Look at me, I’m a winner!

I couldn’t find an image for winning so have a bunny instead

Board games are great exercisers for the mind.  You have to learn rules and apply them directly to formulate strategies, leveraged against other intelligent people forming their own strategies.  The result is a dynamic, but challenging, experience.  Some people have a natural affinity for the way games work.  Others don’t have it so easy.

If you’re one of those who struggles with adapting to new board game strategies, or if you just want to learn to do better, this post is for you.

I consider myself to be pretty good at games.  I haven’t tested myself in any official competitions so far, but I think i’m pretty good at picking up new games and strategies within games and applying them effectively.  I don’t win every time, but I have a pretty solid record.  As such, the list that follows contains the strategies I use to be a winner.

As a note, obviously I can’t provide specific strategies for every game in the universe.  These strategies are general tips to help improve your gameplay, not secret super-strategies for any particular game or game type.

8.  Watch and Learn
Probably the most important thing to do in order to improve your game, is to watch other players.  Obviously, watching the better and more experienced players carefully can reveal strategies that you can try implementing yourself, but sometimes watching other inexperienced players can tip you off to mistakes before you make them for yourself.  It’s always easier to analyze a situation from a third-person perspective, so watching the other players, good and bad, can help you learn.

7.  Pick a Strategy and Stick With It
It can really help you out if you formulate a specific strategy as you start each game.  Sometimes it takes a few turns to see how the board is building up to really formulate any kind of workable strategy, and that’s fine if you have to wait, but for most games you can decide what you’re trying to do right away.  Having a strategy of some sort is fairly important, as wandering aimlessly through a game will almost never get you victory.  A strategy can help you make quicker decisions and head in a consistent direction, avoiding analysis paralysis and keeping you in a strong position throughout the game.
Sometimes, though, when you’re playing a game, you try a strategy and it just doesn’t seem to be panning out.  Perhaps in Settlers you’re not getting the resources you need, or your deck in Dominion isn’t lining up.  This can happen even if the concept of your strategy is strong – it’s just an unfortunate side effect of the variable elements – dice rolls and random hand draws – of board games.  Sometimes, though, the natural reaction is to abandon what you have and start over.  However, it can be worth it to wait through those droughts until luck starts running your way again (or when the other players’ luck runs out) and your strategy kicks into high gear.  Patience can go a long way.

6.  Be Willing to Adapt
At the same time, sometimes your strategy just breaks.  Maybe you made a mistake and just realized it.  Maybe the chance-elements of the game are leaning too far in one direction to recover.  When this happens you need to learn to readjust. Starting from scratch will usually doom you, but adjusting your strategy, heading in a slightly different direction than you originally planned, can save your game.

5. Learn from your Mistakes
Perhaps obvious, but it can be easy to just throw your hands in the air and surrender a losing game, putting it behind.  While I highly recommend that you avoid belaboring yourself for losing, or holding a grudge against the winner, because those things make you no fun to play with, it’s good to look back on the game and think about the things you could have done differently.  Laying it out in your head will help you remember to avoid these errors next time.

4. Learn from your Victories
It’s great to win a game, but to keep up the streak, pay attention to what you did right.  This goes two ways; a solid strategy can keep you in the top rung next game, but other players may have learned from your strategy, requiring you to adapt and improve even further during the next game.  Being aware of what you did right can help you continue on the right path and be wary of how players may try to take you down.

3. Set Goals
If you’re not winning very often in your gaming group, start small.  Set goals for yourself that are reasonable, but a step higher than your current level of achievement.  In points-based games, set a value you want to try and reach.  Base this value on previous experiences.  Don’t shoot too high or you’ll just discourage yourself if you fail.  If the game is goal-based in and of itself, set smaller goals to reach a certain percentage of completion.  Each time you play, these personal goals will increase as you pick up small strategies and learn to implement them without the pressure of coming out on top. Incidentally, this is a great way to learn to enjoy a game even when you lose.

This is also a great way to help you learn to formulate an overall strategy for a specific game.  Once you start to learn which goals bring you closer to victory and which don’t do much for you, you can put the winning goals together to have an overall strategy.

2. Ask Questions
After doing all the above things, ask questions.  Start by internalizing them.  Realize a mistake? Ask yourself why that was a mistake, how it hurt you.  Ask what you could have done differently.  Asking questions can help you realize details of yours or other players’ strategies that you might not have consciously noticed.  Answering them can help you more effectively put your strategies together, as you being to understand why certain actions are less effective or more effective, and in what context that is true.

1. Play Lots of Games
Maybe this is too simple and too obvious, but in my opinion, the number one way to get better at gaming is to play a lot of games.  Just like Athletes train regularly and top students study constantly, the more you play the better you’ll get.

Learning and improving your game is a long term process.  You wont become an instant champion the next game you play by following these tips.  You will, however, develop, over time, a strong skillset to be a formidable champion in most of the games you play.

In the end, just remember, games are about having fun and being with friends.  Don’t worry too much about being the best.  Enjoy the social experience.   Don’t exclude players of lesser skill because you think you can’t learn from them.  Play cooperative games to build a spirit of camaraderie in your group, not just competition. The real winners of every game are those who enjoy the experience all-around.

What are your strategies for winning games?  Anything beyond what I’ve said here?  Any other thoughts? Leave a comment!

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Futurewolfie loves epic games, space, and epic games set in space. You'll find him rolling fistfuls of dice, reveling in thematic goodness, and giving Farmerlenny a hard time for liking boring stuff.

Discussion3 Comments

  1. I try to evaluate strategies in new games by looking at the balance of costs and benefits. If a game is good (I try to give each game the benefit of the doubt), there should be multiple paths to victory, and each path should have costs and benefits. (In Dominion, for example, I can try to keep as few cards in my deck as possible so I keep getting my good cards and buy only high-scoring VPs, but this makes me more susceptible to attacks. Or I can build a deck with lots of cards, buying whatever VPs I want, but this might make it more unreliable.) Each strategy should have a risk and a reward, and that’s typically how I evaluate which one to go on. (Which has the fewest risks? Which has the greatest rewards? Do the potential rewards merit the risk?)

  2. #7 is very game-specific. I find that in most games, “picking a strategy and sticking with it” will have dreadful consequences, and the game will reward players who tactically reexamine their choices every turn more than players who try to plan an endgame strategy from the start.

    The exceptions to this tend to be games with clear distinct “multiple paths to victory”. I.e. in Sid Meier’s Civilization, you can win economic, military, cultural, or technological victories. You will probably have to choose one of these paths at some point in the early/mid game and commit to it, as you can’t really be 80% of the way to a cultural victory and then suddenly decide “nah I’m going for economic!” because you’re still only 10% of the way to economic.

    If the game doesn’t have such clearly delineated paths, though, trying to stick to a strategy that you decided on at the start is usually folly.

  3. @B I agree that with most games you should evaluate your possible actions every turn. However, I think it oftentimes helps to have a sort of general, overall strategy to guide your actions, instead of just doing things randomly. Having a strategy can help you decide when to save and when to spend, when to hold back and when to move forward.

    Some games do require modifying or developing your strategy each turn as new variables come into play, but that’s why we have point #6. The trick is knowing when to stick with a strategy and when to change it up.

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