Thursday, September 11, 2014

A Rebuttal to Advance Wars by Web

At my own request, The Player's Guide to AWDS (formerly "The Idiot's Guide to AWDS") was reviewed and pulled apart by players whose playing experience comes primarily from Advance Wars by Web (AWBW). I did this to see what underlying problems and misconceptions still need to be addressed in the Advance Wars community, and would now like to take this opportunity to explain why AWBW game theory needs to die.

#1: AWBW Game Theory is lazy.
This is the tier list I'm often confronted with to "rebut" the Player's Guide. Note that the tiers are numbered opposite my own system.
Broken Tier
Kanbei, Colin, Sensei, Grit, Hachi, Javier2T+
Luck Tier
Nell, Flak, Jugger
Tier 1 (Top Tier)
Sturm, Von Bolt, Javier1T, Sasha, Hawke
Tier 2 (High Tier)
Eagle, Olaf, Max
Tier 3 (Mid Tier)
Andy, Drake, Kindle, Lash, Sami
Tier 4 (Low Tier)
Rachel, Grimm, Adder
Tier 5 (Bottom Tier)
Jake, Jess, Sonja, Javier0T, Koal
If you have ever played a strategy game in your life, you should already know from first glance that this list is fishy. Even excluding the Javier variants, 28% of all playable factions are in un-ranked "do not use" tiers. That would be suspicious at even half this number, because game balance simply does not work that way. The rankings themselves are also quite suspicious.

I do not play AWBW often enough to re-organize that community's list, but there are multiple inconsistencies that they have always refused to address. Let's take the example of Grit: he can be beaten by Grimm, and reliably brought to a standstill by Max and Jess. This is just what I've played myself, and there could be more examples I am not aware of. Why have none of these COs ever had their rankings changed in light of this? In any other gaming community, this would have caused a fundamental shift in how the tiers are structured, but in AWBW it's always been passed off as "an anomaly."

This same thinking contributed to one of my favorite absurdities in the AWDS community, in which all Tags are considered broken without ever bothering to test them. Even after GipFace and I independently proved that Tags can not only be ranked but even be inferior to single COs, I meet folks who still think of them as "broken and unusable." Never mind that a 10% broken ratio would be suspect, this pushed it above 90%. It's indicative of the elitist mentality that has overtaken the Advance Wars community and holds back AWBW to this day.

When I say "elitist," I am not speaking of individuals; rather, the game theory itself is considered "elite" over what anyone else comes up with. You see at some point, the community agreed that the game's balance was "solved," and after this happened anyone questioning that balance could expect to be pounced on by a hoard of people who think they know everything about the game because they read a couple guides. The guides on AWBW are essentially sacred writ to that community, to the point where individuals painstakingly endeavored to recover them after the old forum crashed and re-post them, even attributing the original author. Nevermind that it's accepted game theory, and that theoretically anyone should just be able to make a new guide from memory: these particular guides had to be recovered, without which all was lost.

Folks, I guarantee that if you regard guides like this, you are not an expert. In fact, I would go so far as to say that if you have never attempted to challenge community guides with original research, you don't know jack shit about that game. There are still new strategies being innovated in games as old as Chess, and yet this community is content to think that it has "solved" a much more complicated game. This mentality that anything falling outside a guide's layout is a mere anomaly is not a demonstration of knowledge, it is laziness. This is why I basically ignore anything the AWBW community has to say about balance, even on their own game.

#2: AWBW and AWDS have fundamentally different mechanics.
I cannot overstate this: AWBW and AWDS are not the same game. They have often been thought of as the same game, even been used interchangeably for game theory purposes, but in practical terms you might as well be comparing Age of Empires 2 with Age of Mythology. AWBW works on AW2 mechanics with a hodgepodge of DS units and COs thrown in. In the former games, you often can't get a cheap (S)COP until day 12 or 14. Your strategy largely relies on what you can accomplish day-to-day, as such.

In AWDS, even expensive SCOPs will be fielded by day 10 at most (often earlier), and continue to make appearances every 2 or 3 turns. It's to the point where COPs are largely unusable, because a much stronger SCOP is right around the corner to hit you during post-power weakness.

The staple strategies of the AWBW community that led to its tier list often can't be used in AWDS because of this fast charging. Infantry and Recons define this game, because they charge 0.4 and 1.0 stars respectively; in short, they provide the best charge for their buck. Infantry are your capturers and your lane-cloggers; Recons are your harassment and your crowd control. Both can be sacrificed to pull off an early CO power. They are simply the most indispensable units in the game. Since they are the most heavily used units, COs that benefit one or both of them will naturally be higher in a tier list. If this overlaps with other units, those units will also see more use in competition. If a CO has an advantage against said units while still benefiting that core duo, they will naturally have a leg up on the competition. Since no CO has thus far shown an ability to overcome the advantages of the Infantry and Recon through the use of other units, the tier list of the Player's Guide is entirely defined by them at this time.

This is why COs like Rachel and Jess can take sizable leaps up AWDS' list compared to AWBW's, while COs like Grit and Sasha take significant nosedives. The game, so far as anyone can tell, just cannot be played the way other Advance Wars games often are.

#3: AWBW map variety sucks.
That may sound subjective, but it will make more sense as I go on.

We can probably all agree that a good map should have the following: equality of opportunity. It doesn't necessarily have to be symmetrical, but a good map should generally cause a stalemate between two bland factions of roughly equal playing skill. Once you plug in COs, however, there should be no equality of outcome: someone has to win. This seems to be where the agreement ends.

In many strategy games, maps have two basic types of expansions: your natural expansion, and your center expansion. There may be more in between, but basically a natural expansion is one close to your starting area and can pretty much only be settled by you, while a center expansion is intended to be fought over and used as a launching point for invading the opponent's stronghold. In Advance Wars, your home area and expansions are generally defined by the presence of production facilities, and particularly bases; they are separated by geographical distance (i.e. one base cannot easily harass another).

Looking at AWBW's A- and S-ranked maps, the AWBW community heavily favors maps without defined centers. Maps with no expansions are common, maps with a single natural expansion will pop up sometimes, and there's even a back-door base from time to time, but after ten minutes of digging I could not find a single map with a center expansion, or multiple expansions of any kind. They seem intended to favor turtling; offensive options are rather limited, for the most part.

You will certainly find some maps like that in my own rotation, but I also use maps with multiple naturals, maps with multiple centers, maps with both, even maps with secondary expansions in between. I tweak production-city ratios, insert/remove comm towers, tweak the funds, tweak the weather, tweak anything that piques my fancy. There's a shit-ton of ways to make a balanced map, so I don't restrict myself. Why should I? In science, you want variety, because you want to try and disprove your theories.

This is a process the AWBW community -and much of the AW community in general- just doesn't engage in, and is another reason I generally don't take their game theory seriously.

Wrapping it up.
I suspect I've rustled some feathers here. Who am I to be questioning the community consensus? But in the words of Portal 2's Cave Johnson, "We don't ask why, we ask why not!" The consensus is there to be challenged. Maybe it will hold up, maybe it won't, but the proper response is to debate the challenge, not give the same damned recitation I've heard a million times. I know the old arguments inside and out. Don't remind me about the old shit, address the new shit. Don't tell me all the ways Grit can counter a slow buildup of Directs, tell me why it still applies when you have one Recon after another making a beeline at you from Day 2 with the sole intent of disrupting your shit. Tell me why Sasha's power-slowing is still useful when the enemy's powers can still recharge that same day, not yet another recitation about "the Sasha bank" or whatever the hell idea they're bandying about these days. I don't want to hear another lecture about Sami's long-ass power bar, I want to know why you think it's so easy for Max to hold out against a force that can instantly capture anything every 3-4 turns starting on Day 8-10.

Most importantly, talk about the same game I'm playing. If I'm talking about how much I love Nydus Worms in Starcraft 2, don't counter with how useless you think Nydus Canals are in Starcraft 1; I'm talking about Starcraft 2, don't change the fucking subject. Similarly, if I'm talking about how much the AWDS charging system makes Grit suck, don't counter by talking about how awesome it makes him in AW2 or AWBW. That's great, it really is, but I'm talking about AWDS: don't change the fucking subject.

Thank you for reading.