Theory: Q’s without A’s

Fantasy Flight Games’ reboot of the classic CCG Legend of the Five Rings raises a number of intriguing issues. In fact, I’d say there’s almost nothing about it that isn’t interesting:

The license itself. The received wisdom is that licensing a fictional world is only worthwhile when the world is a major draw; otherwise, one might as well start from scratch, and forego the expense. Was Legend of the Five Rings worth the cost?

On the positive side of the ledger, it’s a long-standing name in the tabletop market, albeit not perhaps as strong a brand as it was in the past. FFG also received at least some existing art assets–we can see them in the cards displayed on the new website–which avoids the cost of recreating card art.

On the other hand, a game two decades old comes with a lot of baggage. There’s an existing base to be placated, if you’re not simply going to accept their ire. Old data floating around the internet might confuse customers. Your product has expectations out of the gate that otherwise wouldn’t burden it.

I’m not certain whether it will be possible to determine from the outside how the license works out, but it will be interesting to consider.

The gameplay. For all its mechanical warts, old Legend of the Five Rings did one thing right: it was a game about acquisition. Over the course of a winning game you got more honor, more cards, more stats, more abilities, more of just about everything. That acquisition felt good.

New Legend of the Five Rings is, in some sense, a game about losing your resources. Honor and cards are both naturally given away during a game. I can see how those negative feedback loops resolve a runaway-leader problem that bedeviled old Legend of the Five Rings, and can also imagine that they lead to interesting decisions. Yet, the fun of a game isn’t solely in whether it’s mechanically balanced. Will players see the game as punishing them for engaging with it, and move on to something else?

The theme. In the 1990s Legend of the Five Rings’s mashup of dynastic China and Shogunate Japan was seen as forward-thinking and progressive. Today, it might be seen in a different light. Will the theme and fictional history be a help, or a lightning rod for criticism? How will Fantasy Flight handle issues of portrayal going forward?

. . . and so on. Legend of the Five Rings is a venerable brand, and that throws the changes it’s undergoing into especially sharp relief. I’ll be extremely interested to see how the new release plays out.

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.

Theory: What is “counterplay?”

When I was in college I took a lot of political science courses. In those classes we confronted, again and again, the problem of definitional confusion: arguments started and persisted because people were using the same words to mean different things. It was impossible for theorists to agree on what the implications of “realism”* were, because they had different understandings of what “realism” meant!

The problem emerged again in the law. I vividly remember my property law professor in law school explaining a case in which a landlord and tenant had written up a rental agreement including the phrase “quiet enjoyment,” which they had seen in a do-it-yourself guide. They used it to mean “while it was quiet and enjoyable to live there.” Unfortunately, they had employed the term completely incorrectly; in property law, “quiet enjoyment” is a technical term having absolutely nothing to do with whether the neighbors are loud or whether the tenant likes the apartment.** As a result, when the relationship turned sour the case was unusually difficult to resolve. The meaning of this key term in the agreement had shifted as the landlord and tenant stepped through the courthouse door, completely changing the nature of their dispute.

I sometimes see the same issue in game design. In particular, this comes up in discussion surrounding League of Legends, an extremely popular online game. The designers of League of Legends speak frequently with the playing public, and in doing so they talk a lot about the need for “counterplay.” Unfortunately, there seems to be a definitional divide between the players and the designers (and between different players, and perhaps even between the designers?). As a result, players in these discussions sometimes arrive at conclusions the League designers disagree with–and, just like in political science, arguments start.

What, then, does “counterplay” really mean? It’s clear both from the phrase and from the League designers’ usage that counterplay means something like “you can’t just stomp all over the other player, he or she has to be able to do something about what you’re doing.” However, that definition is about like the “bouncing screen saver” approach to Over the Next Dune; it’s a helpful shorthand but to do real work we need something a little more thought out.

I feel that the most useful way to approach the problem is to break the phrase down into two parts: counter and play.

Counter means that the opponent can respond in a way that makes the opponent’s situation more advantageous than it would otherwise have been. This might mean completely negating the action (Magic: the Gathering’s counterspells), or just mitigating its effects (in League, using Leona’s “W”–a shielding spell–to block some of the damage). Mitigation can even involve an axis completely separate from the attack. For example, in Legend of the Five Rings there are cards that gain offensive power as the opponent destroys one’s resources; these do nothing about the loss of resources, but can help enable a comeback. The key is that when a player acts, the opponent does not have to simply accept being worse off.

Play means that the counter-action(s) the opponent can take are interesting for both the player and the opponent. A good example of this is Vi’s “Q” in League. The Vi player can push “Q” to get ready to charge, and let go to charge in a direction of the player’s choosing. However, the opponent can see Vi getting ready and has the opportunity to dodge out of the way. This leads to some fascinating mind games:

Opponent: “if I just keep going in the direction I am, I will be predictable and Vi will hit me. Should I turn around? If I do that I’ll be out of position to retaliate. What about a stutter-step, so I keep going in the same direction but I throw off Vi’s aim? I’ll end up closer to her, but I’ll have to time it precisely. OK, what if I . . . .”

Vi’s player: “My opponent needs to retreat toward teammates, so she’ll probably keep going in that direction. However, I don’t want to get too close to the opposing team. Maybe I can act like I’m going to charge that way, and then force the opponent to turn away from her team . . . .”

All of this happens in a second or less. It’s a game-within-a-game, and it’s a lot of fun. Getting inside the opponent’s head, correctly predicting his or her choices, and making the right play in response feels great.

Now imagine the opponent just had a button that stopped Vi’s charge. The opponent doesn’t have to do anything, there’s no cost to doing this, the opponent can do it as many times as he or she wants. Just push the button and Vi’s charge stops dead. That would be a counter, but it wouldn’t be interesting. There would be no play in it.

Hence, counterplay means that opponents can respond to a player’s actions in ways that help the opponents stay involved in the game and that are interesting for all involved. Just stating the definition is enough to explain its importance. A game that’s involving and interesting sounds like a good one, doesn’t it?

What I particularly like about this definition–what I think makes it better than intuitive understandings–is that it provides measurable benchmarks. If you want to know if there’s counterplay, ask: what can the opponent do in response? Do those actions improve the opponent’s position? If so, by how much? Do the opponent’s responses create a layered situation that’s interesting for everyone? By answering these questions you can determine in as close to a quantitative way as possible how much counterplay a situation or design element has.

Take it from a lawyer: it’s no fun to find out you’ve had a pointless argument with someone you more or less agreed with, just because you misunderstood each other. I think this definition of “counterplay” is useful enough to put into practice, and it’s the one I’ll be sticking with going forward. I can’t make everyone on the internet use it, but if you see it around here, you’ll know what I mean. 🙂

* This is not a great example–realism is actually a long-standing and well-understood theory. I hope, however, that it gives the flavor of the arguments.

** It has to do with who owns the property, but this isn’t the place for a detailed discussion of the concept; if you’re curious or have a legal question, please see the disclaimer.