PRIMING GAMES (by Tom Russell)

Mary Russell


Five or six years ago, there was a discussion thread on Board Game Geek about a train game, and somebody said something along the lines of, "You don't win the game by making the most money; you win the game by having more money than the other players." At first blush that might seem like it's the same thing, but the meat of it is that the game wasn't about generating a return on your investment, or socking away insane amounts of cash; it was about bleeding the other players dry, using your money as a weapon. In the same thread, someone else said that he'd be glad to end the game with only one dollar, provided everyone else had zero. It's not about pursuing your own goals, it's about stopping your opponents from pursuing theirs - or, another way to look at it, your goal is to stymie your opponent.

This is actually something that pops up quite a bit in wargames. There are plenty of games and scenarios where the goal of one side is to achieve some historical objective, and the goal of the other side is to stop them from doing it - simply running out the clock as it were. That's not something I find all that exciting in a game, actually, and I'm skeptical of its simulation value in most cases. There are certainly cases where it's appropriate, for example, defenders that have to hold out until nightfall so that the army can make good its escape. But this kind of "prevent the other guy from winning" victory condition usually translates into the application of an arbitrary time pressure. "Oh, it's been ten turns, I guess we better just turn around and go home because we haven't won yet" isn't exactly something you see a lot of historical precedence for.

Folks like to bring up the fact that the American War for Independence saw the Americans lose battle after battle, but they won the war because Washington kept an army in the field. And that's true, to a point, and contributed to the war weariness that eroded support for the conflict in the British Parliament. But it wasn't like they said, "Whelp, it's 1782 and we still haven't beaten them yet, I guess we better call it a wash". It was the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown that ended the war. It wasn't merely a matter of Washington simply running down the clock; it was a matter of Washington running down the clock until he was able to achieve a military objective of his own.

5-point prime

In backgammon - yes, I'm talking about backgammon again - there is a distinction between a running game and a holding or priming game. A running game is all about moving and bearing off as quickly as possible; it's a race. A holding game is about controlling a key point on your opponent's side of the board to slow 'em up. A priming game is about blockading your opponent by holding several consecutive points - six of 'em together give you a prime, and since you can't move more than six points at a time, a prime is impassable.

At least, of course, until you inevitably start to dismantle it. Because you can't win a game of backgammon by simply preventing your opponent from winning (doubling cube aside). You still need to bear off all of your pieces before he bears off all of his. Holding or priming is an excellent way however to slow him up long enough for you to get your ducks in the row. And preventing your opponent from reaching his goals is an excellent way to position yourself so as to achieve your own.

The trick is not to overdo it. If you get too focused on stopping the other guy, you're not really working toward your own aims. I've lost games of backgammon because I was too obsessed with trying to build a prime instead of getting my men into my home board. There's a balance to strike, and it results in a rather lovely tension. That's something you only get when delaying the other guy is a strategy, a tool, rather than a victory condition. It's something I try to build into my own games, with varying levels of success.

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