June 06, 2005

2 June 2005: Tournament synopsis

At the virtual end of my college career, in what might be termed my "last hurrah", I both lost and won at the same time. Overall, I'm highly pleased; the tournament was a massive success.

The players were: Tim Singer, my neighbor on Second Nourse, Sam Leichtling, a graduating senior from Milwaukee, Jonah Ostroff, a freshman who had been playing Ambition even before he got to Carleton, Paul Caine, who performed surprisingly well despite being completely new to the game, Jason Hitchcock, an aggressive player who took off his shirt several times during the tournament (for reasons unclear), Ben Faroe, a senior who grew up in Turkey, also a Bridge player, and Max Leibowitz, a freshman from Manhattan whose satirical college radio show was cancelled (a decision considered wrong, unanimously, by the student body) because he broke some hokey "professional code" that prohibited DJs from making fun of other programs. The eighth player was myself, Mike Church. I had originally intended not to play in the tournament, instead taking a strictly organizational role, especially given that there were cash prizes involved. However, my 8th player had to leave before the tournament had even begun; I stepped in to fill the void under the agreement that, if I won any cash prize, it would be bumped down to the next player.

The format of the tournament was rotation-attrition, the details of which I'll explain at a later time. Essentially, it works like this: instead of playing full games against each other (which would require a time-expensive bracket format in order to determine a champion) players are considered to be in a single game, but are assigned randomly in rounds against each other so that at no time does any player get (cumulatively speaking) more than one round over any other. For example, with 9 players, four would be assigned to play in round 1, four in round 2 (which would be played simultaneously). The last would get a bye, but be guaranteed to play in round 3. Players are eliminated upon three strikes, and the game ends when only 3 players remain. The winner (as in a regular game) is the remaining player with the highest score. If any player is short, in terms of number of rounds played, with respect to any other remaining player, an adjustment called the 1-up (explained in detail later) is applied.

Hour 1: With new players, the first rounds are often the most chaotic, and Slams are surprisingly common (once, last winter, I saw a game with four Slams in a row, three of which were mine). In this tournament, we had only one in the first hour, mine in Round 3. In round 5, Paul Caine accomplished not a Slam, but an even more impressive feat. The round split 48-43-0-0, Paul with 43 and the -6 LT option (not taken), Tim and Max earning the wretched double Nil. This was an example of "shadow play"; Jason's failed Slam attempt allowed Paul to safely take a large number of points. Max, perhaps a "Nilaholic", seemed intent on setting a record for double-Nils; he scored three in a row, and a fourth later in the tournament. At the end of 6 rounds, I was in the lead with 80 points, no strikes; Paul was close behind with 74 points, 1 strike.

Hour 2: Two Slams occurred almost simultaneously, achieved in rounds 7 and 8 by Max and Jason. In round 10, his next, Jason struck out. Tim (2/66) had to leave at this point and allowed Jason to continue to play in his place and, impressively, Jason would last until the final round, placing second. After ten rounds, I had a reasonable lead: 0/136, with Paul second at 1/122. However, around this point my game fell into a serious sandtrap. Round 12 was a ho-hum 15-point round, round 13 was a strike, and round 15 was an insufferable double Nil. Paul Caine, at this point, had earned a considerable lead over the rest of us; I had fallen into third place. Ben Faroe also struck out in (I believe) round 14.

Hour 3: Jonah was eliminated in round 16, leaving five players. Round 15 had been tense enough, so much that we grew silent, and tensions escalated throughout the rest of the game. My personal performance improved: I stopped a Slam (always the most fun aspect of Ambition), netted a 21-point round, and managed to score another 35 points by (unintentional) shadow play. This brought me back into the lead, 1/223. Closely following was Paul, at 2/204, but he earned his third strike in a subsequent round (18; in which I had a nearly strike-proof hand) and was therefore no longer a rival.

Hour 4: Four players remained, after 18 rounds: myself (1/239), Sam, at (2/200 + 15) Jason/Tim ("Jim", at 2/168), and Max (2/163). All of us had been through 11 rounds, except for Sam who had seen 10. In round 19, I made two harshly-punished tactical mistakes that led me to accumulate an unhealthy number of points: 31, which without a Nil player on the board (all had taken points) makes a strike very likely. I didn't want to lose my lead, so I played for Slam, knowing it was unlikely, but also knowing that a very decisive strike would provide a low scoring round. I took 53, Jason took 26, Sam got 8, and Max got 4. Despite my tactical mistakes, I consider this round a partial success because, once I realized the strike was unavoidable, I still managed to starve and frustrate two people at the table; they would have taken understrikes but already had two strikes. This brought me to 2/239, Sam to 2/208 + 13, Max to 2/167, and Jason to 2/194. Despite the somewhat embarrassing strike, I still had an 18-point lead. So I felt great going into round 20, the (probable) final round of the tournament. All I needed to do, I figured, was play as conservatively as possible and make absolutely sure I didn't strike.

Round 20: I've said before that a game designer is blessed, when playing his or her game, to have the worst luck imaginable. Losing players, one would assume, will examine a game more critically than those who win. Therefore, when the designer loses is when he or she will be best able to evaluate the game for bugs and design flaws. I've said that there are very few truly awful, or exceptionally good, hands in Ambition, and I stand by this assertion. However, fate dealt me a hand that was absolutely execrable. In the last round of what would probably be the last Ambition event of my time at Carleton, I was dealt an absolutely monstrous hand. Behold:

: 8 J A
: 10 J Q K
: 7
: 8 9 10 K A

Here's why it's such a terrible hand: safety, or the ability to dodge tricks when they are dangerous, is obviously a desired hand quality. With only one card below 8, and that a singleton, this hand has pretty much none. Yet by being off the 2 and the A-2 , it has almost no Slam potential. Moreover, it contains a straight-flush suit, which is horrid as it yields no options. That, and it's much easier to get rid of one problematic card than to lose three or more equivalent cards. Straight flushes blow.

The pass for this round was a Scatter pass, so I rid myself of the J , 10, and J. This was probably not the best pass. There is a way to play this sort of hand, the no-safety hand without top power. This (thankfully rare) hand type is called the "phony Nil" hand. With it one, rather than being assertive early in the round, plays as if it were a Nil hand-- ridding oneself of power cards, losing tricks with the top card available. The Nil is almost certain to be unsuccessful, but it can make other players, early in the round, scared to play Nil and likely to hold some power, allowing you to escape the lead later in spite of your lacking safety. Moreover, the appearance of a Nil player increases the likelihood that someone will attempt Slam; despite lacking top power, the phony Nil hand often can stop the Slam attempt. If the Slam is busted at the right moment (say, after the Slam attempter takes 46 points, making it safe to take as many points as possible) the hand's lack of safety becomes an irrelevant concern. Played rightly, the archetypal phony Nil hand still strikes about 35% of the time-- it's still an awful hand-- but yields a successful round in most other cases. I, however, did not play that hand as what it was; I decided that I would try to play it as a Slam hand. Passed to me were the J, Q and the Q. In other words, little help, and I lost the one good thing the hand had-- the singleton.

Since it was the final, pivotal round, I asked Jonah to scribe it and therefore know the hand of each player after the pass; I don't know which cards were passed, other than those I sent and those I received.

My hand, after passing:

: 8 A
: 10 Q K
: 7 J Q
: 8 9 Q K A

Max Leibowitz's hand:

: 6 9 J K
: 6 A
: 4 6 2
: 4 5 J 2

Sam's obvious Nil:

: 3 5 10
: 3 5 7
: 5 9 10
: 3 6 7 10

Jason's hand:

: 4 7 Q 2
: 4 8 9 J 2
: 3 8 K A
: void

Trick 1: Sam had the 3 and therefore, the opening lead. Jason followed with the 4. I didn't want to waste the 8, figuring that if Max could dodge it, he probably would. I played the ace, Max played the 6. I ate 5 points. (MC 0 -> 5)

Trick 2: Already desperate, given my hand, I led the A. After all, I had the king so there was little harm in doing it. Max played the 2, Sam the 10, and Jason the 7. (ML 0 -> 1)

Trick 3: Max led the 6. Sam followed with the 5, Jason with the 3. This was baffling: why would people waste their safety so early in a round? (In retrospect, looking at Sam's hand, his at least was clearly the right play.) I had no choice but to take the trick, either way, but I made an obvious wrong choice: 7. (MC 5 -> 9)

Trick 4: I led 8. Max followed with the 9. Sam: 5. Jason: 2, filling out a 4-point trick. (ML 1 -> 5).

Trick 5: Max led 4. Sam: 10. Jason: 8. With no meaningful choice, I won the trick with Q. As my point total started climbing prematurely, and my hand evolved, I started to believe that Slam might be possible; there was clearly at least one Nil player, and my hand did have some power. (MC 9 -> 14)

Trick 6: I needed to clear a suit. I tossed out the J. Following it were Max's 2, Sam's 9, and Jason's ace. (ML 5 -> 11)

Trick 7: Max led the 4, which Jonah and others have taken to calling the "junkfish". Sam played the 3, and Jason ruffed the K. I had no choice but to win the trick, and did so with the 9; clearly the wrong play, but I still believed in the possibility of Slam. (MC 14 -> 16)

Trick 8: I've never seen a round open with so little action; only 27 points in the first seven tricks. It appeared that Slam might be possible, because end-loaded rounds tend to award Slams to hands that don't otherwise deserve them. Still, at this point, I wanted nothing other than to be out of the lead. I led the 8, from which followed Max's 5 and Sam's 6-- not a card I wanted to take. Jason ruffed the Q through his club void. This got me 8 points, the largest trick thus far. (MC 16 -> 24)

Trick 9: I was desperate at this point; I had two high clubs remaining, and three spades of which I was almost guaranteed to take a trick with one. There were 56 points remaining in the deck, however, so Slam became serious possible, especially given my control of the K. I led the Q, taking the jack from Max, 7 from Sam, and 4 from Jason, for a total of two points. (MC 24 -> 26)

Trick 10: Set on Slam, I led the K, thinking "no turning back now". Indeed there wasn't. Max gave me the J, Sam the 10, and Jason the J, for a grand total of 21 (!) points. (MC 26 -> 47)

Trick 11: I knew my spades were weak. I should explain now that I made a very costly miscalculation during play. For some reason, I thought the A had already been played; I knew the 2 was still a worry. So, hoping to draw out the 2 from one of the Nil players, I led the 10. I didn't expect my plan to work, but Max followed with the 6, Sam with the 7, and Jason with the 2. "I'm letting you Slam", Jason said as he played it. (MC 47 -> 55)

Trick 12: There's nothing wrong with being slightly cocky if one can, pardon the colloquialism, back one's shit up. When one can't, as we shall see here, it's just embarrassing. Recall my having said that I believed the A to have already been played. No matter what I had done from this point, there was no way I could Slam, but I didn't know it yet. I led the K confident that it was the high card. "I'd be worried about the ace here," I said, thinking I had completed my Slam, "but it's already been played!" Whoops. Wrong. Max followed with exactly that ace, Sam with the 5 and Jason with the 4. Me = Pwned. (ML 11 -> 25)

Trick 13: Max led the K, which was the only card remaining of its suit. The 3, 9, and (my) queen of spades followed, giving Max a final 11-point trick. (ML 25 -> 36)

This, of course, led me to lose the round and, as we were all at 2 strikes by this point, I struck out, losing the tournament itself.

Sam and Jason got 16 points (double-Nil) while Max scored 36. Sam had accumulated, at this point, 224 points, but he had also played in one round fewer than everyone else. This entitled him to a bonus called the 1-up, whose value is one's average number of points per round, minus 5 for a person who has two strikes. (The reason for the -5 penalty in this case is to compensate for the decreased likelihood of striking out.) 224 points divided by 12 rounds is an average of 18.67 (19), so Sam's 1-up was worth 14 points.

This brought the final scores to:

1st place: Sam, 2/238
2nd place: Jason, 2/210
3rd place: Max, 2/203
4th place: Me, 3/239

Though it caused me to lose the tournament, round #20 will go down in history as one of my favorite rounds of Ambition, because of what it told me about the design of Ambition. Here I had a comically terrible hand, at a critical moment of the tournament, and lost. Yet, I can honestly say, in review, that I didn't lose because of hand-luck. I lost because of some very mistaken strategic decisions, and even while playing I recognized this (slightly after the fact, and therefore too late). Which is a sign of successful game design. The moral of the story, here, is that the player's loss can be the designer's victory.

Ultimately, the real success is that, through this tournament, I believe that I have safely planted Ambition into the culture of Carleton so that, even as I move on to Madison, the game will be remembered and frequently played in Northfield, Minnesota.


Post a Comment

<< Home