Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Card Counterplay: Interacting With Your Opponent

I get post ideas from some interesting places. Case in point, I was watching a gameplay video from Hearthstone streamer Firebat, which opened with some spicy takes on card design. You don't have to watch the video before you read this post (although Firebat is always fun to watch); I'll lay it out for you here. In a nutshell, he talked about cards that didn't allow for interaction, and how they reduce the game to hoping that you draw into your powerhouse cards that can't be countered. It's tied to a larger idea about "interactive cards" in card games, and while I think he has a point, hearing that bit got me thinking about where, exactly, I disagreed with him, and what you can learn about card games from it.

What is "Interactivity", Really?

When I see the idea of "interactivity" thrown around in gaming circles, it seems to boil down to one main idea: "if my opponent does something, I want to be able to do something about it". At its core, this is a deeply emotional desire. When bad things (your opponent having a strong play in a game) happen, you want to feel like you have some control over the situation, or that you had control over the situation at some point. The more obvious that control, the better. This can manifest in different ways; in Firebat's main game Hearthstone, the creatures that your opponent plays can be attacked by your creatures, or you can play "spell" cards to get rid of them or otherwise affect them. On the other end of the interference scale, Magic: the Gathering lets you play cards even during your opponent's turn, spending your resources to "counter" or destroy their cards. In a game like Chess, all of your pieces have the ability to interact with your opponent by capturing your opponent's pieces, but only if you've set them up or lured your opponent's pieces into the reach of your pieces.

This is where the idea of "counterplay" steps in. This term means many different things to different people, but they intersect on an idea of "when my opponent does something, I should have access to something that stops it". You see a lot of debate over when someone should be able to use "counterplay", what kind of difficulty to gate it behind, and so on, but I'm mostly interested in the card game context here, because of the video. Firebat talks about wanting cards with "counterplay", cards that you can answer with other cards, because that makes the game less luck-dependent. In his view, a card you can't interact with is bad, because games are decided by whether or not you draw the card. And he's right, but I don't think his solution actually solves anything. Now, instead of hoping your opponent doesn't draw their power card, you're hoping that you can draw into your counter card, and that your opponent draws into their power card. (Because if you draw into your counter card and your opponent never draws their power card, you've wasted that card draw.) It's not any less luck-dependent, it just feels like it.

I think that's because it doesn't solve the fundamental issue here. Even though powerful "uninteractive" cards draw attention, they don't exist in a vacuum within the game. You don't just draw cards and immediately play them; there's often a substantial number of choices you make outside that part of the game. This is where things start to get interesting, because I don't believe that counterplay requires special dedicated "hate cards" (i.e., cards that are designed to counteract a specific strategy or deck). Counterplay can be designed directly into the game itself.

Counterplay With Skill

A number of weeks back, I wrote a post talking about skill in games, and I think the idea of skill is very relevant to counterplay. I think that counterplay should be achieved through skill within the game. It requires more subtle design, and it requires an investment in the core mechanics of the game. So, what are the skills that we generally expect to be tested in a card game? What are the competencies that we look for?

      Understanding risk: knowing the odds of drawing different cards, and investing into the board state based on the odds of your draws
      Finding synergies: understanding how discrete card abilities can work together with one another
      Thinking ahead: predicting the possible plays available to our opponent, and not giving your opponent good windows to play their strongest cards

To me, there's one skill that goes above and beyond all of these, however, and that's the skill of commitment. You need to know when to commit the resources at your disposal, and how strongly to commit them. Technically, this isn't very different from what happens in most games! On some level, strategic games can be boiled down to "figure out how and where to commit resources"...but I think card games tend to make it very explicit and central. It feels natural because we're used to getting things done by playing cards--a card is a resource that gets things done. In most card games, you look to your cards to figure out how well you're doing in the game, and in a lot of CCGs, particularly, the options in your hand are your biggest barometer of how well you're doing.

So what's commitment, and how can it provide for skillful play? In my mind, commitment relates to the potential options you have in a game. You can play cards at different times, for different purposes, in different board states. However, once a card is played, it can't be taken back, and choosing one option locks you out of choosing other options. So, commitment is when you collapse potential options into a choice that you can't take back, and that commitment has consequences. Once you've decided to drop your powerful card on the table, no takebacks, although you may question your decision heavily.

The Dance of Commitment

Commitment is where the exchange between players happens. You commit a resource, your opponent commits a resource, and back and forth you go until one of you makes a mistake. One of you commits the wrong resource, or makes an assumption about your opponent that isn't accurate, and your opponent pounces. It's a juicy dynamic in competition, and it's the thing I love the most--so maybe I'm a little biased. Back to the original topic, how do you make commitment interesting? Personally, I think it has to do with how complex your commitment decisions are, because the simpler those decisions are, the harder it is to make mistakes, particularly subtle mistakes.

In Hearthstone, you get "mana" resources every turn, you can only play during your turn, and you play "minions" that stay in play on a single board, and "spells" that can affect the board or your deck of cards. Most of your decisions boil down to what turn to play cards on, and for many cards, the answer is "the first turn that you can", because you're trying to gain advantage on the board as much as possible. It's fairly one-dimensional, because the main important dimension is "timing", and on a given turn, there's very few instances where timing matters, with the exception of a few standout turns.

If you scale up to Magic, it's mostly the same, but with one important difference: now, you can interrupt your opponent's turn by playing an "instant", a special card that can be played out of turn. Suddenly, the "timing" dimension has become incredibly complicated and involved, and the windows where it's acceptable to play cards grow less obvious. Furthermore, there's a card type called "planeswalker" that works almost like a secondary "player" under your control: they don't (normally) affect the board like your creatures do, and they have health like you do. When a planeswalker is out on the board, that's an additional place to commit resources.

Back in boardgame land, it gets even more involved; even with a simpler game like RISK, the question of where to commit your armies can become incredibly complex very quickly, especially at the start of the game. Once you introduce some sort of map, commitment decisions become significantly more difficult!

And that's all core to the game. Once you figure out what the core "commitment" question of your game is, you can make sure it's interesting in a large number of situations, before you start making the unique rules on cards and other game elements. In a card game, the players are constantly trying to make the most efficient, decision-light game possible, so it's on the designer to make sure that you're not relying exclusively on the cards to have a game with interesting decisions--because then, the game becomes only as interesting as the cards you're lucky enough to draw.

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