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The Classical and Romantic Game Playing Styles

Lewis Pulsipher

February, 2005

When gamers discuss their preferences they usually concentrate on the purpose behind a game design, the realism (simulation) vs. playability question. Should the game be designed primarily to reflect/reproduce history—even a made-up history such as a science fiction novel—or should history be subordinated to the need for an interesting easy-to-play game? In other words, players talk about game styles, not playing styles. This could be because many gamers are indifferent players, content to play a game a few times and then put it aside rather than attempt to learn the best moves and strategies. With hundreds of games on the market this isn't surprising. But two basic game playing styles do exist among those who are interested in winning a game (not all players are, of course), regardless of what game is being played. The object of this article is to identify and describe those two styles in order to help game players (and designers) better understand their activities.

Harkening back to the well-known nineteenth century distinction in music, painting, and other arts, I call the two basic styles the Classical and the Romantic. The perfect Classical player tries to know each game inside-out. He wants to learn the best counter to every move his opponent might make. He takes nothing for granted, paying attention to little details which probably won't matter but which in certain cases could be important. The Classical player does not avoid taking chances, but he does carefully calculate the consequences of his risks. He dislikes unnecessary risks. He prefers a slow but steady certain win to a quick but only probable win. He tries not to be overcautious, however, for fear of becoming predictable. He tries to maximize his minimum gain each turn—as the perfect player of mathematical game theory is expected to do—rather than make moves and attacks which could gain a lot but which might leave him worse off than when he started. (Some people call this the "minimax" style of play. I am not sure that "minimaxer" and "Classical" mean quite the same thing in game contexts, but they are close. Certainly, the minimaxers are usually going to be "classical" types.)

A cliché among football fans is that the best teams win by making fewer mistakes, letting the other team beat itself. So it is with the Classical wargamer, who concentrates on eliminating errors rather than on discovering brilliant coups. When a less than top-class player tries to play classically he can be predictable, unimaginative, overcautious; he won't get clobbered, but he may find himself consistently falling short of victory. A poor player who wants to play Classically tends to let his pieces mill around, accomplishing very little. He just doesn't know how to get started, so he plays ultra cautiously and goes nowhere.

A Classical player enjoys "perfect control" of his forces, even though this is unrealistic in the real world; he prefers playing games to struggling with the vagaries of chance.

The perfect Romantic looks for the decisive blow which will cripple his enemy, psychologically if not physically on the board. He wishes to convince his opponent of the inevitability of defeat; in some cases a player with a still tenable position will resign the game to his Romantic opponent when he has been beaten psychologically. The Romantic is willing to take a risk in order to disrupt enemy plans and throw the game into a line of play his opponent is unfamiliar with. He looks for opportunities for a big gain, rather than maximize his minimum gain. A flamboyant but only probable win is his goal. He may make mistakes, but he hopes to seize victory rather than wait for the enemy to make mistakes. The Romantic player tends to be a little sloppy about seemingly minor details; if he gets in his decisive blow(s) he won't need to worry about little things, and if his big coups fail those little things won't make a difference in the result. When a less than top-class player tries the Romantic style he tends to attack a lot, taking risks without good reason. Usually the risks will catch up with him in time. A poor Romantic player specializes in banzai charges, forced marches, single-handed attacks, dissipation of effort and strength to no good purpose.

The Romantic player prefers that some chance elements exist in a game (not necessarily dice; it could be Event Cards or something else). He uses those chance elements to his advantage, preying on the uncertainty of his opponents. Romantics may be more likely to like action card type games, or "take that!" games. Classical players prefer as little uncertainty as possible in their games, while Romantic players like a considerable level of uncertainty as it helps them pursue the "Great Play".

Some examples and further explication are desirable. Chess is a game which favors the Classical approach, epitomized by Bobby Fischer and the Russians. The game tends to favor the Classical, in particular because it is a game of perfect information (nothing is hidden or uncertain); yet because it is so complex, there is still some margin for surprise and psychological shock. But Romantics play also. Many years ago Fischer met Bent Larsen in a match to determine who would go on to the next round of the World Championship. Larsen attempted to throw Fischer off stride by making unusual moves. He hoped that Fischer wouldn't know the correct analysis of the unusual positions. But Fischer's knowledge of the game was unmatched, and knowing how to counter Larsen's ploys Fischer won the match 6-0. Larsen's moves were probably not the best possible, but if Fischer had not previously determined what would be the best line of play to follow in each case he might have lost. The Russians, by the way, have been known as masters of the draw. Two Classical players contesting a heavily analyzed game like Chess can often finish in a draw, though Fischer shows that the very finest Classical player can find new and superior lines of play to slowly overwhelm his opponents. (Fischer is also master of the psyche-out; no doubt he has a Romantic streak in him.)

Let's get closer to standard wargames. Starforce Alpha Centauri is a game designed to favor the Romantic player, The designer has said that the game is like two karate masters maneuvering, looking for an opening for a single decisive blow to end the contest. The option to move in overdrive, farther than permitted normally but with a chance for a potentially disastrous failure, is custom-made for the Romantic player. On the other hand Stellar Conquest is a game of many options and much detail. The articles about playing Stellar Conquest which have appeared in The Dragon indicate how much mastery of the game is required to play it well—the kind of game a Classical player usually likes.

In Afrika Korps the Romantic player, as the Germans, might risk a 2-1 or 1-2 attack on Tobruk, while the Classical player would besiege the place and go on toward Alexandria, expecting that if he played well he would either force the British to abandon Tobruk or he would take their home base.

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.

Britannia is, amongst top-class players, played very Classically. There is certainly an overt chance element in the combat dice rolling, and lots of room for variations from game to game, but experienced players know exactly how many points each nation "ought to" score, and react accordingly as the game progresses. Unlike in Diplomacy, there is little tendency to ally or backstab because each player has different objectives, and because it is not a zero-sum game. (In a zero-sum game, one player's loss has a corresponding gain by another player's.) When players try to play Romantically, they often disconcert some of the other players, but benefit one or two opponents (it is a four-player game) more than they benefit themselves.

Risk, on the other hand, tends to be a Romantically played game. Chance plays a fair part in combat, but the larger measure of chance comes in the accumulation and play of cards that net the player new armies. Classical players tend to change the card turn-in rules so that players receive 4-6-8-4-6-8 etc. armies instead of ever-increasing numbers. This makes for a much longer game, but a much more Classical game.

Dungeons and Dragons is unusual insofar as there is no player enemy, but both playing styles can be discerned. The Classical player tries to avoid a reliance on dice, though he must accept the occasional melee (where luck tends to average out). He hates to roll a saving throw. He likes to devise thorough, sometimes complicated plans to defeat a monster or trap with the minimum of risk. The Romantic doesn't mind risking a saving throw against spells or whatever in order to get in his blow at the enemy. Sometimes he likes to rely on guile and bluff. The second level character who pretended to be a twentieth level magic-user and slapped a dragon in the face must be accounted a Romantic!

There is nothing a Classical player hates more than losing to an inferior player because of bad dice throws. For this reason he avoids the more Romantic games, such as Starforce, because in such games even a poor player will occasionally luck out and win. (This, by the way, is one reason why there are more Romantic than Classical games—more people will play the former because the less skillful players still have a decent chance to win, as they do not in a Classical game.) While the good Romantic player is inclined to take a calculated risk that wouldn't appeal to the Classical player, the poor Romantic is prone to gamble quite often (usually because he can't think of anything better to do), and once in a while he'll hit the jackpot.

Don't confuse the intuitive play with the Romantic. I would assert, however, that Classical players tend to rely on logic, and Romantic players tend to rely on intuition. Many good players depend on intuition rather than study and logic to make good moves, yet the moves can be either Classical or Romantic. A Romantic player can also be a very cerebral or intellectual player who happens to prefer the Romantic style. Some people would refer to Classical players with derision as "mathematical" players. It is true that Classical players are concerned with odds and expected losses (though this alone doesn't identify or qualify a person as a Classical player). Nonetheless, Classical players do quite well in non-mathematical games.

Let's take a very simple game for another example. Most readers know that Tic-Tac-Toe (Noughts and Crosses) is always a draw when played perfectly. I have written a one-page list of "rules" to follow that will allow anyone who can follow instructions to win Tic-Tac-Toe whenever the opponent makes a mistake, and to never lose. Tic-Tac-Toe is clearly a Classical game, yet even here a Romantic can try to play in his style.

The Classical player, knowing the game's analysis, will always play to the center when playing first. Then if the opponent places his O in any non-corner square, the X player can force a win. A local player (a brilliant computer programmer, so you know he can be very logical) likes the Romantic approach to games. He strongly analyses a game, but when the time comes to play, he looks for the "psychological" move. In Tic-Tac-Toe as the X's he will not start in the middle. E.g. he places his X in a corner. If his opponent, faced with this unusual play, thinks he can gain an advantage from this, he may choose to place his O adjacent to the X in a square other than the center. If he does, then the X player has the win locked up. If the O goes in the center, the X player can still force a draw.

The idea is to present the opponent with an unusual move and hope he'll make a mistake; perhaps, then, a win can be forced in a game that is ordinarily a draw. Of course, the Classical player will say, "if I start in the center, there are four places my opponent can place that will give me a win; using the Romantic method, only two opposing moves will give me a forced win."

This same player can be very logical and thorough in a game that encourages such; on the other hand, he likes games that include Event Cards, because these represent uncertain information and surprise value.

Games with perfect information (nothing hidden from the players) tend to favor the classical style, while those with imperfect information (especially a lot of it) favor more the Romantic style: when less information is available, it's easier to surprise or shock the other players. Yet a Classical player can play a game classically that favors the Romantic style. The largely-mathematical Theory of Games of Strategy provides a way to play "minimax" strategy even where chance must be employed—in fact, the minimax style is defined as "perfect play". In a given situation a player following minimax may, faced with three possible moves, find that in the long run he will fare best if he plays one strategy 20% of the time, another 45% of the time, and the third 35% of the time, and he will actually "roll dice" to decide which one to use in a particular play.

The Romantic is more likely to try to "get into the head" of his opponent, to divine which strategy the opponent will use and play his own strategy that best counteracts it.

If you can identify your opponent's playing style you may he able to take advantage of it. A Romantic may be suckered into an area which looks weak but is not. A Classical player may be unable to react effectively to unusual moves. Obviously, this discussion of playing styles is simplified; no one is wholly Romantic or wholly Classical, and some people are Romantic when they play some games and Classical in other games. Whatever style your opponent uses, recognizing his style is an important step to taking advantage of his playing weaknesses.

I am myself very much a Classical player, though my favorite game is First Edition Dungeons and Dragons, which includes lots of dice rolling, and a lot of uncertain information. Perhaps it's my favorite because it's a cooperative game, not a competitive game... and because it can teach more about life than any boardgame I can think of.

- Lewis Pulsipher

(This article was originally published in The Dragon #65, September, 1982.)

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