First Level Strategies

Whether you’re just learning your first hobby board game, or you’re diving into your most recently acquired heavy Euro, you will probably need at least half a game to figure out what you should be doing on a given turn. By now, I’ve played about 1000 different games, and even if I can have a good idea of what to do in a game even after hearing a few rules, it’s always good for a game to give you a few pointers, and if an experienced gamer will appreciate them, muggles definitely will!

Yet, I get annoyed at games which take your hand, and tell you exactly what to do for the first few turns: why doesn’t the game start on turn 4 then? I want to be guided, not pushed! Of course, some games hit that balance better than others.

Why include first level strategies in a design?

In today’s world, most games are played once and judged on that play alone –personally, about 42% (356 of 841) of the games for which I’ve logged a play have not seen a second one. If it takes a full game to figure out how to do anything in it, it probably won’t get a second chance.

Not only that, it also gives you a better experience. Having an idea of what you’re doing early means you’ll feel like you are still getting stuff done, even if later you’ll realize you could have done more. It’s especially true given that the alternative is frustration. Lots and lots of frustration, and research has shown the moments you pay the most attention to when evaluating something are the beginning and the end. Frustration in the beginning is hard to come back from because it taints your view of the whole thing.

Even after repeated plays, those first-level strategies become an important tool, a way to quickly identify the least interesting possibilities. Your first level strategy becomes a measuring stick to which you can compare your second-level strategies, when you get to that level. Dominion is often criticized for how strong the Big Money strategy is, but many articles have been written proving that adding a single action can make it better: however, on a given turn, if the cards you have access to don’t help more than a money card, you end up defaulting to a money card, because your first-level strategy helped you identify it as a decent move.

Overall, it’s important to think about providing a good hint of direction for the players, so they don’t get lost in their first game, but also because it will help them in later ones.

Examples of first-level strategy

It’s hard to say how to include a first-level strategy in a game, because of course they’ll differ based on what your game is. Yet, there are some near-universal first level strategies:

  • In asymmetric games: use your special power as often as possible;
  • In games with private objectives/contracts: try to complete that objective as soon as possible;
  • In worker placement games: get that extra worker as soon as possible;
  • In deck building games: buy the most expensive card you can buy;
  • In coop games: put out the fires!
  • In games with Feed-your-people: GET THAT FOOD!
  • In games with tech trees/special abilities: get special powers early, scoring stuff later;
  • In games with end-of-round scoring: do whatever scores this round as much as possible;
  • In games with variable set-up: does this set-up advantage a specific option?
  • When you play last: do whatever others haven’t done.

Many of those are based on the assumption that every option in a game is balanced in and of itself, and therefore, anything which gives one of those options an extra oomf will get you ahead.

Why does being aware of these things matter? Two reasons: first, that is what players with gaming baggage will default to as a first level strategy: it’s an easy one to stick in if you haven’t figured out where to go from there. In a way, it’s a first-level strategy to first-level strategies. *insert Inception reference*

Also, if you go against type, it might help you understand why players go in a different way then you expect. When you try to innovate, some players might get stuck in the reasoning that they’re used to, even if it doesn’t work in a specific game. If you’re in that situation, with an innovative mechanism that players don’t seem to interact with as you want them to, this might be why.

Specific games

Five Tribes is a worker movement game. Every turn, you choose one of 30 locations, take all the meeples on it, and make a path, dropping a meeple on a location adjacent to the previous one, until you dropped the last one: on that tile, you take all the meeples of that color, do an action for the color of meeple, and for the tile you landed on, and if it’s now empty, you take control of it. On the first turn, you have about 6500 possible moves (that math might be wrong), and while that number goes down over time, it’s still a very open ended one. It doesn’t lake long before you start to figure out that some spots are better than others: a tile full of a single color is easy to empty, 5+ meeples on a spot allows you to loop, white meeples on a Sanctuary pays for itself. This allows you to go from 6500 possibilities to quickly identify the 4-5 most viable ones, which is a much easier analysis.

Alhambra is a tile laying game where you must buy tiles with money cards. If you pay with exact change, you get to play again. That’s an interesting choice for multiple reason: first, it feels great to chain two, three, four turns because you have exact change; second, it gives a lot of meaning to those small-value cards as a way to stay flexible; third, it gives you something to aim for during your first game -doing more is better, and paying exact change lets me do more! As you play the game more, you start betting on those less and less, but I think the mechanism still deserves a mention because its incentive is purely intrinsic: it feels good to play again.

Piece o’ Cake (which you may know under its newer name New York Slice) is a really interesting I-Cut-You-Choose game. ICYC games are quite difficult to do well at, because you kind of have to figure out what everybody wants to do to know which pieces they’d be interested in, and then cut it as to not give any one player a huge advantage. In Piece o’ Cake, each piece can be kept to compete for majorities, but also eaten for straight points (between 1-3, as many as there are dollops of whipped cream on them). Counting those dollops gives you an excellent first-level strategy: if there are 27 dollops, and 4 players, you’re aiming for about 7 dollops per share. From there, you can try and get clever: do you keep two pieces of the same type together, but give them a smaller share? Do you split up pieces of a type you’re strong in to keep opponents from catching up? I’ve played Piece o’ Cake close to 40 times, and I still use that measuring stick anytime I have to cut.

Endeavour has you gain tokens which increase your abilities, and they work by thresholds: if you have 0-1 bricks, you can build level 1 buildings; 2-3 is level 2, 4-6 is level 3, 7-9 is level 4, and 10+ is level 5. That threshold system is a first-level strategy in and of itself: you don’t want to finish the round just short of the next level. That affects the way you plan your turns, to make sure you don’t fall just short of the payoff, and since those thresholds are also worth points at the end of the game, it remains an important part of your strategic thinking throughout.

Think about your favorite game: what first-level strategy have you internalized about it? If you showed it to someone for the first time, and they asked for a few pointers, what would you say?

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