Hey everybody! Last week, we talked about a number of different strategies that can be used to win at the game of Rock-Paper Scissors (if you missed it, you can find it here). This week, we are going to go a step further and see how these strategies can be applied to other games.
It’s a Hard Knock Life
To understand how Rock-Paper-Scissors can give us insight into the strategy of other types of games, we must first take a look at the concept of hard counters. In a game, a hard counter is an item, strategy, or character that has such a significant advantage over another option that it all but guarantees a victory. At it’s core, Rock-Paper-Scissors is a game of hard counters – for every choice you make, there is another option that guarantees victory.
However, Rock-Paper-Scissors is not the only game that contains hard counters. Many games have hard-counter systems built into them. One example is from Pokken-Tournament, which has a system known as the Attack Triangle. In this system, normal attacks are effective against grab attacks, grab attacks are effective against counter attacks, and counter attacks are good against normal attacks. These three types of attacks
form a Rock-paper-Scissors type triangle, and much of the strategy of the fight comes from trying to predict your opponent’s next move and countering it with the appropriate option.
This system is a pretty clear-cut example of an RPS system in a fighting game, but most fighting games have similar systems built into them. Certain attacks have advantages against others, and it is up to the fighter to use their quick reflexes to predict and counter their opponent’s moves. Because of this, it is possible to use some of the RPS strategies from last week in this situation.
For example, when a particular attack is used effectively, players are more likely to try and use that again, whereas if it was ineffective that opponent is more likely to try something else that would have countered their previous attempt. Many attacks will also have some sort of wind-up, and by paying close attention to your opponent’s wind-up you may be able to quickly predict their next move and counter with the appropriate move.
Finally, while opponents may try and play randomly, this is usually impossible. Therefore, when an opponent has used the same technique repeatedly, its usually a good bet that their next move is going to switch it up. This also means that not every move is going to be played with the same kind of frequency – certain moves are generally going to be favored over others, and certain types of players favor certain types of moves. More aggressive players are going to spend less time blocking, for example, and this means that you have more information that helps you narrow down your opponent’s next move.
Killing me Softly
While hard counters can provide players with an extreme advantage over their opponents, even more common in games are what is known as soft counters. Soft counters still provide a player with an advantage, but this advantage is less extreme. It makes the player using the soft counter more likely to win, but doesn’t guarantee it. Even if you are using a soft counter, your opponent can still defeat you with superior skill or strategy.
Examples of soft counters in games include the Weapon Triangle in Fire Emblem games (swords beat axes, axes beat lances, lances beat swords), or the elemental type system in
the Pokemon games. By taking advantage of these systems, players can gain an advantage over their opponents and even defeat opponents at a higher level, but it does not guarantee a win.
As far as strategy goes, soft counters can be used in a similar way to hard counters, but you should also be more careful with them. Soft counters are usually more situational, and because they do not guarantee a win they may not always be the best choice. While they will usually gain you an advantage, they may not always be the correct choice. That being said, all other things being equal a soft counter will usually lead to victory, and an understanding of these systems is essential to playing these games at a high level.
Sometimes, countering an opponent can consist of more than your choice of moves. In many cases, in order to come out on top you will have to completely change your strategy. In a balanced game, no single strategy should be superior to all others, and by choosing the correct strategy players should be able to come out on top. Often times, these strategies themselves can break down into a type of Rock-Paper-Scissors system.
Let’s pretend that we are trying to decide what deck to bring to a Magic: The Gathering tournament. Magic decks can usually be categorized into a couple of different categories, such as Aggro (very aggressive decks that try to win as quickly as possible), Combo (decks which focus on playing a particular combination of cards which, together, provide an
extreme advantage) and Control (Decks which focus on stopping their opponents from being able to execute their plans).
In general, each of these deck types has a small form of advantage against another. Aggressive decks usually have an advantage against combo decks because they can end the game before the combo gets set up. Combo decks may have an advantage against control oriented decks, because control decks generally allow the games to go longer, which gives the combo deck more time to set up. Finally, Control decks can have an advantage against Aggro decks, because those decks usually rely on quick wins and can suffer if they aren’t able to finish their opponents off quickly.
If you are attending this tournament, what type of deck should you bring? You have a couple of options, and what you choose will likely depend upon what types of decks you expect to see at the tournament. If you expect one particular deck to be extremely popular, then you might want to consider bringing a deck that has an advantage against that particular dominant deck.
If all three are relatively even, then perhaps a more unconventional approach would be required. You could make an “Anti-Meta” deck, which, although not strong on it’s own, is designed to counter certain popular strategies. Countering all three may be impossible, but if you can design an out-of-the-box deck that has advantageous matchups against two out of the three, then that will put you in a very good spot.
Finally, if you are expecting to see a variety of different strategies and none are particularly dominant yet, then the solution is simply to bring the deck that you feel most confident with. While countering your opponents strategies can give you a leg up, sometimes the best option is simply the one that works best for you.
Design En-Counters of the Third Kind
These types of counter-based strategies are everywhere in games, and they serve a number of different purposes. Some of the major reasons for these systems are:
- Enforcing Balance
When designing strategic options for a game, it can be extremely difficult to keep every option balanced. While developers do their best to keep everything at a relatively even power-level, it can be extremely difficult to know for sure. No matter how many hours of playtesting you put in, the public as a whole can match that playtime within hours of a game’s release. Because of this, there can be (and often are) overpowered or degenerate strategies that were not caught by the original playtesters.
Because of this, Rock-Paper-Scissors systems can act as a type of safety valve for game balance. While there may be a particular option that is the strongest in a vacuum, thanks to the RPS systems in place there will still be viable options to counter that particular strategy. These types of safety valves are extremely important for the health and longevity of a game, and while RPS systems are not the only option for this they are a very common way to keep balance in check.
- Adding Variety
One of the biggest problems with games that have a single, well established “best” strategy is that they can become boring. When your options boil down to “Play this or lose”, it can take all of the fun away. Most long-lasting successful games got that way because there are a variety of reasonable options, none of which are clearly superior to all others. This variety helps to keep the game fresh, and can prevent it from getting stale.
RPS systems help provide this type of variety by preventing a single dominant strategy from emerging. When every strategy has a counter, no strategy can be considered the only viable option. If one particular strategy becomes incredibly popular, its counter will also rise in popularity and help keep it in check.
- Increasing Strategic Depth
When playing a game with RPS elements, players must keep these elements in mind in order to be successful. All else being equal, the player who uses these systems to their advantage the best will be the one who comes out on top. Because of this, these systems help provide an additional layer to games. These types of systems can be used to take a relatively simple combat system, and give it additional strategic complexity.
Because of these benefits, Rock-Paper-Scissors systems can be an extremely useful tool in the game designer’s arsenal. However, they should not be used in all situations. While they can help mitigate problems with game balance, they are not a replacement for careful playtesting and development. While they can add variety, that doesn’t mean that designers do not have to come up with unique and appealing options. And although these systems can add strategic depth, they cannot single-handedly make up for a lackluster combat system.
Until Next Week!
That’s all I have for this week! If you liked this article, and would like to see more like it in the future, be sure to subscribe to the blog on Facebook, Twitter, or here on WordPress so you will always know when I post a new article. If you didn’t like this article, let me know what I could be doing better in the comments below! And join me next week, where I will be talking all about the game design patterns of Pokemon!