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I have some players in my gaming group that seem to have a bit of a problem with devising their strategy. How can I help them improve?

First of all, I want to clarify - I dont need gateway games recommendations. We play various types of games, from Dobble or Times Up through Settlers of Catan and Discworld to Cyclades and Power Grid. Answers found here didnt help me one bit.

I'll elaborate on my problem:

We have a quite diverse gaming group. We have some hard-core thinkers and gamers, myself included, who like to plan, devise a strategy, have an idea for their play. On the other hand, we have some more casual players. They like to think about their moves, sometimes to the point of reaching Analysis Paralysis, choose what they think is best for them, but they have a problem with long term planning.

They tend to think in terms of the turn at hand, weighing immediate outcomes of their actions against each other. For example in a game of Catan, they will think whats best for them in long term, they will cut someones longest road when possible, they will take the best spot available when building a new city.

If there is no single move that brings immediate gain better than any of the other options, they get stuck. If they can build a road in one of two or three places, they wont think "hey, Mike has a long road and is cut off on the north. He will probably build it down south in a few turns, so I could cut him off too if I go there now". They have a few similar options in their hands and have a hard time figuring out what to do. Sometimes they even mumble "I dont know what to do" during play.

That is fine in some less strategy focused and/or complex games. But when we play games that reward some long term planning or too many options, they have problems or dislike the game. When we play Thunderstone, I tend to win, because I plan out what can I possibly draw from my deck and when will I reshuffle my library. I also tend to buy things with a plan for a deck, I seek out a combo or think what sort of hand would I like to have during the game and build a deck that delivers them. Some of our players tend to just buy the best card around. If the best cards are all bought out, they just randomly buy some of the other options, not having a plan for them. Yesterday I won two or three games in a row, and it was kind of a bummer.

We wanted to try some new boardgames, and we got Eclipse. I really loved the game and have LOTS of fun, but some of our players felt overwhelmed by the options. Its not like they didnt grasp the rules - we made some mistakes, but that was not the issues. They knew what they could do and how to do it. They just couldnt devise a plan. They had a problem getting an idea of what they would like to do/accomplish in a given round, so deciding what to do in every turn was annoying for them - they chose kind of randomly, because they felt they could'nt make an informed decision. All in all, they decided they didnt like the game very much.

So, my question is: How could I help our casual players better at developing a strategy? They are fine on the tactical level. They experiment and play with tactics. How can I help them transfer that attitude and abilities to a more strategical level?

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Have them take a class in game theory. My wife teaches game theory, and her winning percentage in our typical four-people game (two of us, plus two of our kids, or another couple) is about 40% in either Dominion, Settlers of Catan, TTR, Puerto Rico... you name it. –  StasK Oct 27 '13 at 3:19
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4 Answers 4

up vote 9 down vote accepted

Talk about it.

That's it; make the game a topic of conversation. Talk about it at random moments. Talk about your strategy when you're breaking out the game to play again. Talk about other players' moves while they're moving, and what plans they might be laying. Talk about how to break up an opponent's strategy, or even how to break up your own strategy. When the game ends, talk about how the winner pulled it off.

You should try to avoid boring the other people to death, of course, but the mere act of hearing about how you can plan for (some particular game) will put more tools in their toolbox the next time they play. These "non-strategic" players haven't put much thought into how to win these games, and probably don't know how you can do long-term planning for those games. Most games have a particular strategy that works well; some work best with purely-tactical moves, some work best when you've planned your strategy 15 turns ahead, some work with a mix of strategic planning and proper tactics as opportunities crop up. If you really want these players to improve, and they haven't figured it out themselves, share your hard-earned insights into the game. Don't keep your secret game-winning strategy to yourself just because you're a knowledge miser.

To illustrate, here are a few examples of things I didn't even realize were important until long after I started playing that particular game. (I make no claims to being a genius.) Withholding key insights from games can really cripple someone's ability to play well. Share some insights like these, and they'll start seeing how the game is more subtle than it initially looks.

Puerto Rico: you can screw other players by choosing Captain to force players to ship their valuable trade goods, and Craftsman is frequently a bad move.

Glory to Rome: it's a bad idea to play Craftsman cards to lead the Craftsman role, because the player to your left will Patron, and pick up a Craftsman client. Playing Craftsman cards to follow the role is only a good move if the player to your right led the Craftsman action.

Dominion: Coppers are bad, and should be actively removed if reasonably possible. If you want to afford Provinces, you really have to get your average-coins-per-card up.

Race for the Galaxy: I still don't understand how to do a proper mix of military and trading strategies. Sure, there are plenty of developments that support both, and no military tableau should purely be military developments and military worlds, but the major source of victory points for a military strategy is the high-value military worlds, right?

Power Grid: Don't buy a power plant every round; only do it when it's a significant improvement over what you already have.

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This is a common problem among beginner Go players; they tend to focus on short-term tactics and lose sight of the big picture. Even if they win their battles, they're still likely to lose the war.

I find the best tool for teaching long-term strategy for such cases is game reviews. In Go clubs, it's not uncommon to see a game disassembled after the match is finished, and replayed piece-by-piece from the beginning to discuss and analyze each move. It's one thing to mention that such-a-such a move was a good or a bad idea after the game, but it's another entirely to be able to show the exact game-state when the move was played, exactly how the game evolved after that move, and point to concrete examples of how that strategy affected the game board.

Such reviews often include variations (as in, "Oh, but what if I did this instead?"), allowing both players to explore exactly how particular moves (or lack thereof) affect the particular game state of the board at that particular time.

Hindsight, as they say, is 20-20.

Go has the advantage of being a fairly simple game to review, at least mechanically. An experienced player with a bit of practice can easily replay most of if not an entire game from memory; this would of course be complicated in other board games with more complex pieces, extra players, or elements of randomization.

The basic principle would still apply though: Recreate the progression of the game state, and show concrete examples of how early moves affected later progress. This could, theoretically, be done simply by making a video of the game and watching it later, but I find that nothing can really replace the benefits of re-playing the physical game from the beginning (if only because it makes it easier to add and remove pieces as needed to explore variations).

I don't know if there's any game-recording standard for, say, Settlers of Catan or Power Grid, but it would be worth looking into. This would allow one person to record each turn of the game, so it can be perfectly re-created (and reviewed) at any time.

(this of course assumes that the casual players actually care enough about the games in question to want to improve; in my experience, many casual gamers simply prefer to stay casual gamers and avoid the heavy long-term-complex-strategy-thinking entirely)

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Great answer, but on a different angle than I expected. Im kinda looking for a way to teach my group strategical thinking and defining their own mid-term goals regardless of the game we play. More of teaching a mindset that strategizing technique. Also, replaying a game of, say RfTG is kinda tough... But still, I really appreciate the effort! –  K.L. Oct 15 '13 at 21:26
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@K.L. After reviewing Go games for so long, I found my ability to think strategically in any game vastly improved, regardless of mechanic. I reckon you'd get a similar effect from regularly playing and reviewing any sufficiently-strategic game you're all familiar with, rather than needing to review every different game separately. –  goldPseudo Oct 15 '13 at 22:10
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Every bridge club I have played at, over the past 45 years in many cities, had a group of regular players who did the same type of thing. When they start remembering every card played in all 26 hands one is initially intimidated, but with effort and practice one slowly starts to catch up; and one's play improves at the same time. The two are not unrelated. –  Pieter Geerkens Oct 16 '13 at 2:26
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I would try to get my "non-strategic" friends to start at the end, and then thinking "backward" to the beginning.

For instance, in Settlers of Catan, you need 10 victory points (VPs), and you start with two (your two settlements). So you need eight more.

Speaking of which, how do you get those eight? You have three more settlements to place, (3VPs), and can upgrade to four cities (four more VPs, nine total). Where does the 10th VP come from?

I'm not clear on this point, but I believe that once you've upgraded one settlement to a city, you get the settlement token back and can build four (instead of three) more, then end with four cities and two settlements.

Otherwise, there are a bunch of other ways to get the 10th VP (see the link).

What does this mean for resources? Early on, you need brick and wood for settlements and roads, but later, grain and ore to upgrade to cities, plus wool to buy development cards. Managing this "transition" is probably the hardest part of the gane,

An example of this was my own question on Settlers of Catan

(This came from someone who is just learning the game, to play with his nephew and niece over Christmas.)

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You're right that, when you upgrade a settlement to a city, you get the settlement token back, and can then 're-build' it for an additional VP. –  tttppp Oct 15 '13 at 17:40
    
@tttppp: Thanks for the heads up. –  Tom Au Oct 15 '13 at 19:04
    
This is a strategy for how to win Settlers at Catan. How do you help other people learn how to win? –  Paul Marshall Nov 21 '13 at 19:07
    
@PaulMarshall: Opening sentence: "I would try to get my "non-strategic" friends to start at the end, and then thinking "backward" to the beginning." I spent the rest of the answer reconstructing the thought process to illustrate the point. –  Tom Au Nov 21 '13 at 19:17
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How would you get them to think that way? Talking to them in-game? Outside the game? Wall-of-text emails? Sending them links to Settlers of Catan strategy sites? Get a vanity printer to put your favorite strategy in a book? Stage an intervention? That opening sentence is the most direct answer you have to the question, and it's extremely vague; the rest of it is tangential details on the specific facts they need to learn about a particular game, rather than how they're going to learn those facts. –  Paul Marshall Nov 21 '13 at 19:22
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I"m not too sure as to how helpful this will be because I plan games all the time but 7 wonders has 3 rounds in which most of your points get scored in the last meaning you will need to plan how you will play cards in the 3rd round if it be by having the precursor building, having a lot of resource generation, or gold to trade with. In our group people that started off getting low scores seem to have found ways to plan their play to improve their scores quite a bit

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How did you help them improve? I don't see anything in your answer that suggests how to teach strategic gaming to non-gamer players. –  Paul Marshall Oct 22 '13 at 0:49
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