Thursday, February 10, 2005

Puerto Rico Strategy vs Tactics

The Tao of Gaming ( is currently discussing the lack of strategy in Puerto Rico, that the game is basically a tactical game of "get the most vp's from whatever your current situation is".

The original source was from Chris Farrel:

"Puerto Rico taunts you with strategic elements, but it's really just a brutal short-term optimization game with a minimal strategic component ... "Strategic" and "Tactical" are of course notoriously tractable terms. I could probably redefine "strategic" on a case-by-case basic in a way such that no game would ever be considered strategic. But one concept I might use is "can I take a short-term loss for a long-term gain?" To me, the answer in Puerto Rico is always no."

I posted some disagreements, as follows:

I totally disagree, but probably because we need to clarify the difference between strategy and tactics. It sounds to me that your definition of strategy is just "long term tactics".

Here are my definitions:

Tactics: the planned actions that you take given a particular situation to advance your strategy used to fulfill the objectives.

Strategy: the general principles guiding your tactical decisions to reach your ultimate objective.

What is the ultimate objective in Puerto Rico? It is to have more victory points than any other player, and if not, then to have the most cash/goods.

What are the strategies? Several: Large shipping through production, large shipping through storage, large trading through markets, large trading through cash crops and office, many quarries, flexibility through hacienda, agility through hospice and/or university, phase jumping through factory, etc..., etc... Some of the strategies have proved to be better then others over the past two years, but there is still no one fixed strategy that always wins, and there are some under-utilized strategies that may make comebacks over time. I have been whipped soundly by Hospice recently, even though it is generally regarded as a poor strategy. And when you take into account the expansion buildings (and when you add my own seven expansion building sets), each game requires a reassessment of the viable strategies to play.

Also, Puerto Rico sometimes requires you to change strategies in mid-game, when the one you were following is no longer viable.

Tactics: An example of a tactic could be: I will take this role and block the trading house, then he will take that role, and then I will become governor, and then I will trade again, giving me enough to build Factory. If your strategy includes "get Factory", then this is a viable tactic for moving your strategy forward. If your strategy includes "get Wharf", then the tactical decisions will have to change to reflect this.

If you are not playing with any focussed strategy, then every time it is your turn you will look at the board and say: how can I make the most number of vps over the next few rounds, or most gps of the next few rounds, compared to my opponents? While this may work once in a while, it is unlikely that you will win the majority of games this way.

Puerto Rico is not strategic? Hogwash. You would be more correct to say that El Grande is not strategic, but even EG has a few different strategies: concentrate on a few places and the castillo, or try to get second place everywhere.


I have found that a great way to lose is to take the maximum benefit for yourself Right Now.

If I have a better shipping situation set up, say Harbor/Wharf, I am often tempted into taking Builder right now because it will give me a few more VP's than my opponents. Crafting will give me nothing Right Now.

But because of the cyclical nature of the game, it is crucial to continue the craft/captain cycle as fast as possible. Failing to take Craftsman will result in a long term loss later on for my short term gain.

Good players can see this by turn 6 or 7, right when midgame is starting. I think defining the concept of strategy away by substituting the goal of the game - "gain vps" - is a straw man argument.

I am not contradicting Alex; I don't go into a game knowing that I will play "harbor shipping", or "guild hall building". In the same vein, I don't go into a chess game knowing I will play "X offense" or "Y defense". The situation changes, and you have to adapt. Nevertheless, the patterns are there and you have to know them.

"guild hall building" is something to think about on turn 3 already, because it is stronger than "residence settler". This doesn't mean I won't take residence settler. It means that I have several strategic game plans, and I aim towards them. "diverse production factory". "corn wharf". Of course there are strategies.

If you play PR by dropping yourself into every turn with no plan and just do whatever give you the most vp's within 2 rounds, you will lose against better players, period.

... and as far as short term loss for long term gain:

I'll trade this barrel for GP, and sacrifice the 1 VP I would have gotten shipping it, because next round I'll build a building worth 2 more VP?

I'll build this inferior building to prevent someone else from building it and getting a lock on shipping vp's?

I'll ship now and lose vp's, to prevent my opponent from trading?

I'll take this role which doesn't give me anything to prevent my opponent from beenfitting form it twice.

I'll give up this building for that building.

I'll take this role instead of that one.

I'll ship this good for less to lock this boat.

I'll trade this lesser good to prevent my opponent from trading it.

No short term plays for long term goals. Yah.


Just one more note:

It is possible to destroy the term strategy by just calling it "long term tactics".

Let's say you have to take a city. You could employ the "siege" strategy, or you could employ the "direct force" strategy, or you could employ the "raise dissent" strategy.

Does this mean that when it actually comes down to taking the city you have to stick with "only one" and make no changes? Can't you do all three? Can't you assess how things are going each day and maximize your position from whatever the situation is?

OK, you could look really far into the future and say that "if I do this, and then this, then the city will fall." Does that deny the concept of strategy, just because you employed tactics? No. You just used your tactics wisely to implement one or more strategies that are best suited for the situation.

If the city has stockpiled food, the strategy of siege will probably fail, and it will be a tactical error to attempt to employ this strategy.



Chris said...

Wish I knew this game well enough to comment directly. :)

What caught my interest is the use of the terms "strategy" and "tactics", since I use "Strategic" and "Tactical" as terms in my play style work right now, following Temperament theory.

One of the things I'm exploring is phasing this out in favour of "real time" (for tactical) and "turn based" (for strategic). Obviously this *doesn't* work in a boardgame context, when the terms mean more what you imply here (although I dispute that one must have a strategy in order to deploy tactics - to which you could counter that no strategy is still a strategic choice! ;) )

One of the reasons I want to phase out the terms is because they are so overloaded, and so likely to be deployed with variable meaning. Real-time and turn-based are clearer - what's less certain at this time is whether I can use the contraction of "the Tactical skill set" to real-time play (in videogames) or whether this contraction will create a schism in what is meant by "the Tactical skill set".

This probably goes beyond sensible hope of discussion, though, because it gets into what Berens et al consider "the Tactical skill set", and so gets into psychological minutae. :(

Instinctively, I feel that boardgame *tactics* can still be solved by "the Strategic skill set" - in fact, your descriptions here are faint evidence of this. Can boardgame tactics be solved by "the Tactical skill set?" This, I am less sure.

Sorry, I've gone beyond the useful part of this comment, I fear. :)

Anyway, hope all is well!

LH said...

Very impressive and instructive post about this beautiful game. Thanks for your insight.


Troy Goodfellow said...

"One of the things I'm exploring is phasing this out in favour of "real time" (for tactical) and "turn based" (for strategic)."

As a computer gamer, I plea for you not to do this Chris. It would further muddy the already contentious debate over whether traditional real time strategy games have any strategy. (I think that they do, similar to how Yehuda outlines strategy in PR) and there is no shortage of turn based games that are purely tactical. Best to keep to terms that are clearly connected and have their own baggage, like strategy/tactics, instead of bringing in someone else's bags as well.

I think part of the problem is that strategy does happen at different levels. Not that it is simply tactics writ large, it isn't. But when you think about Civilization or Diplomacy, people speak in terms of "grand strategy" - controlling which areas at which stage of the game. In this sense, strategy seems little different from a "plan.

Then you have the in-game strategy that Yehuda describes. In Caylus, for example, do you go for structures or gold or castle pieces, and when?

Adjusting to the realities on the ground is generally seen (per military history stuff) as tactics. Use of terrain is not that much different from counting cards.

In many games, I suspect, the distinction is purely academic. Games are about having options, and, ideally, limiting those of your opponent. To what semantic level they rise is beside the point.

Yehuda Berlinger said...

Thanks for the comments.

I've written additional posts about strategy and tactics, which I'll reference as I go on doing my Roundups.

To more understand the difference in Puerto Rico:

I might start with a strategy in PR of something like "30 points from buildings and 15 points in shipping". Then I will use opportunity's each round to achieve the strategy.

The problem with PR is that one's strategy becomes difficult to achieve as you win and lose battles. At which point you may make new strategies.

One mistake many players make is abandoning their strategy for what's best for them in a single round. Bad Bad Bad! If you need to win via building, you have to keep pushing that building button; every opportunity you pass up is more opportunity for the shippers to build up points. And vice versa.

Of course, it's not Always that straightforward; sometimes you need to take a role here or there out of your strategy to prevent a calamity.


Troy Goodfellow said...

"Of course, it's not Always that straightforward; sometimes you need to take a role here or there out of your strategy to prevent a calamity."

Exactly right, and this is when things get really interesting in board games.

At what point is a strategy a losing one, and how do you distinguish a setback from a calamity? I've been playing a lot of 1960: The Making of a President recently, and there are a lot of moments in the game where you have to either soldier on in spite of a bad turn or reconsider the map layout because of a mixed hand.

Unknown said...

I still think Puerto Rico is a (wonderful) tactical game where strategies are important, but not as tactics are. Two examples:

* Risiko is more a strategic than a tactic game. During the game you make choices depending more on your ultimate goal than everything esle. Not much space is left to tactics because the mechanisms of the game are simple and there are not many alternatives a player can pick. I am not saying there is no tactics in Risiko, but strategy dominates tactics. If you choose a bad strategy it is difficult to compensate with your tactical skill.

*Chess is a tactical game. Of course there are several strategies, but if you have great tactical skill you can win the game even if pick a bad strategy: you do not start fighting for the center but you still win because your opponent make more tactical mistakes than you, and you are able to capture more a lot of pieces.

Of course, both in Chess and in Puerto Rico strategy is important. In particular, a good strategy is fundamental when players have more or less the same tactical skill. But usually the player with the best tactical skill is the player with the best chances to win in both games. In risiko the player who choose the right strategy is the player with the best chances to win the game.