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Character-Driven Strategy

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Life is not always a matter of holding good cards, but sometimes, playing a poor hand well. When this is said, it usually applied with card games in mind, but the principle applies to board games, video games, even sports.

Some players are the pragmatic type who rely on quick and decisive victories. Others like to take their time and plan their moves, being methodical and a little bit perfectionist. Some are trickster-types that psychologically attack their opponent, while others will just straight-up cheat because they have no respect for you or fair play! How a player plays a game is a good way to tell the audience what kind of person they are.

In Video Game A.I., this trope is often implemented using (dual-)utility systems, where strategies available to artificially intelligent players are selected based on their expected practical utility, but also on the players' respective preprogrammed "preferences" (e.g. one AI prefers frontal assaults, while the other is into turtling, etc.), creating intelligent, but still exploitable behaviors. This also serves as a form of Gameplay and Story Integration, if the AI's preferences match their backstory.

Super-Trope to Boggles the Mind (when the words used in a word-based game reflect a person's thoughts and feelings). Compare Weapon-Based Characterization (where personality is reflected in their Weapon Specialization), Tell Me How You Fight (where personality is reflected in their fighting style), Pastimes Prove Personality (where personality is reflected in their hobbies), and Personality Powers (where personality is reflected in their super-abilities). See also Player Archetypes.


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  • In the ad "En bonde fra eller til", Magnus Carlsen starts off very willing to sacrifice his chess pawns, remarking that they're not that important anyway. The following night, a lot of farmersnote  show up, making him realize that they are important after all. In his next game, his Character Development is reflected by how he's no longer throwing away pawns.

    Anime & Manga 
  • Death Note: When Light and L play a casual game of tennis, the two's inner thoughts are shown, each trying to read and outmaneuver the other, setting the tone for their mind games going head-to-head in the Kira investigation.
  • Haikyuu!!: In the first OVA "The Arrival of Haiba Lev", the Karasuno boys take turns playing a video game (hinted to be Monster Hunter). The way each of them plays the game showcases their personality and/or their playing style in volleyball. Nishinoya receives all of the monster's attacks (leading to a quick game over), Daichi only defends, Asahi gets scared and runs away, Hinata gets overexcited and plays like a kid, and so on. They end up not getting anything done.
  • Yu-Gi-Oh!:
    • Yugi Muto — and his alter ego Yami Yugi — have been through a wide variety of different decks, but they all fall under the "Strategy Deck" category; decks that focus on balance through moderately powered monsters (most commonly EARTH and DARK monsters) with Spell cards to deal out combos. This reflects his role as The Hero, emphasizing a clever mind who knows how to play the game he lives his life to while also not relying too heavily on any key cards. Since he was taught to play Duel Monsters by his grandfather, this also reflects wisdom in his actions. His trademark monster, "Dark Magician", is a strong card, but its true potential relies on a variety of monster, spell and trap cards to bolster it.
    • In contrast to Yugi's Strategy Decks, Seto Kaiba uses Beatdown decks; decks that focus on overwhelming their opponent with monsters with high attack power while paralyzing their options, reflecting Seto's stiff and standoffish behavior. His signature monster, "Blue-Eyes White Dragon", is a strong and rare monster (only four of them exist, him owning three of them) that is known for its high attack power, reflecting his ambitions as Kaiba Corp. CEO and one of the highest-ranking duelists in the world.
    • Joey Wheeler was originally a poor duelist until Yugi and his grandfather taught him how to balance his deck. His decks are usually Gamble Decks; cards that, using luck as a factor, can create unorthodox effects to embolden his own monsters or weaken his opponents. This reflects his street-smart personality, Joey the kind of guy that thinks with his gut more than his head (with mixed results). His signature monster, "Red-Eyes B. Dragon", was won in a bet against Rex Raptor (a duel he only won with the unpredictable effects of Time Wizard), a card similar to Kaiba's "Blue-Eyes White Dragon", but relies on support cards like Yugi's "Dark Magician", thus making him a medium between the two.
    • Bakura (and his evil personality Yami Bakura) is a player that uses Anti-Meta decks; cards that focus on breaking an opponent's strategies while slowly building to an instant win. This reflects Yami Bakura's status as Yami Yugi's Evil Counterpart (Yugi's decks based on strategy), as well as hinting at the ancient history the two of them share. Theme-wise, his cards follow the occult, his monsters made up of Fiend and Zombie-type monsters, further emphasizing his dark and ominous nature.
    • Bandit Keith keeps multiple decks based around different types and strategies. While this might imply that he is a professional who knows what he's doing, he is also shown to be a cheater, routinely pulling cards out of his cuffs or his sleeves or pulling dirty moves (like pretending to drop a card to reveal what he has so that he can manipulate his opponent, as he tried to do in his duel with Joey). This reflects his shallow motivations and personality, perfectly willing to do whatever it takes to win for greed or pride.
      • He seems to have a particular affinity towards Machine-type monsters, hinting at how he sees other people as tools to be used without remorse. In his battle against Joey Wheeler in the Duelist Kingdom finals, his signature card "Metalmorph" is used to turn the Fiend-type monster "Zoa" into a Machine-type, reflecting his dehumanizing behaviour.
    • Maximillion Pegasus is most famous for his Toon deck; a deck that relies on "Toon World", a Spell card that was never officially released because of how insanely powerful it was. Being the founder of Duel Monsters, he had "Toon World" made due to his childhood love for Western Animation, and had based the entire archetype around it. Toon monsters are impossible to destroy using conventional attacks, with many of his strategies involving cards that steal his opponents' cards, creating Toon-based parodies of his opponents' monsters. This tells us that Pegasus is a trickster that likes to toy with his opponents, using the power of the Millenium Eye to preemptively guess and subvert his opponent's moves. Like his cheating methods however, his Toon monsters are also incredibly fragile, his strategies falling apart in an instant should "Toon World" be taken off the board and his mind reading be blocked. When Toon World is destroyed, his deck shifts to evil, Eldritch Abomination-looking spellcasters, which speaks to the sinister, manipulative nature hiding beneath his campy facade.
    • When Yami Marik duels, he uses an Immortality-Torture Deck; strategies that draw out a duel, crippling his opponent's options and bleeding them of their Life Points (usually with cards themed around torture devices), reflecting Yami Marik's Sadist personality.
  • Yu-Gi-Oh! GX:
    • Jaden Yuki is famed for his Elemental HERO deck. A deck themed after superheroes (and his unambiguous role as The Hero of the story), Jaden's deck relies on summoning low-level monsters used as fodder to summon stronger Fusion monsters from a nigh-bottomless number of options, showing a clever and resourceful side beneath his ditzy exterior. When placed under the control of The Supreme King, "Dark Fusion" is added to his deck which allows him to summon Evil HERO cards, a variation of the Elemental HERO cards that relies more on brute force.
    • Zane Truesdale is Duel Academy's star student and wielder of the Cyber Dragon deck, an archetype of Machine-type monsters that utilizes fusion to summon insanely powerful monsters, not unlike the Blue-Eyes White Dragon archetype. Like Seto, he is portrayed as a stoic and serious counterpart to the hero Jaden, as both rely on Fusion as their main strategy. Unlike Jaden, Zane's main strategy is summoning one single monster — Cyber End Dragon — as fast as possible, ensuring that it never leaves the field, summoning it back should it be destroyed, and then ensures a fast, decisive victory with it, reflecting how seriously Zane takes his skills as a duelist.
      • After Shroud/Saruyama of the Underground League Mind Rapes him after a series of losses in the Pro-League, Zane eventually reaches the Despair Event Horizon and becomes much more ruthless. This is reflected in when he adopts the Cyberdark cards, a Darker and Edgier counterpart to the Cyber Dragon archetype that emphasizes sending monsters to the Graveyard to empower his monsters.
    • Syrus Truesdale utilizes the Vehiroid Archetype for his decks. Like his older brother Zane and his Cyber Dragon deck, Syrus' Vehiroids are Machine-type monsters whose potential relies on fusing weaker cards into stronger Fusion monsters. Their toon-like designs reflect not only his youth but also his doubts, being seen as a lesser, more "babyish" version of his brother.
    • Chumley Huffington plays a deck themed around Koalas and other Australian animals. He freely admits that he plays with such cards out of an affinity towards those animals rather than any strategic purpose, showing just how "foreign" he is to Duel Monsters as a game.
    • Chumley's father Mr. Huffington is a stubborn and domineering man who runs a sake company (or "hot sauce" in the English Dub) that Chumley notes as the type to "trash" everything when things don't go his way. This is reflected in his signature spell cards "Flipping the Table" and "Hot Sauce Bottle", cards that destroy everything on the field and punishes his opponent for it respectively.
    • Tyranno Hassleberry is a professional duelist who plays an Evolution Deck, summoning high-powered Dinosaur-type monsters using cards like "Big Evolution Pill" and "New Ultra Evolution". This can reflect his personality and Character Development; he starts out as a rather predatory bully who preys on the weak, only to lose his "troops" one by one due to his inability to adapt (in this case, using the same strategies over and over again), only to become less of a jerk when Jaden beats him and makes him confront his flaws.
    • Like Jaden, Aster Phoenix is a wielder of the Elemental HERO archetype. He is also a wielder of the Destiny HERO archetype, reflecting his role as an Anti-Hero to Jaden's more conventional hero role. Destiny HERO cards are all themed around time, with Destiny HERO Plasma being a personal favorite as the last card his father ever made, reflecting how Aster is living in the past.
    • Jesse Anderson plays with a Crystal Beast deck, a monster series that, while lacking in raw ATK or DEF power, are capable of swarming the field and staying out of the GY, this reflecting Jesse's non-stop positive attitude, his predilection towards harmlessly trolling everyone and the kind of relationship he has with the Crystal beast spirits.
    • Sartorius is a Seer who sees the future through tarot cards and runs a cult that worships an Eldritch Abomination made of cosmic light. He plays an Arcana Force deck, a LIGHT-Attribute, Tarot Motif deck with Lovecraftian designs whose effects are based around random chance, made all the easier since he is able to predict the future.
  • Yu-Gi-Oh! 5Ds:
    • Yusei cobbled his deck together from cards that others threw away. To him, no card is worthless, and sure enough, every single one of his cards, while weak statistically, has a useful effect, allowing Yusei to get out of any situation with the right cards. Furthermore, they also allow him to Synchro Summon a wide variety of powerful Synchro monsters with their own useful effects, reflecting his belief in The Power of Friendship. His ace monster, Stardust Dragon, can sacrifice itself to negate a destruction effect and then come back at the end of the turn, reflecting his self-sacrificing nature and how he'll come back as strong as ever.
    • Jack uses a hyper aggressive deck that punishes defensive plays, with effects like piercing damage and outright destruction of any monsters in defense mode, reflecting his great ambition to be king and how he'll knock down anything that stands in the way of that goal.
    • Crow is a Lovable Rogue and Friend to All Children, who steals confiscated cards to give to the orphans of Satelite. His Blackwing deck has a Noble Bird of Prey theme and revolves around swarming the field working together to either strengthen each other or create powerful Synchro Monsters.
    • Kiryu, as a Dark Signer, uses an Infernity deck, which has effects that activate when he has zero cards in his hand, reflecting his reckless Ax-Crazy mindset. When he returns in the Crash Town arc, he's still using the same archetype, only now it reflects him becoming a Death Seeker looking for a place where he can have one last duel and then die for his sins, and appropriately has a number of new cards that have a chance of hurting either himself or his opponent.

    Comic Books 
  • Fantastic Four: After a "Freaky Friday" Flip courtesy of a Celestial, Reed Richards's mind occupies Doctor Doom's body, and vice versa. During a tense standoff, Reed-in-Doom plays a game of chess with Ben Grimm. Normally, Reed plays a quiet game, mostly keeping his pawns and pieces in a tight formation to secure his half of the chessboard. During this game, however, Ben remarks that Reed is using an uncharacteristic ruthless strategy, more fitting for Doctor Doom, that aims to dominate as much of the board as possible. Though he hides it well, Ben is worried that Reed is becoming more like Doom the longer he remains in Doom's body and armor.
  • This comes up more often than you'd think in Runaways, possibly due to the team being founded by a gamer.
    • Alex, the original team leader, is first seen playing an MMORPG. He's shown to be a brilliant strategist who struggles when other players don't take the game as seriously as he does. This ends up foreshadowing a major plot twist: he dies after betraying the team because he fails to anticipate that his teammates would all stick together rather than any of them breaking off and joining him to save themselves.
    • Victor is a skilled player, but constantly follows the rules, even when it's to his detriment, reflecting his straight-laced, Nice Guy personality.
    • Molly makes up new rules whenever it suits her, reflecting her stubborn and willful personality, but also her capacity for creative thinking.
    • Xavin constantly loses, either because they insist on playing a game despite not knowing the rules or because they refuse to take risks, reflecting how out of place they feel on Earth.
    • Klara, normally the shyest and most reserved member of the team, is a ruthless and shameless cheat when it comes to games because they are one of the few times when she doesn't feel the need to be nice and polite and agreeable.

    Fan Works 
  • In A Thing of Vikings, Vigo remarks that Hiccup loses their game of Maces & Talons because he is so concerned with keeping his pawns that he leaves his chief unguarded, reflecting Hiccup's priorities in protecting his subjects over himself.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • In Knives Out, Marta is one of the few people who ever beat Harlan at Go. She claims that instead of trying to win against him, she only cares about making a beautiful picture from the game pieces, reflecting both her ingenuity and her Incorruptible Pure Pureness.

    Light Novel 
  • The Rising of the Shield Hero:
    • In Volume 3, Melty claims that her father King Aultcray is a brilliant game player, managing to outdo his wife and daughters effortlessly in games that emphasize strategy. However, he will often throw a game whenever he plays against Malty (who is a terrible gamer), showing that all of the strategic genius in the world doesn't matter when Aultcray lets his paternal affection cloud his judgement.
    • Unlike her father, Malty "Myne" Melromarc is a terrible game player. She will routinely make up rules that arbitrarily benefit her and handicap her opponents, only to throw a tantrum and wreck the board when her own poor planning costs her the game. This reflects her low-functioning sociopathy and tendency to Kick the Dog even when it bites her in the long run, never learning from her mistakes.

  • Discussed in Going Postal when Reacher Gilt sees Lord Vetinari's Thud board, with the two commenting on respective strengths of the Troll and Dwarf sides. Gilt claims one can learn all of an opponent's weaknesses through a game, while Vetinari counters that one should study one's own. A third person claims that "the Dwarves always win," earning him the undying contempt of both parties.
  • A Song of Ice and Fire: Exploited by Tyrion Lannister in A Dance with Dragons as he plays cyvasse with "Young Griff", in reality Aegon Targaryen, son of Rhaegar. Griff is far too trusting of Tyrion, as he believes Tyrion is there to help him and thus takes Tyrion's advice not to send out his dragon piece too soon to heart. In reality, Tyrion gave him that advice to keep Aegon from having his dragon deplete his own forces, but also so that Tyrion could measure how manipulable Griff was. Finding that he was rather easily manipulated, Tyrion then planted the suggestion to invade Westeros in Griff's mind, which inspired Griff and the Golden Company to break their current contract and begin their incursion at the end of the book.
  • The Westing Game: Sam Westing is a successful entrepreneur and notably good at chess. Most notably is his sacrifice of a queen, allowing him to get a Surprise Checkmate, an analogy for his ability to manipulate the title game's contestants even when they believed themselves onto something.
  • Second Apocalypse: Because the strategy game of benjuka is so bafflingly complex and impossible to intellectually master, it said to test one's spirit more than one's reason. The brilliant but insecure Achamian constantly loses to the confident soldier Xin. In one scene, Achamian makes a bold decision about a personal issue while playing benjuka, and Xin laments that Achamian's latest move has undone all of Xin's recent gains.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Community: In the RPG Episode "Digital Estate Planning", the group play the Fictional Video Game Journey to the Center of Hawkthorne, where they have to beat a monstrous version of Pierce's father. Being inexperienced with video games, they more or less act as they would in real life:
    • The supposedly levelheaded Annie and Shirley try to get weapons for the group but wind up burning a building down.
    • Britta, a Soapbox Sadie who's all bark and no bite, decries a brute force strategy early on because women don't "hack and slash our way through life, because we're one with life." By the end of the game, she's enthusiastically hacking and slashing away at the bosses and screaming "Die, racism!".
    • Nerdy, analytical Abed exploits the game's wealth mechanics and sires a well-equipped slave army that helps take on the Final Boss.
    • Manipulative ex-lawyer Jeff swindles Gilbert, who had been grinding to take on the study group, into dying. Gilbert then resorts to cheating.
  • The Queen's Gambit: Impulsive and emotionally stunted chess prodigy Beth Harmon is noted to have a very aggressive playing style. It usually works out for her if she can intimidate her opponent quickly, but she is also easily frustrated and prone to slip-ups when she goes against players with above-average defensive strategies. Over the course of the series part of her character growth involves learning to pause and think things out, both on the board and in real life.

    Video Games 
  • The AI in Civilization attempts to role play. Gandhi will be a pacifist, while Montezuma is aggressive.
  • The Command & Conquer: Generals Expansion Pack Zero Hour had three Generals for each faction, each of whom had particular bonuses and limitations compared to their generalist equivalents. Their AIs attempted to play to those strengths as well:
    • For the US:
      • General Malcolm Granger uses no tanks, only airfields and infantry, and likes to rapidly overwhelm the enemy base through any gaps in their anti-air defenses. His own base is prone to sprawling.
      • General "Pinpoint" Townes relies on laser technology and information superiority, dividing his attention between missile troops and armoured groups, and protecting the reactors he needs to power them remotely.
      • General Alexis Alexander focused on superweapons, with advanced technology and base infrastructure that was critically dependent on protecting her supplies of money and electricity. Prone to turtling and picking off enemy targets from out of reach.
    • For China:
      • General Shin Fai benefits from well-equipped infantry, utilizing large waves of footsoldiers supported by expensive specialized combat vehicles and computer hackers.
      • General Ta Hun Kwai overspecialized in Tank Goodness and sends out groups of them that are powerful and durable but slow.
      • General Tsing Shi Tao provides his conventional vehicles and weapons with nuclear power, making much of his equipment faster and cheaper but hazardous to his own forces or ironically less effective at its original purpose.
    • For the GLA:
      • Prince Kassad has stealth everything, buildings included, which gives his forces a lot of survivability and sneak attack potential but doesn't actually protect his base much.
      • General Rodall Juhziz specializes in high explosives and uses them extensively to demolish enemy buildings, booby-trap his own structures, and let his own troops destroy themselves as a parting gift.
      • Doctor Thrax equips all his troops with toxic anti-infantry weapons, supplemented by scud missiles, but has very limited means of defending his base when not on the offensive.
  • In Final Fantasy XIV, the NPC Triple Triad players often have decks modeled around their personalities. For instance, Gegeruju's decks are filled with high-rarity cards of beautiful women, owing to his expensive tastes as The Hedonist. However, he's a complete novice at the game and thus tends to play very poorly, as he'd simply purchased the cards because he was told they were the best money can buy. If he loses, he'll try to buy the Warrior's deck off of them rather than figuring out his own shortcomings as a player.
  • In Fire Emblem: Awakening, Robin uses a game board to plan out their strategies in advance and develop new ones. In their supports with Virion, he offers to let them test them out using the game as a mock battle of sorts. To Robin's surprise, Virion wins almost every single game, remarking that perhaps Virion should be the one calling the shots instead. Virion denies this, as his winning strategies follow the rules of the game and as such he's not afraid to sacrifice his own pieces to take more valuable pieces from the enemy. Meanwhile, Robin's strategies try to preserve as many pieces as they can because of how much they value their friends and allies. Virion praises them for this, as a We Have Reserves mentality would only invite mutiny from his men and that war is Not a Game where lives can be tossed away so easily.
  • The PC-compatible video game adaptation of Monopoly has four tokens that represent the working class: the flatiron, the shoe, the thimble, and the wheelbarrow. When these are played by the game's artificial intelligence, their strategy tends to be conservative: holding onto properties and declining most trades unless there's a distinct advantage. The other four tokens represent the leisure class: the racer car, the steam yacht, the terrier, and the top hat, which have their AI play more speculative strategy that's more likely to trade for a color set or even a goodly dose of cash.
  • In Poker Night at the Inventory and Poker Night 2, the strategies of your AI licensed character opponents are tuned to their specific personalities. For example, in the first game Max is often more erratic and impulsive when it comes to his choices in a hand, Strong Bad will try to bluff his way through the game with big bets, Heavy will fold until he's sure he has a really good hand, and Tycho will start off cautiously but switch to being aggressive once players start getting knocked out of the game.
  • Red Alert 3: Skirmish AI have different play-styles in accordance with the characters representing them:
    • Allied:
      • Warren / Hill (Boisterous Bruiser) are Direct Assault, who attack with ground forces right off the bat.
      • Price (Ace Pilot) is Squadron Leader, who immediately harasses with Vindicators and builds up to stronger air units.
      • Lisette / Winters (The Strategist) are Special Forces, who use spies extensively to disrupt buildings or bribe enemies.
    • Soviet:
      • Oleg (Boisterous Bruiser) is Heavy Armor, who attacks mostly with, well, armored vehicles.
      • Moskvin (Sociopathic Soldier) is Shock Specialist, who uses lots of Terror Drones to interrupt ore gatherers.
      • Zhana / Vera (Ace Pilot) are Air Marshall, using air units to attack from undefended sides.
    • Empire:
      • Shinzo "the Emperor's Shadow" is Ambush Division, using ninjas to slaughter infantry and disrupt buildings and dropping disguised transports into enemy bases.
      • Kenji (Hot-Blooded) is Mecha Warfare, using mostly Transforming Mecha and advancing walls of turrets.
      • Naomi / Takara (Born Under the Sail) are Fleet Command, good at naval units (but in no way limited to those).
  • Having been built from the same engine, AI-controlled factions in Rome: Total War and Medieval II: Total War will follow their programmed "Faction Traits" when building armies. These traits are named after historical figures and, for those familiar with those figures, give a clue as to what type of army these factions will build and how they will deploy it. Examples include "Stalin", a We Have Reserves mix of heavy infantry and artillery; "Mao", a Zerg Rush of disposable light infantry; "Napoleon", a mix favoring cavalry and artillery; "Caesar", a mix favoring infantry and artillery; "Gengis", favoring cavalry of all sorts; and "Henry", a mix favoring cavalry and archers.
  • Silent Hill 2 uses an inversion of this to drive the plot. The ending you get is determined by choices and behaviors made by the player that are then ascribed to the protagonist, James. In other words, you get to define several points of his characterization: Why he came to the town, whether or not he's tempted by Maria's charms, and his true motive for giving Mary a Mercy Kill are all as much for the player to decide as his ultimate fate at the end of the story is.

    Web Original 
  • When playing against the computer, players can choose from a wide range of AI opponents, each with their own difficulty and play-style. For example, one of the easier opponents is a father who plays chess with his kids, while the tougher characters are stated to play competitively, or at least have a long history with the game.

    Western Animation 
  • Invoked in Avatar: The Last Airbender: Pai Sho is a Fictional Board Game that is popular among the various nations in the world. One of the tiles used, the White Lotus Tile, is described as a tile that is often underestimated by most players, but can be effective for more skilled players with the experience and wisdom to use it effectively. It's revealed in the third and final season of the show that the tile is the calling card to the Order of the White Lotus, a Benevolent Conspiracy that transcends national borders meant to preserve and share "philosophy, beauty, and truth," using specific moves in the game to pass information onto one another. Many of its members are older men who have proven to be wise and a little eccentric, including Prince Iroh, King Bumi of Omashu, Jeong Jeong the Deserter, Master Pakku, and Master Piandao.
  • Total Drama: As a show where the lines between the game and personal matters are blurred, personalities have a large say in how things play out.
    • Heather, the Alpha Bitch of the original cast, impacted the game accordingly. Notably, she had Trent Mistaken for Cheating to get him voted out. Further, despite Lindsay being close to her, Heather was entirely happy to eliminate her during a sudden-death challenge.
    • Despite his kind outward appearance, Alejandro is highly selfish and sees the other contestants as pawns to get ahead of. Reflecting this, Alejandro manipulates several contestants into seeing him as a friend or romantic interest, only to set them up for failure. He even went so far as to endanger Duncan to ferel Ezekiel for a win in the challenge.
    • Another antagonist, Scott, threw challenges in the premerge to make the other tribe overconfident. This reflects his low opinion of his tribe, who he has no remorse Framing Up and voting out.