Don’t look for the best move! How to plan a strategy | Guide

Games tend to be won by those who make the best moves. Yet, looking for them may not be a good strategy. In fact, I don’t recommend it at all! While carefully analysing all possibilities may seem good at first, it quickly becomes inefficient. If we want to win, overcome analysis paralysis or simply finish our games in time there is a better way forward.

OVERWHELMED

The main reason not to look for the perfect move is that we probably can’t. The average game has so many possibilities that it’s difficult to keep them all in mind. A typical match may have from twenty to hundreds of possible moves per turn. Even if we were to spend only a few seconds on each, we would take ages to evaluate them all. It’s a brute-force approach.

Think about Brass Birmingham. Each turn we have up to 8 cards in hand which we can use to build 6 different industries in 22 different locations. It’s not realistic to go over them all just to decide what we need to do. When captains of industry built cotton mills in the 19th century they did not go visit every little town in England, why would we do it ourselves?

After all, going through all the possibilities doesn’t guarantee us an answer. Knowing what we can do and knowing what’s best are different things. If we confuse one for the other, we’ll waste valuable mental effort and time without ever reaching a conclusion. We need to first have some sort of criteria to determine what’s good and not, simply looking won’t provide results.

There might not even be a list of moves to go over. More social games, like those that feature bluffing and negotiation don’t have them. Understanding the motives behind a murder in Suspects isn’t a move, either, and while there’s a list of actions in Unfathomable none of them will tell you who the traitors are. It’s a very limited tool. Not useless, but limited.

SETTING GOALS

The solution to these problems is to set a goal. Knowing what to aim for will make our life easier. First, it reduces the number of possibilities we have to look for. Second, it allows us to more easily gauge what we need and what we don’t. And, lastly, it lets us see the game from a broader perspective. Here are some examples of goals we can use:

  • To develop our economy
  • Conquering a key part of the board
  • Rounding up all suspects
  • Setting up a powerful play
  • Stopping an opponent’s plan
  • Saving resources for a expensive building or card

Goals should be simple. Don’t try to aim for a complete victory. Rather, look at small advantages or interesting paths you can take. The idea is to give us a frame of reference. It’s hard to know if a single move is good in a vacuum. However, figuring out the “Big Cotton” strategy in Brass or if we attacked the wrong person in Root is pretty straightforward.

Hence, don’t worry if your goal isn’t the best. One of the good things about this approach is that it lets you learn from your mistakes. We can look back and see if we achieved our goals or discuss them with others. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice. What should you do at the start of a match? Figure it out and you’ll have an easier time for the rest of the game.

MAKING A PLAN

Once we have a goal, we need to make a plan. That is, we need to figure out how to get there in practical terms. First, think about what you need. Resources? Controlling a certain space? The support of an ally? Make a mental list. Then, try to think of a way to obtain those things. Chances are, most requirements will be extremely simple, like sending a worker for wood or investing in research.
Out of the remaining few, check if any is absolutely crucial. If your whole plan hinges on a small detail, try to get it right as soon as possible. It’s rare to screw up because you exhausted all ways to get resources but it’s likely to fail by doing things one turn later. Either way, it’s never too early to start talking with other players and playing small cards often carry little risk.

The last part of planning is to check for weak spots. If you were your opponent, how would you stop yourself? Think about what you wouldn’t like them to do and then if they can actually do it. If they don’t, or it wouldn’t be beneficial for them to do so, then go ahead.  Often, you can save even otherwise brittle plans just by taking a slightly more roundabout action or building a defense first. Don’t get blown out!

Lastly, even if it’s not always best, remember raw calculation may have a place in your strategy. If you have narrowed down to only two or three choices, running all the numbers may be the only way to differentiate between them. I would rely on it, even, for all situations in which you must know an exact number like how much money you’ll have available next turn or how many actions you need in total.

Remember, the better your goal and the clearest your plan, the easier all other decisions will become. You don’t need to get all details right, no one ever does. The best we can do is to put ourselves in a position where all the moves, by nature, are more likely to fall to our side. Achieve that and counting will rarely be as necessary. Good luck!

2 Comments

  • I like those strategy posts! I feel like the board game community online focuses so much on new releases, and so little on strategy.

    Goals and plans are so important in any game! Even if you had time to look at each possible move, how would you know which one is the best when you don’t have a goal? Are you gonna simulate the entire rest of the game in your head?

    • It does. I think too much focus is put on getting newer games when the best gaming experiences arise when you already have some experience.

      I’ve actually found quite a few people who do try to simulate the entire game inside their heads. Which just leaves them confused and makes them prone to analysis paralisis. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to write this article, to show you don’t to do that to do well or have fun.

      I’m glad you liked it!

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