Go Short: Playing Not to Lose



It’s tradition for the senior class at my daughter’s high school to conclude every academic year by playing a game called Assassins.  Students team up and run around town ambushing each other with water guns and balloons in all hours of the day and night.  Anything is fair game short of playing on campus or actually breaking into homes.  Heaven knows how honest these kids are at reporting “kills.”  Anyway, my daughter just finished this game.  Aside from a couple of low-risk forays with her “platoon,” she pretty much spent the entire month holed up in our house as if it were Helm’s Deep.  She posted notes at all doors warning the rest of the family from unwittingly allowing entrance to any of her “friends.”  She refused to take her dog out except in our fenced backyard, hoping that no one had super soaker, I suppose.  She closed the overhead door every time she needed to go in the garage.  She even convinced my wife to trade parking spots with her so she wouldn’t have to get out in the driveway (I’m the first to admit that my daughter pretty much has me wrapped around her finger, but there was no way I was giving up my spot in the garage an entire month for a silly game).  She never got shot.  But neither did she win.

In sports, there’s a common phrase often uttered: “They didn’t play to win, they played not to lose.”  In fact, it’s usually an epitaph.  There are some interesting studies suggesting that athletes and teams tend to play tighter or more conservatively when the pressure is on, expectations are high, leads are comfortable, or there is little to gain.  Conversely, these same studies reflect how competitors are inclined to be more aggressive or take more risks in scenarios where they are way behind or have nothing to lose.  As an avid college football fan, I’ll spare our readers with specific historical anecdotes.  Suffice it to say, many of the biggest comebacks in sports occur when the leading team switches plans mid-game from one that earned the lead to one that tries to protect it.  And some of the largest upsets in history happen when the favorite goes in just trying to minimize mistakes, while the underdog comes out petal-to-the-metal and ears pinned back.

The “play not to lose” mentality can influence many areas of board gaming.  Obviously, world championships and millions of dollars aren’t on the line.  Nonetheless, it is an interesting characteristic to examine.  How common is it?  Do you ever find yourself playing not to lose and, if so, when?  Should designers incorporate such inclinations, or maybe consider how to enhance or minimize such passive strategies?  After all, as I’ll note further below, some games even have mechanisms that seemingly force you into a reactive strategy in order “not to lose.”

First, exactly what does “playing not to lose” look like in tabletop gaming?  For context, my definition tends toward: “making a low-risk or less-than-optimal move in order to protect your established position, reduce your own losses, preempt an opponent’s action, and/or impede his/her progress, at the same time without making any significantly direct personal gains towards a victory condition.”  So, in just what kinds of scenarios might this style of play arise?

One of the more obvious play-not-to-lose ploys is “turtling.”  This is generally only in the purview of war gaming and refers to building up a strong defense, while engaging in little to no offense.  Sometimes it is employed to protect gains or build up strength; and there may be times where its limited use can prove effective.  The infamous Antipodean strategy in Risk is ubiquitous and usually successful.  Hunkering “Down Under” for several turns nets few immediate gains toward the goal of world domination; but your opponents will weaken each other while you build up strength waiting for the right moment to strike.  However, taken to its extreme, turtling can essentially lead to the development of an impregnable defense – so that none can defeat you – which nonetheless remains too weak to achieve your victory conditions.

In most cases, the motivation behind turtling is simply to avoid loss of either troops or resources.  But war games do not hold a monopoly in such aversions.  They are found in Euro games, as well, and usually revolve around the risk of losing victory points – or falling behind in them.  Any time that a player employs a tactic or move which does not directly or optimally benefit them, that individual may be “playing not to lose.”  Rather than taking a positive step forward, such actions tend to be reactionary or passive in order to protect something, impede an opponent, or reduce risk.  Sure, there is merit in the argument that defensive measures have value and can serve a broader strategy.  But there is also a tested truism that the best defense is a good offense.

There are a variety of ways that playing not to lose may manifest itself in board games.  For example, players in Small World might target individual opponents – specifically perceived leaders – rather than concentrating on territories that will exploit their race’s unique abilities and traits.  Essentially, they are playing just as much to impede another as they are in maximizing their own points.  In limited fashion, this very may well be a sound strategy.  Concentrate on it too much, however, and you risk playing not to lose.

There are similar instances in innumerable titles.  A few examples here should suffice for illustration.  In Citadels, you may opt to take a role which does not benefit you very much simply to a) deprive another of it whom you know wants it, or b) keep it from another whom you know will likely use it against you.  In 7 Wonders, you may decide against playing a favorable card to your own tableau because you know that your neighbor will benefit from it, also.  In Thurn & Taxis, you can find yourself taking a town card that doesn’t advance your own routes, but will deprive another’s.  Again, in these cases, infrequent use may be reasonable.  However, falling back on them too often is generally not an approach in playing to win.

Another common play-not-to-lose tactic is especially prevalent in worker placement games in the form of “blocking.”  Many designs within this genre limit their action selection spaces to one piece or player.  Therefore, you can deprive an opponent of a particular place by “beating them” to it.  While it’s possible to personally benefit just as much as it is to hamper another, there are also instances in which you might do so simply to keep it from opponents, without yielding much in return.  In Kingsburg, you could choose an adviser that grants soldiers, even if you have adequate numbers already.  This thwarts other players from getting them, which could then cause said players to lose points from battle losses at the end of a round.  However, the play-to-win tactic would be to concentrate instead on your positive needs and select advisers who will net positive gains toward collecting resources and/or earning points.  Ticket to Ride, while not worker placement, can also witness similar maneuvers whereby players block one another to prevent progress, yet not make much of their own, either.

A further manifestation of playing not to lose is from the fear of setting up an opponent.  This is perhaps most evident in abstract, capture games like Checkers, Chess, and Go.  Players may take more cautious, less-optimal moves to avoid giving their opponent a favorable advantage.  Now, this give-and-take is very much a part of strategy in abstract games, yet taken to an extreme it only leads to stalemate.  So it can be difficult to discern when such tactics are completely natural or are indeed playing not to lose.  Still the concept can be seen in Euro games, too.  In Milestones players collect resources individually, but expend them to build roads, markets, and houses on a communal board.  The kicker is that every one is very much building on the progress of each other.  Rather than build for maximum points, you can often build “defensively” with a lesser action that does not set-up an opponent for a big score.

Interestingly, some designs build in a mechanism which seems to force sub-optimal, play-not-to-lose moves.  Invariably, it is in the form of a penalty.  If you don’t address this element, then you lose points.  The most notorious examples may be from games that require players to feed their “people,” as in Agricola or Stone Age, or suffer attrition.  In Western Town, individuals need to spend resources and/or actions to acquire cowboys for defense against Indian raids, or lose buildings (similar to the need for soldiers in Kingsburg).  In Amerigo, you must have cannons for protection against pirates.  In each case, you are obligated to perform specific actions whose sole purpose is to prevent some penalty or loss – i.e., playing not to lose.

If you don't spend resources and actions to get Cowboys, then these Indians wreak all kinds of havoc on your town - and preventing that penalty is all that Cowboys do.
Western Town. If you don’t spend resources and actions to get Cowboys, then these Indians wreak all kinds of havoc on your town – and preventing that penalty is all that Cowboys do.

The concept isn’t unique to board games, but also found in other forms of table top gaming.  The strategy behind constructing “balanced” decks in CCG’s could be viewed as a play not to lose mentality.  Many gamers, even tournament players, will often construct well-rounded Magic or Pokémon (and, etc.) decks that aren’t as powerful, but defend against an extremely wide range of other deck types that they may encounter – a Jack-of-all-trades deck, but King of none.  The opposing approach, instead, is to create an extremely powerful deck concentrating in one category which can quickly overcome many opponents, even though it may prove weak when matched against very specific types or unique, rarely-seen builds.

Even in role-playing games, some players may tend to act cautiously with beloved characters in particularly dangerous situations.  They tend to minimize risk of loss, impairment, and even death by avoiding such encounters, though the ability to pursue alternate courses will largely depend on what freedoms the game master grants.  The idea has ported over to the  RPG-based Pathfinder Adventure Card Game.  In that design, exploring can be rewarding, but also very dangerous, even risking death.  If a player’s character is near death, especially one he/she is chiefly attached to, the play-not-to-lose action is simply not to explore.  In campaign mode, stats are recovered by the next game.  If you didn’t win, you still didn’t lose.

If you find yourself playing not to lose, when you should be playing to win, first assess the reason why.  Typically there are two.  If it’s because you’re trying to impede the leader or slow him/her down in an attempt to catch up, make sure you’re still gaining ground in the process.  Otherwise you may be leaving “points on the table” with no discernable progress.  Still take advantage of opportunities and calculated risks, but it may behoove you more to concentrate on actions that maximize your own points.  If, on the other hand, you’re trying to protect a lead, beware going on autopilot.  Defend when appropriate, but don’t stop attacking.  Remember, always play the game where you want to be, not where your are.

There may be acceptable times to employ play-not-to-lose tactics.  Employing less-than optimal moves or even ones that gain you absolutely nothing just to defend your position or deny benefits to opponents can be a viable part of strategy.  However, resorting to that mentality in the long-term will usually prove more disadvantageous.  That’s because it is reactionary by nature, often based on what others are doing rather than your personal goals.  Nevertheless, are there times that you find yourself playing not to lose?  If so, when and why?

I have lots of kids. Board games help me connect with them, while still retaining my sanity...relatively speaking.

Discussion3 Comments

  1. I hate to admit it but I disagree that good eurogames allow playing-not-to-lose. I love big epic games where you build fleets and armies, but I’m well aware that these allow a player to stock up huge armies and create an impenetrable wall that doesn’t help them win, and can block others from gaining points.

    But in eurogames (the good ones) interaction is so limited there isn’t really a way to “play not to lose” that makes sense. I have never seen anyone play a route in Ticket to Ride just randomly on the board without trying to finish their own tickets – if they do, it’s near the end game at which point it’s an absolutely viable strategy to prevent an opponent from completing their own tickets, especially if you’ve completed your own and don’t want to draw new tickets – since you lose points for incomplete tickets, it’s a poor strategy to draw new ones at the last minute.

    In worker placement games the whole point is that everyone’s sharing limited options. You can’t possibly block everything your opponent needs and trying to do so gets you nowhere – you have to earn victory points in order to defend them, so it’s pretty much impossible to play defensively.

    In these kinds of euro games it is difficult to “lose” things. Playing not to lose happens in a big part because a player has built up something and doesn’t want to have it destroyed – in a war game, they don’t want to lose battles and troops, which directly weakens their position. In 7 Wonders, no one can destroy what you build, so you might as well take the best possible card for yourself.

  2. BlueHairedMeerkat

    I think you’ve cast your net too wide on this one. Playing not to lose is certainly a concept that can be applied to board games, but “making a low-risk or less-than-optimal move in order to protect your established position, reduce your own losses, preempt an opponent’s action, and/or impede his/her progress, at the same time without making any significantly direct personal gains towards a victory condition.” is a fairly poor definition.

    First of all, a ‘less-than-optimal’ move isn’t going to help protect you much, because it’s less than optimal, that’s how optimality works. Second of all, it seems silly to suggest that a single defensive move can be counted as playing not to lose; playing not to lose is a strategy, an overall way of playing, not something that can be applied to individual actions.

    The Antipodean strategy is a great example of playing not to lose – the one guy sitting in Australasia while another controls pretty much everything else and is chiselling in futility at a near-impregnable defence is quintessential playing not to lose, but even turtling has its place – biding your time before something spectacular is totally a winning strategy, and yet often needs or benefits from a good turtly build-up to start.

    ‘Any time that a player employs a tactic or move which does not directly or optimally benefit them, that individual may be “playing not to lose.”’ Again, that use of optimality. I agree, in principle, that playing not to lose is a sub-optimal strategy, but when you under-define what that means you risk throwing a whole raft of potential strategies into a bin labelled ‘Sub-Optimal’. As for ‘directly’, I’d question that as well; hindering opponents can be just as fruitful as advancing your own strategy, in many cases. I’ve played games of Ticket To Ride where I built on pretty much every east-west track in central US, and utterly ruined any plans for coast-to-coast routes; the goal is not to get a high score, it’s to get a higher score than your opponents, and that can be done just as effectively by lowering theirs as by raising yours.

    Then there’s the suggestion that games can force you to make play-not-to-lose moves (and I know I keep harping on this, but you can’t force somebody to make a sub-optimal move without pointing a gun to their head; if the penalty for not doing so is that bad, then making that move becomes optimal by definition), by penalising you for not doing so. Again, this is a very forced definition of playing not to lose; I’d liken the situation more to, say, having a goalkeeper. It’s not glamorous, and it’s not a fast attack, but it’s something you need to take care of so that the rest of your team/time can be spent on whatever play-to-win strategy you have planned. Personally, I’m quite fond of this sort of element in games, providing another plate to spin – and, for the crafty, another place to hit your opponent.

    (As an aside, there’s a big divide here between games with games based on one player reaching some kind of goal and those with fixed endpoints. In the former type of game, breaking your enemies can drag out the game somewhat. Some games can handle this, but others [Munchkin spring to mind] can easily stretch on and on if you attack your opponent’s progress without making any of your own. Playing this way in the latter type though – Ticket To Ride, Small World and so on – is a totally viable strategy, since adding to your score and taking away from your opponents’ are largely equivalent, and an even more offensive one than playing the most directly beneficial moves. )

    I think a better definition for “playing not to lose” in board games would echo the sporting definition a lot more closely: playing to protect a lead rather than maximising it; using an old, tired strategy rather than trying something new; or holding Australia to ransom for yet another damn game.

    • Jason Meyers

      Indeed, it is a wide net – because I am genuinely curious how other people see the issue and where the lines are drawn. Good point regarding what “directly” benefits you. Obviously, determining that is critical to differentiate between a play to win or play not to lose mentality. I do tend to fall on the other side of your viewpoint. Usually while you’re trying to “hamper” another, it doesn’t directly benefit you as much as people think – and may actually do more for the other players in the game, as well, which ends up biting you.

      And to be clear, I don’t declare that a single defensive move equates completely playing not to lose. I state numerous times it can be a viable option. Yet, taken to an extreme…? When does that happen, is my question.

      I like your goalkeeper analogy – interesting way to look at designs incorporating those “penalty” mechanics.

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