I play a lot of board games, especially Eurogames, and one thing that grinds my gears (no, not Tzolk'in gears) is that too many people don't know how to make effective decisions for playing to win. That's why I'm starting this series on how to play board games (and card games) well. In doing so, I hope to pin down and share some of the patterns that help me decide what to do. There's always the possibility that this will just lead to more analysis paralysis as people consider every move thoroughly, but that's a risk I'm willing to take.
For the first installment, I'm going to cover basic principles and ideas. Not all of these will apply to every game, but I'll try to strike a balance where they're specific enough to use in some games, but not limited to a single game.
Part of the challenge of learning to play board games competitively is figuring out what is and isn't acceptable behavior. This is largely contextual. Among friends, the priority should be fun for everyone, which might mean calling a game off when people no longer want to play. Quitting in the middle of a multiplayer game can really warp the game, ruining people's strategies and the game balance. Friends may tolerate it, but in a competitive setting, you have an obligation to stick it out and playing graciously even when you don't have a chance of winning.
In a two-player game, it's more acceptable to admit defeat and concede before the game is officially over. On the other hand, you'll never manage that magnificent comeback if you give up before you're dead and buried.
It's ultimately personal preference, both for you and your game group. Just remember, if you're no fun to play games with, you won't find many opportunities to play.
It sounds dumb, but I'm constantly surprised at how people miss opportunities to win. Part of it is paying attention. In games with a variable end condition, you can often secure a victory by ending the game while you're temporarily ahead... so long as you notice. Think of buying the last one or two cards from a pile in Dominion or using the Mayor to call in the last colonists in Puerto Rico. If you are playing competitively, your goal is to win the game, not to get the highest score possible. It might mean ending the game before you get your awesome combo online, but it also prevents your opponent from doing the same. You don't have to outscore everyone who ever played: it's more important that the game ends while you're currently ahead of the people you're playing against.
A straightforward example is in Settlers of Catan. Often, when players approach a game-winning 10 points, the leaders slow down because other players stop trading with them and there's less room to expand, so pretty soon there are two or even three players within striking distance of victory. In cases like these, the winner is the one who can briefly grab that burst of points that wins them the game. If you can build enough roads to snatch the Longest Road bonus from someone else momentarily, that can be enough to win. Your Longest Road doesn't have to be unbeatable — if it ends the game, your opponents don't get a chance to earn it back.
Think twice before you make a move that reveals your hidden information to your opponents, or commits you to a particular strategy. When you do this, you are giving your opponent information that he can use against you. This means that when you make any decision, you have to balance what it reveals about your plans against what it gains you immediately. Furthermore, you can lock yourself into a given path, instead of leaving yourself the flexibility to back out and salvage your plans if it goes awry. When you have multiple opportunities to make a revealing move, delay as long as it's free to do so, and make less telling decisions first.
Magic: The Gathering is the most extreme example of this, because you can play Instant cards at almost any time. Rather than attacking with two creatures and casting Giant Growth to make one more threatening right away, you can wait to see how your opponent blocks and decide whether to use Giant Growth to save a creature that would've died, to punch through an extra 3 damage, or even to save the Giant Growth for another turn. If you had played it earlier, you would be letting your opponent make those decisions for you, which is not likely to end in your favor.
The same goes, usually to a lesser extent, for most games. In 7 Wonders: Leaders, the order you play your leader cards can give your opponents information about what you're aiming for. Since victory points are only assessed at endgame, you can save a leader like Pericles (who awards victory points for building red cards) for the final age. If you commit to Pericles early, your opponents can counter you by burying red cards in their Wonders and the discard pile, or fighting you for them; but you're locked into the strategy regardless. Waiting until the third age benefits you in two ways: your opponents don't realize that you'll be getting points for the red cards you draft throughout the game; and in the eventuality that you actually didn't buy enough red cards, you can do a last-minute change of plans and play another leader card in the third age instead.
Not all games are based on points, but most have some kind of analogue for it, like life totals or total pieces remaining. The trick to analyzing which moves are best is figuring out which of your resources is most limiting, and finding the most efficient path in converting it into game-winning points. Tip: In many Eurogames, your most limited resource is turns. That means you can analyze the utility of moves with patterns like, "How many turns did it take me to earn these points?"
Magic: The Gathering is an interesting case because, in Magic, your most limited resource usually turns out to be cards in hand. This is why Ancestral Recall is part of the Power Nine, and why the term card advantage is a big part of Magic parlance.
For a more Eurogame-y perspective, consider building costs in 7 Wonders. The Palace provides 8 victory points on one card (great value!) but costs one each of all 7 resources, which don't give you points directly. At about 1 card each (counting the freebie on your Wonder and the turn it takes to play the Palace itself), that's 7 turns invested for 8 points. Compare that with the Pantheon, which is 7 victory points, and you can build it by using the tech tree from the Temple, which itself can be built from the Altar, a free card — both of which also earn you points directly. In other words, that's three turns invested for 12 points of payoff. When you compare the two, you realize that the resources you used to build the Palace had better earn you more value to even it out.
Most Eurogames have a fairly straightforward structure, where you start with very little, build up and accelerate into bigger and better stuff, and then cash out for big points at the end. Thus, you value your resources and opportunities differently in each phase of the game.
In the early game, you're trying to get your engine running: getting access to all the resources and setting up to acquire powerful abilities that will give you an advantage all game long. For example, a good Agricola opener involves getting the resources to expand your hut and add a family member as soon as possible, because a larger family size in Agricola is such a large, permanent advantage. The early game is also the most standardized in many games because you start from a narrow range of initial conditions.
The midgame is when you start to actually acquire those powerful abilities, and put them to use getting as much value as possible. In the midgame, you also want to build toward the big finishers that you'll be taking in the endgame: like storing up cash to buy one of the large buildings in Puerto Rico.
In the endgame, your goal is to direct all your resources towards victory (probably points) as directly as possible. It's usually worth little or nothing to have resources (like money) left over when the game's over, so you should spend everything you have before the game is over. In the last turn or two, even an inefficient exchange can be worthwhile if it gives you immediate points.
For example, in Kingsburg, the Embassy is a great building that gives you a point at the end of every round, which makes it much more useful over time than the Church, whose ongoing effect is almost nothing. In the endgame, however, that valuation is swapped, because the Embassy doesn't have much time to apply its effects, while the Church gives you an immediate burst of 7 points.
Another example is Mining Village in Dominion. Most of the time, it's better to keep the Mining Village in your deck than trash it for a temporary $2. However, in your last turn or two you almost always want to trash it for cash so you can buy more victory points. Mining Villages in your deck are worth nothing in endgame scoring, but if trashing one or two of them gets you the cash you needed for one more Province, it was worth it.
The net loss or gain resulting from an action depends on the number of players and their relative standings. In particular, two-player games are very different from games with three or more players. A two-player game very frequently approaches zero-sum: there's very little difference between gaining 2 points or making your opponent lose 2. This means that you should evaluate your actions in terms of how they help you as well as how they hinder your opponent. Going one-on-one in worker placement games, you can block spaces where your opponent wants to go; in drafting games you can 'hate-draft' your opponent's cards even if those cards don't help you. Keep in mind, blocking your opponent is only worth as much as the difference between his best option and his second-best, though.
Multiplayer games are different. If you bring Opponent A down by 7 points, then you're up 7 relative to Opponent A, but you haven't gained anything on Opponent B, and you've actually helped Opponent B relative to Opponent A. If you instead gain 4 points for yourself, then you're up 4 points relative to everyone. In a multiplayer game, gaining a point is like bringing each of your opponents down by 1. I like to think of these concepts in terms of the following informal formulas:
It should be pretty clear from those formulas that it's way better to help yourself than to hurt others. Still, it also matters whom you're attacking.
If you're in second place out of four, and you attack the player who's in last, you're wasting your efforts: you've barely improved your chances of winning at all. If you instead attack the player who's in first, then you are making solid progress towards edging him out and winning. (If you're already in first, then your best target to attack is the person with the greatest chance of surpassing you: second place.) The problem is that you don't always know who's ahead or behind, so it becomes a guessing game as to whether you're attacking the correct opponent, further lowering the utility of hurting others.
Games with a lot of politics naturally make this more complicated. Since everyone understands that they should probably bring down the leader, getting visibly ahead can paint a target on you that negates your efforts. Additionally, the threat of targeted retaliation can be a deterrent, since other players will realize that going eye-for-an-eye with you brings you both down compared to the other players. (I have a friend who makes it a policy to retaliate to the death in every game of Commander he plays. It's degenerate, but it works.)
The equation also changes in games where it's possible to eliminate an opponent. I know people who hold that you should always eliminate any opponent given the chance. I disagree. Keeping an opponent around in a free-for-all can backfire, but it frequently works to your advantage. For one thing, that player can continue to draw the attacks of other players away from you, leaving you time to build up (which is better for you relative to everyone else). For another, the almost-eliminated player's actions can still bring down everyone else, too. The mere act of sparing someone can prompt enough good will to make the spared player choose not to attack you for a while, especially when they have equally good alternatives. Eliminating a player costs resources (Principle 3), so you can save yours for later (Principle 2) and let your opponents bring each other down. Given those facts, it is only advantageous to eliminate a player if that player poses a direct threat and is likely to attack you, or if doing so wins you the game (Principle 1).
The details of playing well vary from game to game, but there are many things in common. Keep these principles in mind and look for places to apply them to your board games, and even if you don't win, you'll at least have some idea why. These principles will help you improve at a broad range of games, especially in your first couple times playing each, but they won't be enough to beat someone who's an expert at a particular game. For that, you'll have to study the game itself. I hope to write some additional articles on particular games I like in the near future. (Hint: they were probably mentioned this article.) If you have any game you'd like me to talk about, or any thoughts on the principles mentioned in the article, let me know in the comments!