Lesson 5: Resources and Engines

Welcome back, readers! This week, we’ll be taking a look at one of the central parts of all games. In fact, I think it could safely be said that what we’ll be looking at today is the most important concept in gaming. If you can master the ideas that we touch on in today’s lesson, you’ll be ready to learn a lot of skills that will sharpen your skills beyond that you could even imagine. This week, we’ll be looking at resources!

Resources is a very open-ended word, so we need to sharpen down exactly what we mean by that. In gaming contexts, I define resources as such: a resource is anything in a game that meets 3 requirements. It must be measurable and defined. Players must have a limited quantity of it. Finally, a player must be able to interact with it or spend it.

First, something must be measurable and defined. Something that is fluid, changeable, or only vaguely defined cannot be a resource. For example, “advantage” in a game is not a resource. Differential between scores could be a resource of sorts – how much more life you have than your opponent, for example. To fit into our discussions on resources, it is very important that we avoid things that we can’t look at objectively, with numbers behind them. That is how we can accurately judge resources.

Second, players must have a limited quantity of the resource. If a player is not limited in something, then there is no reason to worry about managing it, and resource management is where most of our discussions of resources will be centered. If something is unlimited to players, then it is not something where you can attempt to reduce how much of it your opponent has access to, which means that it can be safely ignored in our discussions.

Third and finally, a resource must be able to be interacted with or spent. Resources need to mean something – if players can’t do anything about it but simply look at it, it is not something that needs to be discussed in gameplay scenarios or strategy because player actions have no impact on it. Because of this, when we discuss resource management in games, it needs to be something that players can interact with, even if it is something only one player can interact with.

Now that we’ve defined resources, let’s look at some examples of them, both ones that you’ve probably thought of as resources before and some that you might not have looked at in this light before. One of the most common resources you see in games of all sorts is gold, or another type of currency. As I’m sure you are aware if you have ever played a game with these, how much gold you earn and how you spend it is crucial to your victory. As we look at other resources, you’ll start to see that how you manage your resources is often central to winning your games.

Gold and currency are far from the only resources in games, however. Have you ever been playing an RPG and thought to yourself “I can afford to take an attack from this boss before I have to heal, so I can attack it this turn.”? If you have, you’ve been looking at your health as a resource! In fact, having to choose between attacking a boss and healing yourself points to another resource that, in video games, you don’t always think about – actions. Actions as resources are very common in board games and tabletop games, but you don’t always see it in video games. Just because you only have one action each turn doesn’t mean it’s not a resource that can be looked at as a resource – in fact, looking at your actions as resources will often allow you to analyze your play in a more helpful way. Even things like your movement each turn can be viewed as resources. Can you only move 5 spaces in a turn? Well, let’s see: it’s measurable, you have a limited amount of movement, and you can spend it by moving. Sure seems like a resource to me.

So, if just about everything can be looked at as a resource, how does that help you as a player? It can let you more accurately decide what resources are valuable to you, and focus on playing to your outs, like we talked about a few articles ago. It can help you predict future turns or figure out if you have the initiative at given points in a game. Most importantly, though, it clues us in to one of the central tenets of gaming – one of the most important things that you can learn as a player. It’s not true all the time, but it is true enough of the time that it should be kept in mind all the time – The player with the most resources is more likely to win. It seems pretty simple on its face, but it’s an important part of almost all gaming strategy.

You’ll notice that we said that the player with the most resources is likely to win, but not guaranteed. How can that be? After all, if I can just do more than my opponent, aren’t I going to win? That’s where we touch on another term, one that is just as important to resources: Engines! An Engine is anything in a game that allows you to turn one or more resources into other ones, in either a positive or negative value. Engines are everywhere in games, and again, you might not think of many of them as Engines. A basic melee attack in D&D? At its core, it is a way of changing one resource (actions) into another resource (negative health on your target). Engines are often basic game mechanics, but objects in games can also provide players with more powerful or more efficient engines. Arcane Intellect in Hearthstone is an engine that lets you trade 3 mana and a card for 2 cards. Casting a creature in Magic: the Gathering is an engine that lets you trade some mana and a card in your hand for a creature on the battlefield.

This leads into our other central lesson for this week: The player with more, and more efficient, engines is more likely to win. In many ways, these two tenets are intimately tied together. More efficient engines let you acquire more resources and give you more options with what to do with those resources. More resources let you make more use of your engines. Engines and resources are symbiotic parts of the central ideas of gameplay – they form the framework of a game, and they provide you with ways to manipulate the framework of that game.

Now that you know about resources and engines, start looking for them in your games. Start asking, “What resources do I have available to me right now? What resources does my opponent have? What engines do I have access to? How can I use those engines to minimize the resources that my opponent has? How can I use those engines to maximize my resources?” By asking yourself those 4 questions, you can focus your gameplay and make yourself a better player.

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!

 

Extra Credit 1: Tilt

Welcome back to Crit the Books, folks! We’ve got a first for our audience here – a Patron requested Article! Our request this time around, from a patron who would like to remain anonymous, was to write about tilt. Tilt is one of the most often discussed subjects in competitive gaming circles, but it’s not always ascribed to narrative games. However, Tilt and the effect it has on your play are absolutely huge when it comes to polishing your gameplay and sharpening your skills. Let’s get to learning!

Tilt is originally a poker term and is used to describe an emotional or mental confusion or frustration, often following a loss or an unlucky result. This disturbed emotional or mental state can often have a detrimental effect on a player’s skill, leading them to make unwise moves or play in ways that will not lead to them winning. There are many methods in which tilt can be caused, recognized, and dealt with. We’ll be looking into some of those methods, and I’ll give some personal anecdotes that might assist you in your own tilt adventures.

Before we move further, however, I want to clarify something. Many players who think of themselves as good players tend to think that they cannot be put on tilt, or that they are somehow immune to its effects. In my experience, they’re all wrong. Tilt is something that happens to everybody. We’re not machines! Trying to make yourself immune to it will only make it harder to notice its effects when it does happen. When you’re tilted, accept the fact and work through it.

Now that we’ve dealt with that tangent, let’s look at the things that can cause tilt. Tilting can be caused by any number of things, even outside of the game itself! Even something as innocuous as having a bad day can have a big detriment on your play. Inside the game, though, there are a number of things that can cause tilt. Maybe your deck just isn’t being nice to you and has put your best cards in the bottom half. Maybe your dice aren’t cooperating and are trying to set a new world record for consecutive number of ones rolled. Perhaps you went for a high-risk, high-reward strategy because it was your last out… and it failed. It’s not always variance and random chance, though – did your opponent have an option available to them that you missed, and it has turned the game in their favor? There are any number of ways you can get frustrated with a game, and these are just some of them.

More important than knowing how tilt can be caused, though, is recognizing tilt when it happens. The most dangerous enemy is one you’re not aware of and tilt is one of the most insidious hidden enemies there is. It can often cause you to play quickly and aggressively, throwing away a game that you could have won because you are frustrated. Sometimes it will cause you to overthink every action even when you don’t need to, leading to you running your timer down and eating up your time. Tilt can take even the right play and make it sound like a guaranteed path to defeat.

Identifying the mental patterns that you fall into when you’re on tilt can be difficult, because every person tilts differently. Oftentimes, a player will have different styles of tilt that they fall into in different scenarios. The trick is recognizing the habits you take on when you’re on tilt and identifying the thought structures that it creates. As an example, I’m very much a quiet tilter. When I’m on tilt, I go almost entirely nonverbal, especially in competitive games like League of Legends or Magic: the Gathering. “I’ll pass the turn to you!” becomes “Go.”. One of my friends is a very talkative tilter – when they’re on tilt, they’ll start talking about the different lines of play they could have chosen, and they’ll often ask their opponent what they did wrong. Tilt is most easily recognized by following your thoughts and your play, and asking yourself, “Where did I change? When did I stop caring about winning the game?”

Stopping tilt isn’t an easy task. There’s no other way to put it. If stopping tilt was easy, I wouldn’t be writing articles about it – and I’m far from the first one to do so! Getting yourself back into a good headspace after you’ve been slammed into tilt hell is another thing that everyone does differently. That said, there are some useful tips to help clear your head and get yourself back into the winning emotional and mental state. Each one of these helps different kind of players, and I think each one is useful in different situations.

The first method I’d suggest is “focus on the moment”. Oftentimes, what puts people on tilt is something that happened in the game, or something that happened earlier in the day. It’s not unusual for a frustrating result from your first match to put a downer on your play for the rest of the game. Put it behind you. Dwelling on the past is only useful for the lessons we learn from it, and you can learn those in retrospect. For now, focus on what is in front of you and the resources you have. Don’t let one misplay start you down a train of 13, and don’t focus on what you don’t have. Take the resources you have in front of you and craft a winning strategy with them. It’s not about “if”. It’s about “how”.

The second method is “Calm down”. Take a deep breath. It might sound small, but your emotions and mentality are interwoven with your physical state. Relax. It’s just a game. It’s not a win or die scenario – although if it is, refer to method one. Clear your head, close your eyes, and let yourself refresh your headspace. Accept that you were tilted – no sense in denying it – but move forward past it.

The third method, and perhaps the most difficult one for competitive games, is “Distract yourself”. Tilt can be like a snowball down a hill – it can collect momentum and get bigger just by existing, and it will try to do so. You’ll often tilt yourself harder the more you try to avoid tilt! Sometimes, you just have to walk away. Step out of the shop and grab yourself a snack at the 7-11 across the street. Step away from your desk and pop some popcorn. If you’re heavily tilted, drop from the tournament and go do something you’ll enjoy more than you will 5 rounds of increasingly tense matches. It’s alright to accept when you’re stressed and need a break, and the game will always be there for you when you’re in a better place mentally and emotionally.

Tilt can be dangerous, and I hope that this lesson will be helpful to you in avoiding it yourself. While I didn’t touch on it in this article, keep your eye out for an article about using your opponent’s tilt to your advantage. For now, though, try and look at your relationship with tilting. Do you go on tilt often? Do you find yourself losing because of it? Try to identify the habits you drop into when you are on tilt. Explore it. You’ll learn a lot about yourself as a player.

A big thanks to my Patrons: Alex, TicTac, and those who prefer to remain anonymous. If you enjoy my content, you can join that list at patreon.com/CritTheBooks. You’ll get other perks, such as early articles or the ability to suggest articles of your own!

Remember folks, gaming isn’t always about hitting enemies. Sometimes, you’ve gotta Crit the Books!

Lesson 4: Fluff vs. Crunch

Welcome back to Crit the Books, friends! This week, we’ll be looking at a few terms that get thrown about a lot in discussions of gaming, especially tabletop roleplaying games. They’ve been called different things based on context; you might be familiar with them as lore, flavor, rules, and mechanics. I’m going to be using the terms Fluff and Crunch for these two ideas! This is going to be a bit more of an academic article than normal, but I’ll be sure to put in some tips at the end to improve your winrate, as well as improve your gaming experience in general!

Fluff and Crunch are, in the shortest description, ways to divide the components of a game between “soft” narrative descriptions and “hard” rules or mechanics. It’s most used to be able to discuss parts of the game in contrast with each other, or to find areas where those aspects might not match up entirely. It can also be used as a tool to restructure parts of your games in order to emphasize parts of the game that some of your players like or used to analyze your own gaming preferences to better find games that interest you!

Fluff is the narrative aspects of the game. This is also occasionally called backstory, lore, or flavor. It is what makes games more interesting than just sets of numbers! An easy way to tell if something is part of a game’s fluff is to see if there are hard numbers associated with it. Sometimes, something will provide a mechanical bonus but not use numbers to describe it – advantage in Dungeons and Dragons is an example – but most of the time, if something doesn’t have numbers or a mechanical buzzword like “advantage” or “reroll”, it’s an aspect of a game’s fluff.

Crunch, on the other hand, is the rules of the game. It can also be called mechanics. These are the parts of the game that provide the framework that differentiates a game from a choose-your-own-adventure novel or an interactive piece of theater. Crunch provides the venues of hard interaction between players and their antagonists and specifies the rules for which conflicts are solved within the game. The easiest way to identify a crunchy element of a game is to look for numbers and bonuses.

Now that you know what crunch and fluff are, how is that useful? Knowing the difference between these can let you improve your gaming experience in a number of ways. The first, and perhaps most important, is that knowing the difference can let you identify what parts of different games appeal to you, and that can help you find more games that you will like! For example, say that you are somebody who really enjoys optimizing your character in Dungeons and Dragons games – you love big numbers! You’re more attracted to the crunch of the game, and so you’ll likely find more rewarding experiences in more crunchy, mechanics heavy games.

On the other hand, maybe your favorite parts of playing games are the stories behind them. You’re not concerned with dealing the most damage; you’re concerned with making sure your character has the chance to confront their father and make him pay for his misdeeds. You’re probably more interested in the fluff of the game, and that might lead you towards looser and freer games, where you can focus more on the story being told than whoever has the bigger numbers.

In addition, knowing the difference between these two aspects can make games more entertaining by changing one or both of those aspects! For example, say that you are slated to play in a game of Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition. You have this awesome imagery that you want to use for your character – a druid who shoots swarms of bugs with their magic bow rather than arrows. You can talk to your DM, and most times, if you agree to not change the crunch of the build – tracking ammo, your damage dice, your range – they will happily let you change around the fluff aspects to better fit the image in your head. Most DMs would much rather have an engaged player who wants to improve immersion in their game than someone who sticks to every piece of the lore as written. Plus, let’s face it: “As I loose the string of my bow, nothing seems to happen for a split second. Then, along what would be my arrow’s path, small insects being to swarm to existence from nothingness. They fly forward and attack my enemy!” is a lot more interesting than “I draw an arrow, nock it, and shoot it like usual.”

Enjoyment is all well and good, but I know that some of my readers are much more interested in “How does this help me win?”. Don’t worry – I’ve got some tips for you as well. These tips touch on the ideas I looked at last week – playing to your outs – but they’re just a bit different. If you want to win, focus on what you are mechanically good at, not necessarily what your good at in fluff. Sometimes, aspects of your gameplay will not sync up entirely with what your fluff might seem to suggest. To improve your winrate, you’ll want to keep your eyes on the parts that matter for winning and conflict resolution. Sure, it might be cool to take a feat that better fills out the relationship between your character and their father. Or, you could take the feat that gives you better numbers to get your revenge on him. If you’re playing to win, don’t let your fluff sidetrack you from that goal unless it helps you with it.

There are a number of topics related to fluff and crunch – ludonarrative in games, roleplaying vs “roll-playing”, and designing strongly themed games, just to name a few. However, even just a rudimentary understanding of fluff and crunch, plus the contexts in which they can be used, can lead you to more enjoyable and satisfying gaming experiences. I hope that you’ll be able to use what you’ve learned here to do just that!

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 3: Playing to your Outs

Today, we’ll be looking at a topic I touched on last week. A lot of the ideas I bring up this week are ones that, in retrospect, might seem obvious. However, I see far too many players miss out on wins they could have gotten because they were focused on something other than winning. That’s right, folks! This week, we’ll be talking about one of my personal favorite topics: Avenues to Victory, or as some might call it, Playing to your Outs!

How do you win a game? It seems like a very silly question to ask, but it is the key to improving your odds of victory. Each game has a different win condition, and if you fall into the same habits in one game that you’ve developed in another, those same habits that led you to victory can lead you to defeat! Playing to your outs means determining what actions will lead you to winning the game and taking those actions, even when they don’t “feel” like the right ones.

Let’s, for example, look at one of the most well-known games of all time – chess! In chess, your victory condition is simple – capture the enemy king. We can extrapolate off of that, as well: to capture the enemy king, you have to make it so the enemy king can’t escape. To do that, you’ll want pieces that can threaten a large number of squares. To do that, you’ll want to keep your pieces alive for as long as possible. It’s not unusual for people to think to the top level of those goals, play while trying to keep all of their pieces safe, but miss the base goal: to capture the opponent’s king. Those other goals are secondary to capturing the king. They might make it easier, but the minute you prioritize keeping your queen alive over fighting for the checkmate, you’ve not played the best game you could.

Playing to your outs means always keeping your victory condition in mind. Always. You should be able to point to any action that you take, or any resource you spend, and be able to describe how that action pushes your game plan towards victory. Wasted moves are mistakes. A move might not always lead to immediate fruition – for instance, in our chess example above, a pawn moving forward might just be “to present a greater threat to my opponent than otherwise.” But presenting that threat, and taking that territory, opens options up for you later that you might not have had. You should always have that in mind.

Playing to your outs is also the key to attaining victory when you are behind. Oftentimes, when you don’t have the initiative in a game, you’ll find yourself put into a bunch of positions where you have to choose between 2 bad options. That’s when you can think to yourself, “What are my outs here? How do I win the game?” Sometimes, it will be a risky play that only pays off if you roll very well. Sometimes it will be a subtle, not-so-obvious play. Sometimes it will be a play that requires you to sacrifice resources that are otherwise very useful to you.

It’s important to remember that there are many games where, even if you play to your outs entirely, you still lose. Sometimes, you didn’t think to play to your outs for the entire game. Sometimes, you just got unlucky on a high-risk choice. Sometimes, you just plain get outplayed by your opponent. Regardless, you need to remember to separate your loss from your strategy. A play might not always feel like the “right” play. When you are looking to your outs, though, you’ll find yourself winning games you didn’t expect to win or find yourself in winning positions easier than you were finding yourself there before. That will happen because you are actively working towards your victory.

There are a lot of common pitfalls that will lead players to not playing to their outs. Some of the most common ones I’ve seen are lack of flexibility, playing for efficiency, and prioritizing fun over winning.

Lack of flexibility is one that you’ll see more commonly in games with multiple viable win conditions. Oftentimes, a player won’t notice when their best avenue to victory has changed and will continue playing towards a method of victory that is either less likely, or downright impossible. I personally see this most often in digital TCGs, since oftentimes decks there will have 2 main vectors to victory – value and aggression. (We’ll be talking about those in a later article!) Many players might play the early game as an aggressive player but fail to shift over to a more value-oriented game style later on in the game when aggression alone will not win. When you’re playing to your outs, you should constantly be reevaluating your options and trying to figure out the best path to victory.

Playing for efficiency is another pitfall I see often. I see this more often in miniatures games or other games where your actions are limited. Some players might opt to try to play their models in the most efficient way possible and might miss a line of play where their model does something it wasn’t quite designed for – maybe a model that is extremely good at killing is better suited to take an objective this turn, for example. Maybe your leader’s turn is better spent doing something a smaller model could do, because they are in the correct position. Don’t be afraid to make inefficient choices! Sometimes they’re the best choices.

The last common way I see players not play to their outs is prioritizing fun over winning. There is nothing wrong with this, of course, if your goal isn’t to win. However, I see far too many players in miniatures games who fall in love with the idea of dealing large amounts of damage to opponent’s models and neglecting other win conditions that their army might be more suited for. You’ll see it in games like chess as well – a player might be having fun taking out opponent’s pawns with their queen, while their opponent is setting up a checkmate with knights and rooks. Don’t let yourself be distracted by big numbers and good visceral feelings. Play to your outs!

It seems like something obvious, but I see so many players miss this and I can’t emphasize it enough – to win more games, you need to look at your paths to victory, and work towards making a game state where those paths are accessible to you. Play to your outs, and victories will come your way.

That’s it for this week, folks! Next week, we’ll be looking at some terminology that gets thrown around a lot in gaming circles: fluff and crunch! A big thank you to our Patrons, Alex, TicTac, and anonymous patrons. Thank you so much for your support!

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!