Lesson 8: Game Flow and Game State

Welcome back, folks, to this week’s lesson on Crit the Books! This week, we’ll be looking at the idea of game flow. Understanding the general flow of a game can lead you to better understanding of where to focus your resources, both mental and physical. In addition, learning the flow of a game can help you look at different parts of your gameplay and identify where you are skilled already and where you need improvement. Finally, it will help you understand critical moments in gameplay and understanding when you need to move into different strategies.

We’ll also be talking about the 3 game states that a player can find themselves in and bring up some general tips for how to play when you are in those different game states. Learning to play from different positions of strength is integral to becoming a better player. While many players learn and sharpen their skills at one game state, learning to play all three will make you a more well-rounded player who is able to adapt to different circumstances.

Like a well-written story, most games – and encounters within them – have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Of these parts, the biggest thing that characterizes them in my mind is the goal of each stage. In the beginning stage of a game, you are looking to establish your position going into the mid- and endgame. In the midgame, you are primarily interacting with your opponent, and trying to leverage advantage gained into more advantage. Finally, by the endgame, you are trying to solidify your position if you are ahead and trying to prevent your opponent from doing so if you are behind.

We’ll talk about the beginning of the game first. In the beginning of the game, you are trying to establish yourself. Typically, this stage of the game has a much smaller amount of interaction than the other parts of the game, since players are more focused on using the resources available to them to set themselves up and not deal with the threats the opponent has prevented. In the beginning of the game, you should be focused on using your resources as efficiently as possible and setting yourself into the best position you can with the resources available to you. This is probably also the best time to set up future engines or buffs to make your engines more efficient.

Once you have started to interact with your opponent, that is when you have started the midgame. The midgame is characterized by high interactivity and aiming to use your resources more efficiently than your opponent. At this point, you are looking to play according to your general game plan and strengths. Using your resources to their fullest is key in this step, and this is also the step where you will often be looking to trade your resources for the ability to weaken your opponent’s resources. The majority of your victory condition will be accomplished in the midgame; the midgame generally ends when one player is in a situation where they can win the game in a single move or series of moves.

While the midgame is characterized by interactivity that favors efficiency, the endgame is characterized by interactivity that favors results. At this stage of the game, one or more players have victory all but within their grasp, and are looking for the last step to complete their victory condition. Be it having their opponent at 1 life, being within a goal of victory, or having the opponent’s king isolated, the endgame’s gameplay pattern revolves around the proximity to victory. This is where players will often sacrifice the efficiency that is so important in the beginning and midgame in favor of entirely results-based play. It doesn’t matter if it takes you twice as many resources to stop your opponent from winning, it still stops them from winning. If you have any chance of victory, you need to focus entirely on stopping your opponent from getting their win condition filled first.

Knowing when to move your efforts between expansion, interaction, and victory is one of the most important parts of being a skilled player. Your focus needs to be able to shift as you move between different parts of the game quickly. Many players are more skilled in one or more aspects of the game – perhaps you are more skilled at making the most efficient use of your resources, while I am good at identifying the weaknesses of your strategy and interacting with them. You might get ahead further in the early game because you can make more use of the limited resources we have. However, even if you are in a winning position, I’ll be able to make use of my interactivity once we hit the midgame to shut your engines down. It is important for me to remember that you being ahead doesn’t mean I’ve already lost.

Speaking of being ahead, let’s look at the game states that I mentioned earlier. A number of different gaming communities have different names for these, but I’ll be using the terms advantaged, disadvantaged, and neutral. The neutral game is when both players are on even footing, or close enough to it that the game could swing towards either player easily. A player that is advantaged has a greater chance of winning, while a player that is disadvantaged has a lower chance of doing so. It is important to note that a player’s proximity to fulfilling their win condition does not always translate directly to the game state – Even if you have 20 life and I have 10, if I’m presenting the ability to deal you lethal damage and you’re not, I’m definitely advantaged.

In a neutral game, you should be playing to your personal strengths as a player and making use of the plays available to you. A neutral game is a time where both players can afford to flex their strengths, since both players want to earn an advantage as soon as possible. You’ll also want to look at your opponent’s weaknesses and see if you can capitalize on them while you can afford to, since it can be more difficult to have that leisurely freedom of playstyle once one player is ahead of the other.

When you are in an advantaged position, it is to your benefit to play conservatively. After all, if the game state does not change from where it is now, you are more likely to win. There is no reason to take moves that carry a high reward if they also have a high risk, since a neutral result is more favorable to you. When you are advantaged, you have the privilege of being able to dictate the direction the game goes, since your opponent must wrest the advantage from you first before focusing on fulfilling their win condition. While the advantaged player can relax more than their opponent can, it is important to not give your opponent openings which they can exploit to put themselves in your position.

On the other hand, if you are disadvantaged, the onus to change the relative power positions of the game is on you. You’ll want to take high risk, high reward plays – if they fail, you’re in no worse a position than you were before you tried them. If they succeed, however, you stand the chance of gaining a significant boost to your chances of victory. In fact, a single well-placed play can often move you into the advantaged spot! You want to disrupt your opponent if at all possible, since putting them off course is an easy way to shift the movement of the game in a direction you prefer. When you’re facing a loss, there is no reason not to put everything on the line – if the choice is between a high chance at a loss and a riskier, but slightly lower chance of a loss? Take it. It might not work out, but so what? You’ll be in no worse a position.

Identifying when you are in the advantaged or disadvantaged position can be difficult. Indeed, a key part of gaming skill is recognizing when you can afford to make those high-risk plays. However, being familiar with playing from ahead and playing from behind will make your gaming better overall, since you’ll be able to flexibly adapt to whatever situation you find yourself in.

This has been quite a long article, so I am going to cut it off here! As you can see, understanding the flow of the game and the state of the game can help you figure out what your primary goals for your movements are, and help accentuate your strengths. Identifying these will help shape your gameplay moving forward and will reduce the mental burden on you as well as help you recognize strong and weak points in your gameplay. This week, try to keep track of these things as you play. Ask yourself, “What is the current game state? Who is ahead? What part of the game flow are we at?” See if your moves are helping you towards the goals we talked about.

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 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!