How to Win at Games – Part 2

Ploughing

4. Know your enemy.

Another colleague of mine, not the one from the previous post and one who I have not yet persuaded to play boardgames, nonetheless illustrates a fairly common mistake. He has invested a lot of effort in fortifying his desk so that it is well separated from the rest of the office. You can only see what is on his monitors if you stand directly behind them. On the face of it, this might appear to be a strategically sound investment. He is at the start of his PhD and is no doubt looking forward to earning a considerable number of VPs over the next three years using the “slack off work watching online videos” action.


Unfortunately his whole plan is undermined by one key point: the boss always enters our office via the door directly behind his desk. What otherwise would have been a fine piece of long-term planning falls apart entirely because its orchestrator failed to consider the likely behaviour of his opponent. To the increasing exasperation of the boss, he also seems to be unable to learn and adapt his approach. There is something despairing in her expression when she catches him watching YouTube at the same time and in the same place as the day before.

Unlike my unfortunate colleague, board gamers need to try to predict the likely actions of their opponents and allow for them in their planning. It’s easy to get wrapped up in your own game and forget your opponents, but it is definitely a mistake. Keep an eye on their resources, actions, player boards etc. during the game, as this will help you to predict what they might be planning to do. You also need to be ready to respond when your opponents don’t behave as expected. Have a plan B, and when you get a chance to put off a decision without penalty, take it.

5. Kick them while they’re up.

Destructive play is important in many boardgames – to win you need to beat your opponents, not a pre-set score.

Seventeenth century farmers were a very alternative group of people, and couldn’t bear to be seen doing the same thing as any of their neighbours. In Agricola this is reflected by the fact that most farmyard actions – building fences, ploughing fields etc. – can only be done by a maximum of one player each round. The most common form of destructive play is therefore to take whatever action your opponent wants before they can, but deliberately depriving them of a key resource can also be effective.

Remember that it is only worth going out of your way to harm an opponent with whom you are in serious competition, not a beginner or someone in a very weak position. This means that before playing destructively you need to consider which of your opponents are hard and which are easy. Try to sit far away from any who are both. The number of opponents matters too: if you have n opponents who are all of comparable strength to you then helping yourself is n times as good as harming an opponent. Remember that your opponents might play destructively too, so don’t put all your eggs into one easily accessible basket, or sooner or later one of them will kick it over!

6. Be cool (like a physicist).

One final tip, and one that I myself am bad at, is to be emotionally detached. It is very easy to give up and play badly when you in fact still have a chance of winning, or to get complacent and overly happy when something goes your way and let your guard down. If you try not to let your emotions influence your play you will do better, and the less you show your emotions externally the less you will give away to your opponents.

Then again, I personally would ignore that last tip. A game, by definition, is something done for enjoyment rather than for a useful purpose, and it is very hard to enjoy something while being emotionally detached from it.

The real winners are the people who have the most fun, not who have the highest score (although there is sometimes a correlation). In fact, I would go as far as to argue that the “best” gamers are the ones who can lose a game thoroughly and still enjoy themselves – while at the same time allowing a less enlightened gamer to enjoy themselves by winning. This last point, of making sure that you have fun regardless of the outcome, is something that I am very bad at, and if someone else wants to write an article telling me how to do it I would be most interested!

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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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