Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Triangulation Issues in Resource Attrition Games

It's been a while since I've posted but it's good to be back at it. Recently, after a hard day's work at the fiendly local game store where I'm employed, a couple of friends of mine agreed to stay afterwards and play a game with me. One of them had just bought the game "La Citta" and was anxious to try it out:

It's currently ranked number 72 on BoardGameGeek and it's pulling a rating of about 7.5 out of 10 in its rankings. That seems like a pretty safe bet to make if you're going to purchase a game before playing it. Well, he opened up the game, read through the rules, and off we were.

After about 20 minutes into the hour long game, we came up against a fundamental aspect of the game's design that illustrated a glaring problem. Even though La Citta isn't a player elimination game, the mechanics result in quasi player elimination (you're not out of the game, but after a certain critical point, you no longer have any realistic shot at winning). This problem only became worse as the game progressed.

It's a simple matter of there being an inherent problem with any game (note: any game) where the possibility exists for more than two players to play the game and where the game implements a resource attrition mechanic that is dependent on direct player interaction as the main source of points. This is because of basic triangulation attrition issues that can take either one of two possible forms:

1. Player A and Player B beat each other up while Player C waits, remains strong, and then, once both of the other players are sufficiently weak, comes in and cleans up.


2. Player A gets an advantage over Player C. Then Player B joins in and beats up on Player C because Player C can't fight back now and it's more advantagous to pile on Player C than to attack Player A as Player A is a more formidable direct opponent, thus putting Player C out of contention at a certain point and making the rest of the game tedium for that player.

In games with only two players, resource attrition due to direct player interaction is perfectly fine. War games are all about resource attrition (the resources being troops). It's when you introduce a third player into the mix that it becomes a problem.

In La Citta, the second of those two dynamics I just discussed is at work. If player C finds his citizens being sucked out of one of his cities early by player A, player C becomes an easy target for player B as well. This is because limited citizens limits the number of colors that the city can develope and, thus, limits that city's abilities to suck citizens out of other cities. Because of these mechanics, there is no real incentive for player B to not take advantage of the situtation. Thus, the game can very quickly devolve into an exercise in pillaging the guy who got picked on early simply because there's no real incentive not to do it.

What this creates is a situation in which player C can never recover because, once you're down, there's not really a viable way to get back up in this game (assuming the maraudering players have taken steps to account for growth of their cities via markets, public baths, and having enough food to feed the new citizenry). This is because once a city has been robbed of citizens enough times early on in the game, it becomes nothing more than a source of easy citizens/VP's for the other players who will already have larger cities with multiple colors developed. Those larger cities will tend to suck away citizens from the smaller city consistently before that smaller city is ever able to reach a critical mass of functional competitiveness.

It's a classic case of the "rich get richer" while the "poor get poorer". This results in a broken game where the basic reward system inherent in the game design motivates me as a player to help contribute to a situation where another player is having to suffer through the game even though he knows after some early events that he has no shot at winning. Either that or it creates a situation where I'm the one suffering through tedium. These criticisms wouldn't necessarily apply as strongly in a 4 or 5 player game as there are enough other players to possibly "cannibalize" each other and keep one person from developing a massive city.

The problem might not be so critical if citizens were simply lost out of a city. (i.e. a player is having a net loss of -1 citizen when losing one). However, because a citizen switches places from the losing city to the winning city, it's a net swing of 2 (-1 for player A, +1 for player B). The game implements a food/feeding-your-people mechanic that should make it harder to accomodate a larger number of citizens but, if the player is savy, he or she can account for that somewhat easily and still keep their city sufficiently large to suck points out of the small city managably. Granted, you could "house rule" the game into playability by changing some of the basic aspects of the game play but that's not the state one wants a game to be in when one purchases a game.

None of us at the table could believe that a game that's been around for so long and was published by a respectable company like Rio Grande was so fundamentally flawed. Granted, the one who had purchased the game had read some feedback on BoardGameGeek about it and he indicated before we started the game that, in the past, it was noted that the game had a runaway leader problem that was supposedly fixed. Well, it wasn't fixed. It can't be fixed when the basic system of the game is the inherent problem. If points were awarded independent of resources switching hands, then you've got a game that might work - but this game's system simply isn't sound.

This issue of triangulation in relation to resource attrition is the same thing that makes Risk a game that is, in my opinion, a fundamentally broken game. It suffers from the first possible scenario I listed above: that of one player waiting while two other players slug it out and weaken each other - thus allowing the third player to more easily come in and clean up.

What defies my understanding is how La Citta has achieved such a high rating on BGG. As I glanced through the comments made by various people who had rated it, there were some comments acknowledging problems with the game even though the ones making those comments had rated it a 10.

Ultimately, La Citta was an exercise in tedium for one of the players and offered an unrewarding victory to one of the other players. I'm personally glad I didn't ever consider buying this game and that I was allowed to try it because of another player's copy. Unfortunately, that other player is now looking for a way to get rid of it (like Ebay or at BGG's marketplace).


Seth Jaffee said...

While it may be true to an extent that in La Citta - like in any 3 player game - players can gang up on each other, I think you've missed a fundamental point about this particular game. It may be the kind of thing that takes more than 1 play (or 20 minutes) to realize...

Note that in La Citta, each player doesn't just have 1 city. It think it's unlikely that a player can have ALL of his cities dominated by the other players - at least not if he's got a clue what he's doing. I've only played La Citta a handful of times, and in our first game there were some instances of one player getting crushed, of players not being able to feed their people, etc... typical first-play mistakes. To claim a game is fundamentally flawed based on typical first-play mistakes is a pretty ridiculous proposition.

I don't love La Citta, so don't confuse this comment with fanatical defense of the game. In addition, I myself have been accused of jumping to conclusions about games after just 1 play - for which I felt justified because those conclusions came after a whole play as well as thought, discussion, and reading up on the game on BGG. Not after 20 minutes of the first play of a game noone in the group had played before.

As you mention, "The game implements a food/feeding-your-people mechanic that should make it harder to accomodate a larger number of citizens but, if the player is savy, he or she can account for that somewhat easily and still keep their city sufficiently large to suck points out of the small city managably." - which frankly sounds like you're saying "Yeah, the game has stuff to balance it, but if you're good at the game then you'll win!" there are other balancing factors as well - In order to dominate a player's city in all colors (to leech their people every turn), you have to be strong in all three colors. Becoming strong in all three colors means not building Quarries, Farms, and Markets. Also, building up one of your cities so much means your other cities are being neglected.

If each player just had 1 city, then your criticism would hold more weight, but since there are other cities on the board (and indeed you can found further cities), there are other options than to sit there and bleed citizens to other players. You could even let a city die out, so that the opponents have no more citizens to leech, and instead build up your other cities.

I've seen games where 1 player builds a huge city in the center of the board, and to an extent dominates the whole board. I've seen that player win, and I've seen that player lose to another player who had several smaller cities each with the 3 point bonus for having all three colors represented.

In short, I think your review, while thorough and thoughtful, was based on an inaccurate premise, insufficient facts and/or experience, and shows a willingness to assume you know better than the designer, the publisher, and all the people who have played the game several times and rated it highly on BGG.

In your situation I'd like to think that I would have come to a different conclusion... "what am I missing? Let me play this game again."

Ryan Walberg said...

What an incredibly elegant way to describe why La Citta is a crappy game! Hats off, man.

Mike Compton said...

Well Seth, I appreciated your comment on my article about theme in European game designs. As far as your critique of my critique of La Citta, I'll try to address a few of your points.

First, it wasn't just the first 20 minutes. We continued hoping throughout the rest of the game that some balancing aspects of other mechanics would smooth over the problem that we discovered. Unfortunately, that didn't happen.

You also said "If each player just had 1 city, then your criticism would hold more weight, but since there are other cities on the board (and indeed you can found further cities), there are other options than to sit there and bleed citizens to other players."

I would contend that regardless of the number of "bases", "cities", "groups", etc. that a person has in a game, if it is a game where resource attrition is due to direct player interaction, then by one standard the game is "broken" and by another standard it simply becomes more of a "metagame". For example, by one standard "Nexus Ops" is a broken game simply because there's more than two players and all can attack each other. By a different standard, the game isn't broken. Instead, it's much more about negotiation and persuasion (trying to persuade other players to use their resources in ways that benefit you while hurting others).

My arguments against La Citta are that it implements a dynamic that opens it up to the "broken" argument. It operates more like an American game than a Euro because of this. I personally don't enjoy playing games where it's mostly about negotiation and who can persuade whom to attack one another. Thus, my tastes tend towards the Euro-persuasion (with some exceptions).

As far as the impression that I somehow "know better" than the designer, the publisher, etc., I make no excuse for my opinions but I'm not a tremendously rash person. I went on BGG and read through lots and lots of comments on La Citta (as well as some reviews) looking for that grain or nugget of information that I was perhaps missing. I didn't run to my keyboard and start typing in haste with all the hubris of a know-it-all. What I found in my search was that others who also rated the game low mentioned how once you're down, it's REALLY HARD to get back up. I saw this as offering some validation for my conclusions. Others have picked up somewhat on the problems I mentioned but didn't bother to go to the trouble of writing an article about it.

Anyway, I respect your viewpoint (even if I disagree with it), I tend to enjoy your comments on BGG, and I appreciate you taking the time to comment on my blog.

Seth Jaffee said...

I forgot all about this... I should really click the "email follow-ups" box when I post to people's blogs.

Soon after I sent that comment I realized it may have been overly harsh.

I suppose there is an entire class of games in which "once you're down, it's very hard to get back up." Whether that's a bug in the game or a feature depends on who you ask. Detractors of Euro-games might argue to the effect of "if you play bad, why should you be allowed back in the game 'just because?'"

I prefer euro-style games as well, and I like when a game gives a player the opportunity to have a come from behind victory - but at the same time I have to admit that the "you played bad, how can you complain you're losing?" argument is compelling in a sort of pure sense.

I use the term Fragile for games wherein you have to either play a particular way (as a group) for the game to work or games in which you really can't make any mistakes or suboptimal plays or you're effectively out of the game. It would seem La Citta (and perhaps any Resource Attrition game with Triangulation issues) would fit the latter description there.

I'll note that after the first handful of games, I haven't played La Citta again. I don't know if that's because we feel the game is flawed, or if it's just not fun enough to take time away from other games we've been playing. I suppose one could argue that "not being fun" is a fundamental flaw in itself :)