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I've seen the term minmax used on several answers (relating to D&D), but nobody has elaborated and there's no actual answer to the question on this site.

What does minmax mean and where did the term originate from?

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Minimization and Maximization for Optimization

Min-max (minmax) comes from using mathematics to solve optimization problems. An example is finding the maximum area for a given perimeter.

  1. As applied to RPG's (the example will be D&D) min-max addresses how to best assign ability points, equipment, and skills to get the most power or effectiveness within the game as reflected in the game's mechanics.

    • The player accepts penalties in areas that hamper his character's in game effectiveness least.

    • The player makes tool and equipment choices that give the most benefit as measured by the game's mechanics.

  2. Example: The Fighter chooses the most possible Strength and Constitution, and accepts that his Intelligence or Wisdom scores will be suboptimal.

  3. The point buy system (you don't get to start with all 18's) in Basic Rules, page 8, is a good illustration of this. It shows the difference between the min/max 27 point buy of 15/15/15/8/8/8 versus the "median" approach of 13/13/13/12/12/12.

    • The former has a number of +2 bonuses, and some -1 penalties, whereas the latter has a collection of +1 bonuses.
    • When the character then applies racial bonuses, some of those values with increase to +3 in the former, and +2 in the latter).
  4. An analogue from regular life: budget your monthly paycheck/income. Depending on what your needs, desires or goals are, you spend money where you wish to maximize a goal (such as a either the nicer car or the nicer apartment) and accept a sacrifice in another area (the not as nice apartment or car) so that you get the most out of the limited dollars you have in your budget based on what is most important to you. (In this example, assume that you are buying a car with a loan that has a monthly payment).

Thanks to Lucas' suggestion to amplify ...

In systems where characters can add to their base abilities as levels progress, the decision to keep "pumping" a given score, be it Strength, Intelligence, etc, toward it's maximum permissible value to accrue more bonus points (additions to die rolls or ability to set higher DC's for spells) is a form of optimization. If you apply this to the 15 15 15 8 8 8 example above, the player would keep boosting Strength to 17 or 18 or 20 while still not improving upon the sub optimal scores. While this may help the party, in their need for the best fighter they can hope to have by their side, it is a form of optimization in the min/max style.

If the minmax approach is taken as an end in and of itself by one player in a group, it can cause conflict at the gaming table. The GNS theory (Gamist, Narrativist, Simulationist) and the experience of many RPG players suggest that focusing exclusively on mechanics driven optimization is incompatible with the other core elements of role playing.

Full Disclosure: Since 1e, I most often boost Dexterity on any character since it has an impact on initiative, armor class, dodging, and missile weapon use. While an agile cleric or wizard may or may not make sense, I assess the game's system and try to give my player the better chance to act before the monsters, or to not be hit. This is a deliberate choice. It is informed somewhat by books, cartoons, movies and other stories where the main character is just missed by that arrow, narrowly dodges a blow, ducks under the swinging cleaver, barely gets under the closing door/gate that is descending, just catches the swinging vine, etc. In RPG's, the characters are the heroes of the story as it comes to life during the serial sessions of play.


@Trinidad's point on possible confusion in terms is worth adding as a footnote. *In mathematics there are at least two uses of the term: one is regarding to linear programming that may apply to RPG's usage, while the other is related to decision theory that is most applicable to multiplayer game strategy.

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    \$\begingroup\$ As a side note, I think it's worth pointing that while this might have something in common with max-min optimization, it has nothing to do with the min-max/minimax concept from decision theory. \$\endgroup\$ – Trinidad Mar 24 '16 at 18:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Trinidad One of the answers went in that direction, however, in paragraph one I limited the scope of this answer by saying "as applied to RPG's" and I tried to stick to that after introducing the broader idea. RPG's is the context in which the question was asked. I'd be digressing by introducing what it has nothing to do with. Thanks for the point in any case. (Put another way, there is an RPG centric usage that is on topic for this SE, while its other usage is off topic). \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Mar 24 '16 at 18:36
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    \$\begingroup\$ Sorry if I didn't make my point clearer, but my point was that in mathematics there are at least two uses of that, one is regarding to linear programming that can have something to do with the RPG usage and another is related to decision theory, that doesn't have much to do and focuses on multiplayer game strategy. I pointed that because when I first heard the term I immediately though about the second idea, which has nothing to do with it. \$\endgroup\$ – Trinidad Mar 25 '16 at 2:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Trinidad OK, I'll toss in a footnote. Thanks again. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Mar 25 '16 at 4:24
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'Minmax' or 'minmaxing' is the process of optimizing a character for performance in a certain way - often this means to be as efficient in combat as possible. It is also called "powergaming" by some.

This generally involves:

  • minimizing disadvantages and handicaps of your character and/or the system (in the area you're optimizing) and
  • maximizing the advantages, skills, etc. your character can get.

Minimising competence outside your focus, trading it for benefits within your focus:
Often one strategy to optimize a character is to sacrifice performance in an area that is not deemed important to the player or to load up disadvantages that don't have an influence on the optimized aspect while allowing the character gain advantages in said optimized aspect.

Example: A fighter character who tries to maximize strength/dexterity/constitution at the cost of charisma/intelligence attributes. Or a wizard character who accepts a physical disability to maximize spell casting power/mana.

Exactly how the optimization works and in what directions it should go heavily depends on the system and what the player is trying to achieve. While the most common optimization is for the greatest strength/efficiency in combat, you could also try to optimize a character to sing the most beautiful songs, or be the best at influencing people, or be the greatest blacksmith of all times, ...

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TVTropes has an extensive definition of min-maxing. (There is always a hyphen or slash in it for the gaming term, Wikipedia has min-max and Urban Dictionay has min/max.) To quote from TVTropes' definition:

The art, much beloved of munchkins, of optimizing a character's abilities during creation by maximizing the most important skills and attributes, while minimizing the cost. This is done by strategic decrease of stats believed to be less important in game (called "Dump Stats"), exploiting hideously overpowered but legal combinations of the Game System, obtaining the best toys and magic weapons accessible to a character, or by stacking flaws and handicaps until your character's Backstory looks like a Joss Whedon character's resume.

Seen from a purely mathematical and gamist perspective, it's an elegant process of minimum expenditure for maximum result.

Seen from a more narrativist perspective, the process may end up creating a character with absolutely no unifying reason to have the abilities that it does.

Of note is the "Stormwind Fallacy," which states that a min-maxed character and a well-roleplayed character are not mutually exclusive: an effective character is not necessarily something that gets in the way of narrative. Similarly, purposefully weakened characters may not always be better for the narrative. It's also important to note that a min-maxed character still requires quite a bit of ingenuity from the player to accomplish what the player wants to during the actual game.

See the TVTropes site for linkified version and related terms, and to lose a couple hours of your life.

The term has evolved over time, and is now used somewhat synonymously with Character Optimization even if there's no "min" component of stat dumping or taking flaws. Powergaming is a superset that goes beyond that - powergaming usually involves character optimization but then also utilizes specific rule-exploiting behaviors in play. Formally, min-maxing is a subset of CharOp which is a subset of powergaming which is a subset of a Gamist approach to RPGs.

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The first time I recall seeing the term applied to role-playing games was in the 2nd edition AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide:

Sometimes players resort to “min/maxing” when selecting weapon proficiencies. Min/maxing occurs when a player calculates all the odds and numerical advantages and disadvantages of a particular weapon. The player’s decision isn’t based on his imagination, the campaign, role-playing, or character development. It is based on game mechanics—what will give the player the biggest modifier and cause the most damage in any situation.

It goes on to say that some min/maxing is good but excessive is “missing the point”. It then says to combat this by contriving situations where the optimized character turns out to actually be at a disadvantage.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I like that min/maxing (as opposed to game theory's minimaxing) is mentioned specifically in the tabletop context. I really think the tabletop term predates this mention, but +1 for finding a mention in print. \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Jul 15 '15 at 21:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ I would not be surprised if there was an earlier usage. For what it’s worth, I did a search of Dragon, and the first usage I found was #193...after the 2e DMG, so that’s not it. \$\endgroup\$ – Robert Fisher Jul 16 '15 at 16:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm grateful to you for identifying where I first heard the term. :) \$\endgroup\$ – Smithers Jul 18 '15 at 16:20
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In a system where you spend a limited resource on features, you want to make the best use of your resource by spending it on the features that will be most useful to you. For example, if you plan to deal a lot of damage to enemies, then a feature that increases your average damage per hit will definitely be useful. A feature that lets you speak another language, on the other hand, does not have an immediately obvious use. Therefore, the increased damage per hit feature is probably the better use of your resource.

There are two non-obvious ways to apply this logic:

  1. Numerical attributes. Consider a system where your character has attributes like "strength" and "intelligence", measured on a scale of -5 to +5. You start with each attribute at 0, and then you can decrease some attributes in order to increase others. You could think of these attributes as helping to define your character -- negative strength = "weak person", positive strength = "strong person", negative intelligence = "stupid person", positive intelligence = "smart person", etc. Or you could think of these attributes as nothing more than features that enable you to do things, e.g. higher intelligence is a feature that lets you learn more languages and higher strength is a feature that lets you deal more damage per hit. Instead of starting with each attribute at 0, just think of it as if you start with each attribute at -5 and then you have points that you can spend to increase the attributes that will be most useful to you.

  2. Character flaws. Consider a system where you can accept the burden of playing a character with a disadvantage in one area in exchange for an advantage in another area. For example, you can make your character illiterate in exchange for a fighting maneuver that gives you combo attacks. But instead of thinking of the disadvantage as a burden, think of a lack of that disadvantage as a feature. (e.g. "inability to read" is not a flaw; "ability to read" is a feature.) If you know you will be spending more time attacking than reading, then maybe you should choose the "combo attack" feature over the "making sense of markings on a piece of paper" feature. When you apply this logic to many different "flaws", you might notice that the default build for your character contains plenty of superfluous features you can sacrifice in exchange for maximizing one really useful feature or choosing features that are useful together (e.g. increased damage per hit, increased accuracy, and increased frequency of attacks.) Sherlock Holmes minmaxes his own brain using this logic.

Minmaxing is to treat something like a higher-than-minimum attribute, or the lack of a flaw, as a feature, and to minimize your expenses on useless features so you can maximize your expenses on useful features. In a system that is designed so that each character has strengths and weaknesses, minmaxing has the effect of choosing strengths that make your character very powerful while choosing "weaknesses" that are not really weaknesses because they do not prevent you from doing what you want to do.

I like fallwalltall's illustration of minmaxing on reddit. Note how the minmaxer in this scenario treats everything as a feature that can be purchased and evaluates those features by how effectively they let him do what he wants to do. Also note how he sacrifices one feature (e.g. 20/20 vision) and then uses the leftover resources to buy a feature that accomplishes the same thing (magical glasses) plus another feature.

Story based RPGer - My guy comes from a repressed, remote and rural community. I have never been to a big city and none of my friends have. The area is plagued by werewolves because of (part of world's lore). My family has for generations acted as werewolf hunters in times of need for the local region. However, the infestation of werewolves if very bad right now and many villages are disappearing. I have been chosen to journey to the big city to petition the high lord for help (and on the way I meet...)

So, my character build. Well, I guess I will be a warrior based character. These people probably don't have sophisticated weaponry so I will take specialty spear. While I can go toe-to-toe with a werewolf any day, the idea of undead scare the hell out of me - phobia undead. This gives me a bonus point that I will spend on family heirloom for killing werewolves - silver tipped spear.

Min-Maxer - I want to make a warrior, so I have the most HP and damage possible. Since dual wielding nearly doubles my damage output and gets the bonus of two magical weapons later, I will dual wield. At level 5 I am going to take - Dual Wield Finesse which will make my off-hand weapon act as a shield anyway. I will take phobias for three things, the maximum, that almost never come up - Cacti, bardic music (even with a phobia I can easily overpower a bard) and witnessing alchemy. OK, that gives me three bonus points. One goes to "resist fear" which will nearly eliminate any impact of the phobias. I will put one point into Katana mastery.

That leaves one bonus point. Oh, I will add correctable nearsightedness for two extra bonus points. One of those I will use for magic, invisible, corrective lenses that never fall off under the family heirloom trait. The remaining two bonus points are used to increase the critical damage percentage of katanas and then enhance the resulting damage.

OK, so I now have the maximum damage per round for a level 1 character. I got 5 bonus points for my phobias and weaknesses, but essentially removed the effect using 2 of the bonus points. The net was 3 bonus points that I dumped into stacking katana damage bonuses for my two katanas. My backstory? I guess I am a ninja or something.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I love the story-based comparison \$\endgroup\$ – Tas Jul 16 '15 at 7:12
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    \$\begingroup\$ This is the best answer because it draws the appropriate degree of attention to the importance of the min aspect of min-maxing. \$\endgroup\$ – Dan Henderson Jun 16 '16 at 22:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ @DanHenderson exactly. There's no problem with taking a disadvantage here and there in exchange for some advantage. The issue is whether that disadvantage makes sense for your character to have, based on their background, etc. Someone from a remote, rural community could have been raised in an environment in which undead were truly feared, while there's no particular reason a random "ninja" would be afraid of cacti (they don't bite, some of them are tasty, and they mostly grow in America anyway). \$\endgroup\$ – Robert Columbia Dec 3 '18 at 13:53
  • \$\begingroup\$ Also, you can minmax in real life. Maybe you wanted to learn French really well (you were into Franco-Belgian comics) and took extra language tutoring in high school in exchange for not doing intramural sports (disadvantage on athletics checks and a -1 on strength). That makes sense if it comports with your background, as time is valuable and lots of people do make these sorts of decisions. Saying "my character is colorblind" because the rules of the Advanced High School Drama RPG will thereby let you plug another point into memorization is the less-than-ideal kind of minmaxing. \$\endgroup\$ – Robert Columbia Dec 3 '18 at 14:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ There's also non-penalty minmaxing. In many JRPGs, you can, to varying degrees, influence which of a character's stats increase the most on level-up. A common minmax strategy is to give one character as many bonuses as possible to physical stats like strength and HP, avoiding any bonuses to their magical stats, and do the opposite for another character. A third character might optimize for speed and critical hits, using a low-damage weapon but applying their crit bonuses so frequently that their base damage becomes irrelevant. \$\endgroup\$ – Dan Henderson Dec 3 '18 at 17:22
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Minmaxing is a process of optimising a character

It is a process of accepting certain flaws and deficiencies to improve a few strong points of a character.

It relates to another term - "dump stat", which is an attribute of a character that is deliberately set as low as possible in an attempt to relocate resources (e.g. points in a point buy system, experience points etc.) to other areas, in which you character already excels at.

The use of the term "minmax" well predates it's use in RPGs and usually refers to minimising losses and maximising returns. Here the name refers to minimising the value of useless and irrelevant stats (like Wisdom or Charisma for a Strength-based fighter) in order to maximise the crucial ones (like Intelligence for a Wizard).

To differentiate from regular character building, which also places greater focus on desired stats, minmaxing aims to create a more specialised character, with greater advantages and disadvantages instead of a more generalist one, hoping to alleviate flaws by other means (magic items, other party members etc.).

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Minmaxing is quite simply Minimizing your disadvantages in a game system while simultaneously Maximizing the effectiveness of your character in their specific role during a game.

Minmaxing includes but is not limited to:

  • Insuring you get the most out of character creation by selecting a dump stat that has no impact on a characters growth
  • Taking level dips to insure that your characters power curve gets select class features or spells
  • Putting all your points at character creation towards a specific ability to maximize usefulness
  • Evaluating the usefulness of certain skills and specializing in abilities that are better than others available at the same time.
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MinMax is a type of character-building practice in RPGs. Players choose options for their characters that minimize their attributes in less-desired abilities (Min) and Maximize their attributes in desired ones (Max). MinMaxing is done in an attempt to create powerful characters that are focused on specific abilities, in lieu of other abilities not important to that character.

Among players who like to create characters that can 'win' a game, or those that wish to create characters that are effective in their roles, MinMaxing is a popular option for character-building. This is because, in many RPGs, you are given character-building options that allow you to assign points to different attributes. Examples of RPG systems like this are DnD with either dice-results that a DM lets you assign, or the point-buy system, and Whitewolf with their dot system.

MinMaxing can also refer to the general idea of trying to create a character within an RPG system that maximizes the benefits of that system specifically, and minimizes mechanics that aren't as powerful. But this is not necessarily true for all characters - though a Fighter is considered a low-tier class in DnD 3.5e, they can be MinMaxed to provide the highest benefit the class can offer.

While some players consider excessive MinMaxing to be a negative player trait, or a sign of a Munchkin (Players primarily concerned with stat-crunching and not role-playing), MinMaxing is advisable for character creation, as it allows a player to contribute to a group in a specific way more effectively, and allows other members of the group to contribute in their own specific way, while maximizing the total group effectiveness. Even in solo play, some MinMaxing allows a character to be more effective, as it allows that character a better chance at succeeding at the task they do best.

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The term minmax comes from the mathematical study of Game Theory or Decision Making.

It means you select from the available options to minimise your losses and maximise your gains. In theoretical games like Zero-sum both player are assumes to use a minmax selection constrain. This reduction of loss and increasing your gain has been extended into roleplay games where you get to select from a set of option in character generation and is generally used negatively by some, that you should play your character and not play the rules of the system. Others think you should should only design optimal characters as this is what the rules are designed to do, in fact original D&D gave experience bonus for character that had the best characteristic to class matches, this was done for Trope Protection.

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    \$\begingroup\$ "and is generally used negatively by some that you should play your character not play the rules of the system." - I think you a word or two. \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Jul 15 '15 at 12:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm not sure that minmax is an outgrowth from game theory (although I can't find the first use of either term). While minimax is from game theory, in tabletop RPGs minmax (no second i) is distinct. (Wikipedia even, albeit slightly, differentiates between the two on the minimax disambiguation page.) \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Jul 15 '15 at 12:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ I agree while the use in game theory clearly pre-dates the invention of tabletop RPGs I'm not sure that the player base and culture would've been familiar with it. \$\endgroup\$ – Joshua Aslan Smith Jul 15 '15 at 12:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ This is my understanding where the term "minimax" originated since it's catchier than "optimizing", even if the actual meaning of minmaxing in RPGs differs from zero-sum game theory. Minmaxing goes back a while, see here: reddit.com/r/Guildwars2/comments/1rbiil/… \$\endgroup\$ – RobertF Jul 15 '15 at 15:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ Some support for this position can be seen here; under the title is "Minimax is a strategy in decision theory and related disciplines" and then in the list underneath "'mini-maxing', a strategy in the board game Hex" (there's a well-established link between game theory and strategy games) and immediately above it "Min-maxing, a role-playing or wargame strategy" which presumably derived from the concept of minimax applied to strategy games (though in roleplaying the meaning has altered a bit). \$\endgroup\$ – Glen_b Jul 19 '15 at 8:22
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In games, it's used to refer to someone optimizing their character's performance.

It comes from the term minimax, which is a zero-sum game theory (in a zero-sum game, your gains are exactly your opponents losses). The minimax theorem involves increasing your overall gains by minimizing your opponents maximum gains. This means you maximize your overall performance by minimizing your opponent's best performance.

Since many games in the gaming community are non-zero-sum games (you don't win most fights just by taking less damage), the term has been expanded to include the maximin theorem as well. Maximin involves maximizing your own minimum gains. An example of this is sacrificing hard-hitting spells that could miss for moderate damage spells that will always hit, lowering your highest potential damage but increasing your worst-case damage.

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The term "minmax-ing" has become a synonym for making optimizations.

The origin of the term, however, is a specific kind of optimization: "minimization of the maximum"; it is the strategy of trying to optimize for the worst case scenario. When deciding between several alternatives, you rate each alternative by the absolute worst thing that can happen as a consequence, and then you choose the alternative that rates the least bad.

As an example of this principle Sun Tzu advocates for minmaxing (by its original meaning):

The good fighters of old first put themselves beyond the possibility of defeat, and then waited for an opportunity of defeating the enemy.

For the sake of clarity, I will explicitly point out that in gaming, the term is often used to describe things that are pretty much the exact opposite of the original meaning: making sacrifices to improve average performance at the cost of making the (assumed to be rare) worst case scenarios much, much worse.

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Minmaxing refers to the process of creating a character that is very good at one thing, but very bad at many other things. For example:

  • a warrior who is really good at killing people with his greataxe, but very bad at social interaction
  • a rogue who is really good at finding and disarming traps, but useless in a fight
  • a bard who is really good at persuasion, but useless in a fight

Minmaxed characters are a problem because they're unable to participate in certain parts of the game. For example, if the characters are negotiating with a boatman who doesn't want to take them into the alligator swamps, the warrior will be useless, and will feel frustrated and bored. In the worst case, the warrior might decide to provoke a battle with the boatman, so that they could use their greataxe skill and be the star character again.

(And, likewise, the rogue and bard might try to persuade the other characters to avoid all combat scenes because they're "too dangerous".)

A certain amount of specialization is inevitable as people build different classes, but it's bad when people take it to extremes. I try to remind people as they build characters to think about both combat and non-combat encounters.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This is also common in vehicle construction. Some RPG's will allow you to maximize missile capacity in a tank by lowering engine, fuel, and armor stats to absurdly low levels. Then you park your slow-as-hell tank near your base and fire missiles all day until a few manage to hit the enemy. Similarly, a tank can be turned into a race car by minimizing armor and weapons. \$\endgroup\$ – Robert Columbia Jul 27 '17 at 14:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ @RobertColumbia We applied min/max to a play by mail space game back in the mid 80's; one of the smarter guys in our guild advocated "the battle of the first salvo" approach to battlecomputers/weapons at expense of armor, and for a while we were incredibly effective. Until others began to imitate our approach. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Dec 3 '18 at 13:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast yes, the "gunfight at high noon" or "one-shot kill" mechanics can work well if everyone agrees to use it. I'm reminded of Heinlein's "Citizen of the Galaxy" space combat mechanics where it was all about getting in fast and getting a single shot kill in before your opponent knew what was happening or was at least able to get their own shot off. There were no drawn-out battles with each side chipping away their opponent's shields or armor with repeated phaser blasts, torpedo hits, etc., hoping to edge the other out with slightly more powerful tech or greater supply. \$\endgroup\$ – Robert Columbia Dec 3 '18 at 13:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ @RobertColumbia There is good historical precedent for that from Naval Warfare. Keegan, among others, address "battle of the first salvo" as it applies to naval battles in his (not all that well received) The Price of Admiralty \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Dec 3 '18 at 13:47

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