Skirmish Dueling isn’t the Answer

Skirmish Dueling isn’t the Answer

In this article, Baz looks at the changes to dueling in the #L5R Skirmish format and explains why he thinks it doesn’t fix the problems players have with duels.

Since the arrival of the skirmish format, it’s had some mixed reviews. The shorter game definitely appeals to some and it seems to be a great way to introduce new players to the game. Other changes have been less popular, but one that I’ve seen players quite positive about is the change to the duelling rules.

In the normal format, each player secretly selects a number from 1 to 5 on the dial. Each player then adds that number to their characters skill and whoever has the highest total wins. In the skirmish format, each player secretly selects a number from 1 to 3 on the dial. If a character has higher skill than their opponent, then they get a +1 bonus no matter how much higher they are. Positive feedback for this change suggest it is more exciting. Every duel is a mini-game. Anyone could win. Maybe we should bring this into the normal format? I’m here to say that’s rubbish.

Duels are a cost

Let’s start by giving this a bit of context and talking about what a duel is. Right now, Defend your Honor is probably one of the most played duels in the card pool. It is a 0 fate cost reaction to an opponent’s event that starts a duel between your character and a character of your opponent’s choice. If you win, you get to cancel your opponent’s effect. The key part here is winning the duel is a cost. It’s not a bonus. Take that duel away and the card is much better. Contrast Defend your Honor with Voice of Honor and hopefully, this is clear, either win a duel or having more honored characters. Take any card and add a duel to it and you’ve weakened it.

Bully Dueling

This isn’t always evident to players who end up on the wrong end of a duel. When your opponent drops a duel and you have no chance of winning it, that feels pretty unfair. This is called ‘bully dueling’. You never see your opponent initiating duels they’re automatically going to lose, and duels that are tight only seem to happen when they’re desperate. This means you only ever get to see duels that you cannot win, and it seems like it’s not a cost at all.

So how come players are so positive about the Skirmish change? Pull up and look for cards under ‘Has Dueling Effects’. There are 4 neutral cards with duels, 1 Crab card, 12 Crane cards, 5 Dragon cards, 2 Lion cards, 2 Phoenix cards, 3 Scorpion cards, and 1 Unicorn cards. So it’s not really a surprise that the majority of players aren’t interested in duels. Duels primarily are a Crane thing with a lesser focus on Dragon. Most of the other clans got some token duels from Children of the Empire but it never really stuck.

Duels in Skirmish

Let’s look at duels in the Skirmish format. At best, you can only be 1 point ahead of your opponent. This does mean the setup requirement is minimal, it’s never going to get better than that, so you don’t need to be massively ahead. With dial limited to 1, 2, or 3 you can choose to bid 3 and always win the duel with a worst-case scenario of losing 2 honor. Obviously, with the limited pool of honor in the environment, you can only get away with that so often. That does open up another option, before Mirumoto’s Daisho was banned, Dragon players were using duels to gain honor. If you’re looking to win by honor or dishonor yourself, then if you’re bidding 1 your opponent has to choose between giving you honor or giving you the duel effect. This is still bully dueling, but changes the axis. This pushes dueling into decks that focus on honor or dishonor.

Removing bully duels

Can we get rid of all bully duels someone might ask? What happens if we do? If all duels are ‘fair’ and each player has a chance to win, then what does the game look like? Banzai! has been one of the most popular cards from the start of the game with good reason. What happens if we add a ‘fair’ duel to it, where after you play Banzai! your opponent has a 50% chance of getting the benefit. Would you play it? I certainly wouldn’t. This comes back to my core point on duels, it’s a cost. Players have been bully dueling so it doesn’t backfire on them. They’ve added the card to their deck, draw the card, and play the card and don’t want that card to benefit their opponent. So they take the time in the game to set up the duel to remove the risk. If we remove that option, and duels are always ‘fair’, then cards with duel costs are essentially unplayable.

So what’s the problem?

It is clear there is a problem. Even from the release of core, players haven’t been particularly happy with dueling. As I’ve already mentioned, players don’t like the idea that duels are unfair. These are supposed to be the representations of that iconic Samurai movie moment where two Bushi face off. Those moments are tense and like a Western shoot-out, you’re never quite sure how it’s going to go down. That isn’t reflected in the game though, so we have a situation where the theme and the game play don’t match and I believe this is where we get the dissonance that leaves players unhappy with duels.

How to fix duels?

If we accept that duels are a cost, and that the player initiating the duel should have a reasonable expectation of getting a benefit from playing the card, then we have a starting point. The core mechanic of skill + bid is a decent base to build from, but Policy Debate isn’t the same as Taoist Adept. They’re two very different types of cards with big differences in their effect. Policy Debate also lets you big the characters dueling while the Taoist Adept must be involved in the duel even though he stats as a 1/1. If you want to bully duel with the Taoist Adept you have to boost the skill of that cheap vulnerable character. If you switched the effect of Taoist Adept and Policy debate, then those two cards look closer to the middle. The Taoist Adept is amazing if you can win the effect, but it struggles to win a duel without support and you risk an Assassination by piling effects on it. Policy debate lets you choose the targets when you’re feeling good about it, so it’s easy enough to set up a bully duel, but the effect is relatively minor. In both cases, the card design, not the duel effect, is the balancing factor.
Similarly, in Children of the Empire we saw a number of duels themes including the range of 2 cost duelists for each clan and the introduction of the Composure trait. Composure was particularly interesting as it added an extra feature to the bid dials and due to that duels.

Designing better duels

Within the existing duel mechanics, there are a range of options to make duels more enjoyable. One we talked about earlier, was how duels were felt to not be fair. So what does a fair duel look like? Well, one way is for each player should be able to choose their own character. That falls down slightly when the player with the card never plays it when the aren’t going to win. So instead, let’s make it a forced effect with random timing! Wild. That ends up being a unique 0 cost dynasty event with the Rally keyword and a force reaction on reveal that generates a duel. We can call it ‘Test of the Emerald Champion’ and the winner of the duel becomes honored and gains the Champion trait. So it’s random, has to happen, and refunds the owner by refilling the province. A deck that likes to build a big character is going to love it, but it could just as easily end up going to another player.

Let’s try another version. This time we’ll take another approach to get a ‘fair’ duel. We can limit the targets to force it to be fair. So, as a dynasty action you target one of your characters and another character with the same military skill and start a duel between them. The winner gains 4 honor. Many players aren’t going to care about gaining honor, so they might bid 1. If they do, and their opponent bids 2, then the winner gets 3 honor total from the effect. Maybe instead we make it a little spicier, and the loser ends up bowed. If you want to win the duel, you’ll have to bid high, but you could lose lots of honor over it!

Are these good cards? Almost certainly not, they’ve just been thrown together. They should, however, demonstrate that there is plenty of scope to make duels feel ‘fair’ under the existing system with clever design. The Skirmish version is merely a band-aid that papers over some of the problems and ends up with duels either unplayable or completely unfair when they are played. Once you understand what duels are, how they’re played, and why they can be frustrating, it’s not that hard to design some good duels!

If you have any comments or feedback please post them in the comments section below. Check us out on the Imperial Advisor website, podcast, and YouTube channel for more discussion about the L5R LCG.

4 Replies to “Skirmish Dueling isn’t the Answer”

  1. As you have said Duel mechanics are just wrong, in my opinion a duel should always have been “This card does xxxxx, if the initiator is a duelist do yyyy”. Duels should always have a ignore condition or effects also. The problem is they tried to create a mini-game with the dials that does not work

  2. What if an initiator of the duel would lose honor before start a duel dial check against a character the initiator has an advantage? e.g. fate cost difference or difference between mil/pol skills or just base skills? Also, an instigator, as a new concept, could be introduced as an ability that would make a duel without honor loss of the initiator or other things. Instigator and Initiator would have different roles/meaning in dueling.

  3. Just make it work like it worked in the CCG. Rather than choosing a value on the honor dial, each participant in a duel can put a card from their conflict hand face down next to the duelist, starting with the defender. At any time, a player can choose ‘pass’, and all cards placed are revealed, adding their cost to the result. Whoever gets highest wins, and the cards committed this way are discarded (you don’t draw new ones).

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