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Saturday, September 8, 2012

Was Alexander the Great a runaway leader?

This afternoon, Kathy and I played Alexandros (designer Leo Colovini, art by Grafik Studio Krüger [website in German], publisher Rio Grande), which was a gift from some years ago.  Although we hadn't played in a while, we've both done well against each other, so it was fun to bring back to the table.

Alexandros is a semi-thematic game of area control and card management with an interesting mechanism for moving the neutral Alexander piece around the map of his empire and carving it up into provinces for the players to occupy and tax.  The map is clearly recognizable as a representation of the extent of Alexander's empire, and the roles of the players as generals fits with the historical fracturing of his empire.  Beyond that and the Hellenistic iconography, the game is fairly abstract. The decision space isn't very large, but it can be a brain-burner.

Today's session started a little slow, and the lead traded hands a few times - by only a couple of points each time at first, but then more dramatically as each of us took control of a larger province and then levied taxes when a scoring advantage was achieved.  As we made our way around the victory point track, I thought Kathy was going to extend her lead and break away, until I managed to occupy a large province in the northeast corner of the board worth 11 points.  It was too big for her to take over from me right away, and Alexander had moved on in such a way that she was unable to make him double back and cut my province into smaller sections.  As a result, I was able to extend my lead pretty dramatically over several turns until she couldn't stop me from scoring 100 points and winning the game.

Small provinces, scored early in the game, appear in the foreground.
Kathy's larger province is visible in the middle distance to the left.  
Although I was worried that she might be able to carve up or take over my cash-cow province, we both recognized that there might be something of a runaway leader problem with this game, at least in the two-player case.  Now, strictly speaking, the game doesn't have a positive feedback mechanism whereby the leader gains an advantage that helps to magnify the lead, so it isn't a runaway leader in the purest sense.  But  a scoring advantage that goes unchecked can increase the magnitude of the lead by levying taxes each turn as well as approach the game-end trigger that much faster.  So the net effect would appear to be the same.

But because the leader doesn't have an advantage from being the leader, I don't see Alexandros as suffering from a runaway problem.  Just as our early- and mid-game leads changed hands frequently, I think there is still plenty of opportunity to thwart a leader through sufficiently aggressive play - assuming the right cards are available.

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