On strategy game design

As a person who enjoys various strategy games, I thought I could write something about them. The post is long and somewhat analytical, but I’m writing from my experience as a player.

Disclaimer

I am not a game designer, I have never designed or implemented a game, and I don’t know much about the process. Neither am I particularly good in them. I do, however, enjoy them. Also, I am aware that my taste and enjoyability criteria differ signifficantly from other people’s.

This analysis is not intended to be a source of information, or to force my view onto you. I intend to write a sequel with a couple of proposal for new game concepts and maybe some hints at their implementation.

But first, let’s see what makes a good strategy game:

Strategy game elements

Strategy

A good game must reqiure thinking, making decisions, and most importantly, planning. A wise man once said “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail”. Your success in the game should depend on whether you make the right decisions at crucial moments.

An important part of a strategy game is also how important is a player’s intellect versus trained skill. Should the more intelligent player always win, or should experience of the game be the decisive factor? That is one of the harder decisions the game designers must make. However, the decision is not all: actually producing a game which is hard to learn is a major task. That’s where complexity and open-endedness are useful, because it’s hard to learn and plan all the possible outcomes.

Imitation of real life

This isn’t a reqiurement for games, but it is what separates strategy games from logic/thinking ones. Both Chess and Go were made to imitate real life, notably war. That’s understandable, as strategic planning was most important there. However, none of early games could be effectively used to plan for real life events, because of thier limitations. The board was always the same and all players had nearly identical chances of winning. This could in no way describe the real world, where different circumstances and unforeseen events.

This field changed dramatically with the arrival of computer games. Modern strategy games can simulate warfare in various terrains, with very different units and effects. Yes still, anything other than tactical battling is still beyond what computers can do. Diplomacy, altough present in many games, is far from being what it is in reality.

The goal of imitating real life brings us to another aspect of life which is absent in the classic strategy games:

Random events

Life has a number of events, decisions and circumstances for which we have no working mathematical model. We can only describe them as chaotic, or random. Many games try to simulate this by rolling dice or flipping a coin. For computer games, random number generators have taken this largely hated role. The amount of luck is also a very important factor in a game: mostly luck-based games are generally less entertaining. However, having the game completely predictable usually causes the game to repeat itself. A good example is chess: throughout the history, new strategies formed. Recently, however, a project was started to iterate over all possible board positions and determine who is the winner in each of them. As far as I’ve heard, they’ve only processed some of the possible endings and not the whole middle-game, but with the number of combination limited, it’s only a matter of time. Such attempts have been unsuccesful for Go, but only because the number of possible positions is much greater. Sometimes you have to include a randomness element to test the adaptability of players to a new situation.

Games with little or none random events can usually determine the better player after only one or few games, while more luck-reliant ones have to be played many times. That is usually done with card games, so that on average players get roughly the same quality of cards.

Balance

In order to entertain its players, a game must have a mixture of some or all of the above. Different games, often with different target audience, add different elements to the mixture. There are games that go to extremes on one end, and there are games that try to be jacks of all trades. I’ll try to comment on the balance for each indiviual type of game.

Notable strategy games

Chess, Go and their variants

I mentioned both Chess and Go a number of times, as they are the most famous and popular classic strategy games. There of course exist several similar or not so similar variants, and also some games I don’t know about yet fall into the samo category. What’s common to all of them is that there’s no luck factor. That means everything depends on the players’ minds alone. Their talents, training and feeling are put to the extremely fair test. The lack of randomness also means that repeated matches between two player often play the same.

Board games

Most famous games in this category are Monopoly, Risk and others, where the objective is usually to somehow rule the board. These games include both planning ahead and a random element, most often rolling dice. Games like Warhammer and derivatives fall into this category as well. They are probably as close as you can get to imitating real life situations without a computer. History and popularity even after computers appeared shows that those games can strike a good balance of skill and luck.

Computer games

Those of course differ from one another greatly, from versions of the classical games to the uniquely computer ones. I’ll focus on the latter, as the rest are already covered.

Computer strategy games can be divided into real-time and turn-based. These are in theory just two ways to play the same game, but mostly turn-based ones are more skill-intensive, while real-times games tend to reqiure fast thinking and quick responses. Both put a big emphasis on simulating life, even games set in a futuristic environment. Popular examples include the Civilization series, Age of Empires, Sim City and many others that I haven’t played.

Now of course different computer games were made for different players. Some of the more thinking games, like the Minesweeper and many of KDE Games, focus mostly on the player’s skill and try to minimize the effects or randomness. Others, like The Sims, try (and fail) hard to describe everyday life.

Card games

One could call the classic card games (Poker & co) strategy, but they are more of thinking games, as they do nothing to imitate real life, and most of them doesn’t require much planning. There are, however, card games similar to computer strategy games, these are the Collectible/Trading Card Games (known as CCG or TCG). The first and arguably best is Magic: The Gathering, other popular ones are Yu-Gi-Oh, WoW and Pokemon. The games are quite similar in their core: the players put fighting creatures and things to help them on the table, where they battle out with their points. Usually the better effects use more resources.

The strategic planning is shown two-fold in this type of games: Deck construction and actual playing. Deck construction (choosing the cards you are going to have in your pile) is usully the more important part, especially if both players are good and experienced enough to not make major mistakes.

Such games seldom try to imitate actual reality and mostly include magical effects. Nevertheless, they all have a flavor or a backstory to them, or are even based upon a story.

The luck factor is obvios, as the player gets a random subsets of the cards he has in his deck. Mostly games try to minimize it, but it is very important to its strategy. Any serious tournament also has 2-out-of-three or more matches to offset the probability of getting a bad combination of cards in your hand.

What is missing?

I plan to write a new post about some ideas for new and different approaches, some possible and some probably not. If you have any idea or feedback to provide in the meantime, pleaso do so.

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2 responses to this post.

  1. http://www.kingdomstoconquer.com/ is a good strategy game ^^

    Reply

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