Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Rock-Paper-Scissors in Warfare and Game Design

“The reason why Cyrus opposed his camels to the enemy’s horse was because the horse has a natural dread of the camel, and cannot abide either the sight or the smell of that animal. By this stratagem he hoped to make Croesus’s horse useless to him, the horse being what he chiefly depended on for victory. The two armies then joined battle, and immediately the Lydian war-horses, seeing and smelling the camels, turned round and galloped off; and so it came to pass that all Croesus’s hopes withered away.” — Herodotus

The interesting thing about those camels is that they were not an actual military unit. They were pulled out from the baggage train at the last minute to make this battle-winning move.

This sort of paper-rock-scissors is a major flaw in a tactical game. The emergence of this dynamic pretty well makes it pointless to bother playing everything out. You see this in big Car Wars events where the vehicle designs chosen pretty well determine the winner. You see it in High Guard games, too. I also remember the Federation Commander judge at Origins 2011 fretting over whether or not there was a paper-rock-scissors effect in the fleets than had been preselected for tournament play. Cleaning that sort of thing up was a very high priority for him.

But a flaw in a tactical game can turn out to be the bread and butter of a strategic game. Space Empires: 4X gives you the option of building fighters, raider ships for sneak attacks, and mines for defense. If you take the time to research the counters to these, you can pretty well roll through them when they rear their ugly heads. Your other option is to wait until you the enemy reveals his strategy, and then counter it. The question then becomes, how much time will it take you to adapt and how much will he be able to leverage his advantage? This is the biggest reason that the game tracks ship tech on a counter-by-counter basis. If you simplify the game to allow all ships to be updated simultaneously, you ruin one of the game’s more interesting features.

The reason that this works so well is that the game is made up of many battles instead of just one engagement. Paper-Rock-Scissors itself can become a very different game when it is played in sets and rounds. The simplest illustration is in the baseball variant. If both players reveal a one, it’s a single. If both throw twos, it’s a double. If both throw threes, the player at bat gets a triple. If both players reveal fours… home run! If the players have different numbers, that’s an out. Nine innings of this very simple game can be surprisingly fun.

One thing I recall from elementary school was that we added our own options to Paper-Rock-Scissors… sometimes even in the course of play. I definitely recall dynamite being countered by scissors– the fuse got snipped off. We also had a superman throw that could beat everything… except kryptonite.

For role playing games, there is almost no real rules to cover the sort of thing that Herodotus describes. That is of course exactly the sort of thing that good players will try to pull off. I call this the “A-Team” approach. The players come up with some harebrained idea and then try to implement it. Sometimes getting the individual pieces of the puzzle can turn out to be adventures in and of themselves. One of the more irritating qualities of skill based systems is that they can turn all of this zaniness into a single roll-and-hand-wave affair. What’s worse… the Gamemaster might feel that he needs to figure out what awesome thing is was that the players came up with. The way I deal with that, though, is to look at the roll and then put it back on the players. “You rolled an eight for your tactics. Hmm… looks like some sort of paper-rock-scissors type of temporary advantage. What do you think you guys have done now…?” Alternately, you can force the players to describe exactly what they’re doing before rolling… and then judge the initial set-up for the tactical maps based both on the quality of the roll and the quality of the idea.

One side effect of this style of play is that the players will be encouraged to kill every last one of their enemies. If any survive, they are sure to get word out about the players’ killer tactics. Not only will things not work out the same way next time, but the players might even have to deal with monsters that pull the exact same dirty tricks!


3 responses to “Rock-Paper-Scissors in Warfare and Game Design

  1. Robert Eaglestone June 12, 2013 at 2:34 pm

    I’m not so sure that your assertion, that R/P/S is anathema for tactical games, is necessarily so. As an example, I’ll refer to your recent Mayday-like tactical fighter skirmish game. By definition each counter configured itself based on its situation. This is the R/P/S effect. By the rules, each counter could CHANGE that configuration at the beginning of each turn. That changes the scene, resulting in a series of separate R/P/S sessions, as each side tries to best the other over several turns.

  2. mikemonaco June 12, 2013 at 9:36 pm

    There is a whole family of wargames (“DBx”) that pretty much relies on the rock-paper-scissors dyanamic and yet is a lot of fun. It’s possibly based on reality, in fact:

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