NPE, the “Logic of Strategy” and X-Wing

We can often hear on podcasts “sure, a bad player will do X, but a good player simply won’t.” I agree as long as they are talking about unforced errors. Flying around by yourself through some asteroids should always fit, and a mistake there is entirely on the player.

But what about forced errors? Isn’t that a huge part of a game like X-Wing? To force your opponent into a bad position where all his decisions are worse than ideal? Where he is actually forced to do the aforementioned X because it is his best option among many bad ones? Isn’t that part of the fun?

We will get back to this, but only after a small detour through strategic theory. I would define strategy in here as “plan to achieve your ends with certain means and methods against the will of an opponent” loosely following Lykke, but that is a pretty long-winded debate.

I’ve read an interesting book on (military) strategy two years ago, talking about the concept of “linear logic” vs  “paradoxical logic” of strategy by Edward Luttwak, and it possibly provides some insight into reasons on what we often see as NPEs. He starts his book with the observation that strategy follows its own logic, an often counter-intuitive and, what he calls, paradoxical logic of strategy. The logic of strategy is paradoxical because one works against an opponent, and the best way is often not the best anymore because the best approach is expected and then countered. Instead, the un-countered, un-foreseen second, third or fourth best approach suddenly becomes the new best one. A historical example is the march of the Germans through a narrow forest road in the Ardennes in 1940 – very risky and doomed if found out, but devastating for French defense if they get through unseen. We have many similar examples in X-Wing, where the best maneuver is the obvious one and will be blocked. That turns the best maneuver into – well, not the best.

Luttwak contrasts this paradoxical logic with what he calls the linear logic. Linear logic applies when one does not have to take the actions of an opponent into consideration at all. I think this offers some explanation as to what we experience as NPE – when a game that is supposedly relying on the interaction between players turns into a single player game. Or, using the concept of Luttwak, when it turns linear.

Now, what is an NPE?

A Negative Play-Experience is when playing a game frustrates or bores at least one player involved. However, the way the term is used in online communities such as Reddit, the FFG forums or Facebook groups often convey a slightly different meaning: a collectively shared negative play experience, a type of card, pilot or list that several people experience as “not fun”. Many individual people who all get frustrated or bored by playing with or against certain cards, ships or lists. I do not think I have to go into why this is bad for the game, and I will just assume here that we share the common goal of maximizing the fun for all players, and for as long as possible. Accordingly, we all want the game to grow instead of shrinking, and we want more people to have fun when playing it.

The kind of NPE I’m talking about is when essentially only one player (“A”) is playing. That is, he doesn’t need to take the actions of the other player (“B”) into account and is basically playing a single player game. In such a case, there exists a perfect way to play. Player A can perfect his approach, his maneuvers, his turn zero, almost everything. The game is solved once that solution is found – in theory. I’m not claiming that X-Wing is that extreme, and I also want to emphasize that this is not a binary yes-no question. Instead, it is a sliding scale (let’s say between 0 and 100 with 100 being completely single player). A game as a whole, or lists or even ship builds can move along this axis. Reaching the full 100 would not be good for the obvious reason that the game would then lose its appeal – I claim that we are playing an interactive two-player game because we are looking for that “battle of wits”, trying to interact with our opponent.

To make the connection back to unforced and forced errors: an NPE strongly reduces the ability to force an error onto an opponent. All you have left, your entire hope to win such a game, are dice luck and unforced mistakes.

An NPE is not about losing or winning. This might require some honest introspection, but it is an important point that needs to be repeated again and again because community members keep making that connection when it is not there. Granted, a list being an NPE and very good is much worse. But the performance is not the key component. The fun while playing is. The agency while playing is.

The most important question when talking about an NPE is then to figure out whether or not one player has any agency left, whether they can still cause forced errors or not, whether the one player with the NPE-list has moved into linear strategy or not. And this is a tricky question that requires a lot of effort to demonstrate to players who have not experienced such a game. Players who can’t or won’t think and play and test through the options that are left. In the end, those who experience something as NPE have to demonstrate why the others, too, should feel miserable when playing against that NPE list. That is not a statisfying task in any way or form, and “success” results in more people feeling miserable.

I do not want to discuss specific builds in here. We all know the current suspects, and that sentence will likely remain true over some time. I wrote this text over a year ago in 1.0 and didn’t have to change any content.

Hopefully, we can start to separate the performance and tournament results more often from what we call NPEs. The big wins bring a list into the spotlight and usually bring the list to the attention of way more players, spreading it more and more. But they do not change the reason why a list is an NPE. Remember, it is not about losing or winning.

We play X-wing to have fun. Pew-pew!

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