Lesson 2: Initiative

Welcome, friends, to another week of Crit the Books! This week, we begin our journey into gaming terminology in depth, and we will be taking a look at a concept that I think is central to understanding the flow of a game as a whole. This is probably the number one idea that is touched on in strategy articles, and it is easily one of the most universally applicable concepts in gaming. I’m talking this week about Initiative!

Initiative can mean many things. Most gamers are familiar with it mostly as a D&D term, where it creates the order in which different people take their actions. This is just one use of the term, but it can provide us with a useful definition for gaming. Merriam-Webster defines initiative as “an introductory step” or “energy or aptitude displayed in initiation of action.” For our uses, I’ll define initiative as “The ability to control the movement of the game state.”

What exactly does that mean? In every game, the overall state of the game can progress in many different ways, and each player’s choices can help shape the gamestate as the game progresses forward. However, there are often times in games where a player must react to an action from an antagonistic force with action of their own to avoid a larger negative outcome. This reactive gameplay locks a player into a set of actions and makes it so that they lack the agency the other player has to make decisions. We say that this player has lost the initiative, and that their opponent is in control of the initiative.

You’ll see a number of terms applied to this same basic concept. In Go, this is referred to as sente. In Magic: the Gathering, this is sometimes referred to as tempo, or being in control of the game. This isn’t far off – a player with the initiative can push the game in a direction that benefits them and can use that advantage to put themselves in an advantageous position. When a player has lost the initiative, we often say that they are on the back foot. They are being forced to counter their opponent’s moves, and their opponent can harry at them with repeated aggressive actions.

Having the initiative of a game means that you are in control of the shape of the game, or at least more control than your opponent has. It means that you can make choices that put your opponent into choosing the lesser of two bad choices. The more of those choices that you make your opponent choose between, the more you’ll increase your chances of winning.

For improving your game, the knowledge of initiative can be roughly divided into 3 skills that should be developed: Identifying who holds the initiative, keeping the initiative when you have it, and gaining back the initiative when you have lost it. If you can master these 3 skills, you’ll be able to shape the game into positions that are advantageous to you, and that means you’ll win more often.

First, we’ll look at identifying who has the initiative. This can often be very simple to figure out – did you have to react to your opponent’s last move? Did one of your characters get put into lethal range, so you have to heal them, or move them out of range? Did your opponent play a creature so large that you either have to stop it, or lose the game? Did you play that huge creature? Initiative is about locking your opponent into plays that you know they will make. It’s about limiting your opponent’s choices while expanding your own. Are you in the winning position? That’s the initiative.

Keeping the initiative when you have it is done in a similar way – you want to make choices and moves that put your opponent into difficult decisions as much as possible. You want your opponent to have to choose between a large loss, or a play that you already know they want to make. This is often easier said than done – in hidden objective games, it’s not always possible to know what resources your opponent cares about, and which ones they are willing to throw away. In cases like these, you want your opponent to be losing resources of some kind no matter what they choose.

Finally, and perhaps the most important skill to learn, is regaining the initiative once you have lost it. Every player loses the initiative occasionally. In fact, most well-designed games will have a way for a player who doesn’t have the initiative to regain it. There are several ways to regain the initiative once you’ve lost it, but the first two methods that occur to me are these: acceptable losses, and high-risk plays.

Acceptable losses are those sacrifices you make. Your opponent has put you into a position where you must choose between losing resources or protecting them with a move that gives them freedom to do whatever they want. Sometimes, you can afford to lose those resources in order to make larger plays or make plays that your opponent must respond to in turn. It’s very important to be able to identify which resources will help you win the game, and which resources will not – this is called knowing your outs, and it will be the subject of a later article!

High-risk plays are similar in idea – your opponent might put you in a position where you might stand to lose resources. You can counter this, however, by putting your opponent into a position where they will lose more than you will. These plays can be risky – sometimes your opponent has a strong countermeasure, or the resources you threaten are those they don’t care about. But do you think your opponent will throw away 5 creatures to stop your 2? Often, they won’t, and that is your window to get back into the game.

Understanding initiative is the beginning to understanding game state and the flow thereof. Putting your opponent into no-win positions isn’t easy but giving them limited choices is the easiest way to put yourself into a winning position. Whether it’s chess, Go, MtG, or even Super Metroid, putting your opponent – human or AI – on the back foot is an easy way to maneuver yourself into a winning position.

In our next article, we’ll elaborate on knowing your outs and identifying paths to victory. Until then, remember that it’s not enough to just read them. You’ve got to Crit the Books!

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