Lesson 19: Influence

Welcome back to another week at Crit the Books, readers! This week, we’ll be doing something similar to what we did last week – we’ll take an established strategic concept from a game, then distill it into its smaller parts and uses to try to apply it in other games. This week, we’ll be pulling a concept from the ancient game of Go, also known as weiqi or baduk. We’ll be looking into the concept of influence – what it means and how it can help your gaming improve.

Influence, in Go, refers to the potential impact a given piece can have in the game as a whole. It can refer to how difficult it is for a given stone to be captured, or how important the stone is to making certain groups unable to be captured. A stone’s influence also takes into account how much that stone helps you capture those of your opponent, or how it makes it hard for your opponent to score territory around that stone. In short, a stone’s influence is a rough measurement of how much it can affect the larger game state. A stone that saves a large number of stones has a high influence, and a stone that denies your opponent only a small bit of territory is a low influence stone.

For the purpose of applying the idea to other games, we’ll look at that first definition – how much a given game component can affect the larger game state. A component that the game will revolve around, and one whose fate will decide the course of the game moving forward, is a high influence piece. Even if a given piece ends up being important only once, it can still be a high influence piece if the game hinged on that piece’s position or even presence. An easy way to measure a piece’s influence is by asking how much of the game state it can directly impact.

When we are looking at a given game state and trying to analyze it, it is important that we not only look at the pieces themselves, but the influence that those pieces have. It is not enough to simply look at what those pieces are going to do this turn. What are they going to do next turn? The turn after that? Identifying which game components the game will center around is perhaps one of the most important skills that you can train when looking to improve your ability to comprehend the state of the game.

Just like identifying your outs, it is important to recognize that a piece’s influence can change drastically over the course of a given game. A piece that can be very aggressive early, but is fragile and easily answered, will have a lot of influence in the beginning of the game but much less influence as the game goes on. Similarly, components that look like they may not be very influential early can end up being very important later on in the game, as players’ resources dwindle and become harder to make use of.

When you can familiarize yourself with a component’s influence, you can also use that to present threats to your opponent. If you know a piece has the highest influence in a given area, you can use that piece to claim resources for yourself and threaten your opponent’s resources in that same area. For games where there is a free movement component, such as Warhammer 40K or Guild Ball, a model’s influence can be interpreted as an area around that model where they can impact the larger game. Oftentimes, influence and threat range are synonymous in games like this – the more areas a model can extend its threat and influence, the more influential that model typically is, especially in objective based play.

Also important is paying attention to the influence of your opponent’s pieces and how they interpret the influence of your own pieces. If an opponent thinks a piece is less influential than it is, they are less likely to spend resources on mitigating the effects of that piece. If an opponent overestimates a piece’s influence, they are likely to give up resources or efficiency to answer that piece. This will create an opening that you, the player, can exploit. At its core, this is what bluffing is – causing your opponent to misinterpret the influence of a game component.

Being familiar with the influence that a component has is also vital to planning ahead and making predictions in the game. By accurately being able to predict the way the game will go, you will be able to place yourself in better positions later in the game or force your opponent into disadvantageous positions. The manipulation of your piece’s influence hinges on your ability to accurately identify how much influence a given piece has.

Many of the metaphors and examples I’ve used are most useful in a tabletop or board game setting, but it is important to remember that these same theories of influence can be applied to card games as well. We’ll look at a digital card game as our example for this: Hearthstone. In Hearthstone, a 4/4 minion will have a large influence when played early – it is a quick threat that must be answered and will likely be able to influence the board state heavily. On the other hand, that same 4/4 minion will likely have a significantly lower influence on the board later on, since there will more easily be creatures larger than it or more powerful cards that can be played. Early on, it might be worth it to put more resources into getting the 4/4 on the board since it will be very influential, while later on you probably won’t want to make that 4/4 into a big resource sink.

Overall, influence and understanding it is something that will move your game to the next step if you master it. Try not to look as your pieces as what they are doing this turn, or what they are capable of at the immediate moment. Instead, focus more on what they can do and what they can’t do. That next step – thinking ahead and not in the present – will crystallize your strategies and strengthen them beyond what they are now. Know the potential of your components, and success will come your way.

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 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!