In part one of this comparison between Pokerstars Powerup and Hands of Victory – two games  that aim to expand poker’s appeal through genre-crossing innovations – I  compared both game’s  most prominent novel game feature – their power systems. In this part I’ll discuss how both these power system along with other new rules and game mechanics add new layers of skill and complexity to the game. World building, levelling, monetisation and how the games may position poker on the burgeoning e-sports scene will be the focus of an upcoming part 3.

Please read part one before continuing.

** —- DISCLAIMER — **
It has taken me weeks to piece together this post. As the designer of one of these games I have firm grip of the challenges you face when innovating poker. I have feel for how things fundamentally change the game. But I’m not a game theorist. To make this work I have taken some liberties with concepts I find a tad too abstract to fit with my audience. I also don’t master the underlying math well enough to confidently navigate it. I know it. I recognise it. So please flame me gently. It was this way or no way. 

WHY EVEN INCREASE STRATEGIC DEPTH?

For years real money poker providers have innovated with the intent of creating new game variations that essentially dumb down the game. While partly a response to a correctly identified need to shorten game sessions for mobile play, it’s also a misguided response to the realisation that the casual player is the heart of the online poker economy. It is misguided because the problem isn’t that casual players find poker too hard or lose too fast. It’s just that this complexity, under the standard rake/fee revenue model, presents a range of difficult game ecology challenges. You can read more about this dilemma in an old piece I wrote when Hands of Victory was in very early concept development.
Seemingly unwilling to explore other solutions, many simply decided to reduce the risk by simplifying the game.

The case for going in the opposite direction and evolving poker as a skill game is, in my opinion, strong. The potential benefits include:

1. Live up to the jurisdictional definition of a “skill game” and enjoy the benefits of greater market access, of operating under more lenient regulatory frameworks and of being able to explore new business models.

2. Be perceived as a  “skill game” by comparing favourably to other established skill games; gain acceptance in the wider video games industry and introduce the game in contexts (like competitive video gaming) where poker-based games hitherto have had no place.

3. Alter the luck/skill balance  so that variance in managed in a manner that makes the notion of ranking players and crowning champions more credible.

4. Supply the content creation and streaming community with countless hours of new strategic angles to explore and cover.

5. Challenge churned players who have played enough poker to feel that it’s been reduced to an auto-playing grind.

6. Thwart efforts to solve the game through AI.

7. Introduce new ways to for players to manifest their skills during play in order to create a more engaging broadcasting experience. Internal deliberations aren’t that exciting.

8. Fill many of traditional online poker’s dull gaps in action with new player actions that have an impact on strategy and outcome.

9.  Explore alternative monetisation and prize money models.

Does this mean that a game that accomplishes the above can be designed without alienating existing poker players? Remains to be seen.
The online poker community is dwarfed by other competitive games with a much harder learning curve. The world craves hardcore, competitive games. And games that sprinkle complex game mechanics and loads of layers of strategy with a softening touch och randomness are growing in popularity.
So the more relevant questions is probably if the demand exists outside of online poker’s smallish pond.

The stable social poker market has proven that playing for money is not a necessity. And if playing traditional poker online for virtually nothing is a valid enough proposition for millions of players, there should be a market for poker-based genre-crossing games that can be played for honor, rank and cred on the larger competitive gaming scene as well.

MEASURING DEPTH AND COMPLEXITY

Measuring a game’s strategic depth is difficult. Game complexity is a multi-faceted concept.
I recommend this excellent paper by Frank Lantz, Aaron Isaksen, Alexander Jaffe, Andy Nealen andJulian Togelius if you want to dive into the deep end.
The approach and techniques discussed and proposed in their paper are far too advanced for this blog. But I’ll do my best to stay as true to game theory as I can.

The first thing to look at when analysing a game’s complexity is its rules and how hard they are to learn. The harder they are, they higher the initial learning threshold is. But just because a game has rules that are hard to understand the game isn’t necessarily hard to master. And vice versa. Consider this game:

“Each time it is your turn you will be shown a super long equation and get eight answers to choose from. You have three seconds to pick the right one. The game lasts ten rounds. You have to get all ten questions right in order to win.” 

These rules are easy enough to understand. Still a pretty hard game to master though.

Two important things you will learn from the rules are what  options you have every time it is your turn and what the win condition is.
The win condition dictates how many decisions you’ll likely have to make in order for the game to finish. It also creates the framework for the (game state) analysis you have to make every time you are able to make a decision. Every decision you make should bring you closer to the win condition.
The amount of options you have each turn combined with the number of rounds the game lasts make up what I’ll refer to as the game’s decision tree (roll with it game theorists).
The size of this decision tree is a solid indicator of depth.

Compare tic-tac-toe with chess. Every time it is your turn in tic-tac-toe you have less options than the round before and once there are not squares left to fill the game ends. Tic-tac-toe’s decision tree is small and finite. Chess on there other has a massive decision tree. At the start you have 20 options. And so does your opponent. One round in there are already 20×20 = 400 possible board layouts.
Since a game of chess can easily require say tens of rounds the decision tree can become almost immeasurable.
Needless to say chess is harder to master than tic-tac-toe.

But we can’t stop there. One also have to assess how hard it is to navigate the decision tree.
At every cross-section (node) in the decision tree, an analysis of the current state of the game is required in order to determine which available option is the best. Note that term. Game state analysis. I will use it frequently.

Let’s assume that a poker game introduces a new action – the reveal-one-card-before-going all-in – option.  This new option would increase the size of a hypothetical decision tree, but it would not really make the game state analysis any harder. Once you understand the basic rules of poker you’ll be able to conclude that the new option is useless in most situations. The complexity of the game state analysis remains the same.
The more relevant/game advancing each of your available options are, and the more types of skill you have to utilise in order to figure out the best one, the harder the game is to master.
This article outlines nine different skills required to master chess. Many of the same skills also apply to poker but they are weighted differently.
Whereas chess is a game of complete information, poker is a game of incomplete information.
As a result you can’t  just brute force calculate your way through poker’s decision tree if you want to play optimally.
What you have to do  is to try and make qualified assessments of that hidden information (like your opponents’ hole cards). By reading body language. By utilising play and pattern recognition. This is an aspect of poker that sets it apart from most other games. And it’s key to any analysis of what effect innovations have on a poker-based game’s perceived and actual complexity.

COMPARING COMPLEXITY

To help determine if and how game innovations ultimately alter the complexity of  the underlying game, asking questions like the following are useful starting point:

Is a game adding more rules – thus raising the first learning threshold?
Is a game adding options that create a more bransched out decision tree?
Is a game changing the win condition so that even though the rest of the game is the same players must adjust their game state analysis?
Is a game adding additional information that must be taken into account when analysing each game state?
Is that information clouding or clarifying which of all the available options are relevant versus not relevant?
Is a game changing how any hidden information can be explored and exploited?

So let’s start with…

BRANCHING THE DECISION TREE

In one sense neither Pokerstars Powerup nor Hands of Victory actually branches out the decision tree. Using a power is completely optional and is not an alternative to folding or calling. You still have to choose between the these standard options in order for the game to proceed (the one exception is the “Insure” ability in Hands of Victory which allows you to call a bet and be treated as all-in for the remainder of the hand even though you have chips behind).

In another sense you still have more decisions to consider in both games.
In Pokerstars Powerup your power cards and then energy needed to use them are refilled once spent. The decision to use them is a reasonably low-cost decision as a result.
Similarly in Hands of Victory you start with a bank of “Cunning” that you might as well spend on using abilities. You get nothing from saving it (although you have to fight for every additional Cunning you need) so you might as well.

Even though using the power systems is optional, you would be stupid not to consider it – which ultimately means more decisions, more complexity.

ADDING HIDDEN INFORMATION

Hands of Victory does not add any hidden information. Pokerstars Powerup does. Hands of Victory’s abilities are entirely transparent while the power cards you are dealt in the former are dealt face down. More hidden information to deal with equals a more complex game right?
Not necessarily.
Except perhaps for some limited play pattern recognition, you can’t really determine which Powerup cards your opponents are holding. The power cards’ effects are so situational and direct that there will not be many situations where using one or several power card will help other players determine which power cards you have have left.
Once you have make higher level adjustments to your strategy based on the overall impact of all power cards, like being careful about making aggressive bets and raises in order to avoid exposure to powerful combos, you’ve pretty much dealt with that hidden information. There’s not much else you can do.

In Hands of Victory the decision to make everything transparent brings the game state analysis a bit closer to chess.  Since you know everything you can also factor in everything. At every node you know exactly which abilities your opponents can and cannot use at any given time.  You know what can happen, and you know what can’t happen. It’s up to you to make the most out of that info every time.

EXPOSING HIDDEN INFORMATION

Both games introduce new ways in which to discover traditionally hidden information.
Powerup’s “Intel” (view the deck’s top card for the rest of the han), “Engineer” (choose the deck’s next card from three options) and “Scanner” (view the top two cards in the deck; choose whether to discard them) cards all provide various degree of insight into cards to come.

The main source of hidden information manipulation in Hands of Victory is the Individual Deck Deal feature. Instead of dealing hole cards from a communal deck, each player is dealt hole cards from their own personal decks. Once cards have been used, they’re temporarily removed from a player’s deck and consequently cannot be dealt to that player again.  A special deck information tracking feature along with some deck and card related abilities enable players to amass a considerable amount of information that can them help narrow down ranges.

You can also reveal actual hole cards in both games. Powerup’s X-Ray card forces all players to expose one hole card. Hands of Victory’s Eye in the Sky ability works in a similar manner but itonly reveals one hole card for one targeted player.

Whether or not exposing this information makes either game more complex depends on how that knowledge changes the game state analysis. The player gaining the information likely has an easier decision to make. And the same can be true for the player not knowing that info. If the advantage gained by the information is substantial enough then a lot of the options available to the players who don’t have it will no longer be relevant. The likelihood of “fold” being the right move increases substantially.

ENERGY MANAGEMENT

Both games require active management of an”energy system” in order to be able to use powers optimally. If you run out of  energy (or Cunning in Hands of Victory) you can no longer play your Powerup cards or use your Abilities. In Powerup your energy is reloaded based on an automated process. After each hand your “battery” partially recharges.  In Hands of Victory, once you have run out of your initial Cunning, you either have to earn it back by clearing the equivalence of skill based achievements or you have to make sacrifices in the form of points or chips.

RULES

Powerup Poker adds a decent amount of new rules. Hands of Victory adds… more.
Hands of Victory asks a lot from new and old players alike. There are eight new core concepts that you need to understand in order to master the game as opposed to maybe two or three in Pokerstars Powerup.

BREAKING THE DECISION TREE

A key aspect of a complex game is that you need to think several steps ahead in your game state analysis. Poker is a perfect example of that. You make moves on the flop that lay the groundwork for moves on latter streets. You make a play during one hand that you can take advantage of by playing differently in a later hand.
Breaking this chain of decisions generally makes a game less complex.
And both of these games offer that opportunity.

In Powerup you can do it primarily thanks to the “Disintegrate” power (destroy a targeted board card dealt this street). If you can change an already dealt board card you effectively remove some of the incentive to plan ahead. Perhaps I flop an open-ender and want to weigh my bet perfectly to lay up a steal or a pot-odds justified call. Without reassurance that the board will remain as is, I can’t to the same degree.

In Hands of Victory you can use “Swap” to replace one of your hole cards at any time. That means that your opponents might not be rewarded for making bets based on a  guesstimation of  your hole cards.  So why even bother guesstimating them?
It should be said that both powers are a shot in the dark and have low direct efficiency.
Swap can be used multiple times during the same hand which changes it efficiency considerable.  But using it also comes at a cost since every ditched card is revealed adding to the information stored about that player’s deck.

BLUFF DYNAMIC

Bluffing is another integral facet of poker. Since both games allow you to, in a controlled manner, gain an advantage of some kind, they also making bluffing more intricate. In traditional online poker, your bluffs have to be sold through a convincing betting pattern. That’s the one tool you have. In these games you can have other tools at your disposal that can help you plan and execute a bluff. Like, for example, moving all-in after your opponent has exposed a hole card.

THE POWER META GAME

Once you have a power system  you have the potential for a power system meta game.
Can two powers combine to create an effect greater than each individual effect?
Do some powers target other powers?
The more intricate this meta game is, the more complexity it adds to the overall game.
Pokerstars Powerup power meta game is mostly about situational combos. Reveal the top card of the deck. Then draw that card as a third hole card. Things like that. It also features one power “EMP” that effectively nullifies all other powers.

Hands of Victory’s power meta game is slower but also more intricate. More abilities have an effect that directly counters, negate or supports other effects. You gain a lot from making sure you play with abilities that harmonise with each other and support a certain play style. If being able to narrow down ranges and make reads easier is your cup of tea there are abilities that support that. If you rather prefer to ensure that you can get more chips throughout the game there are abilities for that.

WIN CONDITION

Pokerstars Powerup doesn’t change the win condition. Your goal is to amass all the chips and be the last player standing. Hands of Victory adds some flair to it. You still have to be the last player standing but not all wins are equal. A points scoring system measures your performance. If you win after having played passively and getting lucky you will not score as high and progress as fast as you will if you dominate from start  to finish.

SUMMARY

The best way I’ve come up with to summarise the difference between how the two games approach innovating online poker as skill-based games is that Pokerstars Powerup is a game of situational exploitation while Hands of Victory is a game of careful planning and execution.
Pokerstars Powerup is a shark’s game. You nibble here and there while you wait for the right hand to be played out in the right way. Then you strike. Full force.
Hands of Victory is a grinder’s game. You choose a strategy, do your best to use your abilities to follow that strategy and hope to gain enough of an edge over time.

Both games definitely introduce new ways for devoted players to get the upper hand.
As I did in part 1 I leave it to you to decide which one does it in the manner most likely to appeal to various types of players.

How are these games doing in terms of world-building, story telling and adding other traditional game concepts like levelling?
Can these games be monetised differently?
Can they bring poker onto the e-sport scene?

Stay tuned for part 3!

I happily respond to questions, comments, suggestions and criticism on twitter. You can find me at @infiniteedgekim.