Since I’ve been going through everything that is Yu-Gi-Oh! to write more manga posts for you guys, I decided to look at the concept of different kinds of non-traditional battles and whether or not they properly illustrate the conflict and move the plot forward.
Probably the best and one of the most well-known examples of non-traditional combat is “Riddles in the Dark” in The Hobbit. What makes this such an easy example to understand is that they literally go from pointing weapons at one another to throwing riddles. Out of all of the examples I’m using here, this is the one I would consider closest to actual combat. The thing with non-traditional combat is that it still there still needs to be some sort of contest, and here it is a battle of the brains. “Riddles in the Dark” is both entertaining and dramatic, while still moving the plot of the story forward. So it’s a successful example.
So let’s get on with Yu-Gi-Oh! since you already knew I was going to bring it up. Card games instead of swords. Does it work? I’d say yes. The key thing about Yu-Gi-Oh! is that they aren’t just doing what they do for shits and giggles. There is always another, larger plot arc that motivated the characters to “do battle”. For example, Yugi went to Duelist Kingdom to get his Grandpa’s soul back. The characters still have motivations outside of the game. If you took away the cards, there would still be a story, which I think means it was successful replacement for fighting with weapons.
Hikaru no Go falls short in exactly that sense. What would happen if no one played Go? Absolutely nothing. There would be no story. And while I adore Hikaru no Go, if you don’t understand the game then you are shit out of luck, at least when reading the manga. I don’t know what the anime is like, but I suppose it’s possible that it did things differently. Granted, Hikaru no Go is more of a slice-of-life story than the extraordinariness that is Yu-Gi-Oh! But when all the conflict is conducted through a game that is never entirely explained, I don’t think that it is an entirely effective device for plot movement. So while we know there is conflict, it comes at the cost of a substantial plot.
There has to be a balance between the conflict itself and the motivation for that conflict—swing too close to conflict itself and you lose your story. I couldn’t think of any examples that didn’t put too much emphasis on story because with story usually comes some sort of conflict. Why would you write a story without a conflict? It’s like a sandwich without stuff between the two pieces of bread; it’s totally pointless. And really sad. So give your stories conflict in any way you see fit. Violent, non-violent, it matters not. Both can be effective. But make sure that whatever you chose doesn’t take away from the story.