Sign in to follow this  

Discussion: The essence of strategy

This topic is 3586 days old which is more than the 365 day threshold we allow for new replies. Please post a new topic.

If you intended to correct an error in the post then please contact us.

Recommended Posts

While musing on the design of a good turn-based strategy game I posed an interesting question to myself which I would like to share with all you more experienced designers out there: What is the essence of strategy, at least as it relates to games? Let's take chess as an example: There's no city building and management, no recruiting of units, no complex battle rules and it's completely deterministic. Yet the relatively simple game of chess has far outlived even the greatest modern strategy games in terms of replayability. There are many more classic examples as well: Pente, Checkers, Go, etc. What do they all have in common and what makes them great individually? I'll start by giving you my best answer: Limitations. Many great strategy games offer you a finite space (IE, a board) with a huge range of possibilities, then apply limitations first in broad general terms before offering more specific cases and exceptions. For example checkers first tells you that you may only move diagonally and only forward, then offers the exception that kings may move backward. The strategy comes from taking advantages of your opponent's limitations while minimizing the effect of your own. But that's just one answer and it doesn't explain a great many details, so discuss: What do you think is the essence of strategy? Links to articles or previous topics on the subject are fine too, though I couldn't find any myself. As a side note, this is my first topic so I would like to say hello to everyone! I've been a lurker here for some time and Gamedev.net has always been one of my most trusted and valued sources of information, I hope that someday I can be as helpful as the rest of this great community. [smile]

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
I think a key part of strategy is that the player must have many options of what actions to take, and that the same option is not always the best, nor is the same series of choices best for every game (either because of variations in another player's actions or because of variations in the setting or objective provided by the game engine). Its also good if the player has more than one goal and various actions will help one goal but harm another so a balancing act is necessary.

Another key point is that the player must be able to see all the options and understand exactly how their effects will differ. For example if you have monsters with elemental strengths and weaknesses, play will be more strategic if you show the player what those strengths and weaknesses are and give them attacks of different elements. The more luck-based any game is the less strategy-based it is, although a game which is maybe 10% luck provides more interesting strategic play than a game like chess which is no luck at all. Perhaps the ultimate strategic gameplay to study would be the creation of Magic the Gathering decks - not the actual gameplay, which was arguably too random, but the selection from the whole available library of cards to create a deck.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Thanks for the reply sunandshadow! You've brought up many interesting points to consider, so here are some more thoughts..

If I may take the liberty of doing so I believe one of your points could combined with mine to form something that, while maybe not the essence of strategy, could be an important design consideration in any strategy game: Finding a balance between giving a player too few and too many choices in a given situation.

A player certainly must be able to make informed decisions and they must also be given at least a few possibilities that are practical. Yet they should also be presented with limits in their choices, either explicit (rules) or implicit (moving a game piece that's in jeopardy). It also seems to me that choices and limitations often work together in pairs; for example in chess a player may move only one piece on their turn, but they can (usually) move any piece in their possession. A coincidence, or an important factor?

Another interesting point to address is Magic: The Gathering decks. There are several mechanics I can see at work here that are all very fascinating. There's the concept of strategic planning before gameplay even begins which could add an excellent strategic element, especially in RTS games. Then there's the idea of player influenced randomization, where the player is given a card randomly from a set of their own choosing. I wonder what other ways randomization could come into play.

But I digress, so far it seems to me so that at the most basic level strategy in games consists of a set of choices and limitations. Using Magic the Gathering as an example this time: A player builds a deck by making choices of which cards to include based partially on the limitations of which cards they have in their possession (an explicit limitation) and which cards work together (implicit; IE, having a card the requires black mana without having any swamps isn't very useful).

Similarly during gameplay the player is limited to what cards are randomly drawn, but they have a variety of choices in which of those cards to play and how. Am I being too general? I suppose the same concept could potentially be stretched to apply to any type of gameplay. Maybe there isn't a definite one-size-fits-all answer, but I'm still interested in hearing other opinions. [smile]

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
The more important duality is the choice presented the player and the state of the game, imo. That dynamic is how you get depth. Go for example gets exceptional depth on 1 rule (your turn, place a stone) by having that choice depend and effect the game state.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
I've found that strategy games are just puzzle games that you play against one or multiple opponents. Almost all puzzle games are solitary or cooperative tasks. However, if you turn the rules around, and make it competitive, then a puzzle game becomes a strategy game.

Take, for example, a rubik's cube. The goal is to have each face have uniform color. Now, throw in a multiplayer element where each player takes turn turn the cube once with the objective of completing a specific side first. You'll find that it becomes an interesting strategy game in itself. Of course, I'm not saying converting a puzzle game into a competitive strategy game can make it fun, but it's a start.

The essence, though, of a strategy game is a series of checks and balances. No rule should give any side a distinct advantage while no rule should give any side a distinct disadvantage. The rules also need to be general for open-ness in choice, while specific enough to close loop-holes for abuse (like how erratas are a dime a dozen in Magic the Gathering). I say a strategy game is a case study in competitive puzzle solving with finite freedom.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
It is deception.

The essence of a the design of a good strategic dynamic is
the creation of dynamics that allows one entity to cause
the other entities to do as he wishes while the other
entities think that they are in control of the situation.

I don't mean all strategy games should have this dynamic,
but if you are designing strategy, this is a goal to shoot
for.

[Edited by - Wai on February 10, 2008 1:45:19 AM]

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Quote:
Limitations. Many great strategy games offer you a finite space (IE, a board) with a huge range of possibilities, then apply limitations first in broad general terms before offering more specific cases and exceptions. For example checkers first tells you that you may only move diagonally and only forward, then offers the exception that kings may move backward. The strategy comes from taking advantages of your opponent's limitations while minimizing the effect of your own.

I think you are quite close. However, rather than the "essence" of strategy, you are talking about methods to implimnet strategy.

What you are taling about is that the player can only choose a subset of options from a greater number of options. Whether it is a single choice from amny of several choices. In most TBS games the player cna move multiple units in one turn and co-ordinate their movments into a strategy. However, they are not makeing a single choice at that level (in terms of the actual placement of the unit from the many posible placments they are however).

I would say that the essence of strategy (in games) is: making a series of choices that bring the player closer to their goal.

Quote:
Perhaps the ultimate strategic gameplay to study would be the creation of Magic the Gathering decks - not the actual gameplay, which was arguably too random, but the selection from the whole available library of cards to create a deck.

Not all magic the gathering decks are just random. I was playing today with one where I could pull almost any card that I liked form the deck when I wanted. The deck I built allowed me each round to look at several cards from my deck and place them back in any order I liked. I also have a card that each round allowed me to draw 2 cards and then discard 2 any cards of my choice from my hand.

So, using these in combaination I could whittle through my deck in a few rounds to get the card that I needed. It takes a alot of the randomness out of the game. Yes, there is still randomness in there, but it does reduce it considdereably.

Actually, flexability is important to any strategy. You have to be able to adapt your strategy "on the fly" to changing conditions. Whether this is random draws of cards, or unexpected actions by your opponent, adaptation is a necessary part of any strategy. So playing Magic with randomness does not mean that ther eis no strategy involved (you just ahve to ahve a flexable strategy).

So strategy must involve both short term thinking (call it tactics) and long term thinking (true strategy). Sometimes tactical necessity will mean moving away from your long term strategy/goals, but it still fits within my defintion.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Not only limitation. Realism.
And, interaction with other players. Internet has brought us this.

And.. reward. yes, reward. A game needs to have reward for the player to feel good. I cannot stress the importance of reward.

No one wants to spend a week playing a game to find out there's no clue to the game. With Chess, there's the reward of winning from your opponent. There can not be a more satisfying reward than that.

This is so overlooked nowadays! Reward is tightly connected with the story line and realism of a game. A bad story line will make the player loose intereset in the game. Graphics and speed have replaced this elementary feature..

So, imho, if one can combine originality, interaction, reward, some decent game play, and limitation together, one has the basis for a new hit.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
I think an ultimative strategy game could be chess but could be also a RTS game. The difference is just the limitation of choices. In chess you dont have many choices and in conclusion a small mistake will let you end up loosing.

This limitation leads to a few possible situation. So chess champions are usualy guys who memorize many different situations that may come up.

The question is, do you want this in a computer game. I think this would end up in a booring game for most people.

One "strategy" game i really loved was Starcraft. Certainly there were many action elements involved, but there is a really big strategy factor. You could set up a trap. Take the risk to invest early in techs to be weak in the beginning, but then become stronger later. Attack the front of your enemy base and at the same time drop a few units from behind directly into his base. etc.

So I think some factors are very important in strategy games (no matter how complex they are).

- Both sites should have the same chances to win when the game starts. (balanced)
- The need to make decisions and set priorities to reach the final goal to win.
- Nearly no randomness (or like allready said, the option to reduce the randomness)


Btw. there is one move were you are able to move two units in chess. Its called "Castling" (if I trust my prefered translation tool, leo.org ;) ). Just a sidenote to play the wiseguy ;)

best regards,

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
One thing I think is the essence of strategy is emergence. A huge amount of complexity arises out of a small set of rules. The thing with chess is that it can get hugely complex, and yet it always remains manageable throughout that complexity. The rules are clearly defined and reasonably simple. The concepts in it are clearly defined with no ambiguity or uncertainty. When you play it, all your decisions are important and bring you closer to the goal of winning. You dont get stuck into the miniature of decisions about exactly where to put something, or how much of that you need. The subtleties and idosyncrasies of the real world which are irrelevant are removed.

Personally I think many of these so called strategy games lack almost any strategy at all, apart from perhaps attack or not attack.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Quote:
Original post by Puck
What is the essence of strategy, at least as it relates to games?


I've given quite a bit of thought to that already, actually.

I starting writing a document a while back and recently put it on Google Docs. It talks about exactly that:

The Strategy Game Designer's Constitution aims to boil out the relevant strategic principles and elements of strategy games. You might be able to pick out something you like.

I'd be very happy if people could look it over and either critique or make suggestions to add to it. I will be watching this thread for nuggets of wisdom.

[Edited by - leiavoia on February 11, 2008 10:39:58 PM]

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
I don't like the 'strategy' tag as then you get into debates over the difference between strategy and tactics. But I'll assume we're talking about the more abstract notion. I mostly concur with the deception and emergence lines, though coming at it from a different angle. The player has to be presented with choices in how to proceed, and it must generally be possible to estimate how good those choices are, but impossible to know how good they are. It is the complexity afforded by so-called emergence, and the deception in being unable to look far enough ahead, or into the mind of the opponent, which makes it impossible to know for sure how good a move is. The skill is in estimating that.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
You'd probably be interested in Game Theory.

From Wikipedia:
Quote:

Game theory is a branch of applied mathematics which is used in the social sciences (most notably economics), biology, computer science and philosophy. Game theory attempts to mathematically capture behavior in strategic situations, where an individual's success in making choices depends on the choices of others. While initially developed to analyze competitions where one individual does better at another's expense (zero sum games), it has been expanded to treat a wide class of interactions, which are classified according to several criteria.


http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Game_theory

Game Theory is an entire discipline dedicated to defining the "essence of strategy."

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Quote:
Original post by Marmin
Not only limitation. Realism.
And, interaction with other players. Internet has brought us this.


You seem have some very strange ideas. You say realism, but clearly you are not using the English definition of realism. One of the greatest strategy games of all time, which you mention later in your post, has very little to do with reality, excpt for the unit names. Chess is also a counterexample on your second point: People having been playing TBS games for several centuries before the advent of the Internet.

I've probably misunderstood you.

Anyway, I agree that emergence is key. Emergence makes it easy to learn all the rules, but the implications of the rules take years to figure out. I believe that This is what makes for good strategy. Whoever has a better grasp of the implications of what's going on wins. This will, of course vary from game to game. Really good strategy requires you to psychoanalyze your opponent to figure out what he's going to do. This is evident when two very good chess players are playing. They rely on knowledge of the opponent to improve thier guesses about what's going on in the game.

(NOTE: I make no distinction between tactic and strategy.)

Diversity is key. There should be many, many different ways to win.
When Game designers talk about "Balance", they are usually referring to preventing a single tactic from becoming dominant. This is good. If a single tactic becomes dominant, The person who has the best execution wins. This is called skill. It may not be bad(FPS games: primary tactic: shoot the enemy, move erratically) but it is not strategy. Good strategy design is setting up a system where there are a large number of viable strategies. Even better if those strategies are a continuum, rather than a set of discrete tactics.

Is it a useful dichotomy to set up skill opposed to strategy? Skill is how effectively you carry out a strategy. Chess has no skill(it's not hard to position pieces on a board) Quake 4 is almost all skill.

I really want to know what you think. Is that a false Dichotomy or a good one?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
I distinguish management from strategy.

When I look at a plan or an algorithm, I consider everything
that has nothing to do with the intention of the opponent
management, not strategy.


I also distinguish calculation from strategy.

All predictions that you make or guess disregarding the
predicted actions of the opponents are calculations, not
strategy.


I don't consider tick-tac-toe a strategy game because
only calculation is necessary to play the game.


The word strategy applies when there is an opponent,
and the correlation between the opponent's intention
and observable actions is not one-to-one.

To design a strategy game is to design an environment
where:

1) The winning condition strongly correlates to the player's
ability in deciphering the opponent's intention, which

2) is correlated to his observable actions, but

3) cannot be deterministically calculated based on the history
of his actions.


The typical fun in strategy games comes from people's
inability to shed their mindsets. This makes it possible
for a player to guess the intention of the opponent (or
mistakingly believes that he guessed the intention of the
opponent). After a few rounds, the essential property
that sustains a strategy game is in its ability to sustain
deception.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Quote:
After a few rounds, the essential property
that sustains a strategy game is in its ability to sustain
deception.

I like Wai's take on this. However..
Quote:
I don't consider tick-tac-toe a strategy game because
only calculation is necessary to play the game.

Only calculation is necessary to play chess, so following your logic, chess is not a strategy game. Yet many would consider it to be a definitive strategy game. And I would say it's a strategy game for us, because despite it being calculable, much of the game tree is effectively hidden from our tiny brains. And even less effective calculators would find tic-tac-toe to be a strategy game.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Quote:
Original post by Argus2
Quote:
I don't consider tick-tac-toe a strategy game because
only calculation is necessary to play the game.

Only calculation is necessary to play chess, so following your logic, chess is not a strategy game. Yet many would consider it to be a definitive strategy game. And I would say it's a strategy game for us, because despite it being calculable, much of the game tree is effectively hidden from our tiny brains. And even less effective calculators would find tic-tac-toe to be a strategy game.


I too like how this discussion is going, however, I'd disagree with both of you on this point. I don't think that tik-tac-toe is solely calculation, as there is still an element of trying to decifer the opponent's strategy involved. However, since the opponent has so few moves available, and all of his moves are visible immediately, this element is very close to negligible.

With chess, on the other hand, while playing by simply min-maxing the available moves is possible, most people get the best results by recognising emerging strategies of the opponent (patterns) and trying to react/counter to those. Chess would become calculation only if players all worked on min-maxing (choosing moves based on maximizing the return to self and minimizing the risk to self). As human players don't work like this, it's often better to try and analyse their overall strategy.

That's my take on it, anyway.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Id disagree magic is a random game as well

not only can you make decks that remove most randomness,

you can tell a good deck from a bad one, because a bad one
needs that random luck to win/survive.

I think any game that lets players compete, offers the opportunities
to be played forever, in comp games, technology does get to far ahead
if it ever hit a point, of this is as far as it goes the end,
a absolutely no idea what could possibly be evolution of games is brought out
I bet you would still be able to find a group that runs a MUD.

chess really can't improve, its at a fixed point
(thought the 4 player chess that I played in high school was interesting)

So im bored of starcraft, im also bored of chess, haven't played for bout 10 years
while some people are still playing chess, some are still playing starcraft

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Well looking at chess you can consider a couple of things that make it strategic. They were already talked about but lets list them.

Choices that impact the following
Ability to conceal intent
Ability to see enemies intent
Ability to set trap(putting enemy at a disadvantage)
Ability to avoid trap(being put at a disadvantage)
Ability to achieve certain goals (Chess has one ultimate victory condition but other games may have multiple victory conditions)
The ability to whittle down an opponent(sub goals to achieve that establish an advantage)

The importance placed on thinking ahead
The importance placed on the ability to adapt
The importance placed on balancing attack and defense
The importance placed on taking advantage of your limited resources

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
As another poster pointed out. Strategy is what happens when the player can't hold the whole state space in their mind at once. tic tac toe isn't strategic to just about anyone over the age of six because at any stage of the game you know how to win or tie you don't have to employ a strategy to play the game. Strategy by definition is making a move with out knowing ahead of time if it will be successful. If it is known "winner" then it is an algorithm not a strategy.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Wow, I'm amazed to see so many replies! There are so many great thoughts and ideas in this thread it's hard to keep up, but I'll try to provide some more thoughts on some of them at least.

Quote:
I've found that strategy games are just puzzle games that you play against one or multiple opponents. Almost all puzzle games are solitary or cooperative tasks. However, if you turn the rules around, and make it competitive, then a puzzle game becomes a strategy game.

This is a very good point. The validity of the statement would depend largely on the implementation of it I believe, though in every case I can think of it could be true. For example if a game like Gridlock were made into a simple split-screen game it could become a competitive puzzle game with no real element of strategy, but if both players were forced to work with the same board and compete to reach the exit first then strategy comes into play. One could theoretically even hinder their opponent and make progress toward their own goal by moving a single block in this type of game.

Quote:
It is deception.

As you state this isn't necessarily the essence of strategy since a good strategy game can exist without it. I do believe it is still good advice on the actual design of a strategy game though.

Quote:
I think you are quite close. However, rather than the "essence" of strategy, you are talking about methods to implimnet strategy.

Very true. The line between the two is somewhat blurry, so it's easy to confuse them. I'll try to avoid that in the future.

Quote:
One thing I think is the essence of strategy is emergence. A huge amount of complexity arises out of a small set of rules.

Thanks for this thought! This answer is very close in my opinion, plus it gave me a new term to research. There are many other good answers here though, despite being quite different from this one. There's also a question of where it lies on the line between concept and implementation..

Quote:
I've given quite a bit of thought to that already, actually.(...)

Thanks for sharing! I thoroughly enjoyed reading the document, though I'm afraid I'm not in a position to offer any critique. It seems you've already put far more thought into the subject than I have. [smile]

Quote:
I don't like the 'strategy' tag as then you get into debates over the difference between strategy and tactics.

Borrowing from leiavoia's excellent writing I would, for the purposes of discussion, define strategy as the accumulation of short-term actions (tactics) toward a long term goal. Discussion of tactics is by no means forbidden, but when I refer to "strategy" that is my intended meaning. Sorry if I caused any confusion!

Quote:
As another poster pointed out. Strategy is what happens when the player can't hold the whole state space in their mind at once.

So then by that definition a strategy game would any complex, competitive game. Emergence seems like a good companion to that, since it lends complexity to the game without complicating matters unnecessarily for the player like the resource management and/or long lists of rules that some strategy games implement.

I'm afraid I don't have anything new or radically different to contribute at the moment, but I'll keep thinking on it and watching here for further insight. [smile]

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

This topic is 3586 days old which is more than the 365 day threshold we allow for new replies. Please post a new topic.

If you intended to correct an error in the post then please contact us.

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now

Sign in to follow this