Twilight Struggle: The Collected Musings of Sankt & co. (feat. replay analysis!)

2/15/17 EDIT: Fixed an error with Space Race scoring, finished some incomplete sentences (d’oh!), and added a new section at the bottom.

So this year, I started learning the all-time great board game Twilight Struggle at a competitive level. My friend Withhelde had taught me the game a few years ago, but my interest was really piqued by the discovery of an entire tournament scene in China with a revolutionary approach to the game. The Western Bible for the game, the Twilight Strategy website, advocates a focus on map position with the goal of winning the game in the final scoring.  The best Chinese players, on the other hand, are much bigger fans of grabbing short-term points and advancing as far as possible on the space race.

Up to this point, the only English-language writing on the Chinese style is in random forum posts – not very easy to find through conventional searching!  Almost all of the useful posts come from Chinese player Kris “Sankt” Wei (heck, the style has been named after him!), so I have decided to collect his scattered thoughts in this single convenient blog post!  I figured it could make for a decent encapsulation of the Chinese fundamentals, but the readers will be the judge of that!

I initially thought I would only use forum posts for this, but they don’t explain everything for some of the topics mentioned.  To gain a better understanding, I ended up analyzing Sankt’s replays from the YATSL tournaments.  If you have the Wargameroom version of Twilight Struggle, you can go HERE (2016) and HERE (2017) to view those (just search for any files with “Wei” in the name).

I’ll format this as follows: Give the specific topic of strategy, paraphrase his post & add context to it when necessary, and link the original.  Keep in mind that all of this advice assumes you are playing with +2 starting influence for the US.

Best Turn 1 Headlines as the US

Sankt ranks the following in order as great US headlines to start the game: Marshall Plan > Containment (when it gains you 5+ ops or is needed to protect you from Blockade) > Middle East Scoring = Red Scare/Purge > Captured Nazi Scientist > Containment (when it gains you < 5 ops)

As a point of comparison, here is a similar ranking from one of the very best Western players (Ziemowit) as of August 2016: Middle East Scoring = Red Scare/Purge = Containment (same conditions as Sankt’s high ranking) > Marshall Plan > Containment (3-4 ops) > Defectors > Captured Nazi Scientist

Note that Ziemowit was still used to the USSR couping early and often, which is less common with the Chinese, and was not as familiar with the Chinese opening setup with Marshall Plan.  Most players consider Red Scare/Purge less valuable when the opponent won’t coup so often, so that ranking may be different now.

Source: https://boardgamegeek.com/article/23391943#23391943

US Opening Setup for Marshall Plan Headline

For a Turn 1 Marshall headline, western players traditionally opened with 3 influence in West Germany, 2 in Italy, and 1 in Greece & Turkey.  Chinese players are much more aggressive with France early on, as it’s a “swing state” for Europe domination.  Rather than play in fear of Suez Crisis & De Gaulle Leads France, the Chinese will use the following opening to take advantage of the Marshall headline:

3 West Germany, 2 Italy, 2 France.  Then place Marshall’s influence in those 3 countries, Greece or Spain (Sankt prefers Spain, not sure about others), Turkey, the UK, & Canada.

This gives you instant domination of Europe, and drastically reduces the USSR’s hopes of breaking it.  The UK influence prevents them from breaking control to stop the Special Relationship event (which is now more likely to be at full power), the Canada influence reduces the opportunity cost of activating NORAD, Turkey is potentially useful for Middle East access & defusing the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Greece/Spain is because there’s nothing better left.

Source: https://boardgamegeek.com/article/22017361#22017361, Wargameroom replays

US Opening Setup (Non-Marshall)

With US +2, Western players either went 4 West Germany + 3 Italy + 3 Iran or used the empty West Germany setup (putting that influence into the Mediterranean countries or France).  The Chinese most commonly start with 4 West Germany + 4 Italy + 2 Iran, though there are situations when they would still consider 4/3/3.  Sankt says he strongly prefers 4/4/2 when the US holds *any* of the following cards:

Nasser, Europe Scoring, Middle East Scoring (if headlined), Suez Crisis, or Arab-Israeli War.

On the other hand, only a couple cards in hand will make him strongly prefer the traditional 4/3/3 opening: Socialist Governments & Red Scare/Purge (if it will be your headline).

There are several reasons for these preferences.  4 in Italy prevents them from headlining Socialist Governments and just taking the country via influence placement.  A player like Sankt would still coup there with that headline, but at least the coup won’t be a guaranteed success.  And even if Iran is lost, the US can still take South Korea & Thailand to prevent domination in Asia; they can also spread into Egypt & Libya from Israel to survive in the Middle East.  Asia is the most expensive region to dominate since there are so many cheap non-battlegrounds that can’t be couped or realigned, so Sankt will often settle for an even score there and focus the rest of his ops elsewhere.

Source: https://boardgamegeek.com/article/22994658#22994658https://boardgamegeek.com/article/22017361#22017361 (“Asian op black hole”)

Thoughts on Empty West Germany US Opening

Some Western players, most notably Riku Riekkinen, are fond of leaving West Germany empty in the opening so that Blockade won’t hurt them.  Sankt generally hates this, and it takes a very rare hand for him to consider it.  This is how bad of a hand he would need to try that:

Blockade, Truman Doctrine, Nasser, Vietnam Revolts, Decolonization, COMECON, Fidel, Romanian Abdication

Even then, he would not leave West Germany completely empty.  Instead, he would start with 1 influence there and put the other 3 into France.  This is so the USSR can’t control WG in 1 move; you want to play Blockade early and put its 1 op back into WG after the event triggers.  You then want to control WG as soon as you can, most likely with COMECON.

Truman is key to making this work – if the Soviets try to start an ops war for WG, they just wasted 3 or 4 ops at the time when ops are most valuable.  My understanding is that if this hand didn’t have Truman, Sankt would most likely hold Blockade for the next turn (spacing Decolonization and playing Vietnam on the last round).

Note that this setup requires you not to headline Blockade, which is typically what Western players have done with the empty WG opening; for the above hand, Sankt recommends headlining Romanian Abdication since it’s your lowest-ops card and you don’t care about repairing the damage from it.

Source: https://boardgamegeek.com/article/24046852#24046852

Spacing Decolonization on Turn 1 as USA

Western players always tried to hold onto both “De-cards” (Decolonization & De-Stalinization) in order to make them miss the Turn 3 reshuffle, with De-Stalin being the higher priority if forced to choose.  Chinese players may still try to do this with De-Stalin, but have adopted the attitude that holding Decol that long isn’t feasible.  This is because Blockade will almost certainly reduce your hand size at some point.  Thus, spacing Decol on Turn 1 is the best compromise as it frees up your later play.

Source: https://boardgamegeek.com/article/25001262#25001262

Triggering De-Stalinization on Turn 1 as USA

De-Stalinization is often considered the strongest event in the game due to its wide-ranging effect and how early it appears, and almost no player would even think about activating it as the US (until late in the game, anyway).  Sankt said there is one highly specific scenario where he would do this in the Early War…

Turn 1: US headlines Containment, USSR does *not* headline Red Scare/Fidel/Vietnam Revolts/Romanian Abdication.  USSR then coups Italy with East European Unrest and does not get any influence in there.  This leaves their EU influence at 3 in the battlegrounds and 1 in Finland.

The US can then play De-Stalin as a 4-op card, and the USSR’s best option will be to remove all influence from Poland in addition to the 1 in Finland.  Trigger the event first, and base your response on their play: coup Thailand if they go in there , or shove 3 influence into East Germany if they avoid Thailand.  The latter play makes it impossible for them to protect all of their starting battlegrounds, as you will be guaranteed to take one of them with a 4-ops play (made easy via Containment).

This will virtually never happen in a real game, but it’s a nice example of the level at which these players think!

Source: https://boardgamegeek.com/article/25021726#25021726

Value of Non-Battlegrounds

One of the most significant differences between traditional western play and the Chinese style lies in non-battleground countries.  The traditional style focuses mainly on overall map position, and thus will want to control a lot of non-battlegrounds in order to block access and win the overall country count in regions.  Good Chinese players, on the other hand, are loathe to invest influence in non-BGs unless they provide access to BGs or you need one to score domination in a region that turn.  The handling of European non-BGs is particularly illuminating here: even with a 3-2 battleground lead, Chinese players don’t like playing into the cheap Mediterranean countries as the USSR.  The problem with those is that the UK & Canada make it too easy for the US to keep up in the overall country count and deny domination.  Marshall Plan makes this even more true; many players will control Greece & Turkey when playing Marshall as the USSR, but the likelihood of domination is low enough that the influence is better spent elsewhere.  The only time the Mediterranean should go red is when the USSR gets a 4-1 battleground lead, as that makes domination far more realistic.  Do note that Spain is a bit more useful for the USSR than other European non-BGs as it helps protect France from realignments – still not a high priority, though.

Malaysia and Afghanistan are examples of important early non-BGs due to their BG access.  Even then, Sankt will only place 1 influence there since the access is the whole point.  Couping 2-stability non-BGs is a highly inefficient use of ops, and you can still place 1 influence in those countries even if the coup is successful.

Speaking of Asia, one interesting lesson from Sankt’s replays is that he can still be pretty aggressive with Southeast Asia.  He will take countries like Laos and Indonesia fairly early if it can swing domination.  I’ve even seen him control the Philippines on AR1 because he suspected the USSR had Asia Scoring (they controlled Afghanistan on AR1, which gives them domination); they did and still ended up with domination, but Sankt’s 1 op forced them to spend 2 more for it.  Southeast Asia Scoring makes these countries a lot more valuable than your typical non-BGs, of course; a country like Indonesia is essentially a 2-point swing for just 1 op, which is a great value.

Costa Rica is another key early non-BG for the US.  You just want 1 influence there so you can get back into Panama should you be couped out.  At 3 stability, Costa Rica is a terrible coup target, so 1 influence is all you need in there.

1 influence in Jordan can be good for the US later on if they get locked out of Iraq, but it’s lower priority since it only gives access to expensive battlegrounds.  Egypt & Libya are much more important early on since they’re cheaper.  Lebanon is the better Middle East non-BG for the US to control since it only costs 1 op.  Sankt will take Lebanon even at higher DEFCON sometimes, as couping there isn’t a terribly efficient use of ops.  And if they do coup, the US can get military ops.  Syria is a good non-BG for the Soviets if it’s all they need for domination: essentially 1 op for 2 VP.

Africa & South America are a bit different since those regions are made for realignments.  Controlling non-BGs to protect your BGs or threaten enemy BGs is more common there.  This is done with Uruguay and Paraguay (maybe even Peru) in South America.  In Africa it’s mainly Botswana, with Tunisia being valuable in rare cases (i.e. you have Algeria but with no way back in if realigned).  Tunisia can also allow the USSR to reach Algeria without De-cards early on, depending on how busy the US is.  Colombia & Cameroon are also potential Early War AR6 plays for the US, but this will be discussed more later.  Otherwise, the 1-stability non-BGs are mainly useful when you can take a bunch of them at once to swing domination and/or buff realignments.  One of the most shocking things I found in Sankt’s replays is that he takes Sudan fairly often, as I had always thought that country was useless.  It seems to be a play to win the country count, with the idea being that it’s not an important enough country to coup when Cameroon & Saharan States exist.

Source: https://boardgamegeek.com/article/23002826#23002826 (mentions Euro non-BGs), https://boardgamegeek.com/article/23024860#23024860 (some of the advice here is rebutted later, but some good fundamentals),  https://boardgamegeek.com/article/22017361#22017361 (mentions some of the specific non-BGs).  Some of the Africa & South America plays are seen in the Wargameroom replays.

The Space Race

This is the most talked-about difference between the two major philosophies.  Twilight Strategy recommends only using the space race to dump bad events, and even suggests not going too far on the track (so that you can still space 2-op cards in the Mid War).  Chinese players will space early and often, so as to get the victory points and extra abilities.  Reaching the first 2 scoring spaces before your opponent is a 6-VP swing, and the 3rd scoring space alone is another 4-VP swing…and that’s not even all the points to be had!  Some of these players like to say that “space is the 7th region” due to its scoring potential.  Against a traditional player who rarely plays the space race, it’s possible to space 2 cards for multiple turns and get out to a huge lead on the track; in this situation, it’s not uncommon to attain the “discard held card” ability by the Mid War!

The value of the space race (along with the card’s measly 1 op) means that Captured Nazi Scientist should always be played for the event.  This can be seen in the above discussion on Turn 1 headlines.

“Discard held card” is by far the most important ability with this rabid spacing style, especially as the USSR.  It’s how you make up for not spacing 2-ops cards.  Even the Chinese rarely reach the end of the space track, though, since there are so few 4-ops cards worth spacing.

Sankt has mentioned that against another strong player with a similar style, he will play the space race on the first round of the game!  Against a more traditional player, on the other hand, he may wait until the middle of the turn.

One word of caution: You don’t want to go into the Mid War with a 2-1 lead on the space track.  If your opponent draws One Small Step, they can play the event to jump ahead of you and score those important 2 points!

Also, removing a powerful event from the game with minimal effect is typically better than spacing it.  Containment and Nuclear Subs are the archetypal examples here.  Something like Vietnam Revolts, on the other hand, is powerful early but very weak afterward…making it an ideal candidate for space.  You also want to space enemy “War” cards when possible since they provide military ops and potential VP on top of that.  Korean War is the main exception since it’s a one-time event – Sankt will often get the event out of the way if the opponent already has mil ops and an influence lead in South Korea.

Source: https://boardgamegeek.com/article/23024860#23024860https://boardgamegeek.com/article/23002826#23002826 (mentions the early spacing), https://boardgamegeek.com/article/22017361#22017361 (mentions the 2-1 issue and spacing Vietnam), Wargameroom replays (handling of Korean War)

USSR Turn 1 AR1: Italy Coup vs. Iran Coup vs. Influence Placement

NOTE: This section leans heavily on Wargameroom replays, as some of the tactics aren’t mentioned in forum posts.

For quite a while, couping Iran has been considered the standard USSR opening move even with +2 influence for the US.  However, Sankt usually prefers Italy since it’s a potential 6-VP swing each time Europe is scored; the ops-to-points ratio isn’t nearly as nice for Iran, since you can be counter-couped and still have to take other battlegrounds to get the most out of it.  This is why Socialist Governments is arguably the best Turn 1 headline for the Soviets: it makes the Italy coup far easier.

When wouldn’t Sankt coup Italy, then?  Typically, when there’s less than a 2/3 chance of it securing the country for him.  If the US starts with no adjacency to Italy and 3 influence there, a 4-ops card (besides Marshall Plan, for reasons outlined below) will give you that 2/3 chance.  This is because emptying the country still guarantees you take it before they do (since you should have opened in Austria or Yugoslavia).  Though this isn’t mentioned in his posts, his replays on Wargameroom show that he is even willing to use the China card for this if it’s his only 4-ops.  This isn’t always the case, as I have seen him coup Italy with a 3-ops card and keep China as well.  My suspicion is that the 3-ops coup is a gamble to be made when he has a weak hand, but I’m not entirely sure.

Getting influence into France before the coup drastically reduces the odds of communist success.  Now, the USSR needs to instantly take control of Italy for the coup to work out – anything less, and the US only has to spend 3 ops at most to get it back. This usually happens with a Marshall Plan opening as described earlier, and it makes the success rate only 33% with a 4-ops card.  A Red Scare/Purge headline has a similar effect though less strong (50/50 odds with a 4-ops, provided you have another 3-ops card).  The play described in the next paragraph is the best solution to these headlines, though RS/P forces you to burn a 4-ops card on it.  This is a case where I suspect it’s worth using China if you have to.

One interesting note is that if he reduces Italy to 1 US influence via a Socialist Governments headline, Sankt will just take the country via influence placement.  Many would worry about the US couping there in response, but that’s a weak play for a couple reasons.  Most obviously, the USSR’s starting Italy adjacency means the coup must instantly control the country, and with the influence at 3/1 that’s only a 50% chance with a 4-op card.  There’s also the downside risk of losing France as well as Italy with a bad coup, though France becomes more of a luxury for the Soviets in that situation.  Finally, if the USSR used a 4-ops card at the start for something like 3 Italy + 1 Israel, you’re going to lose Egypt & Libya if you try to coup Italy right away.

Even if an Italy coup isn’t favorable, Sankt still rarely coups Iran on AR1 from what I’ve seen.  He has mentioned that he hates couping Iran period when he doesn’t have De-cards!  This is because Thailand and other cheap SE Asian countries are critical for long-term domination, and the USSR needs events for those.  Without domination, simply breaking even in Asia provides the best value for your ops, and there are many ways to achieve that without Iran coups.

Sankt will tend to start the game by placing influence if he isn’t attacking Italy.  He is fond of using a mere 2-ops card to spread into Afghanistan & Israel.  The influence forces the US’s hand on two different fronts, with two battlegrounds at stake in each direction.  It also restricts them from couping your Middle East battlegrounds, since you can take Pakistan & India if they drop DEFCON low enough.  Sankt has also posted that he may start with a 4-ops play against strong opponents, going into West Germany along with the other countries mentioned.  He doesn’t do this against weaker players, as he hopes they’ll throw their ops into places like Jordan instead of France.

Source: https://boardgamegeek.com/article/22017361#22017361 (Italy coup odds mention, importance of US Italy adjacency for the coup, the concept of using BG access to “protect Middle East BGs”, “I don’t think Greece/Turkey exist on USSR board”), https://boardgamegeek.com/article/22146758#22146758 (AR1 W. Germany play), Wargameroom replays

US Influence Spreading in the Early War

A key concept many players miss is that compared to the USSR, the US is far better suited to spread influence throughout the world early on.  They begin with the only access to Latin America & Africa, they have Thailand sewn up barring specific events, and they have the inside track on Egypt -> Libya and Pakistan -> India.  One area where westerners have learned a lot from Sankt & co. recently is how to best prioritize all of these regions.

The Chinese tend to think in terms of ops-to-expected-VPs ratio when choosing the countries to take, which is why they are so much more aggressive with France and such big fans of battlegrounds in general.  As a “swing state” for Europe domination, France is generally worth 6 VPs each time Europe is scored.  No other country can match that value on Turn 1, unless Europe Scoring was headlined (usually by the USSR).  That said, the Soviets don’t have a great way to threaten France right away unless they successfully coup Italy, so you can wait on it a little if they do something else.  Thailand is the next best individual value after France, as it’s cheap to control and only vulnerable to Brush War & an ABM Treaty headline.  Getting 1 influence into Malaysia should be an AR1 priority for the US, but you want to wait until DEFCON drops below 4 before you set foot in Thailand.

Continuing this line of thinking, Egypt is high up there since it’s a cheap battleground with access to another cheap battleground.  It also blocks the USSR from a route into Algeria, which is big if you can keep the De-cards out of their hands, and it cuts off OPEC points for them.  The value of this is also bolstered by Sadat Expels Soviets.  Pakistan is similar but a bit lower in priority due to Indo-Pakistani War, no Sadat equivalent, and India being more expensive (& volatile) than Libya.

So many choices, so little time, eh?  Handling this involves something Twilight Strategy recommends against: using your highest-ops card at the start, rather than saving it for the end of the turn!  The US having so many different target locations is what makes each op count so much here.  From reading posts and studying replays, I’ve found that there is no one optimal AR1 move for the US.  They need to respond to the USSR’s opening, which creates many possibilities.

Most obviously, if the USSR couped Italy and removed some influence, you need to build it back up to 3 pronto (and want 4 later if Socialist Governments isn’t accounted for).  If their coup was successful, you’re actually better off not panicking about France.  It doesn’t score that much if you already have 3 battlegrounds, and the USSR has several more important targets for influence.  In that scenario, you could just put 1 into France while also going into Malaysia & Egypt.  2 influence in Egypt is ideal because it makes coups tougher and means Nasser won’t completely kick you out of there.

If the USSR didn’t coup, Pakistan suddenly becomes a major priority.  This is because at DEFCON 5, you’ll get the last coup there should the Soviets try anything.  The odds are in your favor if you control it right away.  This is a situation I didn’t get to see in replays, unfortunately, as virtually all of Sankt’s USSR opponents couped on AR1.  There is an illuminating forum post I’ve referenced several times here, but that was kind of a special case (Turn 1 Nasser headline).  My own hunch would be 2 Pakistan + 2 Egypt or 2 Pakistan + 1 Malaysia + 1 France, but that’s not speaking for anyone else.  A good general concept to understand is that you can wait on France if the USSR has no direct access there, but not too long or else you risk them dumping Europe Scoring.  If the USSR isn’t in Israel, you can also wait a bit on Egypt (and should take France before Egypt in this case).

Believe it or not, Central America is a decently high priority here as well.  1 op into Costa Rica on an early action round can save you there, as Panama opens up an AR6 play into South America for the US.  Sankt often coups Panama over Middle East battlegrounds if the US hasn’t done this!  It’s worth considering as early as AR2, or even AR1 if Nasser was headlined.

After that, you obviously want to get Libya ASAP if you’re in Egypt.  India can often wait (though 1 op there is good insurance for Indo-Pakistani War).  If the Asian country count is close, Sankt tends to go for the really cheap SE Asian countries before India.  Lebanon should also be taken somewhere in the middle of Turn 1, generally.  South Korea is a tricky bird for the US due to the threat of Korean War.  If you don’t have that card in hand to space, it probably doesn’t merit Turn 1 ops unless you have Asia Scoring.

Africa is intriguing, but you usually don’t have the luxury of doing anything there on Turn 1.  The Chinese like to start there on Turn 2, which is earlier than the traditional western players did.  You can opt for controlling South Africa (otherwise it could be couped!) or crawling north, typically not both.  If you go north, the goal is to play into Cameroon on AR6 so you can take Nigeria on the following turn.  If that’s not possible, then buffing South Africa is probably better.

Early War forays into South America are also doable via a Colombia AR6 play, but Sankt doesn’t seem to like this.  South America is just much more ops-intensive, particularly since you must reach Uruguay at the end of the turn or risk getting cut off from most of the region.  It may also have something to do with the fact that Africa is vulnerable to both De-cards, greatly increasing the likelihood of attack.

There are certainly other situational tactics left out here, but I wanted this to be more of an outline of the fundamental priorities I’ve witnessed.  And it’s way too long as is!

Source: https://boardgamegeek.com/article/22017361#22017361, Wargameroom replays

Cards That Should Always & Never Be Played for the Event (if not an enemy card)

Sankt mentions 3 cards that should always be played for the event when they aren’t an enemy event: Grain Sales to Soviets, Aldrich Ames Remix, & Captured Nazi Scientist.

Most would be surprised not to see Voice of America on that list, but it’s possible for USSR battlegrounds to be so overprotected that the event wouldn’t hurt as much as the 2 ops.  There’s a later post in the referenced thread that gives an example of this.

Sankt also gives 3 cards that should basically never be played for the event when they’re not an enemy card: Formosan Resolution, COMECON, and most surprisingly NORAD.

NORAD tends to be a controversial event, but Sankt strongly believes it’s not worth the major opportunity cost.  Not only do you have to add influence to Canada, you’re also giving up the 3 ops of the card itself.  There’s also the threat of Quagmire, of course.  Even more important in his mind, however, is the fact that NORAD doesn’t activate when DEFCON drops in the headline.  The US in particular loves to do that since it defends their battlegrounds, and Junta is one of the best USSR headlines.  The USSR may also headline other DEFCON degraders if they have pressing influence needs: We Will Bury You, How I Learned to Stop Worrying, and so on.  With all of that said, NORAD is still too strong of an event for the USSR to casually trigger, so in their hands it goes to space.

Many players would expect to see Flower Power, NATO, and US/Japan Mutual Defense Pact on the “never event” list, but Sankt makes interesting arguments for all of these.  If deck tracking tells you that a Missile Envy headline is likely, you can headline these if it’s your only way to prevent your opponent from playing 4 ops right away.  US/Japan in particular is commonly used for the event by Chinese players, even though you could just place 3 ops into Japan and 1 elsewhere.  The idea there is that if you’re playing against a traditional style, you want to make the overall deck as low in ops as possible so they can’t do as much against your space racing and VP-grabbing.  Thus, removing US/Japan from the game is a net positive for you.

Source: https://boardgamegeek.com/article/24263623#24263623https://boardgamegeek.com/article/24395713#24395713 (playing US/Japan for event)

Best Cards to Hold to Turn 3 as the USSR

Sankt once ranked hold cards for Turn 3 when playing as USSR.  His list is as follows:

Five Year Plan > UN Intervention (if you don’t already have a 4-op US event) > strong 4-op US event (e.g. Marshall Plan with a lot of Western Europe still open, NATO if you’re losing the EU battlegrounds) > Indo-Pakistani War > Duck and Cover (strongest US headline on Turn 3) > Defectors > other US events

Five Year Plan is so strong because of the ability to discard a bad scoring card and still get the 3 ops at the end of a turn, though this no longer works if you need to hold any DEFCON suicide cards.  The others should mostly be self-explanatory, though most players don’t fear the NATO event as much as Sankt does.  It can shut down the USSR’s only comeback option in Europe, and it makes Special Relationship a problem at a time when the Soviets will likely have too many more important cards to space.

Source: https://boardgamegeek.com/article/23314206#23314206 (and later posts in that thread)

Expected VPs from Battlegrounds

This one is a bit different – it comes not from Sankt, but from Chinese TS league champion Aragorn.  He has calculated the expected VP value for battlegrounds by region.  I still can’t figure out if these numbers are supposed to be per scoring or for the entire game…a lot of these seem too high for the former, but the Europe figure seems way too low for the latter.  Anyway, here goes:

Europe: The calculations here are different from the rest of the world since both sides start with 2 battlegrounds.  Controlling a 3rd battleground is worth 6-10 VPs.  The 4th BG is only worth 2 VPs, which is why elite USSR players won’t immediately go for France if they win Italy.  That said, taking 4 BGs does force your opponent to spend extra ops defending their only one since Europe control is worth 4982921093 VP.
Asia: Battlegrounds are worth approximately 5 VPs each.  Special mention must be made for Southeast Asia non-BGs, of course.  They’re worth slightly over 1 VP each, since they’re also a big part of Asia domination.  Come to think of it, shouldn’t Thailand have a higher value than the other BGs?
Middle East: Battlegrounds have similar value to Asia’s but probably a bit less.  There are a couple major factors hurting them (risk of coups, the region’s low scoring for domination) but another major factor that helps their value (OPEC).
Latin America: Pretty similar for both regions lumped in here.  Their battlegrounds are worth around 5 VP each, but obviously more volatile than in the above regions since realignments are a thing.
Africa: The battlegrounds here are only worth around 4 VP each because they’re by far the most volatile in the game.  This is due to realignment opportunities, the majority of battlegrounds being 1 stability, and both sides having very powerful events to attack this region.

Source: https://boardgamegeek.com/article/23053980#23053980

 

Don’t be surprised if this isn’t the last revision of this post.  I’m just one guy who’s still relatively new to Twilight Struggle, and I am more than willing to revise this with community input!

Advertisements
Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

1CC Request Rules

Hello all, I added some info on my Twitch page about my new 1CC Requests feature!  Here are the games that are off-limits for this:

  • Non-arcade games, though I may take exceptions on a case-by-case basis.  Typically this would be something related to an arcade game that never came out in arcades, such as Crossed Swords 2.
  • All Taito games (since I do a Taito Tuesdays stream)
  • Mahjong, Hanafuda, casino crap, & Gals Panic-style ~tity games~
  • Obviously, stuff that’s impossible to 1CC (e.g. Revolution X, Guardians of the Hood, games w/ no ending that loop infinitely)
  • Games that have a really bad control scheme in MAME. Remember, I only have a fighting-game stick!
  • Games that I’ve already 1CCed on stream since I started doing arcade games more (these are crossed out below), or have already been requested.  These include:

DD Crew

Pit-Fighter

Castle of Dragon/Dragon Unit

Crossed Swords

Knuckle Bash

X-Men

X-Men vs. Street Fighter

Caveman Ninja (Joe & Mac)

Bucky O’Hare

64th Street

E-SWAT

Captain America & the Avengers

JJ Squawkers (both loops)

Spider-Man (Sega)

Alien Storm (with Karen)

Altered Beast

Willow

Avenging Spirit (good ending)

The Punisher

Metal Slug 3

Guardians/Denjin Makai 2

Demon Front

Dangerous Seed

King of Dragons (no Wizard/Elf)

GI Joe

WWF Wrestlefest (both tag team & Royal Rumble cuz why not~)

Violent Storm

Daraku Tenshi

Punch-Out!

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Neo Turf Masters (any course, no Robert Landolt)

Street Hoop

Trojan

Flying Shark

Stuff that’s not off-limits but would probably take some extra negotiating:

  • Games that are possible to 1CC but uniquely hard.  Smash TV is the main example I use – I would do it, but you’d have to sub for much more than 1 month!
  • Shmups would also be a huge time investment because I am *terrible* at them currently.  Please start me off with something simple if you’re going to go that route…I would like to learn them, but it’s going to be a long road.

That should about cover it, have fun!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Quick Life Update + Why I Don’t Play NES/SNES Anymore

When I stream or talk with people in other stream chats, I still get lots of “I miss your Castlevania speedruns!” or “when’s Holy Diver?”  I’ve never really given the full response to these kinds of queries, so I figured I should do so.

First off, I’ll try a tl;dr of what’s happened in my life since my NES & SNES streams:

  • I moved to San Diego to do neuroscience/psychology-related research on autism, and Withhelde moved to the west coast during the summer after our streams together.
  • I became focused on my work, but streamed a decent amount of Valkyrie Profile speedrunning in 2014.
  • At the beginning of 2015, I went in for a health checkup and got some scary news regarding my cholesterol.  Ever since then, I’ve focused on making exercise a habit and improving my diet.  There’s still more improvement to be made, but I lost some weight without even caring about that so I’m not complaining!
  • In spring 2015 I got a new job with a startup and dug it from the start.  I kicked ass at it and got promoted earlier this year; I’ve put the grad school idea on hold for now as I’m interested to see where this goes.
  • At the same time I first got the job, I ran into Withhelde again and she got me interested in the card game Dominion.  I did the single-player campaigns to learn the cards then started grinding online.  This game’s connected with me in a way that no fighting game has in many years, and is far and away my main competitive game anymore.
  • Toward the end of 2015, I noticed an uptick in arcade-game streams and interest on Twitch.  Watching lots of Macaw45   reminded me that there are tons of fascinating arcade games that hardly anybody knows about, and that inspired me to come up with some more speedrunning ideas.

That takes us to where I’m at today, streaming a mixture of Dominion and arcade-game stuff whenever I feel like it.  One of the issues I struggle with is the fact that I can’t be as loud & excited as I was on my streams in the past; my current home is a fantastic deal in terms of rent & location but has a bunch of older people who are *extremely* sensitive to noise.  I’m talking “don’t even close the bathroom door like a normal person” level here.

So, why haven’t you seen me play any NES or SNES stuff in years?  In short, it’s because I’ve lost my interest in so much of it.  Over the years I’ve come to care more about aesthetics and creativity than how well a game controls…and after seeing so much arcade and PC stuff, the NES & SNES games start to feel real samey.  I realized that from the beginning, consoles have offered less room for thematic experimentation than other platforms, and that’s become more important to me now.  Just look at Nitro Ball, to name one example of many – concepts as unique as this almost never happened on major consoles.  What console game has a look and soundtrack as memorable as, say, Darius Gaiden‘s?  And when you did have a console game that really stood out in terms of “feel”, such as Castlevania, it got run into the ground for the next 20-30 years.  In comparison, the most fascinating arcade and PC games of that era were much more likely to be one-shots, and that’s a lot more satisfying to me.

Basically, I have come to despise the Nintendo Seal of Quality and everything it represents.  Give me the dart-throwing approach any day!

Another question that I sometimes get is “why Dominion and not fighting games?”  Part of it is that traveling to tournaments is far less convenient now that I have a full-time job, and I haven’t gotten a console since my 360 died.  But the real reason, again, is that I just have way more passion for the former now.  Fighting games are meant to be disposable, and even the ones that last a while have major updates coming out every year or two.  These updates obsolete a lot of knowledge from the previous version, so I regard them as being somewhat like new games.  Since it takes years to master any competitive game worth its salt, these update schedules ultimately limit the potential of the game.

With a tabletop game like Dominion, on the other hand, expansions simply add to the experience instead of taking things away.  When Dark Ages comes out, the following year’s expansion doesn’t go back and nerf stuff from it (and trust me, Dark Ages has a few cards that could reeeeaaaaalllllly stand some nerfing); the Dark Ages cards are left as-is, and their presence is factored into the balancing of future cards.  Thus, each Dominion expansion gets time to breathe, as the strategy with its cards can evolve even while new cards keep coming out.  Dark Ages came out in mid-2012, and it wasn’t until late 2014-2015(?) that people began realizing Urchin was a legitimate god-tier card rather than “very good”.  If Dominion were a fighting game, the other Dark Ages cards that people hated from the beginning (e.g. Cultist & Rebuild) would’ve been neutered a year later, while Urchin would’ve slipped under the radar until the developers had moved on to Dominion 2 and it was too late to fix things.  Oh yeah, and Saboteur (a rather bad card, for those who don’t know) would’ve been nerfed at some point because “it makes the game unfun when it’s good”.

Dominion’s approach means you have a few broken cards that make the game less fun & interesting with their presence, but I’ll gladly take that when it allows the game to develop like competitive games should.  It even came out in the same year as Street Fighter IV and has another expansion due later this year, so I think it’s safe to say it will outlive the 800-pound gorilla of the fighting-game scene.  Since I’ve gotten pretty jaded toward compressed life cycles with age, this has a lot of appeal to me!

It doesn’t hurt that Dominion’s top players are the most welcoming and helpful you’ll ever find.  Players ranked top 5 in the world will watch any random scrub’s stream (*raises hand*) and drop all kinds of wisdom as long as you aren’t a dick.  It’s a refreshing change of pace, coming from a scene that prided itself on not helping others even before esports got involved.  These kinds of games also breed much more analytical top players, which is something I in particular need to break plateaus.  Picture a top 20 consisting entirely of Viscants, and you’ll get the idea.

 

So, that should hopefully help explain things.  Oh yeah, and I can’t seriously run Holy Diver because I don’t have a Famicom anymore (gave mine to kissmyafrocard), and I never really loved NES Batman in the first place so I was done once I got the 10:24. So there you go!

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The Stream Monster’s Guide to Dominion

So after a year, I’m finally writing something for this again!  A chance meeting with a good friend of mine got me interested in the card game Dominion, and I started playing the online version last summer.  A big part of the appeal for me is that while 2-player is a niche format in Power Grid, it is seen as the only competitive way to play in the Dominion scene; having grown tired of the arbitrary anti-kingmaking rules required to take any larger game seriously, it didn’t take a whole lot for this to become my main game!

Even beyond that, Dominion has turned out to be a wonderful game due to the endless possibilities.  To go along with a few universal “Treasure” and “Victory” cards (more on all this later), there is a “Kingdom” (often called “board”) of 10 unique cards.  Dominion Online currently has over 200 different Kingdom cards, with another 30+ on the way in the form of the Adventures expansion.  You shouldn’t need math to realize how many different strategies are possible with all those combinations of cards, and a lot of the fun of the game lies in discovering overpowered synergies; I think many Marvel & Skullgirls players would feel right at home here!

All that variety has the unfortunate side effect of making the game incomprehensible to viewers who haven’t played it, so I decided to try my hand at a 1v1 Dominion primer that can be linked on my stream.  Since my viewers largely tend to be familiar with fighting games such as Street Fighter & Mortal Kombat, I’ll draw some analogies to those throughout this article.

The Basics

In the broadest sense, Dominion has 3 types of cards (though Adventures will add another): Action, Treasure, and Victory.  Action cards are just what they sound like, and the first cards to be played each turn.  Once you are finished with action cards you can play Treasures, which are yellow cards worth a certain amount of coins.  You use those coins to buy more cards each turn, but you cannot keep leftover money from treasure cards.  The green Victory cards are named so because they give you Victory Points (VPs), and you win the game by having the most VPs at the end; the downside is that most victory cards do nothing besides give you points, so they hurt your deck a lot and you typically want to avoid them until the later stages of the game.

A few cards will be found in every game of Dominion.  Among these are the three “vanilla” treasure cards: Copper (worth $1), Silver (worth $2), and Gold (worth $3).  There are also three vanilla victory cards: Estate (worth 1 VP), Duchy (worth 3 VP), and Province (worth 6 VP).  If your game has any Kingdom cards from the Prosperity expansion, there is also a random chance it will contain an additional “vanilla” treasure & victory card: Platinum (treasure worth $5) and Colony (victory card worth 10 VP).  One final “universal” Dominion card is Curse, which does nothing and is worth -1 VP; there are special attack cards that can give these to your opponent!

In Dominion Online, the “vanilla” cards are on the left and right sides of the board.  The middle of the board contains 10 Kingdom cards, which I described at the beginning of the article.  These are the cards that give the game its flavor and fun, and they run the gamut in terms of type and ability.  Most kingdom cards are action cards, but there are many special treasure & victory cards mixed in as well.  In Dominion Online, the kingdom cards are selected at random for ranked matches; in unrated games, on the other hand, the players can choose any particular cards to include.

There are multiple copies of each card in a game.  The piles for the vanilla treasure cards are huge, but there are only 8 copies of all victory cards in 1v1.  Almost all Kingdom cards besides the victory cards have 10 copies in their pile.  This makes for one of the major differences between Dominion and many of the deck-building games that followed it: generally, all players will have equal access to all resources.

You start each turn with a 5-card hand, and you begin each game of Dominion with a 10-card deck.  Thus, the first 2 turns are called the “opening” since the cards you buy will be shuffled into your deck on turn 3.  Your 10 starting cards always include 7 Coppers, and the other 3 are usually Estates.  If your game contains any kingdom cards from the Dark Ages expansion, there is a random chance the Estates will be replaced with 3 unique cards called Shelters.

To go along with your starting cards being so weak, there are other limitations that make Dominion a skill-intensive game and are not commonly seen in other deck-builders.  You start each turn only being able to buy 1 card, and there are specific kingdom cards that can give you extra buys in a turn.  Furthermore, you only have 1 Action per turn, and playing any action card uses up an action.  Many of these cards give you +1 Action, making them neutral in this regard; there is also a special class of cards called “Villages” that give you +2 actions, giving you a surplus which enables you to play a series of other cards even if they don’t give any actions back!

Finally, a game of Dominion ends on one of 3 conditions: All Provinces are gone, all Colonies are gone, or 3 other piles of cards besides Province/Colony are gone.  Think of these piles as the “time limit” on your game!

Understanding Game Flow: Big Money, Slogs, Rushes, Combos, & Engines

Some years back, top Dominion player Wandering Winder came out with a series of articles describing what he termed “The Five Fundamental Deck Types”.  The article linked is a quick introduction to the concept, but I’ll try to break it down in a way that fighting-game veterans can more easily understand!

Big Money

OK, so when you hear that phrase, I bet you immediately think of Smash TV, right?  Well, that’s not *quite* what we mean here…

Big Money is the simplest way to play Dominion, and it’s what every new player falls for.  In short, you buy as much Silver/Gold/Platinum as you can until you can buy Provinces or Colonies, and then you tend to rush down the victory cards from there.  You will also get a couple action cards early in the game to support this, with the most common being the ones that draw you a bunch of cards.

I would compare Big Money to your early days playing fighting games, before you knew how to do combos.  You’re basically just throwing out a bunch of isolated heavy attacks and special moves (buying big treasure & victory cards), maybe with the classic jumpkick -> sweep combo thrown in.  This type of deck can score a bunch of points early and do an OK job surviving all those do-nothing green cards, but it lacks late-game explosiveness and tends to struggle against decks that can attack you every turn and wait until the end to get all their VP at once.  BM is also much more luck-based than decks that can consistently draw lots of cards.

That said, this brings us to one of the crucial differences between Dominion and fighting games: the strategic potential in a game of Dominion is determined by the kingdom cards, so it varies wildly from game to game.  I guess you could compare it to the single-player campaigns in Soul Blade/Calibur, where some of your fights have gimmicks like “you are poisoned” or “you can only damage the opponent with juggle combos”.  On some Dominion boards, there’s simply nothing better to do than spam crouching Fierce with an occasional super!

Slog

This is a style of play that doesn’t work well with fighting-game analogies, because I can’t think of any strong fighting-game strategies that specifically reward mediocrity.  A decent number of Dominion boards compel you to take a “quantity over quality” approach, for a couple different reasons.

One such case is the board whose only useful action cards are attacks that add junk (e.g. Curses) to the opponent’s deck.  This could be argued as belonging more to Big Money since the surface-level idea is the same, but a powerful enough attack will change the game flow drastically here.  Specifically, a player who tries to build up to buying Provinces can lose to a player who settles for a bunch of the cheaper Duchies while emptying other piles (e.g. Estates).  When Duchies are your main source of points and the game lasts a long time, I’d consider that a slog – this definition can vary.

More commonly, slogs become strong when you have special victory cards that want lots of bad-to-mediocre cards in the deck.  Some of the notable Bat-Signals for a slog include Duke (scores points based on the number of Duchies in your deck), Silk Road (scores points based on the number of victory cards in your deck), and Gardens (scores points based on the total number of cards in your deck).  The idea is to score more points from the cheaper victory cards than an opponent can get from all the Provinces.  You’ll usually want some other kingdom card that helps this strategy as well, especially if you’re going to try it against an engine (more on engines later).  And Colonies are extremely bad news for this style of play, since it takes way too long to make those slog-friendly cards worth anywhere near 10 points.  However, you will see non-Colony games be dominated by this strategy from time to time, especially with Duke; the other two tend to fit even better into Rush strategies, as described in the next section!

Rush

Yes, Alex Valle’s immortal words even have a place in card games!  Rush strategies take advantage of the 3-pile rule for ending a game, as they are based on churning through piles quickly and scoring enough points to beat someone building a deck that will do bigger things in the long run.  You can think of it like killing a character before they get full super meter!

The canonical Dominion rush is Ironworks paired with Gardens or Silk Road.  Ironworks allows you to gain any card costing up to $4, and it gives +1 action when used to gain action cards.  Hence, you can continually spam these to drain piles and also use them to gain points, since Gardens & Silk Road both cost $4 (Duchy & Duke cost $5, so they don’t work for this plan).  You want all the Ironworks and Gardens/SRs you can get, but the 3rd pile can vary somewhat.  With Silk Road you definitely want Estates since they increase SR’s value, but for a Gardens rush it’s quicker to empty another action card besides Ironworks; there can be an interesting element of skill in balancing speed with score here!

Rushes are tailor-made to beat decks that are slow to build, but Big Money can beat them if there is a strong action card for support.  Remember what I said earlier…BM is pretty quick to grab 4 or 5 Provinces, and the rush player can’t end the game if you jump out in front with the points lead!  Your deck will be much better equipped for longevity than theirs, so those early points are the key.  A good number of engines can get going quickly enough to win this matchup as well.

Combo

This one has been the trickiest to define, as it often overlaps with other categories.  The general idea of these is to take advantage of two cards that have a unique broken synergy with each other.  The Ironworks rushes described above can be considered combos, for instance.

Another example that’s simple enough to describe here is Scavenger/Stash.  Scavenger is an action card that gives you $2, can discard your entire remaining draw deck, and lets you choose any card from the discard pile to put on top of your deck for next turn.  Stash is a treasure card worth $2, and you can place it anywhere in your deck when you reshuffle the deck.  So if you have 2 Scavengers and 4 Stashes, you can play one Scavenger to guarantee a hand of the other Scavenger +4 Stashes next turn.  That’s more than enough to buy a Province, which costs $8, and you can repeat this every turn until all the Provinces are gone.  Stash is normally one of the absolute worst cards in the game, yet this combo is the dominant strategy on the majority of boards that have it…that’s what I mean by “synergy”!

The key difference between combos and engines is that engines involve many different action cards, usually with the goal of drawing your entire deck.  Combos involve only 2 different kingdom cards (since any specific 3+-card combo is extremely unlikely to appear in an online game with randomized kingdom cards), and they tend to do unique things that draw-the-deck engines don’t.

Engine

The Big Kahuna of high-level Dominion, there’s a reason I saved this one for last!  Engines have become the dominant style of play in this game, with the players improving and the expansions consistently buffing them over time.  This is also widely considered the most difficult type of deck to play at an elite level due to the variety of options available and decisions you have to make.  In that sense, I’d compare Dominion to Marvel vs. Capcom 2 (w/ Storm & Sentinel) or the original Tekken Tag Tournament (w/ the Mishimas) – top tier is the hardest to master!

So what exactly is an engine?  I’ve hinted at it a number of times, but in essence it’s a deck that chains lots of action cards together every turn.  Over the years, Dominion has added a plethora of action cards that do everything under the sun: give you surplus actions (refer to the Basics section above), draw you lots of cards, give you money, give you extra buys, gain cards, trash your bad cards like Copper/Estates (permanently removing them from your deck), attack your opponent in various ways (e.g. giving them junk cards, reducing the size of their starting hand, trashing their good cards)…and that’s not even all of it!  Hence, engines have a wider range of potential and possibilities than any other type of deck.

The common flow for engines is Villages -> Draw -> Payload & Attacks.  Villages are like the light & medium normal attacks with major frame advantage on hit – they don’t do real damage in and of themselves, but you need them to connect a series of the big moves.  Drawing cards is sort of like building meter, as that’s how you gain access to your big moves.  “Payload” refers to cards that gain you coins, extra buys, new cards, and/or points.  The best action cards for drawing your whole deck tend to be “terminal”, meaning that they do not give you any +Actions.  The same is largely true for the best payload and attack cards, so you need enough villages to play all of these each turn.  This is why trashing your early junk cards is so strong – you will need fewer drawing cards to get through the deck, and you’ll be much more consistent in lining up your villages with your draw.

A major virtue of engines over other strategies is their consistency.  If you can get rid of your 10 starting cards and/or assemble a massive collection of good action cards, you should be able to draw your entire deck and use your “supers” each turn.  Compare this to most of the other deck types described above, which rely on your 5-card starting hand and not much else.  That being said, there are times when an engine will never be consistent (e.g. because of a lack of trashing) but the attacks and/or payload will be so powerful that you still want to go for it.

Another big advantage of engines is their explosiveness.  Engines and combos are the only deck types that can consistently gain multiple Provinces or Colonies in a single turn, so they tend to favor long-term building plans.  Since they need to connect a bunch of specific action cards in a certain order, engines cannot withstand adding a lot of victory cards as well as other decks can.  Good engines tend to build until they score all their points in one game-ending megaturn, or just go for the highest-scoring victory card and ignore cheaper VP sources unless absolutely necessary.

One more way engines can crush other strategies is by playing attacks every turn.  There are a number of cards which reduce the opponent’s starting hand to 3 cards, and these are especially nasty for Big Money (since it’s incredibly hard to buy a Province or Colony with that few cards).  Attacks that add junk cards to the opponent’s deck are some of the best, and attacks that trash an opponent’s good cards are strong if you can play them multiple times each turn.  Even something as simple as discarding good cards from the top of the opponent’s deck can slow down Big Money a good deal.

One of the best forms of payload, and one largely reserved for engines, is the ability to gain a card, draw it, and play it in the same turn.  This is most commonly done via “trash-for-benefit” action cards, which trash a card from your hand and gain a more expensive card.  I mention this specifically because it’s one of the most common reasons for players to spend 5+ minutes thinking about a single move…the calculations to gain-and-play multiple new cards can be awfully tricky!

Along similar lines, the game flow when both players go for the same engine is much different from, say, an engine vs. Big Money matchup.  If the engine offers lots of extra buys and/or other ways to gain cards, a quick 3-pile ending will be very likely since both players are contesting a lot of the same cards.  This is the other main reason players will stop and think for ages: looking for ways to end the game on 3 piles with enough points to win!  This is one of *the* crucial high-level skills of this game, and you’ll see plenty of these situations if you watch Dominion streams.

When do you not go for an engine, given everything I’ve discussed here?  This is a tricky question to answer, and the players usually explain it on stream if they decide to do this.  One common factor is the board being heavy on junk-card attacks with no trashing, since engines need to line up specific cards to accomplish anything.  Another big one is the board having no villages, as it’s a bit uncommon for a good engine to be built entirely around non-terminal action cards.  There are also times when you can draw your whole deck but there’s no attack or payload besides treasure cards…the long building period for engines can put them at a disadvantage compared to a Big Money strategy using those big drawing cards.  Even in these cases, there are still cards that can make an engine viable, but I’m trying to keep it somewhat simple here!

Well, I think that wraps this up.  It ended up being awfully long, but Dominion is a complex game and I’m trying to give a picture of all of the different the types of game flow and why they work the way they do.  Hopefully it helps you to enjoy streams more, and maybe even give the game a try yourself!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The 2-Player Power Grid Manifesto: Parts 1-3

Hello once again!  Motivated by all the hate it tends to receive on sites like Board Game Geek, I decided to write a guide to higher-level strategies for 2-player Power Grid.  Built from my own experience in hundreds of online games, it covers the early/middle/late stages of the game as well as power plant values and other issues like offensive/defensive play and how to make a comeback.  It also includes links to some recorded games of mine in the hopes of showing how all the concepts work together.  This ended up being split into three separate parts, so I decided to create a separate page with links to all of them.  Here they are:

Part 1 (General Concepts, Early Game)                                                                                         Part 2 (Mid & Late Game Power Plants)                                                                                        Part 3 (Other Mid & Late Game Strategies, Match Videos)

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The 2-Player Power Grid Manifesto: Part 3 (Other Mid & Late Game Strategies, Match Videos)

NOTE: This is the third and final part in a series of articles on high-level play in 2-player Power Grid.  For more background and links to relevant information, I highly recommend reading Part 1 & Part 2 beforehand!

To finish this guide I will cover other important aspects of mid-late game play besides power plant auctioning, such as building and playing from behind.  These are some of the more easily overlooked elements of good 2-player strategy, but they can make the difference between winning and losing sometimes.  I will also link a series of five online 2P games I played vs. one of the best online players, which were streamed live on Twitch with commentary from both of us.  This should hopefully show you how all the elements of this guide fit together in a real game!

Offensive & Defensive Building:

As you hopefully saw in Part 1, offensive building (i.e. jumps) can be very powerful in 2P when used correctly.  You need to balance that with defensive building (i.e. protecting your own key territory), which is not easy at first.  How much of each is best depends on your opponent and especially the map config you are playing.

On maps with lots of cheap cities all over, jumps will be quite common since they’re cheaper than direct connections on your average Germany map config.  Your early builds should aim to establish connections to as many different areas as possible, as it is too difficult to completely protect a whole region from an aggressive player.  This tends to be achieved through a mixture of jumps and building in your own “gateway” cities (i.e. those which are the single access point to multiple other cities).

On maps with highly expensive builds such as most Germany configs or all-southern Italy, jumps are often too costly to be practical early in the game (with the key exception of Salerno-Roma on said Italy map).  These maps place a much higher priority on protecting your own gateways ASAP, and there tend not to be a lot of profitable jumps left by the time you can afford them.  You might be able to sneak in a +$8 jump or something when ending Step 1, which is a mildly profitable play for you, but that’s as far as it tends to go.

Basically, when in doubt, protect your own land until there’s only one reasonable (i.e. not +$20) offensive jump left for you, then go for that.  That’s not always optimal, of course, but it’s a safe general guideline to follow until you get a better feel for 2P building.

Moving the Market:

One reason some players find 2-player Power Grid boring is the slow pace of the power plant market.  It feels like whoever can better afford 21 or 25 has all but won the game right there, as a stream of terrible plants proceeds to flood the market and it seems like the other player has no chance of coming back.  There are rare games where this is true, but I would argue that most of the time this can be mitigated with improved play on the part of the underdog.  Power Grid offers multiple ways of moving the market, and these are probably at their most important in 2P.

Early in the game, the most effective method of moving the market is buying a small plant that can make its money back in 1-2 turns.  09 is one of the best examples of this, and 11 can also work when uranium is down to $8 or less.  You can also use 12 for this purpose as long as fossil fuel prices are decent, and I’ve even done it with 17 in rare desperate situations.  If you bid the 13 to $20+ or 18 to $30+ then get a bad drop after letting it go, you need to move the market immediately.  Plants like these become well worth that money with an extended market stall, but lose a lot of their luster if you can quickly make more good plants available.  Buying one of these plants is the only way to do that until you have the money to build a bunch of cities, so it is a common tactic in strong 2P games.

Once you get into the mid-late stages of the game and the big plants you missed out on include 25 & 26, buying plants is a much weaker option.  Powering extra cities makes you a bunch of money when you only have 4 or 5 of them and a couple usable plants, but it’s not nearly as big of a deal when you have 10+ cities and more plants on hand already.  From this point onward, you should mainly move the market via building!  Remember, when one player reaches a certain number of cities, plants at or below that number are removed from the game.  Notice that I didn’t recommend buying plant 06 or 07 in the above paragraph?  That’s because you want to keep those around and build to get rid of them once you have the money for it!  Stalling instead of building there essentially serves to delay the game by a full 2 turns if not more, which gives far too much of an advantage to the player with better early plants.  An especially strong move is to build one or more plants out of the game while simultaneously beginning Step 2; Step 2 gets rid of the lowest plant on the market *after* any others are removed, not before!  This means that if the 11 is still around and you build to 11+ cities, you will clear out both 11 and the next-lowest plant after that.

Even after Step 1, you must keep your eye out for opportunities to build and remove plants if you fall behind your opponent.  Since you usually have more money at this point than you would in larger games and can build more without ending the game, this remains a practical move all the way until Step 3 (and even during Step 3 on occasion).  Any of plants 11-17 (minus 13, of course) are candidates to be built away before Step 3, so it helps to know how many of those are still potentially in the deck.  Even more helpful is tracking the plants so that you know when Step 3 will come (hint: the Step 3 card will be next once there are only 8 plants you haven’t seen).  There are plenty of occasions where building will reveal the last plant before Step 3 or even the Step 3 card itself, and the Step 3 auction is a must if you are behind on plants.  Drawing the Step 3 card via building is especially helpful since it prevents the highest plant on the market from being buried under the deck – a must if you are low on capacity and the highest plant is a 7-cap!

All told, while people usually view Power Grid’s turn-order rules as the “comeback mechanic” of the game, I think that moniker may instead belong to its market-moving rules.  You do have options to counter an opponent who pays big money for big plants, and 2P becomes a lot more fun and tense when you use them!

2-Player Power Grid Match Videos: funkdoc vs. jbode

I play this game online via Brettspielwelt under the name “funkdoc”, and jbode has been my toughest opponent in 2-player games.  In fact, I learned a lot of the concepts described in this guide from playing against him!  We like to do 3-out-of-5 “World Tour” series which consist of one 2-player game on each of the 5 maps available online.  To show others how this game is played at that level, I decided to stream one such series live via TwitchTV and have both of us do commentary as we played.  I don’t think I would do it this way again for various reasons (mostly making things too slow-paced for a live stream), but I think it turned out to be a nice teaching tool so I’m glad I did it once!  It was especially nice that the series went the full 5 games, as you get to see how some of the expansion maps change things up.  Baden-Wurttemberg is its own separate world with the wacky turn-order rules and other changes, and I’m still not sure I understand it all that well!  Here are the links to the Twitch video archives of our matches:

Part 1 (USA, Germany, France, Italy)                                                                                            Part 2 (Baden-Wurttemberg)

Watching these while glancing through the different parts of this guide should hopefully place things into greater context for you!

Overall, I believe 2-player Power Grid is criminally underrated by most players, and it may be my favorite form of the game.  It becomes more rewarding as you become more skilled, a trait which I’ve found to be all too rare in high-level competitive games.  I appreciate the way it forces you to think beyond the entry-level “Big Capacity” strategies and take advantage of the game’s more obscure mechanics, and I think the increased rewards for offensive play make it a pleasant change of pace from multiplayer games.  I absolutely think 2-player Power Grid could be a legitimate tournament game in similar fashion to the likes of Dominion and Twilight Struggle, and have considered organizing online tournaments in the future.

If you are interested in trying it out and/or learning more, don’t be afraid to ask me for games!  Send me a PM on the BoardGameGeek forums (account is funkdoc there as well), chat with me on Twitter (@SRKfunkdoc) if you’re active there, or just hop on Brettspielwelt and ask me if I’m around (usually mornings and evenings, US Pacific time).  I love to teach new players, so don’t feel like you’re wasting my time!

Finally, I wanted to give a special thanks to all the online warriors who unknowingly helped me put this guide together: Withhelde (my first teacher in this game), jbode, shiang (my original online 2P teacher), psteinx, bmannuthmin, Shazii, mwigor, eliegel, and anybody else I may have forgotten.  An effort like this always requires a community, and I’m glad that Power Grid still has one a decade after its release.  As Marvel vs. Capcom players always used to say…”TEN MORE YEARS!”

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

The 2-Player Power Grid Manifesto: Part 2 (Mid & Late Game Power Plants)

NOTE: This is the second part of an article outlining high-level strategies for 2-player.  For background and links to other information, read Part 1.

We last left off describing what should be done on the first three turns of a typical 2-player game, as well as explaining the general concepts where 2P differs from multiplayer games.  This early stage of the game tends to remain the same since the first set of plants available is mostly fixed.  Turn 4 and beyond are when the market truly becomes random, meaning we can no longer map out each turn precisely.  Instead, I will focus on general strategies for the different phases of the game during the middle and late stages.  This part will cover the value of the relevant power plants in 2P, while the next and final part will go over other key tactics such as moving the market.

Pre-Step 3 Green Plants:

I like to say that in 2-player Power Grid, Green Is Gold.  For many reasons outlined in Part 1, efficiency is key to winning in 2P, and green-energy plants are some of the best long-term money-makers you can get.  Even the humble 13 is strong here since you can keep it until the end of the game and make far more than $13 from it, so I would comfortably pay $20+ for it if bad plants are next in the market.  On the other hand, if an endgame monster like 21/25/26 is next in the market, I would just pass and give 13 to my opponent if I’m going first.  If the plant on deck is a solid early plant like 15 or 16, the answer depends on your plants.  If you bought 08 earlier, you want to stop running that plant ASAP since it makes coal expensive in no time…and I have learned the hard way that 13 doesn’t really help you there.  13 at cost will be really good for your opponent, but I would still let them have it and take 15/16 (or something like 22 which allows you to run a non-coal plant alongside it and make decent money).

18 tends to be less context-sensitive than 13 since it powers 2 cities and also offers great turn order for such a strong plant.  Its low number means it tends to be the one good plant buried in a sea of junk when it appears, and I would easily pay $25-30 for it in such a scenario.  Heck, I’ve gone closer to $35 in situations where multiple awful plants are behind it in the market (i.e. 19 and early 24).  This may seem ludicrous, but it will make you much more money than that in the long run.  It’s also worth noting that as you power more and more cities, you gain less money for each one you add throughout the game.  This means that by the end, 18 or 22 may make more money in a turn than even 25/26!  Speaking of 22, that plant is still quite good but less valuable than 18 due to its turn order and the fact that it’s more likely to show up with top plants behind it in the market.  I’ll bid it to around $25 if Plant 23 is next, or if the remaining plants in the deck suggest a decent chance of a bad drop.

27 is helped out in 2P for a different reason from the other green plants: it’s much easier to keep a 3-capacity plant for the entire game than in any other type of game besides 6P.  Just make sure to get a 5-capacity plant before Step 3, and you can reach endgame capacity with just two more plants (a 6- & a 7-cap).  Furthermore, 2P is much rougher on resources than 6P so 27 ‘s efficiency is a much greater advantage here.  That being said, $27 in itself is still not cheap for a plant that needs a bit of endgame luck to avoid being replaced, so don’t go *too* crazy for it.  This may seem to conflict with my suggestions on 18 & 22 above, but 27’s high number means that you’re usually in the thick of good 4/5-cap plants when it shows up.  If it comes early then I’d go into the low-mid $30s for it (past that you usually hurt your building too much to be worth it), but in the mid-late stages it tends to be that plant you pass to your opponent at list price.  It’s a pretty nice plant to stay bottom for, at least!

The Efficient 4-Caps:

Now *these* plants are beasts in 2-player!  Paying $8/turn or less to power 4 cities is huge when all this fossil fuel gouging is going on, and keeping one 4-cap plant for the entire game is easy as pie.  The standard strategy is to pair it with a 5-cap before Step 3, then get two 6-caps during Step 3 when they will go cheaper and/or be more efficient than earlier options.  Even having two 4-caps is manageable, as you need a 6 & a 7 in Step 3 to reach 21 capacity.

21 tends to be the most valuable of these plants simply because of how early it appears.  It’s not uncommon to have 21 there with 23/24 behind it in the market, to say nothing of the chance that more low plants appear before you can get to 25 & 26.  This makes it a crucial money-maker in the early-mid portion of the game, though it does suffer in the endgame compared to other 4-caps.  I would say somewhere around $35 would be a solid “baseline” price for it if you’re stuck in a bad early market, with it being worth $40 in unusually rough cases.  Even if 25 or 26 is next in the market, I would still bid on 21 a little bit.  The value here depends on the odds of a bad drop, with mid-$20s being a typical fair price in these situations.

24 is generally a terrible plant for the first half of the game or so.  Its issue is that only 1 trash is restocked per turn in Step 1, so it drives up an already expensive resource.  Once you get to Step 2 with the higher restock rate and cheaper trash, however, 24 can be a key insurance policy against the potential death of coal in the endgame.  It can be worth some competitive bidding if not surrounded by 25/26/30, going around $30 in these situations.  If there are monster plants on deck, whether you go for 24 or pass depends on how desperate you are.  If you have no endgame plants, it’s not worth giving one up just to stop your opponent from getting a better one!  Finally, note that early 24 is much better on Italy with the low trash prices, but still not all that great if 06 will still be in use.  Replacing 06 with 24 is a decent option when desperate though.

28 is not a plant I’m all that high on early in the game, even when uranium gets down to $8.  21 tends to be cheaper to run at that point, and 28 gets you killed on turn order as well.  It’s the kind of plant you pass to your opponent at cost, and only worth buying at that stage if you have no 21 or green plants to make you money.  Once you get halfway through the game, though, 28 becomes much stronger if nobody has been running nuclear plants to that point.  Fossil fuel prices should be higher, making 28’s efficiency stand out more.  It may be worth a small amount of bidding in this case.  If another nuclear plant has been active during the game, 28 loses most of its value and tends to be avoided unless someone needs an endgame plant badly enough.  The problem there is that uranium’s restock rate is only 1/turn for the entire game, ensuring it will be driven up to $10+ in a hurry if both players have a nuclear plant.

There’s not really much to say about 29.  It’s clearly the best 4-cap plant if you need one, but it tends not to appear until neither player needs one anymore.  Don’t be shocked to see it go for nearly $40 if it shows up early in the game, though!

The Pre-Step 3 5-Caps:

Now we get to the plants that suffer somewhat in 2P compared to larger games.  Well, not *too* much in the case of 25 & 26, as they are still quite efficient for their power, but…

20 is something of a controversial plant among 2P veterans.  I personally am not a fan of it at all, and it takes a lot to make me pay more than $25 for it.  During Step 1 it singlehandedly eats up coal’s entire restock rate per turn, so your opponent only needs one profitable (or break-even) coal plant to drive up your prices badly.  Step 2 only increases the restock rate by 1, so the issue persists there, and in Step 3 coal goes back to 3/turn with many more big coal plants available.  Things get ugly in a hurry with this plant, plain and simple.  Having this plant also means you can’t afford to buy 25 unless your opponent is foolish enough to give it to you for near list price; the low coal restock makes it suicide to regularly run both plants together, unless your opponent has no coal whatsoever.  You also run the risk of being stuck without coal at all if things get bad enough, though this shouldn’t really happen with good players.  The best way to attack the 20 is not to completely buy out coal, which is too expensive for the attacker, but to instead drive it up until that plant costs over $15 per turn to run for the rest of the game.  That’s a much easier goal to achieve, and one that adds up a lot over the course of the game.

That being said, there is value in 20 being a 5-cap plant.  Sometimes there may be nothing else available for you to reach your capacity goal before Step 3.  20 is probably at its best when it shows up early in the middle of a bad market, surprisingly.  This may seem counterintuitive because fossil fuels get expensive during these market stalls, but 3 coal to power 5 cities looks a heck of a lot better when an opponent is burning, say, 2 coal/2 oil or 2 coal/1 uranium just to power 4.  These are the situations where I can see 20 being worth the $30 that some players think it is.  Even then, you have to consider the likelihood of 21 or 25 appearing, as an opponent needs only one of those to kill 20’s value.

There’s a lot less to say about 25 & 26, as they are the best overall plants in the game regardless of game size.  I will just note that it’s less important to have a 5-cap before Step 3 than it is in larger games, so these two plants are worth a tad less.  They still make great money so the effect isn’t all that large…25 is probably worth $40 or maybe a little bit less on average, while 26 goes in the low-mid $40s more often than not.  They become much more important if one player is rich and badly needs capacity, of course.  26 is also more context-dependent here than in larger games, as oil’s restock rate is pathetically low until Step 3.  If your opponent has 21 or even 16, 26 should probably be marked down a few bucks – it’s not hard to drive oil up to $6!

With the increased endgame strength of 4-cap plants, I find it quite rare for the 5-caps to be worth $50+ like they can be sometimes in other games.  Needing to buy more total plants and make more total money to win makes it less worth it to pay huge amounts of money for any one plant.  It is also worth noting that 5-5-4 is not the greatest combination for your top three plants since it forces you into hoping for a 7-cap at the end, and 5-4-4 is much worse unless you get all of them at cost.  I would only go for these setups (especially 5-4-4) if my opponent is far behind on capacity and I can end the game with just one more plant in Step 3.

The Pre-Step 3 6-Caps:

Since the market moves much more slowly with only 2 players, it’s much less likely for 30/31/32 to become available prior to Step 3.  That said, it still happens often enough to be worth covering.

Generally I lump these plants in with the 20.  They’re all victims of the low 2P restock rates, and I tend to win much more often with two early 4-caps than a 4 and one of these.  If the resource in question is cheap or the players are extremely rich (usually as a result of early market/building stalls), they can be strong and merit competitive bidding.  30 tends to be a resource-safe but expensive option (something usually reserved for a last-ditch buy in Step 3), but it becomes tremendous if 24 is not in the game.  I would not be afraid to go $45-50 for the 30 in this case if you know that the best Step 3 6-caps (e.g. 39,50) are under the deck or possibly not in the game.  I would only consider 31 before Step 3 if coal is extremely cheap, such as when your opponent’s been running 25 and you have no coal plants yourself.  32 looks good on paper but has problems with that early-mid oil restock rate, and I tend to stay away if my opponent has been burning oil.

Basically, these plants can work if their resources are unusually cheap or you have a huge cash surplus to build and make money from them immediately.  Otherwise, I tend to stick with the 4s & 5s and keep these plants in reserve for Step 3 in case nothing better drops.  There are just too many better 6s & 7s in Step 3 to prioritize these all that much.  Good things come to those who wait, after all…

Miscellaneous Small Plants:

There are other early plants worth discussing for 2P games, of course.  They’re less of a priority than the above but can sometimes make the difference themselves.

15 & 16 are pretty decent if they show up on turn 4 or so.  As mentioned, they are especially valuable for the player with 08, and 16 in particular can be an important check on the 26 later.  Making these into endgame plants is a lot less attractive than it is with 27, so I wouldn’t make that a top priority.  There just isn’t long-term money in these, so don’t shy away from those 4-cap plants in the hope of keeping them!

11 is usually not so hot since uranium isn’t really cheaper than fossil fuels for a while.  I’m more likely to go for it once uranium gets down to $6 or so and the market still isn’t offering anything else, though it can be good earlier if the market has plants like 14 & 17 below it.  Definitely don’t buy it if there’s any chance of dropping something good for your opponent, though.  I also like to stay away from 11 if 23 is coming soon, as that is a much better plant due to its better moneymaking and potential endgame value.  23 still isn’t especially *good*, mind you, but it can work as a desperation buy when you’re last in the auction.  I’ve won my fair share of 2P games with 23 as an endgame plant, and it becomes a nice value if you can pull that off.  It just takes some luck from the market to get a 7-cap at the end.  These plants also have the side effect of killing 28’s value, which is either a great thing or a bad one for you depending on who needs plants.

Step 3 Plants:

This tends to be rather simple.  Just think about how much capacity you and your opponent need to reach 21, and plan your decisions from there.  If you need a 7 plant and they don’t, try to stay below them in the turn order and fish for that drop.  If you only need a 5 & a 6 instead of two 6s or a 6 & a 7, buy the 5-cap first if it’s available and a top 6-cap isn’t.  You make more money by saving the bigger inefficient plants for the final turn and getting multiple turns out of a plant like 34/35/44.  And if you can afford to buy a 4-cap as one of your final two plants, 33 becomes quite strong as long as you know your opponent can’t end the game early with more capacity.

The toughest part of the endgame auction is properly bidding on plants that have much more value to one player than to another.  If you don’t need a 7-cap but your opponent does, you can’t afford to give it to them at list price (unless you already have 21 capacity, in which case you’re throwing lots of money away by bidding on anything).  In these situations I would suggest bidding to a point where the plant still helps them but much less – bidding until they can’t afford it anymore is suicide, as a good player will let you have it well before that point.  For 7-cap plants, around $50-55 tends to be a safe number to bid to.  That’s still very favorable for them compared to buying an extra plant, but overpaying may allow them to get cheaper plants and end the game before you can power 21.

Incidentally, this is a major reason I keep saying that 4-4 and 5-3 setups are very viable going into Step 3.  7-cap plants often go for $70+ in multiplayer games, but that shouldn’t happen in 2P unless both players need one to reach 21 capacity.  Thus, you end up not having to pay enough to offset your early efficiency advantage!

That should do it for this section of the guide.  The final part will cover building, market-moving, and other such issues!

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments