Growing up in the world of New England FIRST, I’ve always been a big proponent of being able to play defense in any game (except Recycle Rush, but I try not to talk about that). From I-beam frames to velcro-treaded wheels to frisbee blockers made of cardboard face cut-outs, my high school experience was always filled with defensive play. Despite how impactful defense can be, very few teams execute it well. Every year I watch teams lose events because they’re too scared to take a risk and play some extra defense even when they know their opponents are probably going to outscore them. Take what you know about your opponents and use it to your advantage. In this post I’m going to be looking into different types of defense, when teams should play defense, and how you can turn tough matches into wins this year with defense.
First, let’s look at the biggest misconception about defense. When a lot of teams think about defense, they often first think of hitting other robots hard or pushing them across the field. In reality, there is much more thought that goes into playing good defense, and there’s almost never a need for slamming your robot into your opponents. The main types of defense I’m going to be looking at are what I call beating someone to their spot, lane congestion, game piece starvation, and blocking.
Beating someone to the spot is the type of defense that often gets confused with pushing matches. The majority of robots in FRC can usually only score from one or two locations in any given game and are therefore fairly easy to defend. The goal here is just to either be in their spot and take it away from them or stop them from getting to their spot. Again, this usually does not require any ability to push. The most effective way of doing this is by setting up your robot to drive perpendicularly to your opponent’s path and move side to side to stay between them and their target location. Sometimes it may even be possible to park in the spot they are trying to score from, cutting it off completely. The part where this kind of defense can be tough to play is when the game has safe zones, which causes you to move your defense farther away from their scoring spot, and allows the offensive robot to have more room to work with to get around you. Overall, this type of defense can be very effective and easy for a driver to learn.
Beating someone to their spot is going to be incredibly common in STEAMworks. Since scoring gears has three very set locations on the field, every robot will be trying to get to the same spots. This means a defensive robot can easily block off a robot from getting to the lifts, and if done well can even stop multiple robots at once. The toughest part of defending the lifts will be driver visibility, so you should train your drivers to be driving on the opposite side of the field. For fuel, most teams will be shooting either in or around the safe zone, so you need to use scouting data to find out where that spot is and stop them from getting to it. For the few teams who can seemingly score from anywhere on the field, that is the rare time that you will have to push to stop them using this defensive method. However, the other types of defense will definitely have a bigger effect on these high-level shooters.
The next type of defense is lane congestion. This defense isn’t possible in every game as it is very dependent on the field. However, STEAMworks may be the best game ever to implement it. Lane congestion means taking parts of the field that are often used by teams as driving lanes for their scoring cycles and blocking them off with your robot. This was a tactic seen in Ultimate Ascent around the sides of the pyramid but was avoidable if the offensive robot could go under the pyramid. This year there are giant solid structures in the airships with tight lanes around them that can make for massive lane congestion, both naturally and with defense. The biggest difficulty with lane congestion this year is the fact that both alliances will be using the same lanes, so any defensive play has to be well coordinated so it will not mess up your offensive partners. I personally feel that this will be the most effective type of defense this year when done well, but also will be difficult to execute without hurting one’s partners.
An indirect and subtle style of defense is known as game piece starvation. This is very game dependent, but could definitely be a factor in STEAMworks. While each alliance has plenty of gears in their human player stations, controlling fuel could be important if you know your opponents can outscore you with it. While holding all 600 balls at once probably isn’t feasible, you can control where the balls are by choosing to dump certain hoppers over others, keeping as many balls with your human players as possible, and holding onto your fuel until you score it late in the match. This type of defense takes great coordination between all three teams of your alliance and your human players, so make sure everyone is on the same page if you plan on doing this in Steamworks.
The last major type of defense is blocking. This was made famous by the pool noodle blockers in Ultimate Ascent and the assortment of blockers last year in Stronghold (most notably 1405’s blocker that made it to Einstein Finals). Blocking is going to be tough this year. Many teams have a shot arc that will go well over the maximum height limit, and most robots have already picked the shorter configuration. But if your team is in the taller configuration and your opponents are blockable, you should definitely consider it. I personally suggest other methods of defense this year, but it has a chance to be effective.
While all these ways of playing defense are important, the most important thing to get out of this post is knowing when to play defense. This requires that you and your scouts sit down and do a quick statistical analysis of your alliance and your opponents. If everyone plays offense, you need to know if your alliance should score more or less points than your opponents. If you see that you’re going to score less but you decide to play all offense anyways, then you are basically choosing to lose the match before it has even started. After some practice with it, you can determine how much your defense can slow down other robots, and you can adjust your analysis of scores to reflect that. Remember that 10 points scored is the same as keeping your opponents from scoring 10 points, and the latter is often easier to do.
In looking at STEAMworks, there are many things to consider while thinking about defense. With how the rotors work by requiring more and more gears, stopping an alliance from getting rotors can actually be fairly straightforward, as stopping just one or two cycles can cause a massive point swing. While there are safe zones in all corners of the field, there is plenty of space before those corners to slow teams down. The GDC even put in a “five second rule” for the safe zone in front of the boiler, so you can go in and mess up a team’s shot if it will help you win. And when it comes to the climbs, while you can’t touch a team trying to climb, you can certainly stop a team from getting to their rope, especially if you either don’t have a climber or have one fast enough to go up at the last second.
Good luck in the coming weeks with STEAMworks!