Darren is a scientist and an educator by day, and a writer and reviewer by night. While he enjoys shooters, RPGs, platformers, strategy, and rhythm games, he takes particular interest in independent games. Additionally, he produces the Zero Cool Podcast, and he plays board games quite a bit.
So with the announcement of the first ever Monthly Musings yesterday, I immediately thought of the Animaniacs, but then I thought, "Hey, I know how to type words onto my computer box! Maybe I can do one of those!"
Then came the writer's block. Without anything to write about, I fired up my DS for some good ol' Advance Wars: Days of Ruin. After handily defeating the ultimately flawed AI on a map where the player begins at a distinct disadvantage, I couldn't help but pat myself on the back for my cunning use of Missiles guarding Fighters, which were guarding Bombers, which were wrecking the enemy's Anti-Airs.
Then it hit me. The thing that makes battling in Advance Wars so great is the precisely balanced units, each with its strengths, and importantly, each with its weaknesses. It's been done in plenty of games now, but depending on the manner in which it is implemented, the rock-paper-scissors mechanic can totally make a game, or it can totally make a game boring.
As it was the inspiration for this article, I can't help but gush about the rock-paper-scissors mechanic in the Advance Wars games. It can be seen in the basest form in the Tank/B Copter/Anti-Air dynamic. All units cost about the same to produce, the Tank beats the Anti-Air, the Anti-Air beats the B Copter, and the B Copter beats the Tank.
It's simple, and on its own, it would be mindless and un-fun.
Thankfully, the rock-paper-scissors mechanic enters into the gameplay in more than just a this-unit-is-stronger-than-that-unit manner. It's there in the ranged attacks: Rockets can attack from a safe distance without fear of a counterattack, but are vulnerable to attack without the ability to defend. It's there in the movement: Recons are weak but can travel further than any other ground unit, while War Tanks are strong but can only move half as many spaces in a turn. It's there in the unit prices: one Carrier costs as much as four Tanks, but depending on the situation can be many more than four times as useful.
One particular dynamic I want to highlight is that between the Bomber and the Anti-Air. This is not your traditional rock-paper-scissors; indeed, depending on the circumstances, each can one-hit-kill the other at full health. In a one-on-one battle, the victor is determined by who gets the first hit. As an air unit, the Bomber is more maneuverable and has a greater range, so it can easily attack the Anti-Air from afar, but considering the Anti-Air costs about a third as much to produce, it is a rare occasion that a Bomber will take on a single Anti-Air without one or two of its allies coming back to retaliate.
While some are a bit more obscure, I would argue that all of these elements are based in the simple rock-paper-scissors mechanic, but it is the synthesis of them all that creates a complex strategy game worth playing.
Another series that takes the classic rock-paper-scissors mechanic and runs with it as far as imaginably possible is Pokémon. Much like Advance Wars, it starts simple. Fire-type beats Grass-type, Grass-type beats Water-type, and Water-type beats Fire-type. Some Pokémon are Adorable-type (see above), but that never comes into the battle mechanic.
While that mechanic is easy to grasp (and makes intuitive sense, mostly), it quickly gets more deliciously complicated. Allow me to use a visual aid.
As you can see, no one type is strong against all others, with the slight exception that Steel-type defends well against many types of attacks. This is balanced by Steel-type Pokémon typically being slower than others, and attacking afterward.
I won't go into every interaction, but some are worth highlighting. Another classic rock-paper-scissors example is between Ground-type, Flying-type, and Electric-type. In addition to the classic example, there are some more interesting matchups. Ghost-type attacks do no damage on Normal-type Pokémon, but Normal-type attacks do no damage on Ghost-type Pokémon.
Perhaps that isn't so much interesting as it is hilarious to imagine two Pokémon facing each other, unable to do anything to one another.
Another noteworthy column on that grid is that for Dragon-type Pokémon. There are only two types of attacks that are good against Dragon-types, Ice-type and Dragon-type. This mirrors the Bomber/Anti-Air dynamic from the Advance Wars series, in that each is good against the other, making the outcome a bit more unpredictable.
While that chart up there is impressive, the real reasons the Pokémon series has perfected the rock-paper-scissors gameplay are the ability to carry multiple Pokémon, and the ability for some Pokémon to have attacks of types other than their own. Battling people who are really serious about it (and I've only done it once) really shows some of the creative combinations that can exist. People do this knowing that they will never have an unbeatable Pokémon, but they could quite possibly form an unbeatable team.
Now, the Monthly Musing for February isn't called "Good Idea, Fantastic Idea," and of course, there are some games that fall flat because of the very mechanic that makes battles in Advance Wars or Pokémon so great. The one that comes immediately to mind is the lesser-known PS2 RPG Magic Pengel: The Quest for Color.
The basic idea is pretty great. Rather than catching disease-ridden wild animals a la Pokémon, the player puts his creativity to the test by drawing his fighters from scratch. He buys new colors (which have various effects on battling), and he earns new tools to create various body parts. It's a system that works pretty well, and it is extremely satisfying to send your creations into battle.
That is, until you remember that means you have to endure the boring-to-tears battle system.
Your creation has four moves it can make: attack, block, special, and charge. The first three follow the rock-paper-scissors formula to a T, block beats attack, attack beats special, and special beats block. The first misstep the game makes is that a winning attack means the opponent does absolutely no damage. The second misstep it makes is one that was supposedly put in for variety's sake: on the turn after using any of the actions, that action cannot be used.
If it doesn't sound bad, let's run through an example battle. On turn one, Monster A chooses attack and Monster B chooses block. Monster B wins that round, and does damage to Monster A. On the second turn, Monster A only has two damaging choices; he can either block or use a special. Monster B knows this, and so he naturally chooses special, because it means damage done regardless of what Monster A picks. I am not exaggerating when I say that some of the battles in that game were entirely determined by who guessed right on the first round.
And that's it. That's the extent of the strategy involved. Do you choose rock, paper, or scissors? Now I'm not one to disrespect the actual game of rock-paper-scissors. I included an image from the amazing World RPS Society. I participated in the "massively multiplayer live action RPG" (read: rock-paper-scissors with powerups) at PAX. But if you're going to base the entire battle system of a 50+ hour RPG on the game people play to determine who gets to sit shotgun, then you're doing something wrong.
When I first learned to play rock-paper-scissors, I probably played a dozen or so games in one sitting. Not too long after learning the game, I learned the rules, and I developed strategies. And since it's such a simple game, I eventually got bored of it and moved on. I think what makes the rock-paper-scissors mechanic successful in certain video games is when it's fleshed out enough that the player must take the time to learn the rules, to develop strategies, and to reap the fruits of his labor. With intricate systems like that in the Advance Wars games or the Pokémon series, the periods of learning and application and reward are stretched out, and even allow for circumstances where a master can be surprised by the turn of events. With Magic Pengel, it was like I was five all over again; I learned the battle system, bested it, and was bored with it in under an hour.
Did I miss the opportunity to talk about a game that makes great use of the rock-paper-scissors mechanic? Did you expect me to make mention of a certain game that took it and ran with in in entirely the wrong direction? Let me know!
Author's note: I know I wrote the phrase "rock-paper-scissors" a lot in this blog post. Unfortunately, my thesaurus doesn't have any synonyms for it. Except for jan ken poh, but that would just confuse people.