Friday, 4 May 2012

the excitement of 3-player games, and Tammany Hall

From late 2010 to early 2012, most of my boardgame sessions were 3-player games with Han and Allen. This period started after Allen's first child was born (he was more house-bound than usual so Han and I decided to play at his place to keep him sane), and lasted until Han's overseas work assignment (and I'm pretty sure we'll continue as before once he returns). During this period I easily settled down to this comfortable routine, and became lazier and lazier to organise bigger boardgame sessions. Jointly, we had many games suitable for 3 players, more than we could play. I think we developed a kind of play style together. We tend to be brisk in playing (and we often quote our 50-minute game of Merchants and Marauders); we sometimes take turns simultaneously and end up confusing ourselves whose turn it should be; we often do that "attack-him-he's-the-leader!" thing. I've found that 3-player games have a unique type of excitement, especially when the game being played has some, but is not purely, direct confrontation. Not being a fully confrontational game means you have a choice of taking an aggressive action or taking a peaceful or self-development action, and when you decide to take the aggressive action, it makes the offensive intent more pointed and much clearer.

3-player games have a delicate balance, because any apparent leader will quickly be targeted by the other two players, and he will have a tough time maintaining his lead going one against two. However, the temporary alliance between the other two players is often fragile, because once the alliance achieves the objective of bringing the leader back in line, it will be every man for himself again. So even during the period of alliance, each ally will be trying to better position himself to come out stronger after the dust settles. Distrust your enemy, distrust your ally even more. 3-player games often become a tricky balance of doing well but not appearing too strong, or finding the right opportunity to push for a quick victory before your opponents gang up on you. It's a bit like that scene in Reservoir Dogs - every player holding two guns, each pointed at one of the other two players.

I was reminded of all this when Han, Allen and I played two games of Tammany Hall at We have played this game in its physical form before, quite some time ago, but never got around to play it again until recently. The game has been out-of-print, but is now on Kickstarter trying to achieve the funding goal. The games we played were turn-based and we didn't need to be online at the same time, so the pace was more like a PBEM (Play-by-E-Mail) game. It took us about 5 days to complete a game. I was amazed how exciting and tense the games were. Allen would agree that they were downright stressful. I want to write about these two games. I won't describe the rules (which I've covered before). I'll just jump straight to the session reports and what I was thinking and feeling during the games. You may want to Ctrl-click to open the screenshots in a separate window while you read the descriptions that accompany each screenshot.

Game 1: 23 - 27 Apr 2012

A game of Tammany Hall has 16 rounds, with every 4 rounds culminating in an election. That track at the top shows that we were at Round 4. This being a 3-player game, only Region I (the bottom bit) was in play initially. Regions II and III would open up in Q2 and Q3 respectively. I was red, Allen was yellow, Han was purple. The most defining moment of the Q1 election was the fight for Ward 7. In this screenshot, only Allen (yellow with 3 bosses) and I (red with 1 boss) were fighting for it, but before the election started Han placed one boss to enter the race. I gave up on it and didn't spend any favour chip. Allen and Han were both determined to win it and spent as much as they could. Unfortunately for them, they tied, so both of them lost, wasting many chips in the process. I became mayor.

Being mayor earns you 3VP, which is nice, but it has its drawbacks, because once you become mayor, you must assign special abilities to your opponents, which they can use against you afterwards, while you don't get any special ability. Also the mayor is first in turn order, which makes it hard to defend against others, especially slandering. The rulebook tells you not to complain though, because you are already given 3VP. After the Q1 electcion, I was the apparent leader with a big red target painted on me.

This was just before the Q2 election. Q2 was less eventful than I expected. I actually managed to hold on to the mayor post, although I wasn't really eager to do so. Allen had been using his Precinct Chairman power to shift immigrants around to strengthen his influence, often diminishing mine at the same time. Han had been using his Deputy Mayor power to collect favour chips. Although I won the most wards, many were sparsely populated, i.e. they didn't help much in becoming most influential in the four immigrant groups. Becoming mayor twice in a row meant my score was far ahead now.

Q3 elections had just started. I (red) made a deal with Han (purple) so that I'd let him win Ward 6 and he'd let me win Ward 4. This way we could both conserve some favour chips.

Near the end of the Q3 elections. Han (purple) later won Ward 10, which meant Allen won 6 wards, I won 5 and Han won 4. Allen became the new mayor. In Q3 he had majority influence over three immigrant groups - the Irish, the Germans and the English! That's 9 favour chips going to him. My score was still in the lead (18), but Allen was close behind (15), and Han was further behind at 10. Allen had a lot of favour chips, and would be powerful going into the final Q4 election. It looked like Han and I would need to gang up on him to prevent a runaway leader.

Q4 elections had just started. Ward 1 (bottom left) had just been resolved. Allen and I competed for it, both spending many chips, only to end up tied. This was painful for both of us. I was very badly positioned going into this election. In the final round before the elections, I slandered away Allen's bosses in Wards 3 and 5, so that I could win both wards uncontested. However, Han, whose turn was after mine, swooped in and did the same to me, claiming those two wards. I had expected Han to slander Allen's bosses in Wards 8 and 15, since Allen was the bigger threat. In hindsight, I should not have left myself so vulnerable. Throughout Q4 Han and I had been mostly focusing our attacks on Allen, and I built a false sense of security that Han wouldn't target me. I should have tried to compete with him in some wards, e.g. 6, 7 or 10, so that he would be forced to play more defensively and would not have such a free reign.

Near the end of the Q4 elections. I would eventually lose in Ward 17 too. I didn't have as many favour chips as Allen, so I lost to him in Wards 2, 4, 9, and 17. Han had a magnificent come-from-behind victory, winning 10 wards! That's 10VP. He also gained 6VP for most Irish, English and Italian favour chips left, and 3VP for mayorship.

Final score: Han (purple) 30VP, Allen (yellow) 22VP, Hiew (red) 19VP.

Game 2: 27 Apr - 3 May 2012

In our second game, we were assigned the same colours as before. Han was purple, Allen was yellow and I was red. This screenshot was taken during the Q2 election. Earlier, in Q1, I had become mayor uncontested. All three wards that I competed in were won uncontested. Han and Allen competed in two wards and each won one. That meant I, again, became the big fat target, not just because I was ahead in points, but also because I had conserved the most favour chips.

In this second game, I tried to be more aggressive in pressing my advantage. Instead of trying to go for the less populated (and thus less attractive) wards in order to appear weak, I wanted to fight for the more densely populated wards, so that I could gain majority influence with more immigrant groups. In this screenshot, Ward 1 had just been resolved. Han (purple) and I (red) competed for it. He spent all favour chips he could afford and won it. I hadn't expected that, so the favour chips that I had spent were wasted. It was a right decision for Han, because eventually he gained majority for three immigrant groups, greatly helped by the immigrants in Ward 1. He also won the most wards and became mayor.

This was during the Q3 elections. Noone bothered to contest for Wards 17, 11 and 13 on the right, because they had few immigrants, and I think also because noone was keen to be mayor going into the last election.

This was the start of Q4, i.e. it shows the outcome of the Q3 election. Han (purple) won Ward 1 (but his token was cut off from this screenshot), 8 and 9. Allen won three wards too, and I won four. Ward 4 was tied between Han and Allen. Ward 15 was tied between Han and I. I became the reluctant mayor going into Q4. I was leading in points, but Han and Allen were not far away. At this point Han had very few favour chips, much fewer than us, so he'd be at a disadvantage when he had to compete during elections. I gave him the Council President power which let him lock up wards. This would be useful to him because he could quickly lock up a ward with only his boss present to make sure he'd win it uncontested, without needing to spend favour chips. I wanted to keep him in the competition so that he could still be a threat, and Allen couldn't focus his attacks (and defenses) only on me.

Final round before the Q4 elections. I had many English (white) favour chips. However Allen used his Chief of Police power well and removed English immigrants from many wards where I wanted to fight for (3, 5, 7), rendering my English favour chips useless there. Han made good use of his Council President power and locked up Wards 1 and 4 for himself.

Q4 election had just started. Contested wards were 3, 7, 9 and 14. All of us had the chance to become mayor, and that 3VP bonus would be a big factor in determining the final winner. The 2VP for having the most leftover favour chips for each of the immigrant groups could also determine victory. It was going to be a very close game.

I knew I (red) would lose to Allen (yellow) in Ward 3, and Han (purple) would lose to him too in Ward 14, because neither of us had enough of the right coloured chips to fight with him. So it all came down to what would happen in Wards 7 and 9. Han already had 5 wards in the bag, and if he won a 6th ward, he would became mayor. That would be 9VP, for the wards and the mayorship. I too wanted mayorship, because with my current lead, that would likely seal my victory. However I would need to win both Wards 7 and 9, and also have more favour chips than Allen (because we would be tied at 5 wards each).

This was the favour chips situation. Han was purple, I was red. If I wanted to safely win Ward 7, I'd have to spend 4 chips. If Han conceded Ward 7 and didn't spend any, then the favour chips he had left would be enough to tie me in Ward 9, denying me Ward 9. If Han gambled that I would take a risk in Ward 7 and spend fewer than 4 chips, he might spend all he had to try to win Ward 7 and secure his mayorship. It all came down to one crucial decision. Would Han try to win Ward 7? I gambled that he would, and this was what followed...

Han didn't spend any favour chip in Ward 7. I won it having spent four, when I could have won it spending just one. We tied for Ward 9, so neither of us won mayorship. Han (purple) and Allen (yellow) both had 5 wards, but Allen had tons more favour chips, so Allen became mayor.

This was the favour chip situation at game end. After all the scoring was done, Allen (yellow) won the game with 26VP. I (red) had 23VP, Han (purple) had 19VP. I retraced our game, and found that if I wanted to win, I would have needed to spend either 1 or 2 favour chips to fight for Ward 7. Only then I could tie Allen with 5 wards, and also have more favour chips than his 12. That would have been a perfect storm, but I guess one should not expect such perfect alignments to happen easily.

Thoughts on Tammany Hall

These two games of Tammany Hall had been tremendously fun and tense. Allen said he needed a break from such stress. This reminded me of my two PBEM games of Axis and Allies Anniversary Edition against Han in 2009 (Game 1, Game 2). I reread these session reports and enjoyed myself reliving the wars.

Tammany Hall is a perfect information game. The types of actions you can take is low, but there are many possibilities and implications. In theory you can work out all the possible outcomes, but in practice it is quite daunting. In a PBEM-like format, you can take your time working out all the possibilities, but when playing face-to-face, that can become analysis paralysis. There is still some uncertainty. What new immigrants become available after the immigrant pool is exhaused is random, but you don't refresh immigrants very often. The blind bidding (committing favour chips) during elections is not random. You need to guess your opponents' intentions. The elections can be very tense. I am very impressed that with not many rules and with few action types, the game can create so many possibilities and opportunities for clever play, and also bring out the theme convincingly.

I hope the Kickstarter project works out well. This is a game that deserves more attention.

Noble Knight Games - Buy, sell and Trade! New and Out-of-Print RPG's, Board Games, Miniatures, Dungeons & Dragons

No comments: