22 October, 2002

The Best Strategy Game

I like strategy games. I see no purpose to games of chance; what is the point of them? But in strategy, one's wits are tested, and I enjoy that. I think the aspect I enjoy most from strategy games is the fact that they just feel right. I know that sounds vague, but it is true. When I play a strategy game, it is as though I am doing what was meant to be done.

Ugh... I know that what I'm saying sounds absolutely horrible logically, yet ligget se.

My favorite game is Magic. But why? Have I a reason for this? Well, let me see here...

It can be argued that the best strategy games are those with the most strategy involved, right? Yet at the same time, a game cannot be so strategically fixated that the game is too complicated for consumers as a whole to learn. The most complex of games are not considered the best because there simply are not enough people playing the game for it to be called successful. By its very definition, a successful game is a game that makes a lot of money, but still one cannot use that as the only criteria from which a game to be judged as one of the best strategy games. Instead, one must view a strategy game as a whole, along with the players playing the game and what they think of the game. So what kind of game makes for the best strategy game?

The best strategy games have to be built on two levels. The first lower level is simplistic and it is the game that the majority of consumers will play when they play the game. But the game must have a deeper second level as well... Only a very small percentage of players will play the game at this level, but it is those players that guide the rest of the consumer market.

I'll cite here a study conducted by Dr. Venkatesan of the University of New Hampshire. In his study, three identical suits were told to be of differing quality and the subjects were asked to decide which of the three were the best. Before a subject answered, three other fake confederate subjects were asked to answer first, and they presented themselves as being sure of the answer as suit ‘B’. When it came to the actual oblivious subject’s turn, over fifty percent said that suit ‘B’ was the best in their own opinion, which is well above the statistical average of thirty-three percent. ("Experimental Study of Consumer Behavior Conformity and Independence," Journal of Marketing Research, November, 1996, Volume 3, pp. 384-387.)

If a consumer wants to spend time doing something recreational, they have many choices as to what to do. There is nothing that makes the average consumer play the first lower level of a strategy game as opposed to some other form of entertainment, except that the game is a popular thing to do. That popularity is determined by the best players of the game; it is those players that play the second deeper level of the strategy game that define whether or not a game can succeed. If the deeper level players are unhappy with the game, the game will eventually die from lack of interest, even if the simpler lower level is well done. Similarly, if the lower level players are unhappy with the game, then the game will die out due to lack of sales, even if the game is touted as the best game ever made by the small percentage of deeper level players.

In order for a strategy game to truly be the best, it has to have both levels of play, and this is not a thing that is easily accomplished. But you know what kind of game actually satisfies these conditions? You guessed it: Magic.

Magic: The Gathering, a collectible card game (CCG), is very different from the traditional strategic board game. In a CCG, each player owns his/her own deck. They are allowed to build these decks beforehand in any way they might choose. When the game starts, each player draws only from their own decks and is able to play the cards they’ve drawn to do whatever the card says it will do. There are rules to the game, but they are very simple rules and few in number. In fact, one need only remember one particular rule, commonly referred to as the golden rule of every CCG: "When a card’s text directly contradicts the rules of the game, do what the card says to do." In this way, CCGs are able to have two very distinct yet integrated levels of play. The first lower level is easily explained by a very simplistic set of rules that constitute a very fun to play game. The second deeper level is enormously complicated, simply because of the vast amounts of cards in existence that do just about anything one could dream of doing in the game. What’s more is that periodically new sets of cards are printed, which upwardly changes the possible combinations for any given constructed deck of cards. Each set of new cards brings more and more dimension to the game on both levels of play, simply because some cards are printed which push towards making the first lower level of play better and some cards are printed which push towards making the second deeper level of play better.

There are a few traditional strategic board games that have a dichotomous level structure with just the right amount of convergence to make the game successful. Chess, for example, has a limited number of pieces that can move in only very rigid simplistic ways, yet when taken as a whole, a chess game can become quite complex. But most board games are unable to combine two levels of structure, simply because of design and economic constraints. 

The commercialization of any product is important for the product to survive, especially in our capitalistic society. Making something so that it sells the best is the easiest way to ensure that that product stays on the market and becomes successful, and the best way to accomplish that goal is the same as what Sun-Tzu said so very long ago in his revered masterpiece, The Art Of War. "...What is of supreme importance in war is to attack the enemy’s strategy, ..." meaning in this case to attack the traditional board game design’s own strategy. Keep in mind that when designing these traditional strategic board games, the designers have to take into account how well the product will sell and how innovative the product is in development before they even consider the competition made by the collectible card game genre. In fact, most traditional board game designers do not even consider the CCG to be a true competitor, even though they both share the strategy game market.

(Note that it is impossible for the collectible card game to encapsulate the strategy game market simply because CCGs have such a small market share. If their market share rose, they might be able to do so, but no individual CCG company would be willing to take so substantial a piece of the market share as that would invite the new competition and destroy profits.)

The success of the traditional strategic board game is entirely dependent upon the merits of the game as it is first printed, and the money generated to compensate the authors of the game is linearly proportional to the merits of the game as the designers created it. But in the case of the collectible card game, the situation is quite different. Granted, the game must necessarily be good when it first comes out in order to be successful, but the success of the game is not limited to the merits of the game when the game first comes out. Rather, the game gets better as time passes, since with CCGs new sets of cards are released periodically. This makes CCGs the most likely candidate for the title of best strategic game.

However, CCGs have one aspect that holds them back from acquiring that title. All CCGs are by their very nature commercialized. The profit made on a CCG is the addition of two functions. The first is the linear proportion that comes based on the merits of the game, just as in traditional board games. But unlike traditional board games, CCGs have merits that change as time passes since new sets of cards are released periodically. Because the merits of the game change as time passes (and always in a positive direction since the newly designed cards add more to the game), the slope of the function rises with time, mimicking an exponential function. The second function is that of the old players purchasing new product, which is something traditional board game players would never do. This function is slightly proportional to the merits of the game but is mostly a flat constant function since a percentage of old players will buy new product regardless of whether or not the new product is significantly better than old product (so long as it is strictly better in at least a minimal sense, the constant function will hold true).

So, in the case of a traditional board game, a game inventor will come up with a good idea and market it. He is inclined to make his game as good as possible on the deeper second level, but he cannot make the rules too complex or otherwise not acceptable on the lower first level, or else the game will not spread throughout the consumers rapidly enough to survive for very long.

Successful traditional board games have to "balance" on the line between what would be the best game and what would sell the best. But collectible card games do not share this problem. While they still have to have both levels of play, the balancing act is not a zero sum game. Instead of taking away from one level to add to the other, CCGs solve the problem by simply adding more sets of cards, which balance the two levels of play out. 

But that’s not all. The release of new sets of cards can be used not only to alter the balance of the levels of play, but also to slowly tweak the rules and perfect the game play with the foreknowledge that doing so will earn the developers even more money, which creates an immense incentive to make the game as perfect as possible. This kind of thing never happens in traditional board game development.

The downside of this is that the game becomes a commercial machine, but the reward is that the game itself becomes better as time passes. Even in the worst-case scenario where the designers stop releasing new sets of cards, the CCG would still stand on its own as a traditional type game, and it would be much better than most traditional games because of all the work that went into making the game up to that point.

Furthermore, when speaking from the perspective of a single player, it is not necessary for one to buy each new set of cards as they come out (although it is necessary for the majority of players to do so). One can play with old cards just as easily as with new, and it will be just as fun. And although each new set adds to the experience of the game as a whole, the individual cards of the new sets never alienate old cards by being strictly better than them; that would be unsound business practice, since it would cause older players to not want to buy new sets for fear of them becoming outdated as well.

Obviously, a collectible card game has a much easier time of becoming a great game than a traditional strategic board game. The only hurdle is that there are a limited amount of consumers who are easily open to the idea of playing a collectible card game. Once the supply of viable consumers is exhausted, newer collectible card games have a much harder time becoming entrenched enough so that they survive. It follows from this that the most entrenched collectible card game is likely to do nothing but improve in future years, perhaps to the point of mainstream.

(Incidentally, if the current entrenched CCG goes mainstream, then other CCGs will have more consumers to feed upon, which makes for a lot of new competition against the current entrenched CCG. Even if CCGs fall from the mainstream afterward, the competition will still have the foothold, and so it will push the current entrenched CCG into a less desirable position than it currently is in. Oddly enough, from a business perspective, the most entrenched CCG should only expand to a certain size, after which it should not push into the mainstream gaming public.
I'll cite from a famous business philosopher, Keniche Ohmae. As he observes, "[i]n the real world of business, ‘perfect’ strategies are not called for. What counts ... is not performance in absolute terms but performance relative to competitors." (The Mind Of The Strategist: The Art Of Japanese Business, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1982.)
So long as the current entrenched CCG is markedly better than its competitors, it is advisable only to approach saturation of the current market, as this yields higher profit than expanding further into the mainstream. In fact, "... there is some level of output at which profits are maximized. Increasing output beyond this level reduces profits. Indeed, continued expansion of production until the firm’s output is above the break-even level will create losses for the firm." (Daniel F. Spulber, The Market Makers: How Leading Companies Create and Win Markets, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1998.))

If one looks simply at the merits of both levels of a game, then CCGs are obviously in the best position to claim the title of best strategy game. And even when you add in the commercialization factor inherent in CCGs, one cannot say that it is detrimental to the game with respect to the quality of the game. Nor can one say that it makes the game expensive or elitist; although CCGs require a number of consumers to buy new sets of cards periodically, from the perspective of a single gamer looking for the best quality game with no recurring price, a CCG is the perfect answer. One can buy it for the equivalent of what a traditional board game costs and not be hurt by it. Although doing so means you won’t have access to every card available, you will still be able to trade for those cards that you want. But since no cards are ever made obsolete, one needn’t even trade if one wants to play with only those cards that (s)he owns.

As one can easily see here, the best strategy game is surely the game that is the most entrenched collectible card game on the market -- in other words, Magic: The Gathering. Despite all of its detractors, CCGs surpass their predecessors in every way but the commercialization point, and even in that aspect, CCGs are better for the individual gamer.

So, Magic is the best strategy game.

That was fun... I had forgotten how much I loved to write proofs. (c:

I bet everyone reading this must think I'm a real weirdo, huh?

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