Theory: Theme As a Mechanism for Discouraging Optimization

It’s generally understood that tournament players of card games will gravitate toward optimal decks and strategies. However, last year a fascinating situation arose in which the players of Legend of the Five Rings (“L5R”) chose not to optimize, and ultimately forced designers to alter the game around that preference. In the process L5R demonstrated that it’s possible to get players not to play the best cards and decks, if a powerful theme creates an adequate incentive to do otherwise.

By way of background, L5R is a card game which goes to great efforts to simulate life in a world inspired by mythic Japan and dynastic China. Battlefields are replete with samurai, while in palaces courtiers jockey for influence. The victory conditions are meant to capture a range of ways in which one might attain respect and power in such a setting: conquering opponents’ lands is one option, but players can also achieve dominance in court or become a religious leader. Players are encouraged to be loyal to one particular “clan,” following it like one might follow a sports team, and to represent it in tournaments. Everything about the game is designed to create a “you are there” feeling, immersing the player in the game world.

In last year’s tournament season one clan was extremely strong, putting up more than its share of victories. That led to a great deal of discussion about where the clan’s strength came from. Some argued that the clan’s cards were too good–a design flaw in the game. Others suggested that the problem lay with the players, who neglected cards that would rein that clan in.

Ultimately the game’s designers gave both sides some credit as they announced errata meant to level the playing field. They conceded that the powerful clan “ha[d] come out of the gates far too strong.” However, they also noted that players were not doing everything they could to maximize their chances of defeating the front-runner. “[P]eople are generally not preparing their decks for fighting [the powerful clan],” they said, citing cards that “are fantastic . . . yet are seeing very little play.”

It’s unusual, in my experience, for game designers to have the problem that tournament players aren’t well prepared. In the age of information, it’s usually the other way around: good strategies propagate quickly, are studied intensively, and counter-strategies then appear promptly. (Alternatively, sometimes it’s determined that no possible counter-strategies exist, and that errata are needed–but the problem in that case still is not insufficient preparation.) How is it that L5R’s tournament players bucked the trend, and were so unready that the designers had to take action?

Certainly, one contributing factor is that relatively less data comes out of L5R tournaments than those of other games. However, players who wanted to know could easily find examples of the strong clan’s best decks. While not the wealth of information that comes out of, for example, Magic: the Gathering events, the data available was enough to point out the utility of the “fantastic” cards that players didn’t use.

Some have also argued that the “fantastic” cards actually weren’t all that good, or that it was too onerous to use them, or at least that it was too onerous to use them in the numbers necessary to hold back the strong clan. L5R’s design team, however, is generally drawn from those skilled at the game. Indeed, its lead designer was once its winningest tournament player. Under those circumstances I’m inclined to hew to their opinion on how good cards are, and how realistic it is to include them in one’s deck.

If the issue wasn’t that players couldn’t find answers for the strong clan, and wasn’t that the answers didn’t exist, what was it? The answer, I think, lies in L5R’s intense focus on theme. Its players are encouraged to choose a clan that appeals to them, to pursue a victory condition that they like, and even to use or not use particular cards as a means of personalizing their experience. Thus, there are devoted players of the Scorpion Clan, players who always try to win by enlightenment and eschew military victories, and players who won’t use cards that are associated with the “Shadowlands” because those cards represent evil forces in the game’s setting. Mark Rosewater would say that it’s a very “Johnny” game. Telling these players that they have to build their deck a certain way in order to compete is often going to be futile. Players who have been hooked by the promise of immersion and even self-expression will not want to break their suspension of disbelief to do something as “game-y” as running athematic meta cards.

To be clear, I’m not criticizing those players. I’ve played L5R on and off for about two decades because I enjoy the personalized experience too. I don’t love using athematic cards in my decks any more than anyone else. My goal here is to understand why people don’t play them, not to rake anyone over the coals for passing them up.

Nor is it my intent to criticize L5R’s designers. It was completely rational to expect that tournament players would optimize in the pursuit of victory. Their decision not to was unpredictable to say the least.

Unpredictable, but interesting. Players’ refusal to change their decks to react to the tournament environment was a problem for L5R, but a superb lesson for game design generally. Even in a tournament setting, L5R showed us, it is possible to get players to forego advantages and play sub-optimal strategies. The competing incentives provided by theme can outweigh the desire to win.


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