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Here's a scenario to illustrate my question. My wife and I were playing Ticket To Ride: Nordic Countries earlier this evening - apologies if you don't own this particular edition, but hopefully the basic situation will be obvious to anyone who's played any TTR, even if you're unfamiliar with the map.

We'd both drawn a poor selection of Destination cards and kept only two each. My first play was Orebro - Stockholm. The next two routes were played by my wife: Kobenhavn - Karlskrona, and Karlskrona - Norrkoping. At this point, with a spare red ticket in my hand, I opportunistically played Stockholm - Norrkoping!

With both the southern entries to Stockholm blocked, my poor wife now had no choice, if she wanted to link Kobenhavn to the top right segment of the board, to undertake a cruelly circuitous route, involving three turns and ten tickets, instead of one single ticket and a single turn. I patiently endured the two minutes of dire recriminations and imprecations that followed my dastardly move, and ended up winning the game by in the region of 20 points - hardly a landslide.

I'm just wondering whether this kind of thing would be considered poor sportsmanship in other groups. I ask because there was a question on this very site about whether it was poor form, in Settlers of Catan, to pretend to want to trade for a good, to sneakily fish for information before playing a Monopoly card. To me that seems like a perfectly sensible procedure, but a lot of people seemed horrified at such unsportsmanlike practice!

There's an argument that one should play Ticket to Ride only "by the book" - making only plays that actively help to score Destination cards in one's hands. I would counter that, in an exclusively 2/3 player game like Nordic Countries, blocking one or both of the other players can be just as beneficial as straightforwardly aiming to score routes, if not more so. If another player has drawn and kept 5 amazingly compatible routes and I am going to struggle with my 2, why is it unfair for me to "even the odds" a little by throwing a spanner into my opponent's works? Essentially, I don't understand why it's okay for me to try to crush an opponent by "above board" means, and not okay to do that by "devious" play.

In a game with many players I think a purely blocking move could be slightly more dubious, on the ground that it will probably only mess with some players, allowing others to pull ahead: it's kingmaking, basically, and that can be really annoying. But is there anything wrong with such tactics in a 2-3 player game, where it can obviously be an effective route to victory? Would a player who regularly tries to spoil your plans rather than concentrate on his own be persona non grata before too long?

Certainly it really gets my wife's goat - I'm lucky I'm not sleeping on the couch tonight!

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You do not actually have to ask people if anyone has a resource. You are allowed to count the stockpiles at any time. So you always know exactly how many cards a monopoly will give you. The point is people cry about dumb things, anything that is not cheating is fair –  Andrey May 5 '11 at 13:13
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It seems like your question isn't really about whether it's ethical (it just boils down to the question of whether it's cheating) but instead about whether it's good sportsmanship, wise, or polite. Andrey's comment is the correct answer if you're truly wondering about ethics. –  Firefeather May 6 '11 at 18:50
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I don't fully understand the distinction people are drawing between "ethics" and "sportsmanship/wisdom/tact/politeness", but perhaps my personal definition of the word is a bit screwy. For me ethics is just interchangeable with "how one should ideally behave", under any interpretation of that phrase. –  thesunneversets May 6 '11 at 18:55
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Sorry, I didn't see your comment in response. You're not far off with your definition of ethics, but it's less about behavior and who you are than it is about accepted principles of right vs. wrong. Ethics considers questions of right and wrong outside of specific applications. The distinction is that it's very possible to do something that's ethical (not "wrong" or against the rules), yet still isn't nice. I think the question of whether blocking is bad sportsmanship is a good question; it's just not the same as the question of ethics. –  Firefeather May 6 '11 at 19:34
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Honestly, I'm kind of surprised no one has linked to the Penny Arcade comic. NSFW: penny-arcade.com/comic/2012/04/16 –  aslum Mar 16 '13 at 14:40
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11 Answers

up vote 41 down vote accepted

There seems nothing unethical about such a move - opposite to your example of pretending to want to trade (which in my book is clearly unethical because it involves active lying), this move is just one of two main winning strategies:

  1. Get more points for yourself
  2. Limit points of the opponents

There is no lying or obfuscation - you are making it harder to win for the opponent by legal game means without any metagaming (like looking at an opponent's cards or hustling opponents into telling you some information which you shouldn't know while playing by the rules, like in your Settlers example).

Basically this move could be similar to a situation in Settlers when you put a robber on someone and also yourself - you are losing something (a turn in TTR) but in certain situations limiting the opponent more.

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I think it's more similar to playing a blocking road in Settlers. See this discussion for more: boardgamegeek.com/thread/68652/the-infamous-road-block-strategy –  tttppp Jan 10 '11 at 13:06
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Hmm, does asking "does anyone have any stone they'd be willing to trade?" really count as lying? I guess it's certainly obfuscation. But in many ways it's nicer than just playing the Monopoly, because you get to find out if people have stone they'd be willing to part with - if they really, desperately NEEDED it they wouldn't (or shouldn't) say anything! –  thesunneversets Jan 10 '11 at 17:05
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@thesunneversets - I would say, that it is more lying because you are not hiding (obfuscating) your intention under another "true" (Not implying false information) sentence , like "anybody knows, if there is still some stone available?", but implying that you are asking for the sake of a trade, which you are not actually going to make. In the obfusction category would fall a similar move, where you trade away something and in the same turn claim it back with a monopoly - here you didnt cheat out any information, but just acted maybe a bit unsportmanlike. –  Krišjānis Nesenbergs Jan 11 '11 at 13:43
    
@thesunneversets - About the second part of yur comment - I think it is deffinately not nicer than not asking, because, by asking you not only hustle the information, but also instill false hope of possible deal and your argument of not saying anything if you really NEED resource yourself doesnt hold its own in different groups (almost allways at least that resource is needed, but another or even two might be better, so will encourage people to voice their readiness to trade). Also blaming a victim is usually not a morally acceptable answer :) –  Krišjānis Nesenbergs Jan 11 '11 at 13:51
    
I completely agree. If you are making a move in game, it should only be considered unethical if you are motivated by factors outside the game, or are intentionally making a move that you fully believe is not the optimal move. However much this move "screw" the other player(s), if you truly believe you are making the most beneficial move you could make, then you are in the right. –  Gundabad Feb 28 '11 at 14:47
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In my opinion this is a justifiable move. You compared it with the pretend trades in Catan. I'd say that the Catan situation is much more borderline than this: One exploits a player's trust to gain an advantage. In your situation you are merely speculating on your opponent's goals and sacrifice a turn to make a counter move.

It all however depends on your group. If it's a very non-confrontational group then this move will get you more criticism than in a cutthroat group. You'll also have to be prepared to handle the consequences when the rest of your group adapt to this play style and become more confrontational themself.

In Tock/Dog (Pachisi variant) games we usually play all nice and non-confrontational at the beginning. But at some point one person just has too good of an opportunity to send someone else home and takes it. After that, war is pretty much inevitable and people send each other home as often as they can.

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Well, it depends on how much longer you want to keep playing board games with your wife! :-) Every gaming group tolerates a different level of "screwosity" - people making blocking moves such as yours only to derail an opponent. My group loves it. It sounds like your wife doesn't. It's not specific to Ticket to Ride. If your wife wants to play where you can only advance your own cause, then you'll have to adapt to that.

In all fairness to you, your wife possibly made a tactical error. If there's a critical leg in one of your routes, you need to claim it first. You don't have to build your route in order. We don't know if she had the card to do that though.

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Personally I try not to start building routes that are heading towards a "bottleneck" until I have the cards in advance! If I was her I wouldn't have started building from Kobenhavn towards Stockholm, telegraphing my reliance on the Stockholm-Norrkoping corridor; I'd have hoarded cards and waited to build Stockholm-Norrkoping first. The way she went about it was relying on me not to rock a boat that I could see setting sail, practically daring me to make the block. I guess she tends to overestimate my desire to keep the peace between us! –  thesunneversets Jan 10 '11 at 21:32
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We definitely block in our group, though not as much anymore, since I've discovered that I'm usually too tight for trains for routes to be able to do it much. I've really hosed myself sometimes.

If you play online, you'll definitely see blocking moves played.

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At the end of the game I missed being able to claim one of my routes because I was one train short. If I hadn't built Stockholm - Norrkoping I'd probably have had it! Then again, if I hadn't built Stockholm to Norrkoping my wife would probably have built the Lieksa - Murmansk 9-length route and gained a whopping 27 points! So it's all about weighing up potential gains and losses. –  thesunneversets Jan 10 '11 at 17:08
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It's not unethical at all, unless you're playing a game agreed to be "no blocking."

Note that it's less effective in the Europe version, so is done less in that flavor, but even then, blocking is a part of the strategy set for successful players of all flavors of TTR.

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I don't know why this is even a question. The goal of a game is to win, and half of winning is preventing others from winning before you are able to. If blocking a route prevents your opponent from winning, then how could anything be unethical about it?

If you aren't allowed to do anything to affect other players, you are all just playing solitaire on a shared board. You may as well just each grab a deck of cards and play real solitaire at that point.

Also, this is a completely different situation than the Settlers example, but I think that is perfectly valid strategy as well. There is nothing in the rules that says you must make a trade when you ask if anyone is willing to trade a particular resource. And like others have said, asking if they have any they are willing to trade doesn't mean that they are going to tell you they have said resource.

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Maybe I'm reading into your answer too much, but "I don't know why this is even a question" seems kind of hostile, and could be dialed back a notch or two. –  LittleBobbyTables May 4 '11 at 15:32
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@LittleBobbyTables - No hostility intended - I seriously don't know why this is a question. Unless you are knowingly breaking the rules of a game, nothing you do can do within the game can be considered unethical. Not nice, sure, but unethical? No. Unless, of course, there's a definition of unethical that I'm unaware of (which is possible). –  Charles Boyung May 4 '11 at 15:44
    
It's a question because I do play games with a lot of people who are perfectly (ish) happy to be beaten by you pursuing your strategy on your side of the board more effectively than they're pursuing their strategy on their side of the board. But if you go over to their side of the board and start making moves that don't increase your positive victory points, just negatively impact theirs, they get really angry. Without debating the precise definition of "ethics", I feel like there's definitely room to consider whether it's legitimate to play in a style that makes others feel unhappy! –  thesunneversets May 4 '11 at 17:50
    
@thesunneversets - I agree completely, but that's a different question. The answers here all seem to be talking about "ethics", not whether or not it makes others unhappy if you play a certain way. But I do believe that playing that way is not playing how the game was intended to be played, so at that point, you're playing with "house rules". And if you have an established house rule, either explicit or implicit (e.g. you don't want to upset your wife), then not following it would be akin to breaking the rules and in that case would be unethical. –  Charles Boyung May 4 '11 at 21:10
    
Well, I think like you, basically. But we've never established any such explicit house rules in my group and people always complain if you seem to be nobbling their strategy at the expense of promoting your own. I don't necessarily understand what you mean by an "implicit house rule", but if it's "generally implicit" that blatantly sabotaging other players' strategies is bad, then that does seem to me a wider question of ethics... even if the rules do not condemn, or indeed seem to encourage, such a play style. –  thesunneversets May 4 '11 at 21:16
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The only time a situation like this can become unethical is in a multiplayer game. As long as every player makes moves with a goal to win it is perfectly fair. On the other hand, if a player desires that they are going to carry out some personal vendetta this game, and instead of working to win just tries to block one other player, letting a third party get ahead it becomes a problem.

I can imagine situations like "if you go there, i am going to spend the rest of the game just blocking you so don't" That is not a game i would want to be in. But maybe someone would.

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Upvoted for raising a good point. Whether or not blocking another player's progress is obnoxious in a two-player game (and I agree with everyone that it isn't really, and those who perceive it as such are muddled in their thinking) - the issue becomes a lot more thorny in a multiplayer game. Even if aggressively blocking your nearest rival while you are in pole position may increase your chances of coming first, it can dramatically and "unfairly" change the final placings. And kingmaking when you aren't even going to win is a VERY contentious issue, of course... –  thesunneversets May 5 '11 at 17:53
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I would approach this on two levels: 1) the game, and 2) the opponent.

From a purely GAMING point of view, I see nothing wrong with it. "Blocking" is a feature of most games. And in most games, "it's all relative," meaning that it pays to make a move that may hurt you some, but your opponent more.

I'd think twice about using such tactics if your opponent was your wife. Because it could cost you in some other arenas.

(I once wrote a short story about a "mixed" couple playing "mixed doubles" tennis, "we were both pulling our punches because it was our [respective] mates on the other side of the net.")

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People block all the time but it is nice to agree upfront whether blocking is on the table.

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You know, it never occurred to me to ask whether playing a completely legitimate move in a competitive game is "ethical". The designers already figured that out when they made the rules.

Now, if you are making up your own house rules that say you can make binding contracts with players, like "if you give me the Edinburgh route, I'll let you build to Stockholm" then you are not playing the same game. Good designers and HUSBANDS should figure out that kind of game balance in advance.

I'd honestly say that IF a player is pressuring another player to not compete, because "well, I did something nice for you whenever" then stop playing games with them. That's not game playing. That's some ugly passive aggressive relationship stuff. You should play games to AVOID situations like that. I'm not saying it happened in your case, but I have seen it sour more than one social event.

Just go with this scenario in the future: You are playing hearts. The other player is trying to run the hearts (aka getting a lot of points, and causing the other players to lose points). Should you stop them? If you play with people that answer that question differently, your games won't be very fun, I can tell you.

There's a reason there are rules to games. It's to answer questions like the one you brought up.

"Essentially, I don't understand why it's okay for me to try to crush an opponent by "above board" means, and not okay to do that by "devious" play." Exactly. And players are free agree upon house rules before a game starts. That's totally cool, and can solve a lot of problems. But you should really agree(!), and before the game.

Bohnanza is one of the least cutthroat competitive games I've played. You trade with people, yeah you can lie or not, but a deal is a deal. Most people enjoy taking the attitude that every deal you make should benefit both parties (but you more, of course). It makes for an amiable and less competitive game. Even so, cutthroat players will have a blast promising all kinds of "future considerations" if you give them what they want NOW. Awww, there's been an unexpected market change in soy commodities. Ah well, I'd catch you up next game (Ha!).

One more comment and I'll shut up. :) There are situations where you think you are playing one game (like a fun online multi-player WW2 FPS), and you find out quickly that you are really playing the victim in someone else spawn camping game. Yeah, that sucks. It's due to poor game design. By contrast, TTR, Settlers and Bohnanza are examples of good game design.

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Spawn camping is different. It is beneficial to the player. I think the best example of bad play is driving the wrong way in a racing game. You are not going to win, but you sure as hell are going to ruin the fun for everyone else –  Andrey Jul 25 '13 at 13:41
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In Ticket to Ride we aim to "play nice" and not perform pure blocking moves for several reasons:

  • provide a more friendly and casual atmosphere
  • save the less experienced players from getting slaughtered

Playing to win at all costs is a surefire way of peeving off at least half my gaming group (including any female spouses), but in a competitive setting, why not?

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I always feel like "slaughtering" a less experienced player is okay if you do it in a nice way (i.e. being willing to demonstrate to them how they might be able to beat you the next time), as opposed to a horrible gloating one. Competitiveness for its own sake is bad, but so is playing very suboptimally in a game which is designed to have winners and losers... –  thesunneversets Jul 25 '13 at 12:49
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