lørdag 11. mars 2017

PUML, A Game Analysis Framework

Almost 6 years ago, in May of 2011, I wrote my first tabletop game blog post. The idea was to chronicle my games. By taking pictures and writing a few words I could evaluate my own play and get feedback from those who cared to read about my ventures. To this day I still report every game I play. Why? I believe it's crucial to spend a considerable time analyzing your games. Find out what you can do better. Explore the possibilities which exists in every game. Consider "what if" scenarios. The top priority for my blogging has always been to improve as a player. I imagine that for as long as I keep playing competitive, I'll keep blogging.

Analyze can be a vague word. What does it mean? How do I "analyze" a game? In this article, I will propose a framework which is derived from questions I ask myself when I go through a game. Hopefully you will find this framework sensible, useful and easy to use. Analyzing a game for me boils down to trying to answer two questions:
1. Why did the game evolve and end the way it did?
2. What is the true nature of this matchup in this context?

The first is important to improve your skills in-game. The second is important to improve your list-building skills and evaluating the strength of your pairing. To help me answer these questions I've come up with the PUML framework:

1. Plan
2. Understand
3. Mistakes
4. List 

You have to have a plan up front. When the game starts, you need a goal for your deployment. Why are you making the choices you are? What do you base your plan on? The game then starts, player 1 does his things, player 2 follows and so forth. How does the game evolve? On a macro level, what's happening and why? Do you understand the ebb and flow of the game? Inevitably, mistakes are made. Possibly from the onset and throughout. Can you spot them? How did list choices affect the game? How would other choices have impacted the matchup? Let's take a look at these parts in detail!

:: Plan ::

There are 3 ways to win a game: Scenario, assassination, attrition. In this context a clock win is a subset of attrition. The specific victory condition(s) which applies to you depend on a number of factors. While I think you should always plan for attrition, that might not necessarily be what your plan is in a specific matchup. Perhaps the best strategy for you was to go for a scenario win?

When you analyze a game and look back to the very start of the game you have to approach the "Plan" step from both players' points of view. Did you deploy and initiate the game according to your best strategy? Did your opponent? This game sees me off to a horrible start. I think I can pressure the scenario aggressively by going hard against my opponent's deployment zone. It quickly turns out to be anything but realistic to do so and right off the bat I am way off my mark. When analyzing this game my faulty plan was easy to identify. In order to properly understand why things don't work out, you need to figure out how the game evolves. This goes for Warmachine & Hordes in general and the specific matchup in particular. This article discusses this in-depth and I highly recommend reading it. If a plan fails to realize how a specific matchup will develop, it tends to fail. This is exactly what happened with me in the example above.

:: Understand ::

The plan was fine, you didn't make technical mistakes, but at some point in the game something happened. You didn't foresee it and you can't quite put your finger on it. Perhaps it happens in the next game as well? Visualizing the games played and exploring various alternative approaches can help you learn how lists play. In every matchup certain truths tend to be reached eventually. If I manage X I win, if you manage Y you win. However there's a lot you can learn about the game in general because it's built upon a few fundamental mechanics. In a nutshell the game flows back and forth with the piece trade starting early on. There are always threat projections which need to be respected, and usually threat projections which do not. You can read about this in detail in The Ping Pong Theory, yet another recommended article.

The specifics of a certain matchup vary so, so much. A very simple example is that in some games your caster wants to charge during your first turn to get as far up the table as possible, whereas in other cases you quite literally need to spend the first turn of the game protecting your caster, perhaps even moving him/her/it back from where you deployed. It's impossible to write a specific set of guidelines for this because of that, and hence the somewhat vague point of "understand". I find that experience is key here and visualization aid is very, very important. If you do not understand why the game developed the way it did and where things went wrong, posting pictures or a video online lets others help you figure it out. I've learned a ton this way and still do. To finish off this segment I recommend reading this short report. In this game my opponent failed to understand how my turn 1 play affected my force projection top of 2.

:: Mistakes ::

Before you read further I encourage you to read this piece on understanding mistakes. You agree that mistakes are very important to this game and that you'll never stop making them? Good! What we can do however is reduce them. Identifying key mistakes in a game helps you avoid making the same mistakes again. Given the complexity of the game there are always new mistakes to make, so don't worry. The important part is that we have to live with them. There are no two ways around it. The good news is that we also know that they're always available. We just have to look for them!

As with understanding a specific matchup it's impossible to write a clear set of rules for how to identify mistakes. They are often unique and/or hard to spot. In some cases I have literally spent hours looking at pictures and reading my own report to find key mistakes made which affected the matchup. It can be a small thing or a big decision. It could be a conscious choice you made which was wrong, or something you were completely oblivious to. In this report a greedy decision on my part costs me the game. For aggressive players in particular mistakes like that are fairly common. I try my best to avoid them and you can read my thoughts on how to ideally approach situations like that in this article.

:: List ::

List creation is hard. There are so many factors to consider, so many unknowns you need to guesstimate. Assuming you'd take a scientific approach to this game, you'd literally need thousands of games to explore the various possible matchups in different settings. Literally nobody ever has the resources to do this properly. This means we're left with having to evaluate what we think of the meta, perceived strengths and weaknesses and so forth. This is extremely hard to do. In my experience with competitive miniature gaming this is where the most mistakes are made. Our assumptions and evaluations manifest themselves as list choices. As such they can be sub-optimal, off the mark or plain irrational.

When you look back at a game you need to ask yourself how your specific list affected the matchup. What choices were good? What choices were not? Did you miss anything? Answers to these questions alone might not warrant a list change in themselves, because there are a myriad matchups in lots of different settings to consider, but it's important to be conscious about it. If the same issue(s) keeps popping up in multiple games, chances are you should make a list change.

I wrote a short piece on army lists a while back. I've also written a piece on how to approach tournament pairings. If you find you need help with developing strong lists, I suggest you read those two. I find that often I have game "list-defining games". In those games I have an epiphany, I realize that X works really well for example or Y needs to change. Following a string of games in which I found the Stormwall to be questionable, I finally realized after this game during my analysis that it needed to go from my Nemo3 list.

At the end of the day we need the right tools for the job. If we have poor tools to work with we can't necessarily do the job we have to do and we lose games.

We have looked in detail at the 4 steps of the PUML framework. The order these steps are presented in is not random. I always address the issues in this order. Starting with the beginning of the game, working my way through how the game developed, look for mistakes and finally consider how the lists impacted the matchup. The thing is that if something was wrong in the planning step, it might not really matter what happened after that. Sure, finding a technical mistake you made bottom of 3 will still help you improve as a player, but for the matchup in particular it yields little value if your plan was bad. If the game evolved cray-cray as well it's even less relevant. The same applies for all steps down. Understanding the true nature of a matchup is hard.

This framework is meant to be relatively light-weight and easy to remember. I've written extensively here to show you how it's done. I hope that you'll find it easy to use in practice and that it helps ask you the right questions. It's all about finding the answers. Once you do that, you'll be able to PUML your opponents into submission!

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