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I Joins dah Mob. Whattah I Do Now?
Written by
John R. Pack

Choosing a Strategy

At the World Boardgaming Championships (WBC) each year, I have had participants mark their record sheets to indicate which strategy (or strategies) they were pursuing. And every year there are 15-20% of them that are returned with a comment written in to the effect of "None", "Never had one", or "Whatever would work." In the 108 games of the WBC where I've been GM, none of these players has ever won a game.

There are still those who insist that Gangsters is a beer and pretzels game. Despite the squirt gun, you won't just "happen" to win at the WBC. You need a strategy, and you need it right from the start of the game -- before you ever buy your first joint. The streets of Chicago will run with your blood if you don't.

So, what strategy should you pick?

Cash is King

If you go with the past four years of WBC history, cash is the obvious choice. 72% of the winners have pursued a cash strategy (with the other 28% closely divided between the Ten Joint and Monopoly strategies).

If you go for cash, there are two basic styles -- both of which are favored by some of the most successful players in tournament history. Both involve stashing one's Thug and Vamp in remote locations where they can extort turn after turn in peace.

The first major strategy (developed by Mike "The Nose" Anchors, perennial WBC finalist and 1999 PBEM Champion) is the one-jump joint strategy where a small gang with a key set of joints makes a few early upgrades and then waits for the public to arrive. The favorite sets of joints for this strategy are Downtown Bus Station & Brizelli's Riverside, Ambassadors' Club & Brzkowski's Imports, and Pussycat Club & Caravan Club. An odd, mixed-color set of joints can also work -- provided an upgrade is still possible in the major one-jump joint.

The second major strategy (developed by Pitt "Sluggo" Crandlemire, 1999 and 2000 WBC Champion) uses cheaper, spread-out one-jump joints with a large Racketeer. Once the Vamp and Thug are extorting, the large Racketeer actively manipulates the public -- keeping them in orbit around the key joints. The small individual payoffs will sometimes lull another player who is short of moves into leaving the public inside these joints. The favorite joints for this type of strategy are Greenwood Park, Franklin Hostel, and Hotel Belgrave. In its favor, the 6/1/1 starting gang has the highest winning percentage of any starting gang makeup!

Loss of gang pieces (particularly the Vamp) early on, bad luck with the public dice, or having the public trapped into the obscure corners of the board will hamper these strategies.

Violating the Sherman Anti-Trust Act

What about trying for a monopoly? In the 108 rated WBC games I've tracked there has never been a monopoly with any color other than Red, Purple, or Blue -- and there's only been one Blue monopoly. After all, once a gang has to buy more than six joints, it's often easier (given the roll of the green die) to go for the Ten Joint win. The Red monopoly is the favored strategy of Jason "Sticky Fingers" Wagner (1996 and 1997 WBC Champion).

The monopolies don't usually require tons of cash in the early going (except for the Red monopoly). That can free up your Vamp for more offensive operations, allow gang upgrades, and give you some reserves to fend off other challengers.

The main consideration with a monopoly is maximizing the chance that the green die will put you into another joint of the right color. That usually means that your initial purchases include the hardest joints to get to -- for Red, either Hawthorne Hotel or Martin & Son Carriage Repair; for Purple, Frankie's House of Cards and/or CK's Tobacco; and for Blue, Huff's Cafe. Your initial joints may also include the one-jump joints of your color (to provide some startup capital and give you the flexibility to try something else if it doesn't work) and/or inexpensive joints that offer good chances to get to your Racketeer into another one of your key joints (e.g., Jaeger's Clothier and Grinders' for Red).

The key problem with a monopoly is that every other gang can see it coming like the lamp on an oncoming train at the other end of a tunnel! A well-designed monopoly threat can easily be the first serious threat to win the game. As a result, it commands a response at a time when every gang can make the monopolist their sole target and before gangs have been worn down by mob violence. It is also vulnerable to an enemy willing to purchase and defend the needed joints!

Cornering the Real Estate Market

Purchasing ten joints is easier than it might seem. The main problem is that you'll probably need to buy twelve or thirteen (including the initial three) before you actually own ten. But as a side benefit, the longer a game goes, the more likely it is to be won with ten joints. Joints are hard to stop without some serious firepower. A 4-5 Racketeer has to be worried about bumping off a Level 1 Joint. And only the truly desperate (or those with a 10 Thug) would dare to assault a Level 3 Joint.

The key to getting ten joints is moving the Racketeer into a new one every single turn. Given an average number of low green dice, it'll take about ten turns to acquire seven additional joints. An obvious key to victory is to select joints that give you the maximum probability of getting to another unowned joint on the next move. The problem? If they're easy for your Racketeer to get to, they're easy for enemy gangs to get to when they want to blow them away.

There are two main strategies. The first is to purchase joints around Subways -- to maximize the chance to get to another on the next move (since these are the joints that offer the most mobility). The second is to choose a large tract of unowned real estate away from the Subways - eventually the tunnels between your block of joints will increase your movement possibilities while still keeping your joints remote from your opponents.

Obviously, a serious danger to the Real Estate Baron is the other players who are buying joints. Real estate strategies are best when no one else is buying much property. After all, you need a large supply of unowned buildings in order to have a good chance of getting to a new one each turn.

As the game winds down, one of your key strengths will be the high cost of attacking joints. If you can buy a new one each turn, the other players' gangs will be inexorably ground down, eventually arriving at the point where attacks will fail (crippling the opponents' gangs). If cash allows, the Real Estate player can also use his Vamp and Thug to accelerate the decline of enemy gangs.

OK, Boss, I Gottah Stragedy. Now What?

Now that you've selected an opening strategy and are eyeing joints that fit your criminal purposes, you will also want to select a backup plan and work that into your starting setup. Yeah, that's right. The dice may well foil your initial strategy, so you should be prepared to do something else.

Planning on buying up all the cheap property? You might want to consider including an expensive one-jump joint - especially one that breaks up a nice set that one of the cash hogs is eyein'. If you get lucky with the public, you might be able to convert to a cash strategy. In fact, my WBC championship came in a game where I scored around $7,000 off my one-jump joints - and then won with 10 joints while everyone was worried about my cash stash.

Going for the monopoly? If you can't get to a joint of the right color, how about one of the wrong color (especially if it makes your odds of getting the right color next turn better)? Maybe you'll threaten Ten Joints along the way? And if not, maybe the competition won't notice that most of them are Blue or Purple along the way. What about upgrading one of those big joints if you can't get to a new one? It might open up a big score with the public.

What if you're collecting the dough? Sometime the white die just won't cooperate. How about buying some cheap joints in the meantime as an insurance policy? Or going for more of the color in your one-jump set as a possible monopoly? (This is especially effective when using the cheap, middle joint strategy coined by "Sluggo.") Or how about expanding your one-jump strategy to include other one-jump joints? That'll mean fewer chances for the white die to mess up your plans. At the least, a few minor purchases will throw off the players keeping track of your cash (if they don't realize that cash is your strategy).

OK, now you're set with a strategy and a back-up plan. Just be sure you keep them straight, keep your priorities clearly in mind, and take appropriate action each turn.

But what about the other gangs? When do I worry about them? When is it time to take action?

Da Udder Gangs

Aside from buying joints your opponents want, vamping unsuspecting gangsters, harassing the other gangs with the boys in blue, and making sure the public are headed away from your opponents' major joints, it's usually unwise to concentrate on stopping your opponents at the start of the game -- especially with expensive shootouts. But, as the game goes on, that changes.

My experience is that most players react far too late -- which is why typical games are only 8-12 turns long! As Mike "The Nose" recently wrote, "One of the reasons players often wait until it's too late to try to stop another player is that they believe their Thugs and Racketeers are more mobile and deadly than they really are."

What me worry?

How are your opponents doing? The fact that the vast majority of WBC wins come from cash is because the winners' opponents didn't gauge the threat properly. Many players worry more about the opponent about to buy his/her 7th joint than about the gangster with $7,000 when the reverse should be true. This is partially because many players erroneously treat the starting joints as if a player's efforts had earned them.

Here's a table that will let you gauge your opponent's threat to win more accurately:

Strategy

%
Complete
$
Joints
Owned
Needed for
Monopoly

0

$0

0-3
4+

14

$1,400

4

29

$2,900

5
3

43

$4,300

6

57

$5,700

7
2

Yellow Alert

71

$7,100

8

86

$8,600

9
1

Red Alert

100

$10,000

10
0

It's common knowledge that players should react to joint strategies based on their opponent's next purchase phase. For example, the player who owns six joints and has his Racketeer in another should be regarded as having seven joints.

Much less obvious is that players should react to cash strategies as if their opponent had already collected for his next move. Failing to do so gives the cash player another edge. Players should react to cash opponents as if they held an additional $1,000 or their highest possible public payoff -- whichever is more. For example, while the Public x3 is in the cup, a player who has $1,500 plus owns a Level 3 Downtown Bus Station should be regarded as having $4,200. (The best reaction, of course, would be to put the Public x3 in a safe place!)

The table shows two "Alert" levels -- Yellow and Red. Prior to Yellow Alert, your most successful opponent should be thwarted by Vamps, Police, steering Public away from major Joints, and buying and/or defending Joints s/he might need to acquire. Aside from a rare hit on a troublesome Vamp, early shootouts should be left to the boys in blue.

Yellow Alert

The Yellow Alert level represents the point at which, without opposition, an opponent will be able to win in 3-4 turns (assuming, of course, that a player has average luck).

In my first few Gangsters tournaments, many of my opponents waited until someone hit the Red Alert level before taking any overt action against them. Experience quickly demonstrated that the dice, poorly positioned pieces, and weak gangs usually conspired in such a way that those few actions possible were wholly inadequate. The player at the Red Alert level typically went on to win anyway. In fact, my 1995 championship came exactly that way -- no one reacted to my joints until I already had nine (and was in position to acquire the tenth)!

After long experience, I identified a personal Yellow Alert level. It wasn't adequate, so I've refined it since then. In my mind, Yellow Alert represents the last real chance to stop a player from winning using reasonable countermeasures. Want to eliminate the gang members of a cash player? It'll take a coordinated effort over several turns -- especially if you don't want your own gang crippled in the process. In addition, your Vamp is far more deadly when used against one gang over 3-4 turns. Want to stop a monopoly or ten-joint opponent? You might need to maneuver your Thug or Racketeer into position or do some recruiting. After all, you don't want to have to take on the upgraded joints that will dish out serious carnage in return or risk launching an attack with inadequate firepower.

Yellow Alert means it's time to start taking action to stop an opponent.

Red Alert

The Red Alert level represents the point at which an opponent might reasonably be expected to win in 1-2 turns.

At this stage, there's no time for carefully planned, multi-turn attacks designed to suffer few casualties (though that's not to say you shouldn't look ahead or minimize casualties as much as possible). If you wait to react, you may never get another chance or you may become totally dependent on the luck of the dice.

Make sure your attacks are focused on the key assets of your Red Alert opponent. Don't attack joints (especially the fancy, heavily guarded variety) if your opponent will win with cash. Do make sure the public pieces are in obscure corners where they won't feed more cash to the threatening player. Do attack and vamp his gang members! Likewise, don't attack the gang piece of a player who will win with ten joints or a monopoly if s/he has $2,000 in spare change available (unless you can take out or sufficiently reduce the Racketeer). Do attack the expensive Level 1 Joints!

Make sure your opponents who aren't threatening to win know about the threat (just don't announce it during a movement phase unless it's worth paying the $500 kibitzing penalty)! That will enable you, as a group, to move cops more effectively and to follow up on each other's actions. For example, in a recent game one player vamped a weak Racketeer while the next came in with Tommy Guns blazing to take out the other two -- ending the victim's chance to buy his tenth joint. Cooperation can also enable attacks that are otherwise extremely dangerous. For example, the cooperating players can keep the cops away from your exposed gang members after an attack in a one-jump joint.

I Gots Muh Tommy Gun, Boss. Now What?

Despite your efforts to slow an opponent, one has reached Yellow Alert anyway. Should your 2 Thugs immediately assault your opponent's 7 Racketeer inside his Level 2 Palace Chophouse? No -- it's not a Red Alert (let alone kamikaze time). Thankfully, you still have time to plan and execute a reasonable attack.

A Reasonable Attack

In my experience, a reasonable attack is one that will

  1. eliminate the enemy piece completely
  2. leave your gang strong enough to continue its operations, and
  3. dramatically reduce the threat that your opponent will win the game.

If the attack won't accomplish all three, you'd be advised to reconsider unless your opponent is already at Red Alert. Even at Red Alert, #3 is still an absolute requirement!

How many hits do you need to eliminate your enemy? How many casualties can you afford? If you're uncertain how many hits/casualties to expect, see The Nose's table from the Gang Busters Quiz.

Here's a formula for calculating your risk:

[Expected_Hits - Hits_Needed] + [Acceptable_Casualties - Expected_Casualties]

Make sure Expected_Casualties includes casualties incurred in future joint-initiated shootouts if you're up against an enemy establishment! For example, suppose your 5 Racketeers (0.83 Average Hits) and 4 Thugs (1.33 Average Hits) attack a Level 3 Joint (3 Average Hits; 4 Hits Expected over 2 Player-turns). You can afford to lose one Thug. The risk would be (2.16 - 3) + (1 - 4) = -3.84. Note how the risk would change if your Thug were completely expendable (-0.84) or if your gang had 7 Thugs and you could afford to lose four (0.83)!

What's a reasonable risk?

Risk
Reasonable?
2 or better

Bring it on!

-0.5 to 1.9

Yellow Alert

-1.9 to -0.6

Red Alert

-2 or worse

Suicide

What if the risk isn't reasonable but you still need to slow your opponent? Bring the cops to bear, move your muscle pieces into mobile locations near enemy targets, use your vamp, recruit additional gangsters, and wait for an appropriately reasonable chance to attack. But don't rush into an ill-advised attack!

Sad to say but the opportunity to attack with a risk of 2 or better is rare while suicidal attack opportunities abound. If you're planning to use a shootout to slow an opponent, take the opportunity to recruit when the right die is a one, vamp your opponent like there's no tomorrow, and keep your main muscle piece(s) in a mobile location. Otherwise, baring unusual luck, the only chances you'll ever get will be Red Alert risk level or worse. It takes a good plan and excellent piece placement to get Yellow Alert risk levels -- which is why you need to start your efforts the moment an opponent reaches Yellow Alert level!

Early Shootouts

My opponent hasn't quite reached the Yellow Alert level but, looking at my dice, I see a chance to attack one of his key pieces with a risk = 3.2. Should I?

By all means -- you should be on the alert for lucky opportunities like this right from the start! The only other early attack that makes sense is against a Level 1 Joint which is a key part of a cash player's strategy, is otherwise undefended, and which has a decent risk (0.5 or better) -- especially if it will keep that player from upgrading another joint!

Ramming Speed

What about suicidal moves (e.g., attacking a Level 2 Joint with a 4 Racketeer)?

Such moves should only be employed if you're the last player to go before a gangster who will win on his/her move. After all, you need to be moving toward your own goals each turn too. There's no point in stopping one gang just to hand victory to yet another opponent.

Balance

While one would like to keep any opponent from staying at the Yellow Alert level, the fact is that your efforts to slow such a player are designed primarily so that you can cross the finish line first. Ultimately, several players will be at Yellow Alert levels all at once. As a result, no matter what you do, you'll be faced with one or more Red Alerts in a competitive game. When that happens, you'll need effective alliances, good planning, and some luck to hold the other players off long enough to threaten and then win.

Regardless of your situation, it's imperative that actions taken against other players do not become the focus of your play and that such actions do not cripple your own chances. For example, it doesn't make any sense to spend a huge amount recruiting new gang members if cash is your only realistic option for victory. On the other hand, it is just as foolish to be so absorbed in your own strategy that no action to slow an opponent is ever taken or is delayed too long.

A minimum of one of your moves each turn should be used to advance your primary objective. If that's not possible, work on your secondary objective (which may become the primary objective if it surpasses the original objective). The police and remaining moves can be used to thwart opponents.

Keep your focus on your primary objective but with a watchful eye toward the success of your opponents. Take the opportunities that allow you to promote your own chances for victory while reducing and slowing those of your opponents. Make sure you keep a balance. Know how you plan to win and execute that plan! Don't ever make a move without knowing how you plan to eventually win! 


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