When development isn’t in the cards

Wednesday, 30 May 2007 — 8:13pm | Board games

As some of you know, a week and a half ago I played in the Settlers of Catan Canadian National Championship (Western): 60 players, 4 round-robin games, and a break to a 16-player semi-final based on wins, victory points and victory point percentage. In short, I bombed; you can see the results for yourself, and observe that I did not manage to finish in the top third.

On a game-by-game basis, it was far from a disaster by any standard, as I won one game decisively (6 VPs on the table, 4 for Longest Road and Largest Army, and another one just to make sure) and tied for a close second in two others in the face of unfavourable dice. But I needed two wins to advance to the semis. As with most games that involve a tenuous balance of skill and chance, consistency in the face of misfortune is the mark of a skilled player. It looks like I have some ways to go.

We will speak little of Round 3, in which I did not show up, nor did the number 5, and I finished dead last with only 4 VPs. That debacle was almost entirely due to tactical and strategic miscalculation on my part, as I drew first position on the snake (placing my initial settlements first and last), grabbed a 5/9/10 and went for an expansionist wood/brick strategy, which I almost never do. Anyone who has heard me mope about Scrabble knows that I have a remarkable tendency to get overly experimental in untimely competitive situations. All three of the other players went for an ore-heavy game, and rolled the numbers to match, erecting early cities and grabbing piles of development cards while I sat on my hands with nothing of significant trade value. With no cities, no soldiers to keep the robber off my property and no 5s, my exit from contention was terrible, swift and entirely my fault.

But it happens. And while the knowledge that you played poorly is hardly a happy thought, it gives you the opportunity to shoulder the responsibility and think about how you might act differently in the future. In spite of the dice, you retain the impression that you have control over your own destiny.

However, three key elements of Settlers of Catan elevate its strategic complexity to a whole other dimension that I am only beginning to grasp. It’s non-zero-sum, it’s for four players, and it’s built on trade.

Settlers is non-zero-sum in that you can check a player, or you can block him from victory to some extent (ask Jake Troughton about the game he had elsewhere in the tournament where the other players held him at 9 VPs for well over an hour), but aside from snatching away the Longest Road or Largest Army, you can’t roll him back. Once you have points on the table, they stay on the table. And when someone coasting to victory settles on the same numbers as you, the rolls that permit you to develop confer no relative advantage. The dice may well push them over the edge, and there isn’t a damnable thing you can do about it.

And more to the point, in a four-player game, someone can hand someone else the game with a series of bad decisions, and there isn’t a thing you can do about it except sit there and watch. If the initial settlement placement pans out so one opponent is left with a disproportionate tract of uncontested land open for expansion, because the other two decided to crowd you instead, it sucks to be you and that’s that. Similarly, if another player decides to go through with an uneven trade, or break a three-way embargo, there’s little to be done apart from taking a bullet and proposing an even more ridiculous counter-offer. I’ve been on both sides of this situation. On the winning side, you try to get yourself into a position where someone else has to cooperate with you just to stay in the game.

I’m not an Xbox 360 owner, so I haven’t had a chance to poke and prod the AI behind the Settlers of Catan video game, but I’d be very interested in examining it for its shortcomings. Like the human element behind games like poker or Diplomacy, it seems to me that the trading element that fundamentally drives the course of proceedings in Settlers would be extremely difficult to formalize and refine. One of the biggest challenges when it comes to artificial intelligence is getting over the assumption that you’re playing against someone rational. Game theory was designed to fight rational fire with rational fire, which is why you end up with suboptimal equilibria like the Prisoner’s Dilemma. In Settlers, you have to account for deeply suboptimal opponents – the ones who, in the Prisoner’s Dilemma, could actually be hoodwinked into cooperating instead of defecting; the Kevin Lowes who will actually give away their Chris Prongers for less than nothing (to your divisional rivals, no less). What you do at a table of championship-level thinkers is and must be different from how you behave when someone is just there for the burgers and door prizes.

And I wouldn’t have complained about a little help from the dice.

Belated congratulations to my compadres Chris Samuel, who finished 13th with two wins and contended in the semis, and Steve Smith, who finished 19th with one win (Round 4 against me, knocking me out), and sat (but did not play) as an alternate.

Hockey anthem addendum: I have a lot of respect for Holly Cole for being one of Canada’s leading jazz ambassadors, but here’s a three-letter memo about her performance of “O Canada” at the Duck Pond in Game 2: WTF?


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