrily at the hastily retreating monkey (now well out of its reach) and settled down to go back to sleep. Unfortunately the crocodile didn’t get a lot of sleep, as it seemed that each of the monkeys in turn had to prove themselves by hitting him on the nose. This is where things get relevant. One of the monkeys, having watched the crocodile get quite close to catching some of the others, decided to use a longer stick. It hit the crocodile from a safe distance and had plenty of time to get away. However, when he got back up to the tree branch the other monkeys wouldn’t let him on – they kept pushing him back down towards the crocodile. Eventually he was forced to go back and hit the crocodile with the same short stick that all the other monkeys had used, and only then was he allowed back onto the branch.

When we are keen to win a game it is easy to lose sight of why we are actually playing the game in the first place. The monkey with the long stick figured out an easy way to win his game, but in so doing clearly lost sight of the true purpose of the game – to show off how brave and/or totally stupid he was to the other monkeys (an objective that still seems to be the primary motivator for most extreme sports). In most boardgames our objective is to have fun, and possibly also to feel a sense of satisfaction with our ultimate performance. Using strategic elements devised by other players – whether by researching them online, taking verbal advice or simply copying moves we have seen them play – can certainly help to win games. For me however, it detracts substantially from the fun of playing the game (a large part of which comes from devising a strategy for myself) and from the satisfaction I will feel if I do well. So, be careful when taking strategy tips that you don’t overdo it, or you might find that you achieve exactly the opposite of what you are aiming for!

*If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in today’s blog, please keep it to yourself. I don’t want to know.

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I am a physicist who lives in Nottingham and I have been boardgaming for the last 10 years. My favourite boardgame is Agricola. I also enjoy playing the Yetis in Terra Mystica, hence the profile pic. I should also credit Sophie for drawing most of the cartoons that feature in the blog. Without her, there would be no grumpy oxen.

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