Rules Interpretation (or, How to Develop a Strategy)


We play games to win, but even RPGs that have no clear winner offer some motivation to play them -- advancing our characters, and not getting them killed in the process, is our competition. How do we go about the process of finding a strategy that wins?

We've all played in games where someone playing has his or her own read on the rules. I can think of at least two good examples (or rather famous stories) about what is allowed and what is just a misunderstanding of the rules.

The first example is the killing of Lord British in Ultima Online. A theretofore unknown bug was exploited to make a cool event not so cool. Unfortunately there are people out there who want attention so badly they'll run the "fun" for everyone else just to get it.

The second example is from Richard Garfield, and the "winning" Magic card. We've all read the story of the text: "Opponent loses next turn". Read one way and it is the most powerful card in Magic, read it the way it was intended and the card is an also ran.

When developing a strategy for tournaments, online play, or just your friends, there is a fine line between exploring whether your strategy is legal and showing your complete strategy to your future opponents.

Sometimes the rules don't help you.
Sometimes the rules don't help you. In my own card game, Crown of the Emperor, the rules allow for a player to "attack a planet", but don't discuss what happens when the planet loses. This is addressed in the FAQ's, but until it was, there could have been a complete strategy designed around blowing up planets that wouldn't be allowed.

Rules are always up to interpretation, no matter the game. With card games it's even moreso due to the limited space on the card to detail the rules. As proof of this acceptance of interpretation I offer the judges at any Magic tournament. Becoming a judge requires a number of tests, each one requiring a high standard of knowledge about the game. During tournaments their job is to ajudicate any rules conflict.

So we know rules can be misinterpreted, but how does one ensure that this ultra cool sneaky never done before strategy isn't breaking the rules? Beyond knowing the rules of the game very well, look at the spirit of the rules. Does it make sense that the robot character you are playing can fly? If the answer is no, then look for another strategy.

A winning strategy is not always the unexpected. Often while playing a game I can look at my opponent's situation and determine that I cannot win. Although it's possible to do the opposite, I think it's rude to suggest to anyone that they should just give up the game because they have no hope.

The first step to developing any strategy is to read the rules, and I mean READ them. This will help you understand the most obvious strategy. If it is the most obvious you must have a plan to defeat it, or you are sure to lose. I was playing a video game once and I found out that I could win just by hitting my "strike" button faster than my opponents. Not a great strategy and their plan was just to wait until I got tired. It worked, eventually.

Defeating the most obvious strategy is not the path to victory.
But defeating the most obvious strategy is not the path to victory; it's more a path to stalemate. Ask yourself: "Why does this always defeat the most obvious attack strategy?" Now break down what you need at a MINIMUM to always KNOW you can defeat the most obvious strategy. The remainder is what you have to play around with. Is it ships? Is it cards? Is it figures? It must be some kind of game resource. Put all the remaining pieces aside in their own pool. This is the pool from which you will develop the winning strategy.

A good strategy is not dependant on your opponent not understanding the rules. It often happens at pre-release tournaments where neither party fully understands the rules but they do their best to muddle through. This is nothing to depend on.

Given that most games have some limited resource -- be it in pieces, mana, or life points -- the trick is to find the middle ground between what you require to perform your strategy and what you need to give up.

Lets say that for this discussion the resource we're talking about is build points. Is it better to buy the big giant, or is it better to buy a hundred tiny giants? You want your opponent to be forced to break his strategy. So let's go back to the most common strategy and decide which will break it up faster: one big unit, or 100 tiny units. Will the 100 tiny units still allow you to put your strategy to work, or does it require one big unit? You should be working only with the resources that are left over from your strategy. Keep to that rule and you'll feel more comfortable developing that winning attack type strategy.

If you have a well thought out plan, chances are your opponent does too.
If you have a well thought out plan, chances are your opponent does too. The most common strategy is usually the most obvious. Remember that it's called the "most common" because most people will use it! Use that against them. If that common strategy requires that the player have water resources, carry the battle to the sector of the world that has no water. Also, design your attack requiring no water resources. This will give you an advantage while frustrating the most common strategy.

This brings up a good point, the map board. Not all games have maps that can be manipulated to your advantage, but some do. Examine this map closely. Are there any bottle necks or areas that could be used to your advantage given the units you have already purchased? Are there areas you MUST avoid? This will have a huge affect on your design of your strategy.

Games that are based on some event in history add an element of strategy. In the case of an American Civil War game, I think it's a good bet to say that if you're playing the South, you'll need a really good strategy to win. As a matter of fact, you'll need to pull off a minor miracle. That being said, there are tons of Civil War games out there where either side can win. Those games require both players to think outside of the actual events and be creative.

While there is no single method to develop a winning strategy for all games, I have found that using combinations that have not been used before to be a good starting point. Most people don't look for a Black/White deck in Magic, as an example. Putting good and evil characters together can take people out of their comfort zone and force them into situations they have not thought about.

We all know what happens when we know exactly what the other player is going to do next: they lose. It doesn't matter what game we're talking about. Your winning strategy doesn't have to bend the rules, or depend on luck -- it needs to be somehow out of the ordinary. Trying the unexpected from the beginning can help you develop the strategy that takes you to the top. Start with the basics of knowing the rules, the battlefield and what is "common". Strive for the uncommon and there you will find gold.

Mac Senour can be reached through his podcast site: