Friday, August 21, 2015

Theoryfaux: Are The Jokers Good for Malifaux?

Some Jokers just want to make the world burn.

I was playing a game that I wrote about recently, and started thinking about the Jokers in Malifaux. I asked myself if I thought that the jokers have an overall positive or negative effect on the game. Their rules in 2nd edition were adjusted to make them mirror images of each other when they flip out of the deck. The red counts as a fourteen of any suit and prevents the opponent from cheating when it comes out in a duel, and on a damage flip does severe + minimum damage and can a override minus flip’s “Choose the low card” rule. The black joker, by contrast, counts as a zero with no suit, stops you from cheating, and on a damage flip results in your doing no damage. So, heavy swings come to the game when you flip them out onto the battlefield. My question is, is this a good thing?
Now don’t get me wrong, the stories of a joker flip swinging a game are always entertaining, and there’s not much better than having the double negative defense flip on a model you were already writing off catch the RJ and live, to your opponents’ frustration. The trouble comes when the luck all swings in one direction, a probability whose likelihood is difficult to gauge without extensive statistics. In the previously mentioned battle report, I ended up flipping or cheating the Red Joker to about 5 duels during the game. My opponent did get three of them in return, but it can’t be denied that the Jokers decided that match for my side, and it made it rather difficult to gauge whether the strategy I’d put together was actually good or if I just got lucky. My opponent was detailing how his Amo No Zako and Hannah should have mauled their way through Francisco, denying me three points for bodyguard, and my Peacekeeper within the first couple of turns after our engagement. The trouble, really, comes from the ripple effect that the Jokers had on the rest of the match. If the Peacekeeper diedearlier, then Hannah would have been free to come get me. However, I would have moved Perdita to counter her directly, Abuela Ortega may have had more of an effect on the game, etc. etc. etc. Everything would have been different, and predicting how it would have turned out will just leave you running in circles. So, the ripple carries through the rest of the match and throws the game result into question.
The Black Joker effect can be equally devastating. You’ve crafted an amazing battle-plan. Your opponent’s fallen into your trap and you spring it, only to have Seamus’ focused flintlock shot do zero because of an untimely dose of bad luck. This is Malifaux, and as we all know, bad things happen, but do people enjoy seeing plans thrown out this easily by chance? I know I don’t, and not just when it happens to me. I hate when its obvious that one player’s deck is hosing them and I’m just going to roll to a win. Really poor black joker timing can exacerbate this even more. And, frankly, the worst thing that can ever happen is having both jokers come out on your flip, as it will typically result in A) Your action failing and B) You losing the red joker for that turn.
In terms of the actual mechanic of the game, what the Jokers do is introduce a level of chaos and unpredictability that might otherwise be lacking. By using decks instead of dice, the amount of randomness that comes into any particular action resolution is lowered. Counting cards is a thing in Malifaux. You don’t have to do it, but there is a certain benefit one can accrue by knowing that they’ve seen nine of their face cards flipped out, so it is fairly likely that they’re not going to like what comes out next time they make an attack. There is still randomness, but not as much as a d6 game has, particularly in games like Blood Bowl where you literally have a 1 in 6 chance (more or less) of failing every roll no matter how skilled you are at a particular action.  Add in the jokers, however, and the randomness level spikes. They’re still only two cards out of the 52, but in the major combat turns of the game (typically somewhere in the 2-4 range) you’re very likely to cycle through the whole deck and will thus, statistically, see them at some point. And when you do, their effect is greater than any other card in the fate deck.
How you feel about this probably says a lot about your personality and the attitude you bring to the game. If you’re fairly easy going, playing primarily for fun, or just flexible enough to adapt to the big swings on the fly, you probably are happy with the Jokers as they are. They come out like bombs, have a huge effect on the game, and can lead to amazing and fun outcomes. If you’re a planner like me, however, they can be extremely frustrating. We’re the ones that grab that black joker the first time we see it and hold it until turn 4, eating up a slot in our control hand simply to remove that statistical eff-you that’s lurking in the deck. The more control you can exert on the game, the more reliable your crew is and, ultimately, the happier you’re likely to be at the end of the game.

But then the Joker shows up, and your plan blows up anyways, and you’re just left cursing. 
Ultimately, the fact is that the Jokers are a part of Malifaux. I haven’t spoken to Justin in a while, but I doubt he’s going to errata them out of the game. So how can we control the chaos? The answer, I feel, is pretty well embodied by another article I posted previously discussing schemes that avoid interacting with the opponent. If you could execute a perfect strategy that neutralized your opponent and obtained your victory points, you would win and the jokers couldn’t do anything about it. This isn’t realistic, of course, but the more you can push your crews and strategies in this direction, the more consistent and independent of chance they will become. Ten Thunders is the first faction that comes to mind as having a lot of ways to do this, between Ten Thunders Bros., Low River Monks, and other cards that have abilities that can have huge effects on the game with very easily accomplished flips (Low-Rivers removing conditions and becoming very difficult to kill) or even without flipping a card at all (Ten Thunders Brothers blocking you from removing their scheme markers and then stretching their attack range to interact out to 4 inches on any card with the right suit). Scan your faction for examples of how to do this. All of them (well, maybe not as much the Gremlins) have something. In my current project, the Guild, my first thought is Hoffman’s stacking of constructs around himself to spike his cast up and make his spells (and any other constructs that can borrow his CA with power loop) essentially automatic. Finding all the ways to remove the influence of randomness from your crews’ outcomes is a short trip to it being consistent and, more often than not, victorious.

Until next time.