Lesson 23: Why I love Guild Ball

Welcome back, readers, to Crit the Books! This week, we’ll be taking a departure from our strategy articles, and look into the design decisions between one of my favorite games, Guild Ball. Guild ball is a game with a ton of deep strategy and is most definitely one of those games that is easy to learn but hard to master. It’s a super deep game of tempo, resource management, and planning ahead. It rewards familiarity with the game to a deep level. Honestly, Guild Ball is a game that I constantly adore from nearly every aspect; in today’s article, however, I’m going to focus on specifically the design aspects.

When Guild Ball is boiled down to the base parts, there are 3 things about the game that really draw me in. The resource system is Guild Ball is very deep and interactive, with multiple uses for the two main resources of the game. The complexity of the game is something that contributes to how easy the game is to learn and is a huge positive point for the game. Finally, Guild Ball brings to it a huge depth and that depth makes it an interesting game to play even after you have played hundreds of games.

First off, let’s talk about Guild Ball’s resource system. Guild Ball has 2 main resources: influence and momentum. Influence is given to you based on the models that you take in your team, and can be used to move further, make attacks, and use special moves on the character’s card called character plays. Influence essentially tells how much a model can do in a given turn. The other main resource is momentum, which is produced by characters selecting certain results from their attacks or succeeding on passes with the ball. It can then be used to remove negative conditions on models, move a model after one of the passes, make a shot on the goal, or heal the wounds off of a model.

Guild Ball, like many other games, is a game about resource manipulation and control. The fact that it has two main resources, unlike many games which only have one, adds a huge amount of depth to the game. In addition, those two resources play completely different. Neither one can substitute for the other, except in very specific circumstances. This, of course, does not touch on the numerous other resources in the game – wounds on models, activations of models, movement… Guild ball is rife with resources and engines to turn those resources into each other. The web of interactions that those multiple resources creates is core to Guild Ball, and I love that!

While Guild Ball has those multiple resources, learning the game is actually quite easy. All a player will need to memorize are the core rules to the game – which can be condensed into a roughly 20 page rulebook – and a few symbols on the cards. Those symbols are all reasonably self descriptive, and every model’s rules are on the card. Unlike games such as Warmachine/Hordes – with 12+ symbols to learn – or Warhammer 40K – with rules kept in a book that require multiple flips through the index to find – Guild Ball keeps its base rules simple and puts the majority of the rules on a model’s card.

In addition to this, Guild Ball is very accessible to new players, both on a rules side and a price point side. I have taught a number of players Guild Ball within 20 minutes, mostly because of the ease of describing what a model can do. They can move – either a jog or a sprint – and use their influence to make attacks, kicks, or plays. The win conditions in this game are easy as well. If you score a goal, you get 4 points, while each player dealt enough damage to be removed from the field will give you two points. 12 points is all you need to win! The basics of Guild Ball are super easy to understand.

The price point of Guild Ball is also very affordable. The game’s starter box, Kick Off, only costs $75, and contains literally everything you will need for a game – 2 teams, dice, a board, widgets, the whole nine yards. In addition, each team of 6 players costs between $60 to $80, making it very affordable for a player interested in a new team to pick them up. These low costs make the game very attractive for a player who is not previously invested in miniatures games, making it an excellent entry choice for a player new to the genre.

Do not fool yourself, however. Guild Ball is an intensely deep game that takes huge amounts of effort to master. As I mentioned earlier, the multiple resources at play in a Guild Ball game make every decision matter. Multiple games I have played have come down to the difference between a single result of an attack or a single misposition. The web of possibilities that happen as a result of the interplay of those resources and the different engines they power make the game incredibly deep. Even if both teams take the same models, the game can turn into an entirely different one because of one or two scatter rolls.

The other thing that makes Guild Ball difficult to master is how unpracticable the majority of the game is. While the first turn can be practiced due to the lack of interaction from your opponent, the ability of your opponent to make choices that directly impact your models – both their positioning and their ability to make certain moves – makes the game extremely interactive. There is not a single strategy in the game that does not have any kind of counterplay, and the different plays, traits, and playbooks on each character make the game incredibly deep and interesting.

When it comes down to it, Guild Ball is one of my favorite games because it obeys the classic adage of a good tabletop game – it is easy to learn, and hard to master. While the game’s base rules are not incredibly complex, they do create a deep well of possible interactions and engines. Mark Rosewater, of Magic: the Gathering fame, called the ability to create complexity out of simple pieces “elegance”. I cannot think of another miniatures game as elegant as Guild Ball, and that elegance is what keeps me coming back to the game and supporting it as much as I do. If you’re interested in small army skirmish games, or even miniatures games at all, I cannot recommend Guild Ball more.

A big thank you to my Patrons for this month: Alex, TicTac, and anonymous patrons. If there are specific subjects or concepts you’d like an article written on, I suggest you look at my patreon! For just $7 a month, you’ll be able to suggest article topics for me to write on.

As always, remember that it’s not enough to just hit the books if you want to win. You’ve got to Crit the Books!

 

Lesson 14 – Variance

Welcome again, readers, to another week of learning here at Crit the Books. This week, we’ll discuss variance in games, and the different kinds of variance that you will see in games. Variance, often called RNG or chance, is the element of games that adds interest to them beyond strategy. While many players curse games that have heavy variance, I am personally of the opinion that a healthy amount of variance adds a great amount of depth and interest to games. Let’s get into it.

First off, let’s look at exactly what variance is. Variance refers to anything in a game in which the outcome is not wholly predictable. In many games, variance is achieved through 3 main ways – In the case of digital games, a pseudorandom number generator is used to determine results, and in physical games, shuffling a deck or rolling dice are used. While these are the 3 most common, there are certainly other ways that variance can be added to a game. Some games will use coin flips, other social games will use the inherent variance of the human psyche. Regardless, variance does a lot to make games less predictable.

Now that we’ve established what variance is, let’s divide the concept up further to clarify some of our discussions. In games, there are two main types of variance – input variance and output variance. Input variance is variance that changes the options available to a player. The random order of the cards in a digital TCG like Hearthstone, and the cards that you draw, are an example of input variance. You can’t be sure at the beginning of the game which cards will be available for you to play, or what cards you will draw next turn and what options those might allow. You can take guesses and play the odds, but you will never be 100% sure what those options will be unless you have 1 card left in your deck. Since this style of variance changes the options that are available, we call it input variance. It changes what input you, the player, receive.

The other style of variance is output variance. Output variance refers to variances that changes the results of a player’s actions. Looking back at Hearthstone, cards that cast random spells or summon random minions are an example of output variance. You can take the same action as a player two different times – casting Unstable Portal, for example – and get vastly different results. Another example of output variance is the damage roll when you hit with an attack in Dungeons and Dragons. Your attack might deal 1 damage, or it might deal 6. Since you won’t know the precise amount of damage you are dealing, that is another example of output variance.

Many players have a love/hate relationship with variance. How many times have you hit the perfect topdeck and celebrated to yourself or thought, “Yes! Exactly what I needed!”? At the same time, I am certain there have been a number of times that you have made an attack and critically failed it, then looked down and glared at your dice in anger. Many players will say they dislike variance or feel that variance negatively impacts the amount of skill they are able to demonstrate in a game. This stems mostly from the fact that a player can take a strategy that has the highest probability to succeed, but still lose.

However, I am of the opinion that variance is incredibly important to a game’s health overall, and how interesting a game is to play. Whenever variance causes a highly skilled player to lose, it does another very important thing: it makes a less skilled player win. Variance makes games more accessible to newer players, and that is something absolutely critical for the health of a game as a whole. Games that have a low amount of variance – chess or go are wonderful examples – tend to be games that have a very steep learning curve and can quickly become uninteresting when a given play group has known disparities in skill level. If my best friend is a grandmaster at chess, and I am a new player, we are not as likely to enjoy repeated games. My best friend, because he finds the games boring and easy to win; myself because I find my attempts futile and frustrating.

However, games that have a higher amount of variance, such as Hearthstone or Magic: the Gathering, can create situations where even if my opponent is a better player, I drew better cards or had better results of my actions. These games are much more interesting, and while the more skilled player might generally win more often, the less skilled player still feels that they have a chance. This incentivizes both players to play more often and makes it easier for new players to enter the playgroup without feeling like they have a large cliff to climb.

In addition to this, variance makes games interesting. The faster that players can routinely determine the winner of the game from a given board state, the more deterministic the game is and the less interesting it is. For Hearthstone, it is one thing to know that when you are presenting lethal and your opponent has no way to respond to it, you have won. This is as the result of a game played. However, if you could sit down across from your opponent and determine who has won after 2 turns, the game becomes much less interesting and much less worth playing. Variance creates interest by putting players into scenarios where it becomes harder to determine who will win.

When looking at designing a game, I would encourage you to look deeply into what variance exists in your game, and what that variance provides for you. Input variance is a good way to introduce interest into your game without being overwhelming, and also serves as a way to limit complexity for a player on any given turn. When a player has 1000 options, they are more likely to suffer from analysis paralysis than when they have 4. This is also the “safer” type of variance, since players will very rarely feel let down.

Output variance, on the other hand, is the variance of high highs and low lows. This can be a very big negative, since nobody enjoys critically failing their attacks or spending resources to do nothing. However, output variance can also lead to exciting stories of triumphing against overwhelming odds, or of that one time you needed all of the dice to go right to achieve a win, and then they did! Output variance can add a lot of excitement to your game and create strong stories or memories that players will be hard-pressed to forget.

Variance is something that is central to both game play and game design. It’s a subject that I have some strong, and very controversial, opinions on. No matter how you slice it, variance is an integral part of gaming strategy, and learning to love it will get you more familiar with it. Being familiar with variance will open the doorway to being able to make the best use of it in your strategy. Love the variance. It’s here to stay.

A big thank you to my Patrons for this month: Alex, TicTac, and anonymous patrons. If there are specific subjects or concepts you’d like an article written on, I suggest you look at my patreon! For just $7 a month, you’ll be able to suggest article topics for me to write on.

As always, remember that it’s not enough to just hit the books if you want to win. You’ve got to Crit the Books!

 

Lesson 13 – Burden of Knowledge

Welcome back, readers, to another lesson here on Crit the Books! This week, we’ll be branching a bit away from strategy principles, and move towards the design side of games. We’ll be discussing something that comes up very often when talking about games, and this same concept is something that can let you demonstrate mastery of a game in a method that is not simply strategic. This week, we’ll be discussing the Burden of Knowledge.

In any game, there are a set number of components within the game. Even for games that are procedurally generated or make use of customizable elements, there are still parts of the game that can be known and predicted. Burden of Knowledge refers to the amount of rules or specifics of different components that exist in the game. Burden of knowledge as a concept specifically references the “printed” aspects of the game, or those that are available direct from the game and must not be deduced.

As an example of what differentiates strategic knowledge from printed knowledge that increases a game’s burden of knowledge, we’ll look at a game that I am currently dipping my toes into and attempting to learn – Pokemon! To be specific, we’ll be talking about competitive battling in the video games – specifically Generation 7 – in Drafting Leagues. While there is quite a bit to be said about Draft Leagues in Pokemon, I won’t be discussing the specifics here. Instead, I encourage you to read this article written by my good friend Hexcat, over on their site!

Pokemon has a lot of depth to it, and that is part of what makes it have such a variety of competitive formats. That depth shows in a lot of ways! Each pokemon brings with it a unique combination of base stats, abilities, types, and moves that it can learn. In addition to just the variety of possibility that differentiates the pokemon themselves, there are a variety of items that each pokemon can bring into the battle. Mega Evolutions and powerful moves called Z-Moves expand the choices even more.

All of these possibilities for the pokemon, as well as the specific interactions of moves and pokemon, are available to players at any time, and do not change game to game. Since all of this information is set and directly available to the player without being deduced, this is considered printed knowledge, and therefore contributes to the huge burden of knowledge that an aspiring pokemon player must overcome if they want to make it as a competitive player.

On the other hand, pokemon also has a very deep well of strategic information. Knowing how to construct a strong team, knowing what role each pokemon can play in that team, knowing how to leverage the knowledge you have of the opponent’s team into moves that are more efficient for you… those are all strategic knowledge, and this depth of strategy is what has made pokemon such a long-lasting player in the gaming arena. There is a reason that pokemon is still played consistently to this day, and the strategic depth is what keeps it there.

To contrast the heavy burden of knowledge of Pokemon, we’ll look at a game that has a light burden of knowledge but incredibly deep strategic knowledge. Imagine a game where there are only 6 different pieces with their own rules, as well as a very simple set of base game rules. If you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m talking about Chess! It doesn’t take very long to learn the ropes of Chess, and after you have learned how each piece moves, nearly all of the knowledge you can gain about the game is strategic knowledge.

Games with a heavy burden of knowledge can be very difficult for a new player. I can speak from personal experience – for a long time, I avoided really getting into the competitive pokemon community because I didn’t think I would have the time or attention span to devote to overcoming that burden. While you can form some heuristics to lighten the load of a heavy burden of knowledge, you also risk missing out on something important because your heuristics may be flawed!

You might ask, then, “How do I get started in a game with a heavy burden of knowledge? Is it not worth my time?” To that, I must say that there is no easy answer. However, there are some starting techniques that you can look at. One method that you can use is to start with a reduced complexity version or variant of the game, either by editing the base rules to make them simpler or by limiting the options available to you. That, or you can have a more experienced player make some decisions for you while you start to work on getting deeper into the game.

This first method is the one that I got started in Pokemon Drafting with. A coach in the Fun Pokemon League – the one Hexcat mentions in their article above – ended up dropping out of the league, and the organizer of the league ended up looking for replacement coaches. I ended up stepping in, giving me an introduction to drafting without the added complexity of the drafting portion itself. This reduction in the starting complexity was a godsend. In addition, I was lucky enough to have HexCat willing to answer my questions and help assist me in my matches. While I have been relying on their help less and less as the league goes on, they were still very helpful in my early weeks.

This actually brings me to another method for getting into a game with a heavy burden of knowledge. Having a friend or another resource that can translate the knowledge into more easily accessible pieces of strategic knowledge. To provide an example, I was very unsure of why my team’s original coach had chosen Dugtrio as a Z-Move user. I was completely lost, and while I could have access to all of the moves available to Dugtrio, I didn’t know how they fit into the overall scheme of my team because I lacked the knowledge to know what made them relevant. Hexcat was able to tell me that the option of Z-Memento essentially let some pokemon on my team set up to sweep without fearing losing them to strong attacks.

One final method is to simply dive in to the game and try to master the printed knowledge of the game for yourself. This is not a simple trick or a way to escape the burden of knowledge; rather, you choose to face it head on and conquer it that way. Players that enjoy learning and don’t mind poring over information will find this method a strong one indeed. This method is also a really good one if you already enjoy the game!

When it comes to the learning new games or designing games for yourself, it is very important to remember the burden of knowledge within the game. A high burden of knowledge can make your game intimidating to learn, and that can be a death sentence for a new game. Learning to conquer that burden of knowledge for yourself can make new games far more accessible to you, and it never hurts to learn more about the games you love as well!

A big thank you to my Patrons for this month: Alex, TicTac, and anonymous patrons. If there are specific subjects or concepts you’d like an article written on, I suggest you look at my patreon! For just $7 a month, you’ll be able to suggest article topics for me to write on.

As always, remember that it’s not enough to just hit the books if you want to win. You’ve got to Crit the Books!