In my previous post I talked about a couple of the common elements in games that come up again and again and need to be addressed in order to become better at games in general: Psychology and Probability. I’d like to keep going and talk about a couple more of those important elements.
This is probably the most important thing of all when playing games. Over and over and over again I will see people I’m playing with miss plays, make the wrong decision, or even lose the whole game simply because they weren’t paying attention and didn’t see all the available options or the best course of action. Not to say that I’ve never done any of those things! I certainly have, but by paying attention to the game you can cut down on these types of errors significantly.
I think this is the one element that comes up in every game, unless you’re talking about something that is strictly 100% luck, like the card game War. Everyone who plays Cribbage is familiar with the concept of Muggins, an unofficial rule that says if a player misses some points during his or her count and another player sees them, the player spotted it gets to keep the points (a particularly harsh version of Muggins further punishes the unobservant player by subtracting those points from his her score in addition). No one I know will let me play Muggins with them! 🙂 When I used to play the card game Magic there were countless times where I would look at an opponent’s cards on the table (you had a hand of cards the opponent couldn’t usually see and cards in play that everyone could) and see a nasty play the opponent could make on me, sometimes even game winners!
Sometimes this will happen because the player doesn’t really care all that much. Some people play games strictly to play or be social, and aren’t overly concerned about playing a perfect game or making sure they do their utmost to win. But let’s face it, those people are not typical. Most people want to win when they play, and are basically trying to do their best. So when these people (that is, most people) make a mistake it’s from simply not paying attention. Talking, daydreaming, and eating are all typical distractions that make people miss a good play. But the most common problem is people simply rushing and not taking their time. Everyone in our modern society is in a rush in general, and that carries over to the gaming table. My advice is to not jump on the first play you see. Take a moment and look over the board (or cards, etc.) and see if you can find a better play. Don’t annoy all the other players by taking forever every turn, but at least take a quick look and see if you’ve missed anything. Unless the game is timed, it never hurts.
The other way to take better advantage of your time is to not wait until it’s your turn to start thinking about your move. This is unfortunately very common in group games and can not only cost the player via missing a great move, it’s also highly annoying to the other players if you’re sitting there spacing out and have to A) be reminded it’s your turn and B) don’t start thinking about a move until then. In some games it can be hard or impossible to figure out your move ahead of time because the board is so dynamic, as in Cassino or especially Fluxx (thus the name!) for example. But in most games you have a good opportunity to at least scope out some possible moves so you have an idea about your options when your turn comes around. This makes it easier for you to make a good play and keeps the game flowing nicely, something the other players will appreciate.
And if you’re paying attention you never know what you might catch: someone might make an illegal play (innocently or maybe not so much!), an opponent might give away something with their play that you wouldn’t catch unless you were paying attention, or you might see a new strategy or clever play an opponent makes. When I play a game I’m typically watching the plays the opponent(s) make to see if I can learn anything, watching for any illegal plays, keeping score (I’m always the scorekeeper), and trying to figure out how to play my own hand. So watching everything at the table is second nature to me, but you don’t need to be that dedicated in order to be a better observer. Just concentrate on the game and your plays and your game will probably improve.
The Little Things
I had a different subtopic in mind, but after writing that last bit I decided to talk about this subject instead. The idea behind this one is to always be on the lookout for tiny things that may not seem like a big deal but will add to your overall win percentage.
Suppose your opponent at a given game plays at a 90% clip. That is, he makes the correct play 90% of the time (granted, sometimes it’s not always clear what the “correct play” is, but most of the time it’s actually pretty cut and dried). If you play at an 80% clip, your opponent is going to win more games over the long haul. Luck is almost always a factor, so you’ll win sometimes, but the more games you play, the more your opponent’s superior play will become evident. So anything you can do to make the correct play more often, even if it’s only a tiny bit, will help you win more games over time. Let’s look at some specific examples:
In Cribbage you have to throw two of your six cards (in a 2 player game) into the crib, and the dealer gets those four combined cards as an extra hand. A flush in the crib (along with the cut card) counts as 5 points, so if it’s the opponent’s crib you want to kill the chance of a flush, while doing the opposite if the crib is yours. So if you’re throwing the 2 of Spades to the crib along with either the Queen of Spades or the Queen of Diamonds, you would throw the Queen of Spades if it was your crib, and the Queen of Diamonds if it was the opponent’s. Flushes in the crib are pretty rare, so making this play won’t make a difference very often. The whole time I’ve been playing Cribbage there have been only a handful of times where this play has mattered. But you only play to 121, and five points can easily be (and often is) the difference between winning and losing. And that’s just one small example, I could write a whole column about those types of small plays in Cribbage!
In Cassino the most valuable card is the 10 of Diamonds (Big Cassino). So if it hasn’t been played you need to make it as difficult as possible for your opponent to use it. One of the most common ways of winning cards in Cassino is combining other cards. So if you have an 8 and there are a 5 and 3 on the table you can take them both with the 8. Thus, if your opponent might have the valuable Big Cassino and there is a 6 on the table, don’t lay a 4 down unless you have to. Lay down some other card so there isn’t anything totaling 10 on the table. Pro tip: it’s a good idea to count how many 10s have been played so far as well 😉
In Backgammon one very important concept is diversifying. That is, giving yourself good things to do with different numbers. So if you need to roll a 5 to hit the opponent’s piece, don’t set it up so you also need a 5 on the other side of the board in order to make an important point. Give yourself a 4 or a 6 or some other number to make that point so that you can use different numbers to good effect, instead of praying for one certain number.
Almost every game has these sorts of little things to do that don’t seem like a huge deal in and of themselves but will raise your play slightly and make you a bigger winner in the long term. Seek them out and help yourself become a little more “lucky” at the gaming table.
Wow, this post is actually longer than the last one and I still have more to say. I guess “You’re so Lucky Part III” will be coming to you soon!