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  • Playing Styles, and How Games Match One Style or Another

    [11.26.09]
    - Lewis Pulsipher

  • Once again, some games favor one of the three styles or another. Team video games, if the team actually tries to plan and work together, can be for Adapters. Two board games that fit the "Adapter" mindset are Vinci and RoboRally.

    Vinci is a game with perfect information, and with little overt chance, yet you can't plan far ahead because the rise and fall of empires and selection of new empire capabilities results in great changes on the Europe-like board in a few turns.

    RoboRally requires players to program movements of their Robot in a violent race through several checkpoints in a bizarrely-dangerous factory. Each player is dealt nine movement cards, and must lay five face down to be executed one at a time. You can plan a route, but you won't always get the cards you need. Chaos sometimes results from player mistakes, yours and mistakes of others.

     Civilization (board or video) tends to be a game for the Planner. Card games tend to be for the Improvisers, though some can favor the Adapter. Poker is a game for Improvisers, except that there can be long-term bluffing plans that are characteristic of a Planner. First person shooters tend to be for the Improvisers.

    People might tend to assume that these playing styles are closely related to the role of chance in the game. But it's not a matter of "how many dice rolls". Some chance can be managed. Dungeons & Dragons, on the face of it, is full of dice rolls, but a player can do his best to minimize the number of times he must rely on dice to save his bacon, or he can "go with the flow" and rely on the dice.

    If there are few dice rolls or equivalent, and some are very important while many are not, then chance is very hard to manage. Randomness is largely unmanageable chance. The Planner doesn't like randomness, while the Improvisor won't mind at all. Adapters like some fluidity as a result of what other players do, but don't much like randomness. Classical players tend to hate randomness, while Romantics may welcome it.

    Diplomacy, though without any overt chance factor, is a good game for both Classical and Romantic players. The negotiations and alliance structures give both types plenty to work with. The Classical player tends to be better at tactics and strategy; he prefers long alliances to continuous free-for-all, for there are too many risks and incalculable factors inherent in a fluid situation. The Romantic tends to prefer the fluid state, and his big weapon is the backstab. Diplomacy could attract Planners, Adapters, or Improvisers, depending on how it's played.

    In general, games that provide difficulty by requiring quick reactions tend to favor the Improvisor style and make Planning difficult. You don't have time to plan a lot in Halo or Combat Arms; you can in the "stealth" shooters such as the Rainbow Six games. Real-time games tend to be better for Improvisors, turn-based games for Planners. Games with most information hidden from the players make Reacting much easier than Planning, hence the AAA video games that usually use "fog of war" (hidden information, even the map is hidden to begin with) tend to be games for Improvisors more than Planners.

    In other words, "traditional" one-player video games tend to favor the Improvisor rather than the Planner. But this will gradually change over time: as the market for video games continues to expand, many new players will dislike being time-challenged, they'll want to relax while they play their games, they'll want to play a little bit (one turn) at a time. The trend is already obvious in casual games.

    (Parts of this was originally published in Dragon magazine, September 1982, and in revised form in The Games Journal, February 2005.)

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