VI. In-Depth Strategy and Other Notes

There we stood…with even strength we stared each other down. And in an instant the axes flew! But I was a hair’s breadth swifter, and so felled was he.

A. Turn Advantage

We come to the synthesis of everything talked about so far. If there’s a theme to take away from what’s been said, it’s that (like the proper context of strategy), strategizing doesn’t just happen in the battlefield or on the gameboard. It happens even before the fight, as you decide what your play style will be, and plan how to use your units.

When you’re actually playing, and fighting against an opponent, the issue then becomes whether you can execute your plan, and whether it will be effective. Sometimes, your plan will not work, simply because your opponent has a strategy tailor fit against what you had decided. How your strategy fairs against all sorts of playstyles is the true test of how well thought out and flexible your planning and ideas are.

At this point, let’s talk about decision making. As another guide has pointed out (Trev’s guide), and what I myself have thought, is that when you try to reduce things down to their essentials, the game can be reduced to turns. In effect, who will get the last turn and win? And who maximizes the use of their turns?

When someone wins in TBSF, it is more often than not, because they had a ‘turn advantage’.

Ex. Player A needs 1 turn to kill Player B. Player B requires 2 turns to kill Player A. In this situation, Player A has the 1 turn advantage and will win. When looking at the game, Player A would have enough str or armor to survive a hit from Player B, and afterward kill Player B. What does understanding this imply? This implies that creating or recovering “1 more turn’s worth of action” is able to create a winning situation.

A turn advantage may be stated in two ways,

  1. Being able to kill/defeat/eliminate an enemy or enemy unit 1 turn sooner than he can do the same to you or…
  2. **Outlasting your enemy by 1 turn more than he can stand and fight. **

They are two sides of the same coin. One pertains to offensive capability and the other to defensive capability. Str in both cases, Willpower and exertion in the first case, Armor in the second case. Even prior to decision making, these stats and their distribution can influence turn advantage. (refer back to III.C). The opposite of a turn advantage are opposite of what is stated above, a turn disadvantage or the turn advantage of the opponent.

Traditionally, other games have taught us we can gauge who’s winning or losing (the turn advantage) based on how many units remain. As mentioned earlier, this is because units translated directly into more turns and offensive output remained largely the same no matter the health of the unit. Again this is not the case for TBSF and I’ll illustrate why.

In other games, a unit with 1 life could still attack unit A for let’s say 10 damage, because attack and life were not the same stat. In other games therefore, in contrast to TBSF, 4 1 life units are greater than 2 10 life units because attack is the same regardless (10 each). In TBSF, attack and life are the same stat, so 4 1 life units (with an attack of 1 each) are worth far less than 2 full life units (10). The situations illustrated are opposite as can be seen.

Why is a team with fewer units, but with its stats intact, more deadly? Because it is able to leverage more high power attack turns before the team with more units can distribute its damage potential to the unit taking ‘extra turns’ (which is making up for the lost team member/s).

Why is maiming a viable strategy? Because leaving the crippled unit in the opponent’s line-up creates a turn the opponent cannot attack with or use productively as they would ideally want, the opponent cannot act optimally during their unit’s turn.

This brings us to another idea, and the crux of decision making, THE OPTIMAL TURN. What is the best action to take when using a turn? The answer to this would be whatever creates the greatest number of turn advantages. As discussed, the objective when playing is to create a situation where we are a turn ahead, so that we end with the last unit standing and win. Anything in that general direction can be considered a productive use of a particular turn. When the choice we make during a single turn, or a course of several turns, creates as much turn advantages/turns/actions ahead as possible, we can consider this as OPTIMAL PLAY.

The difficulty in playing the TBSF is that within the 1 minute timer (or less), and the randomness of both human behavior and the actual scenario, we cannot immediately identify which actions or series of actions will lead us to this optimal choice/play. We can only approximate, and hopefully end up doing, what gives us the greatest advantage. This is seen clearly, every time we decide whether or not to eliminate a unit or keep it on the board, or when deciding which unit to target. We just aren’t sure which one to do and we just bet on what we think is best. In other words, the best we can do is approximate optimal turns.

Mistakes are what end up giving the opponent a turn advantage such as creating a smaller more potent team for your opponent, or getting one of our units maimed/killed before we are able to do that to our opponent.

Alternatively and in connection to maiming, the optimal turn is nulled in such situations where the unit in question has 1 str, 1 break, 0 willpower but has the opportunity to attack something with 6 or 7 armor (the unit will only do 1 damage to armor or str at best). In other words, no matter what that unit does during its turn, the effects of its action have little to no effect. When we cannot utilize a unit to create any turn advantage, while our opponent’s matching turn can create one we end up with a sub-optimal turn, because no matter what we do using the unit effectively leaves us with a turn disadvantage (or neutral at best). This is why as with one of the tips stated above, it is best to plan for a unit to have as many uses as possible for as long as possible

Furthermore, there a number of ways we may perceive an optimal turn, such as reducing the impact of your opponent’s turn, or HOBBLING (credit to sweetjer and Trev). If you weaken the next unit (or an upcoming high threat) in his initiative order, you decrease his ability to equalize or gain a turn advantage.

We may also increase our ability to create turn advantages through planning. For example, looking at the archer, we may intentionally take or be willing to take str damage, so long as the archer stays alive, if what we intended was for her to break enemy armor (since str has no bearing on break). At the point where her will power reaches 0, we may already think that any additional turns used with her are a bonus for us (if she has decent str or 2 break), since we have utilized her turns and her stored potential/willpower to their intended purpose. If she were to be a sub-optimal turn, unable to contribute to the team while our opponent’s turn matches optimally, it might be a case to use friendly fire to get rid of her in the initiative order.
Because we can only approximate what optimal play is, we can also think of it subjectively:

As long as we are able to play the way we plan or intend across the variety of choices available to us and use turns productively, we are creating turn advantages and optimal play, assuming our plan/strategy is geared toward victory. The point of contention lies on who has the better strategy: who had the better plan, who executes better, who was better prepared, and who hindered his opponent better. (Whichever player’s approximation is closer to the particular “true” optimal play, for the circumstances of their matchup, will win).

Note: stats also play a role in defining what our optimal play is. Since they dictate what the strengths of our units are, and how long they will last, and how best we can utilize them.

Again some guidelines when thinking about taking or strategizing for optimal turns over the course of a game include:

  1. Only putting as many points in willpower as will actually be used up. Any extra is wasted potential in another stat and therefore another action or turn (whether offensively or defensively).
  2. Willpower is precious, don’t waste it moving pointlessly, and don’t overspend it to get in front of a target. Willpower needs to last the entire match, so using 2 right off the bat just to get in front at the start is sometimes an advantage for your opponent (who keeps his willpower that can be used over more turns). Don’t over-conserve either, dying with 4 willpower is also a waste.
  3. Use your unit for its natural intended purpose or for your own playstyle purpose. If the unit does not accomplish either in play, then you would probably be playing better with another unit type, since you can better utilize it.
  4. Try to secure a secondary purpose for your units. Make sure they can do something else, if they are unable to perform what you initially intended, so that you do not waste turns. If the unit is specialized, take great care with it, for if it is unable to fulfill it’s mission, you put yourself at a major disadvantage.
  5. When measuring a first turn advantage (who hits first), do not think of it as who hits first, but who suffers the crippled unit first (and to what extent) or who loses a unit first, and also how many turns it will take to do so. (If you spend 4 turns crippling/killing the first unit, you may find yourself at a disadvantage later on because your opponent only needs 3 turns to do the same to you).
  6. Do not split your army into chunks that cannot assist each other. Because the game can be an exchange of turns, wide spread formations can induce a situation wherein fewer units take on the opponent’s team, and are therefore crippled (or threats eliminated), before the remaining units can come to do some damage. In this case, the lagged units suffer sub-optimal turns since they just traveled while their team diminished in strength.

B. Attacking vs Defending

Turn Advantage, Optimal choice, that’s just been discussed. Let’s apply this to something simpler and more concrete. When is it better to attack or to defend? How are both defined? For the sake of this guide, I will define Attacking as moving toward your opponent in order to strike first, and Defending is allowing the enemy to approach even if it means giving up the first strike.

Think about turn advantage in its simplest form. We might assume whoever strikes first gets the advantage – because they are a hit ahead. However, there are many more considerations to make besides this, such as how much willpower was spent by that unit to strike first, and how vulnerable the unit is to enemy units. So, to help things, here’s a rule of thumb for knowing when to strike first or when to allow the enemy to approach.
It is normally good to strike first only if your units are able to follow the lead unit in suit, and create a formation. Do not send an isolated unit over to attack. This will usually disrupt your formation and the outcome is usually only an equivalent trade-off. Or worse, your unit is crippled after being focused on while away from your team. The exception to this may be the warhawk, which can kill or maim 2 units in a single turn, rendering 2 turns of your opponent sub-optimal. Another exception would be the axemaster, who can charge forward while resisting most damage until his willpower runs out.

It is good to strike first if you have a coordinated attack ready, and have minimal risk (the likelihood of getting stopped by Rain of Arrows is low or non-existent). A coordinated attack can easily cripple an enemy (1-2 scenario, armor hit from first unit then str hit from second unit). However, this is also risky, because any disruption to the attack makes both units vulnerable.

It is good to strike first in a direct and isolated head-to-head matchup. The first hit is a significant advantage if the units are isolated and the rest of the team is unable to assist (note being at a stat advantage may also be required to win this exchange).

On the other hand, defending is a good idea when you have a solid formation and are unsure of the approach of the enemy. It is also good when teams are more evenly matched, especially if it forces your opponent to use willpower to get to you (you get an advantage in Willpower store). This is because the reacting player has more time to prepare.

An advanced defending tactic is to allow an open formation, but use a combination of units to weaken a high str unit before it can execute its attack. Remember, in many situations, you are not forced to only go on the attack. It is sometimes a good idea to “do the dance” and reposition, threaten an approach or withdraw and see how your enemy reacts. Defending can mean poking or repositioning until you are ready or your opponent reveals a weakness.

In any situation, as well, try to understand how units in their position can either reposition or deal head-to-head with the enemy they’re up against. How effectively you are able to manage both, can decide who comes out better after the exchange of blows.

C. Movement and the Maai

His boots seemed to carry feathers, and with a single bound the warrior was upon me, and before I could even lift my axe, the blow had been dealt and my strength was no more…

Of course, most relevant to the discussion of attacking or defending, and formation, is the issue of movement. How far can any unit move, and what enemies can reach your unit.
One good analogy can be gathered from here:

It is important to judge how far you, or your enemy, need to be to attack. This is also exactly why it is important to keep clicking on your enemy’s units. As much as possible, do not move a unit into a position where they can be attacked by more than 1 enemy when trying to vie for initial positioning. Also, similar to chess, you can protect or increase doubt from your opponent if you put your unit within the range of other friendly units, should he/she be attacked.

This engagement distance can also be manipulated by using a combination of units. We may for example put an archer in harms way to take a shot. We are able to engage the opponent in this case. But we may lose our archer in subsequent turns unless we also take action. If we coordinate it so that 2 or 3 other units can form around her, we can prevent the enemy from engaging her, thus disallowing the enemy from engaging that archer (instead he or she must attack our sturdier units). This is possible by taking note of the initiative bar, and the turn order. If a unit can attack early in the order, and the threat to it acts much later, we have time to position units to block or defend, if they are in near enough proximity.

Furthermore, this advantage is especially apparent when comparing 2 units with different move ranges, especially due to exertion. This is an important call to make, whether to spend that willpower to get the first hit or not, and ultimately, it depends on how important it is to take that action (how much risk it involves, how much of an advantage will it create, or how much of a potential disadvantage will it save you from – such as vs a warhawk).

A clear case of this maai, was expounded by The Mad Fool, another player who I introduced the maai concept to.

Maai in practice (The Mad Fool’s experience)

I've been testing a high-offense team build that's been giving me a lot of success, and it uses 2 Backbiters. For a number of reasons, I've found those two backbiters invaluable, and I wouldn't replace either with a Warhawk or a Thrasher. The gist of it is that Biters actually do have a purpose beyond merely archer-killing for the following reason: they have the longest maai and the "strongest" maai in the game.

What do I mean by "strong" maai? Let me explain by example. Let's compare two Thrashers, both with 3 exertion and 6 willpower. However, one of them is 10/6 (armor/strength) while the other is 6/10. A Thrasher, of course, has a maai of 5+ (Willpower,Exertion), so in this case that maai is 8 for both. But is 8 maai the same for each? Of course not; there's also how "strong" their maai is, how much harm they inflict upon someone who recklessly steps inside their engagement range.

The way I calculate it, the strength of the unit's maai is actually two numbers: the absolute number and the relative number. The absolute strength is, on paper, simple to calculate: it is how much damage they can theoretically put out in a single turn. I'm going to notate this as base(w/willpower), so the absolute maai strength of our two hypothetical Thrashers are, respectively, 6(9) and 10(13).

Ahh, but now we have armor. That's where the relative number comes in. Relative maai strength requires another unit now, the enemy unit, because the absolute strength of each Thrasher's maai is modified by the armor of every enemy unit that might step in range. So if we have a 10/12 Biter just outside range, our relative maais are 1 60% hit chance (4 at 90% hit chance) and 1(4) (since, when armor is equal to strength, the base damage is 1 with no chance to miss). The thrasher with higher strength is clearly the stronger deterrent (with guaranteed damage).

So why have I just confusingly outlined this wonky concept? Why not just think of it in terms of the relative unit strength instead of relative maai strength?

Because maai is about territory, while unit strength is about units. But Banner Saga isn't just about units. It's also about territory. And that's why an 8/12 Biter rocks, and two 8/12 Biters that can boost each other to 10/12 by standing side-by-side are amazing. Biters generate a very strong and very long maai, and that does its work even if you don't execute the threat, because their mere presence forces your opponent to shrink away from them.

On top of that, they are better than Warhawks at this because Warhawks are so big. While their maai is stronger, it's also much easier to contain and evade because they have so much difficulty getting around other units. Plus, Warhawks don’t usually have 3 exertion, meaning their maai is in fact 1-2 shorter than a biter's. Add the fact that most Warhawks do not have very high armor (and those that do do so at the expense of Exertion), and that makes biters very good at containing or crippling Warhawks, especially if you help them out with an archer. And because the strength of their maai relative to the Warhawk is so high, and the Warhawk's strong maai is so valuable, the biter's territorial claim holds.

The net effect of this is that a Biter's maai allows them to stake a vast amount of territory, constricting your opponent's options and forcing them to either let you suffocate them inch by inch or march forward with their Provoker and Thrashers, who have weak maai but also have enough armor to lower the relative maai strength of the biters to decimals.

D. Exertion and Territory Control

It’s no surprise then, that even the threat of attack, can create interesting space dynamics. As mentioned, exertion allows a unit to travel farther. For hard hitting units, this is makes a big difference. A hard hitting unit with more range, is likely to cause your enemy to either tighten up very much, or to avoid an area all together. Having more movement range also lets these units stay out of danger, while being able to get to a target, when the opportunity arises.

Note: one does not need to actually use the willpower to travel that entire move distance to get a first hit. Against a player in the know, just the threat of being attacked can and often will force the opponent to stay outside of range. Manipulating what units stay within and stay out of range is something to consider.

For example, if Player A had a backbiter with 3 exertion and his ability, it probably would force Player B to position his archers 10 squares away from the backbiter. If that is far away enough that the archers cannot assist his army (even if just for 1 turn), the turn advantage has been created, while you deal damage to his units using your whole/almost whole team (assuming maiming). Having at least 1 exertion, not only allows you to feel less pressure from an opponent, but it also gives you that added flexibility, should you ever need it.

Note, however, this is not required. There are surely strategies that can also be executed without exertion. Though, these are more likely to be defensive or slower push approaches.

E. Threat Management and Fork Situations

And the fierce and foamy rapids split into two rivers…and each carried with it the shadow of death.

As another guide (Trev’s guide) has pointed out, we can also look at units as threats. Each unit can do or has something at a certain point in time that can make it deadly or decisive, (whether it’s their raw str or ability). Identifying which units are your own threats and your enemy’s are important. You want to try to use your threats as weapons and keep them in play, while disabling your enemy’s threats (much like the Maai).

To do this, we can use the guidelines above, such as coordinated attacks, defending, minimizing damage by HOBBLING/ allowing only one unit under our own terms to be attacked, and head to head face-offs. Of course, to maximize our own threats, there is one other means we can use to initiate an attack on our opponent. That is, to create the existence of more than 1 point of attack or threat at a particular time.

It is more difficult to execute this, but it is possible to put your opponent into a situation where any of his choices provide you with some kind of advantage. (his choice would be a disadvantage, or potentially neutral – but on your terms).

That is, we want situations where he must choose to either block unit A or unit B (or attack either), but we are still able to pursue our intended action (such as killing an archer). This kind of approach is especially useful when we identify the key point for our opponent to win. This is also more easily executed when the enemy’s formation has been broken, or if it has been forced loose. Imagine having two of your units being in an attack position for one of his. And he can only choose 1 of the two to stop.

A milder form of this play, defensively, is to allow one of your enemy’s units the opportunity to attack several targets. When you have a unit you don’t want attacked in the open to the 1 enemy, put other potentially juicy units you don’t mind getting hurt in range of that enemy unit. Sometimes having too many choices obscures to your opponent what you are trying to do, and he attacks the wrong unit, allowing your strategy to progress unhindered for the meantime.

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