As everyone knows, a multiplayer game is a completely different animal from a two-player or solitaire game. In a two-player game everything is zero-sum: a gain for me is a loss for my opponent and vice versa. Strategy typically revolves around finding (in Game Theory terms) dominant strategies that will lead to victory. In other words, each time you are presented with a choice, finding the alternative that maximizes your utility. In layman’s terms, finding the choice that strictly is better than all the other choices.
Typically, in multiplayer everyone is your adversary, but they also can be your friends. This dynamic makes strategy in a multiplayer game more of a mixed strategy. In others words, there may not be a single dominant strategy, rather strategies are also a gamble based on the choices made by the other players. No strategy is inherently always going to be maximal. As such, in a multiplayer game you must “read and play” your opponents more than just analyzing the board situation.
What follows are my Top 5 Multiplayer Strategy Tips that are applicable to any and all competitive multiplayer games. Please note that I am not talking about cooperative games (e.g. Pandemic, Ghost Stories, T.I.M.E Stories, Grizzled, etc.) or multi-person solitaire (e.g. Race for the Galaxy) but rather truly multiplayer games where one player’s actions directly impact another player. It can be a typical strategy game where you take something directly from an opponent (e.g. Risk) or a game where you fight for resources and territory (e.g. Settlers of Cataan) or even where the only interaction might be drafting a card from a shared hand (e.g. Among the Stars).
#1 Hide in Second Place
Okay, this one should be obvious to most casual and serious gamers. Basically, you can read this tip as “Do not race into first place too early.” If you sprint out to a clear lead, everyone else starts gunning for you. If you put up the first City in Settlers of Cataan, expect that Bandit/Baron/or whatever you call it to be placed on your most productive hex. Capture the North American continent in Risk? Watch the attacks on Fortress America commence. And don’t even think about building that biggest fleet in Enemy in Sight! Your masts are going to get blown apart by every other player in the game! Have tons of health in Epic Spell Wars of the Battle Wizards? You won’t for much longer as every spell gets thrown your way!
So what is a keen player to do? Stay in second place and keep your quest for victory hidden. Grab a Special Card in Settlers and try for a Victory Point, or maybe keep your long road just one segment less than the guy with the Longest Road. In games with a lot of victory points awarded at the end (e.g. Among the Stars), do not build space station blocks that have immediate points, rather build the ones with points counted at the end–such a sneaky way to grab victory from 2nd or even 3rd place.
#2 John the Weaker Opponents
When my brother and I were kids, during holidays we always got in a long game of Risk with our uncles. Uncle Bruce was clever and tough to beat, but uncle John always used a particular and quite powerful strategy. He would convince one of our younger cousins that either my brother or I were winning the game. He would argue that if the weaker player didn’t do something about me or my brother, no one else could. So after a bit of logic, intimidation, and persuasion, my younger cousin Bruce Jr. would launch suicidal attacks against my troops. Bruce Jr. couldn’t beat me, but he did weaken me enough for Uncle John to win.
Johning your opponent means to convince a weaker opponent to attack another opponent–thus weakening the stronger one and making your “emerge from second place to win the game” strategy pay off. It is a very effective strategy that you can use in most multiplayer games where opponents can either pick their targets (e.g. Epic Spell Wars, Enemy in Sight, Dune, Seasons) or in games where geography allows for players to attack a multiple number of “near” opponents (e.g. El Grande, Risk, Eclipse, Kemet, Smallworld), to interfere with “near” opponents by denying them resources (e.g. Settlers, The Golden City), or by making resources more expensive (e.g. Power Grid). Note that Johning can also be used in card “drafting” games by trying to get other players to deny cards to the “leader” or true target of your Johning strategy. Try to John players in 7 Wonders so that you can draft a useful card while they draft a card that your key opponent needs.
Johning is a strategy that you should use much like voting in Chicago: do it early and often.
#3 Do Not Leave the Table for a Slice of Salami
When we were playing those childhood games of Risk, I learned a very hard lesson: never, ever leave the table to get something to eat. I come from an Italian family and we always had multiple sticks of salami around at each holiday. The temptation of grabbing a few slices would pull me away from the Risk board often. And what awaited me when I returned…a new alliance among two or more players hellbent on destroying my empire! Of course, some members of this new alliance appear to have been victims of Johning, but that wouldn’t make their troops fight any less effectively.
The moral of the story is that if you leave the table, other players can plot against you. I recommend stacking up the food and drink within easy reach of wherever you are seated. Oh, and develop a strong bladder.
#4 Run with the Pack/Dodge the Pack
Some games are set up to reward players who follow the same strategy and punish the lone wolves. For example, in Eminent Domain if you try a Produce/Trade strategy by yourself, you will not win. If no one else is leading Produce/Trade, you cannot follow. Thus, you will have to do all the work yourself by consistently leading Produce/Trade. Meanwhile, the other players who are all leading AND following a Warfare strategy are smoking you like a cheap cigar! Running with the Pack will not insure that you win, but you certainly will not come in last.
Drafting games follow the opposite rule: Dodge the Pack. Because drafting forces players to focus on accumulating one or two types of resources, each player has to ignore/pass along the resources that they do not want. For example, how many times have I played 7 Wonders and seen the Scientific structures keep circulating? If no one wants them, you can be sure that you can grab them all!
#5 Limit the Strongest Opponent
I know that when I sit down to play a strategic game that my brother Stew, the West Point Graduate, is going to play to win. He likes strategy games, he is good at strategy, and he is ruthless. Thus, I look for ways to keep him in check. This can be overt, such as not trading cards with him in Settlers or drafting cards that he wants in games like 7 Wonders or Among the Stars. Or it can be covert, like when I try to John the other players into hemming in Stew in Smallworld or Eclipse. The point is to not let Stew run amok over the weaker players. Stew already would consider me to be his strongest opponent, so I can’t expect help from him. Thus, returning the favor is the best strategy to pursue. Sure, sometimes we end up negating each other and somebody else wins, but better the occasional loss than the beat down that an unchecked Stew can unleash.
As an example, when I play Dune (or the Fantasy Flight copy, Rex) and I have to pick a traitor at the start of the game, I always pick one from Stew’s leaders. Why? Because I know that if I have to battle Stew, he is going to be prepared with a weapon, defense, good leader, etc. I will need the traitor to turn the battle my way. Also, I have a sneaking suspicion that he has taken a traitor from among my leaders too!
I hope these tips help you win more of your multiplayer games. Remember, the main difference between multiplayer and 2-player games is that in the former you must remember to also consider the other players and their strategies. John them, focus on the top player, run/dodge the pack, hide in 2nd place, and never ever leave the table for a slice of salami.