Thursday, 17 September 2015

The Relative Importance of Challenges

I've spent so long blogging about the Core Set card reviews that I've almost forgotten that it's not really what I want to be blogging about.  What drives people to play games is often very different, some are competitive, some are casual, some are social, some just enjoy escapism into the game world.... but for me the main reason I play games is to try and 'solve' them.  I approach games from the sense of trying to learn the language of the game design and understand underlying mechanics - what lies behind the rules of the game.

This is very true in video games as well as in board games, and it's just as true that often the language of game design common across multiple games (but can also be very unique to a particular game).  So in video games you'll often find hidden rewards in hard to reach places - a health potion, a new weapon, a shiny golden star to collect.  These are all rewards for exploring the game more fully and they've become so common across multiple games that players expect them to be there and will explore, and because players have learned to explore designers have learned to put something there to reward them for doing so.
Nowadays we find a locked door in a video game and we understand that the language of the game was that the door is there for a reason.  If there's a door there must be a key, and even if we don't need to open the door to progress onto the next level the door has to be there for some reason.  So we hunt for the key, we look in every corner and  tap every wall looking for a hidden cupboard... because we know there has to be a key.  And then we find the key, and we open the door, and there's an extra life inside.  We explored and were rewarded, hurrah!
This all happens because somebody designed the game world with us in mind.
Try that in real life.  A locked door stays locked because it's not for us.  It's for the maintenance man, whose path through the 'level' of our office block has nothing to do with our path as a 'player' (or worker).  If you hunt in every desk drawer in the office and pull the water cooler apart you still won't find the key for that door, because it's not been designed that we should have access.  And if we did somehow get it open, say we found a crowbar or drilled the lock (showing lateral problem-solving thinking, as some games require) would we find an extra life behind that door?  No.  We'd probably find controls for the air conditioning and an old mop and bucket.
Skyrim is a great example of a game that has a specific language you can learn.  Skyrim is a game of adventuring into dungeon after dungeon, going deeper and deeper into the earth through labyrinthine mazes of enemies and traps.  At the end of each dungeon will be a boss - we learn this very quickly, and indeed we learned it from hundreds of games before Skyrim - and if we defeat that boss there will be a reward.  And then after we claim our reward do we have to run back up through that whole dungeon we just cleared?  No!  Because in Skyrim every secret undead lair, every vampire's tomb, every dwarven ruin or spider's lair has a handy shortcut back to the surface right behind the boss!  You soon learn that this is part of the design language, and so when you enter an unfamiliar cavern and defeat an unfamiliar boss you know to look for the shortcut out, because you know there will be one.
But it wasn't in the manual that the shortcut would be there.  It's not a mechanic of the game or of any of the items you pick up or classes you play or quests you choose.  It's deeper than than all that.
And I love things like this.  I love decoding how games were designed and how they work.  The attraction of any game, for me, is seeing beyond the rules and the playing pieces to the mechanism underneath and, often, discovering what the game is actually about.

Where was I?  Oh yes, this is a blog about the A Game of Thrones LCG. 
I wanted to talk about Challenges, and the relative value of the three different types of challenges you can make.  It's a debate I've seen a few times: what's more important, Military, Intrigue or Power?  On the CardgameDB forums I saw somebody post "we all agree it's Intrigue > Power > Military" and literally the first reply was somebody saying "no, it's the reverse, Military > Power > Intrigue".
So, which is the right way around?
Well, first of all the most obvious answer is 'it depends'.  It depends on the board state - a military challenge when your opponent has Robert Baratheon as their only character is much better than a military challenge when they've got three cheap characters to lose as well, and a Power challenge to gain your 15th Power and win the game is a lot better than a Power challenge to claim your first Power.  It also depends on the cards in hand or play, so Plaza of Punishment makes Power challenges more important, Lannisport makes Intrigue challenges better, and so forth.
But going deeper than that, underlying the specific board states or cards we've drawn in games, which is more important?  All other things being equal, should I be throwing a Military challenge or an Intrigue challenge?
Again, I think it depends, but this time I think it depends in a way that we can begin to use to help us form decision making, around both the plays we make and the decks that we build.  This time it depends based on what point of the game we're in...

ALL THINGS BEING EQUAL Military challenges are best in the first few turns of the game, that's when being a dominant military force is most likely to turn into a win.  This is because typically your opponent's ability to play new characters is going to outstrip your ability to kill characters, especially if you're only using Military claims to do so.  In the early game you've the greatest chance of being able to kill all of your opponent's characters with a surge of claims and kills.  Ultimately you can then lock them off the board by killing any character they try to play after that.  As the game progesses your opponent plays more and more characters, or duplicates and Bodyguards, so he has more and more 'padding' around his key cards and your Military claims lose value.
I've seen the term 'pillow fort' used a few times and that refers to times when you have so many cheap characters out that however hard your opponent hits you with Military claim it doesn't really hurt.  It's very difficult to have that on turn 1, but will naturally develop over time if you allow it to.
So is Military useless if you can't start it straight away?  No, but you usually need to work much harder to make it relevant again.  This is why I still use Wildfire Assault in my aggressive Military decks even though my main plan should see me with lots of characters and my opponents having none.  I need Wildfire Assault because if Plan A doesn't work (I get a poor setup, my opponent opens with A Game of Thrones as his plot, etc) then I need to be able to break apart his pillow fort with Wildfire Assault on turn 3 or 4 and then try and capitalise from there to make my Military claims count.


ALL THINGS BEING EQUAL Power challenges become more important as the game nears a conclusion and one player gets close to winning.  In the early game it's more important to be trying to gain tactical advantages on the board with Military or taking cards away from your opponent with Intrigue - you could fight hard to gain power today at the price of sacrificing power in the next three turns if your characters are all dead or your hand is discarded.
As players get towards 10 power, though, it becomes a red alert for power challenges and the importance of the board position switches - now you could fight for Military control only to find the game ends before you can really make that advantage work for you if your opponent is happy to sit back and use Dominance and a couple of Power challenges to win the game.

I left Intrigue for last because it's perhaps the most complex to understand, but ALL THINGS BEING EQUAL Intrigue challenges are best during a window of a few turns in the middle of the game. 
So why is this?
Well, in the first few turns of the game the danger of being locked out by losing all your characters to Military challenges is likely to be your main focus of attention.  Also in the early game your opponent has a relatively big hand of cards, and although taking any card out of his hand is good there's a good chance that taking him down to 5 cards instead of 6 won't really affect too badly what he wants to do on his next turn.  Intrigue challenges in the early game are good because they lead into making stronger Intrigue challenges in the midgame a turn earlier than you would otherwise get to that point, but in terms of immediate impact they're usually less important than Military.
Towards the end of the game your opponent has likely played out most of the cards in his hand and unless he's got a really strong draw engine like The Red Keep or The Mander he's probably down to topdecking two cards each turn and putting them into play, leaving you with little in the way of a target for Intrigue challenges.
In the midgame, though, when you're not in danger of losing your best cards to Military challenges and your opponent has only a moderately sized hand, is when Intrigue really shines.  This is where you can rip the last couple of cards from your opponent and force him into topdecking mode a couple of turns early, while you still have extra ammunition in hand.  At that point, ALL THINGS BEING EQUAL, you should be able to win through simply having more cards than your opponent, which should turn into more successful Military challenges, more successful Power challenges, winning more Dominance phases... and ultimately victory.

All together now: it depends!
The real answer isn't that one is more important than the others, the real answer is that when you're building your deck with a strategy of Military/Intrigue/Power in mind you need to be aware of which part of the game you're trying to dominate.  A slow Military deck is probably going to struggle to make their challenges meaningful, likewise a quick Power deck will race to 7 or 8 power and then find that all of their characters are dead and they've no cards in hand, and so find themselves eventually overtaken on the way to 15 power.  Intrigue decks, on the other hand, have to play a careful balancing act and be ready to take control of the game halfway through and make the advantage count of forcing your opponent into topdecking mode.
And none of this is in the rulebook.  There's no card that makes Military challenges better on the first turn than any other turn, no card that means your Intrigue challenges discard more cards on turn three than they do on turn one.  The only thing similar is the broad strength boosts that Doran Martell gives out based on your plot discard deck, but those aren't tied to a specific type of challenge.
The question of which challenge is most important is defined by the underlying game mechanics.  The relative strength of Military and Intrigue challenges comes about because of the balance between the rate at which players can draw and play cards, while the late game inevitability of Power challenges comes about because the amount of Power in the game ticks up throughout the game through Dominance, unopposed challenges and Renown.  If you played with the core mechanics of the game like this the balance between the challenge types would be disrupted - make characters more expensive and Military challenges get better, for instance, give players more cards and gold each turn and they'd get worse.
ALL THINGS BEING EQUAL the balance of the game is such that the various challenges all have their time to really shine and define who wins games.  Understanding why and when each challenge is going to be strongest is a good first step in learning to think about the game on a deeper level than what is written on the cards or in the rulebook.
And that's why I play games.


  1. ...And that's why I read your blogs!

    I feel like I've gained more insight here than I did in my first six month of Netrunner. And I'm only picking up my first core today!

    Thanks David!