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Discussion: The essence of strategy

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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]

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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.

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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]

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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.

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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.

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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]

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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.

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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.

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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,

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