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When I play board games with my games group, I'm usually more competitive than I would otherwise be. I want to win and try to find the most efficient way to get the most points. However, I know that I'm not usually very good at spotting where the points in a game come from, unless maybe when the theme of the game is really good and guides me to victory. At the same time, others in my games group are usually very good and seem to approach games in a very analytical and victory points focused way. In this article, I want to look at how this type of approach might work and see if it'll help me learn anything from it.
I don't enjoy the mental gymnastics required to plot out tons of options and repercussions. I usually focus on my short term goal in a game, with a long term goal in the background. I then will try to ascertain the goals of other players, and then decide if pursuing my own goals is more valuable than trying to stop their goals.
Games like Lords of Hellas and Root highlight this kind of play. I have felt like every other turn in Root has to be spent on ruining someone else's day.
Playing with people who over-think it (analysis paralysis) is SO not fun... winning the game is just not worth destroying everyone else's enjoyment.
Puerto Rico has such an optimized path that I've played with folks who get very agitated when you DON'T pick the obviously best role card (best role for you and letting them anticipate the round and their pick as well) and instead pick a card that marginally helps another player more or serves your own goals in a sub optimal way. They will screech "kingmaker!!!" and wring their hands but really it is just a player living more in the moment than they.
Some games MUST be played this way though, like all those Friedmann Friese math games, as the game optimization aspects ARE the game, and efficiency engine building is basically the sole goal. Making a pretty city arraignment in Power Grid is meaningless.
Min-maxing is most objectionable (to me anyway) when it compromises a storytelling game or a RPG. Things like dump stats, picking weapons, items, or spells purely for their in game effects, or wonky skill choices that seem to be contradictory just to push a bonus as high as possible. Some of those games may have a "winner" to justify this behavior but usually the games are more about the trip instead of the destination, it is the players mindset to "win" at all costs.
Chapter 17 gives specific recommendations for VP goals for each of the 16 characters. For example, the Druid can read magic and is immune to curses, so he should prioritize VP from Spells. The White Knight is a monster killing machine who should emphasize VP from Fame. The Black Knight is very effective against human opponents, so he should focus on Notoriety. And yet all characters should seek points in more than just one category, because it's difficult to score high enough with just one category. But all of this advice is conditional, possibly affected by number of players in the game, map layout, and specific characters played by opponents.
Certainly some games are broken with just a few vastly superior strategies but for most there are optimal ways to play but enough chance in the system that anyone could still win with a baseline amount of competence.
For example, you might assign 2 points of VP goals to Fame. But every 10 points of Fame gained in the game gets divided by 10 when comparing with your goal, so you need to gain at least 20 Fame to meet your goal of 2 VP in Fame. Notoriety is divided by 20, Spells are divided by 2, and Great Treasures count on a one-for-one basis. Gold is divided by 10, after subtracting the gold cost of your starting weapon and armor. Then there is are penalty points for missing each goal and bonus points for exceeding each goal. I found an online VP calculator and use that instead of wrestling with the math.
Some Magic Realm players ignore the VP system completely, and instead use the fan-made Book of Quests. Each player picks a Quest at the start of the game, and the first player to complete their Quest wins the game. However, the Quests replace the complexity of the VP system with other rules and complications.
Your personality can shine through when there are sufficient options and enough uncertainty about them that you have to play the odds a bit, or hope to convince other players to go along with your approach in order to succeed. This can be co-op or competitive, doesn't matter. But when luck is removed from the game, especially post-decision luck, Mr. Spock shows up (or, more to the point four or five Mr. Spocks show up, all sitting at the same table and all concluding the best correct move together as a committee) and at that point I can go get drinks for everyone while they decide what I do with my turn.
So "Min-Max" to me has become an epithet, a way to insult a game as not terribly engaging or thought provoking. Given the inevitable discussion of "point salad" which followed on in these comments, that design approach is an attempt to make the decision space big enough to prevent other players from having significant impact on how you proceed, in spite of there being more or less zero post-decision luck in the game.
This is about removing luck from games, particularly post-decision luck. Designers have been working their way deeper into the thin end of the envelope because they're chasing the "gamer" market. Designers that let luck happen suddenly find they can create a game where one way to earn one point -- e.g. first one across the finish line -- is sufficient for everyone to have fun. The design space opens up and things blossom from there. Plenty of games to choose from in this part of the market.
To me min-maxing is sacrificing play FUN for the sake of play optimization, though a game that forces players to make nothing but hard choices can be a valid game design as well. And there are certainly players that derive lots of fun out of wringing every last bit of game mechanic optimization out of the system regardless of in game thematic consequences. Most games probably require min maxing in order to function else a player is essentially wasting their turn (either through disinterest, novice play choices, or deliberate sabotage of another player despite knowing it is a suboptimal move for themself).
- I am good at math
- Arithmetic is boring
- You don't really have a choice, you just have the illusion of choice
As Sag points out, you need some element of the unknown to begin to make these sorts of games interesting. The best games are the ones where the other players are the primary uncontrolled variable (i.e. what other players do impacts you in a significant way).Throwing in a little randomness that can be quickly calculated or intuited with some basic knowledge of probability adds drama and fun.