Most people in the fighting game community, and some in board games, are familiar with the works of David Sirlin (Yomi, Puzzle Strike, Pandante). His most famous essay is about the term “scrub”, which refers to a type of player who will, instead of improving in a competitive game, will blame the other players for employing “cheap” tactics and not competing with “honor”. Sirlin writes (in the context of Street Fighter):
“If you beat a scrub by throwing projectile attacks at him, keeping your distance and preventing him from getting near you—that’s cheap. If you throw him repeatedly, that’s cheap, too. We’ve covered that one. If you block for fifty seconds doing no moves, that’s cheap. Nearly anything you do that ends up making you win is a prime candidate for being called cheap.”
That last sentence is where I disagree with Sirlin’s definition of “cheap”. While there certainly are people who will accuse anyone better than them of cheating, some strategies attract more complaints than others. And while fighting game players may want to rid themselves of the habits described in the article, a designer wants to appeal to a wide variety of people, including scrubs.
So what strategies are cheap, and does the benefit of having this kind of strategy in your game outweigh the risk of turning off players who refuse to play against them? This time, I actually have opinions.
The Definition of Cheap
My definition of “cheap” strategy is as follows:
Any strategy that goes against a player’s imagined construct of “how the game should be played”.
From this, one might say that each individual has their own idea of how a game should be played, but games will frequently hint at “proper” or “honorable” gameplay without enforcing it outright in the rules. Some examples include:
Strategies that benefit despite incurring penalties from the game’s system. Worker placement games Stone Age and Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar both allow you to accrue more worker pawns over the course of the game, but you will lose VPs if you don’t feed them with resources. Players quickly discovered effective “starvation strategies” in both games, where you get as many workers as possible as fast as possible and ignore the starvation penalties you get for it.
Strategies with a comparatively low skill floor. One of the most reviled decks in the online CCG Hearthstone is “Face Hunter”, a deck that ignores the complex board state management practiced by other decks and attempts to deal lethal damage to the opponent as fast as possible. This deck is easy to pilot and, though never the optimal strategy in any metagame, is strong enough to be evergreen in most environments. Most of the complaints about this deck are that players manage to win despite not putting in enough imagined “effort”.
Strategies that ignore the way to win suggested by introductory materials. The game Android: Netrunner suggests that in order to win, the Corp player must slowly advance and defend Agenda cards. Indeed, when playing with the cards in the starter set, that is the only realistic way for the Corp to win. However, once expansions are included, more powerful strategies emerge, including ones that instant-kill the runner and ones that attempt to assemble a combo that wins the game in a single turn. This has acquired flak from some players.
So while all effective strategies might be labeled “cheap” by salty players at one point or another, certain ones that allegedly flout the “proper” way to play suggested by the designers attract the epithet a lot more often.
Is Cheap Good?
If you playtest enough, you will inevitably have some player discover a strategy that could be categorized as “cheap” by your or other players’ metrics. So do you support it, or do you stomp it into the dirt? This depends on the kind of game you’re making, specifically whether it’s a deep game or not. (For more on the subject, read my earlier post about deep games.)
Deep games need variant strategies, even ones decried as “cheap”, because a lot of the fun comes from exploring the system and finding new and interesting interactions. If someone finds a way to win that doesn’t follow the path suggested by your rules, but it’s interactive and doesn’t win 100% of the time, it’s perfectly fine to ignore playtest comments that the strategy is somehow wrong.
Non-deep games (not to say “shallow” as even complex games like Terra Mystica fall into this category) are a different story. The scope of gameplay is much tighter, as all non-deep games are essentially miniature social contracts – the designer promising a neatly packed experience in exchange for the players’ time and money. If a viable strategy in a hobby game involves playing contrary to the intended experience, it needs to be trimmed so that your audience isn’t disappointed. At the very least, these tactics should be adjusted in power level so that they are only a small part of winning.
Every game is created to appeal to a certain audience. If we want to become better game designers, we have to understand that audience’s wants and needs. People who adhere closely to “how a game should be played” deserve the annoyance they earn in competitive communities that explicitly preach the opposite mindset, but wanting a game to be played a certain way isn’t a sin by itself. Instead of thinking in black and white terms, saying “this strategy is cheap, take it out” or “everyone who says a strategy is cheap is a sore loser”, game designs should be evaluated individually to see if “cheap” is something it wants to tolerate.