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I Am Spartax

This blog contains some musings on philosophy, games, and the philosophy of games. Feel free to comment; I'd like to provoke thoughtful discussion.
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On combinations

Sam Carroll
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The Power of One wrote:
Hoppie: That was an eight-punch combination! Where did you learn to box like that?
PK: In prison, sir.
Hoppie: Are you training to be a boxer or a comedian?


I'm fascinated by combinations. Growing up, I played a fair amount of Street Fighter 2 and its successor games. In this genre, a combination is a series of attacks such that if the first one hits your opponent, he cannot evade any of the rest, if the combo is performed correctly. I personally think the combo system reached its zenith in Street Fighter Alpha 3, for a few reasons:
A) The combos are at a good difficulty level. A few (the weakest) are easy enough that anyone can do them, while stronger ones are hard. For example, I've played Guy (my favorite) for a long time, but I can't consistently bang out his toughest combos. I maybe get them every other time I try.
B) Unlike previous Street Fighter games, there's a robust juggling system that allows you to tack on an extra hit or two, but not tons of hits.
C) Certain characters (like Guy) are combo-intensive, while others (such as Adon) are not at all. They still maintain a pretty good balance between the various types, since the combo types have a steep learning curve. Guy can be deadly if you're very good, but if you try to use him while button-mashing or alternating a few cheap moves, you will do badly.
D) Unlike the Vs. games, there are no infinites or even near-infinite combos. The nastiest combos I know of might take off 65% of your life, but they require a full super bar and are very difficult to land and perform.
E) Attempting a combo is risky. You can jump in and follow with your "safe" attack, which won't do much damage but won't leave you open if it's blocked. Or you can try for a combo, which will do a number on your opponent, but if it's blocked you can expect a super fireball in the face.

The board game that is perhaps best known for combos is Chess. What chess player does not rejoice in a brilliant combination? The characteristics of chess combos that interest me are:
A) They are risky. Most interesting combos involve sacrifices. If you make a mistake in your combo, you won't discover it until after the queen sacrifice, and at that point, you're sunk.
B) They are like video game combos in that they must be done exactly right, but unlike in that each one is unique. A chess combo must be tailored to its precise situation.
C) Playing chess, players take turns moving one piece each. Thus a combination needs to have only one or maybe two reasonable responses to each move in order to be doable. For this reason, many combinations include checking the king, which requires action from one's opponent.
D) For a combination to be effective, it usually needs the element of surprise. If your opponent sees the combo before it starts, he can probably disrupt it.
E) While combos are a tactical phenomenon, good strategic play can set them up. For example, fianchettoing your queen's bishop now might later contribute to a strong king-side attack.

What other board games have strong combos?
While both of the games we've discussed are perfect-information, it seems like board game combos frequently flourish in games with action cards of some sort; since frequently the cards can be played all in a row and their interaction may produce extreme results unforeseeable by your opponents.

One basic example comes from Risk 2210 A.D.. This game has Nuclear command cards, which are generally expensive to play but powerful, though sometimes random. The most expensive card in the game is called Armegeddon. This allows all players, in turn order, to play as many nuclear cards as they want, for free. (Much chaos ensues). Another, much cheaper, card is called Frequency Jam, and prevents a specified opponent from playing any cards during your turn. It's usually used to protect against possible surprises like Cease Fire or Orbital Mines, but if you play this on the winning player and then play Armegeddon, that player will be winning no more. Everyone else gets to throw nukes, but not him!

Likewise, one of my finest gaming moments occurred in a game of Twilight Imperium (Third Edition). While my friends refer to this incident as, "Sam playing the I WIN card," it was actually a combination of at least four cards. The game had gone on for a while, and I was at 8 points while my opponents were slightly behind me, but they had beat down my board position a little and formed alliances against me. I expected to lose badly in the next couple of turns. However, I had the Political strategy card and I noticed that the way the turn had gone, I had more influence left than anyone else. I played an action card that let me search the action card deck for another card. I chose one that let me search the Political deck for a new agenda and put that up for debate when I executed the Political strategy. The agenda I chose was a vote on whether or not to lower the winning threshold to 8 VP. I think I may also have had an action card that let me prevent another player from voting or something like that, but the upshot is that I got the law passed and thus won a completely unexpected victory.

Here I Stand and Twilight Struggle are somewhat susceptible to combos, as I think are many CDGs. Traditional wargames or block wargames, are usually not, since a single move usually makes a comparatively small change in the game-state. A player might make a strong thrust in an unexpected sector, but it isn't a combo in the classic sense.

I also haven't run across many combos in Euros. I recall that there was a combo discussed (and deplored) on the Caylus boards, where a player with his marker advanced on the building favor track could build the church using the mason, use the favor gained from the church to build over the church with a residence, and do it all over again next turn. However, this is not terribly powerful (yielding 5 VP/turn at a cost of one stone, two cloth, and one denier), and in any case it's fairly easy to disrupt.

On the other hand, Blue Moon and Blue Moon City, where each card has a special ability, are more susceptible to combos. But for some reason they don't feel like chess combos to me. Maybe it's because they're expected by all players. If a player isn't chaining cards together, he is probably losing.

What do you all think? What board games give strong opportunities for combos? What are the best combos you've encountered?

As a bonus for those who read this far, starting around 1:30 there's a nice combo in this video:
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