What makes a good Strategy game? Seriously!

Ok, I’m a bit hyped up on coffee, so apologies in advance…

But I’ve been thinking about strategy games and what makes them good, or not. I’m not able to put this very well into words, hence this post, hoping some folks out there will be more coherent and expressive.

Thing is, I find some strategy games a real chore. They just aren’t interesting. For example, the Total War series has, in my opinion, a fairly dull strategy game. There aren’t many interesting development decisions to make and the diplomatic decisions tend to be either pretty obvious or entirely irrelevant.

For example, usually in TW you grab a town off NPCs and then build a series of buildings, proceeding to upgrade the buildings as you go. If I could queue up 100 years of construction I would happily do so as there’s not much point in deviating from the production possible.

Ignoring town building, large choices tend to be simple. Is this a front-line unit producing town, or a money producing town? That’s about it.

Diplomacy? Well, you try to ally with a good number of people until you pick a victim and spank them with your uber-stack. You may need to involve allies, but often you don’t.

Challenge in the TW series comes from being small at the start or facing random stacks of bad guys (mongols).

At this point I should offer some other examples of bad strategy games, but I don’t want to labour the point. Perhaps it’s best to summarise bad strategy games as saying they feature:

  • No interesting decisions
  • …or meaningless decisions
  • No difficult decisions
  • No sense of balancing demands
  • Meaningless interaction with AI/NPCs
  • Mid-game “unbeatable” stacks
  • End-game “I’m rich and rocking, time to destruct you” boredom.

So what about good strategy games? Can we learn any lessons? I’d tend to argue that good strategy board games really understand how to make a game nail biting. But perhaps that’s because they have very constrained time frames (say, 12 turns) and rules environments. Puerto Rico, Tempus, Caylus, Shogun/Wallenstein are just a few I can think of which require constant nail biting decision making.

In the realm of PC games I’m tending to suggest that Paradox tends to offer interesting strategy games with real choice, but I’m not sure they do. Increasing complexity does not necessarily make for a better game, to a degree it can just mask how few and far between the interesting decisions are. That being said, they do have a following for a reason.

KODP comes to mind as an interesting strategy game. Because of the randomness thrown at the player there seems to be a constant balancing act required. At the same time, decisions players make (who to help or not) come back to haunt them, making decisions even more important (ie, there are immediate and long term outcomes).

Other than that I’m kinda drawing a blank.

If you’ve lasted this far, you’ve done well. Stream of conscious posting FTW. I had to get this niggle off my chest though. Ta.

I can’t necessarily disagree with your points on the TW series, but I enjoy it a lot anyway. Same with the paradox games. It’s probably because what I like in PC strategy games is the ‘pocket universe’ aspect of watching systems interact, having lots of rich detail and content and having ideas/settings that I enjoy represented. It’d be nice if it were challenging, but that’s not really the main draw. Narrow, abstract boardgamey-type strategy games don’t really offer that kind of stuff, so while they might be a better test of your strategizing mettle, they don’t appeal to me very much. It’s one reason I’ve never been able to get into the CCG-style games that have been popping up in recent years

I think the problem is that there are (IMHO) two types of “strategy” games out there. One type is constantly active (most RTS games) and the other is slower paced. The slower paced type usually gives the player a broad range of things to do that in and of themselves are not that interesting: how to develop this town, some tech choices with long-term impacts, etc. But those choices add up to a major influence in letting the player play the game the way they want and not be constrained by default or AI controlled handling of the “boring” stuff.

And Total War is kind of an unfair example since it’s really about the tactical battles wedded to a fairly simple strategy level. While the strategy side has gotten deeper compared to the first games, it’s still a long way from the complex strategy titles. So there is a trade-off in that series that is intentional. While many of us would love to marry a deep strategy game with a fun tactical battle option, that particular nut has yet to be cracked.

Ignoring tactical battles then, can we look at some great strategy games and distill what makes them great? For me PC games miss the mark more often than hitting it, but make you think there’s interesting depth there through player busy-work.


Turn-based doesn’t impress me either way. I much prefer WEGO or WEGO-fused games. This isn’t about turn based vs’ real time.

I think a big problem is that too many so called strategy games put much too much emphasis on the “economic foundation” and research/tech trees.

Examples are the Civ and Galciv series. Conflicts in those games are determined (almost predetermined) by the production and technology work done before said conflicts start.
The actual strategy is of minor importance and only the abilities of a human player vs AIs make it possible to break out of the determinism.
That is often the actual fun part in those games though, the challenge to win despite having a “basic” disadvantage in the game world (i.e less cities).

I would even say that a big part of the appeal of those games is the ability to shift along a scale from:
-“efficient empire management with a perfect initial colony/settlement rush and an optimized research tree”
to the other end of:
-“minimized management-micro and maximum exploitation of human traits and abilities”
Strategy is often neglected though, as at one extreme of the scale the economic and technologic foundation is simply too overwhelming and on the other extreme the player leaves the game world and its rules behind and uses a set of abilities the AIs cannot even dream of.

Especially “successful” sessions (and many AARs) often utilize both ends of the spectrum, with a well managed empire and intentional exploitation of the AIs.

Good strategy games require other human players and a balance of management, interaction and choice based gameplay.

For my taste it comes down to these things:

  • The classic “interesting decisions” is a good start, but in particular boring and repetitive choices ruthlessly excised.
  • Variety in players’ factions and position, so that various actions have different values for different players.
  • Overlap between long term and short term decisions, for that “just one more turn” feel.
  • Relatively snappy, preferably with WEGO-ish turns.
  • A middle and endgame that don’t bog down under the weight of exponential growth in mircomanagement.

Some lesser areas, but still important IMHO:

  • Fog of War.
  • A strong setting.
  • Interesting and/or novel scenarios.
  • Novel game mechanic twists and refinements.
  • AI that aims to feel like playing against a person.

Recently I find that strategy board games have been far more compelling than strategy computer games, with the sole exceptions being Civ 4 and to a lesser extent Dominions.

Some relatively recent examples, off the top of my head and in no particular order:
Wealth of Nations
Twilight Imperium 3
Fire and Axe
Power Grid
Game of Thrones
Sword of Rome
Hammer of the Scots
Mare Nostrum

Good points Therlun. Computer strategy games generally leave way to little scope in the actual handing of events, with your success primarily depending upon figuring out or just looking up a good build/research order, or worse, micromanagment.

Power Grid is a really good example, constantly tense, all decisions have long term impact, mistakes cost you.

Is it possible to get a computer strategy game to feel the same? If I play Empire Total War as Napoleon and get to the stage of owning half of Europe I am pretty damn sure I won’t go on to lose, the innevitableness and lack of subtletly in most strategy games bugs me and I want to fix them. Don’t know how though.

One game that really does give me some tense decisions is Conquest of the Aegean, but it isn’t the sort of grand strategy we are talking about. Tenseness in COTA comes from getting timings right and trying to out-think the enemy, which is clever. It’s decisions with consequences stuff.

That’s one of the major problems of (grand) strategy games.
They don’t manage to overcome the slippery slope of tactical rules.
A big empire in a game is more stable and stronger than its smaller neighbours.

Introducing limits has disadvantages too though.
For example Civ 3-style corruption. The more cities you had the more production got wasted. In theory that should have weakened huge empires, in practise it just was frustrating to the player and bigger was still better.

That sparks an idea though…

You can not make a strategy-game turn-based without making it extremely abstracted, like Civilization as an example.

With turn-based game, you run into the problems of granularity, and tackling issues that have different durations in time is part of what makes strategy games challenging.

Not that Chess is not a damn good strategy game.

One thing we tried in Crusader Kings was limit on direct control, and the other had to be controlled by vassals. It works rather good, but does feel wrong outside of a feudal time-period.

In EU: Rome, we discussed this very issue alot during the design phase, and our “anti-big-empire” mechanism was the threat of barbarian invasions and the civil-war mechanisms, which both were more likely to be a danger the bigger you were.

Agreed. The only thing I don’t like about Power Grid is that it suffers badly from the “everyone knows the game is ending this turn” syndrome, rewarding some very gamey play. On the plus side, it’s been nicely refined over the years, both with new boards, and especially with the rebalanced power plant deck.

Is it possible to get a computer strategy game to feel the same? If I play Empire Total War as Napoleon and get to the stage of owning half of Europe I am pretty damn sure I won’t go on to lose, the innevitableness and lack of subtletly in most strategy games bugs me and I want to fix them. Don’t know how though.

This for me is largely a matter of computer games having weak victory conditions, with games often extending well beyond the point they’re actually over, or not having enough dampening factors of the sort that made conquering all of Europe historically difficult.

I’ve been toying around with the idea of more achievable boardgame-style victory conditions, linking generated “Scenario Continuations” in a dynamic campaign. Essentially, scenarios would be generated from the end-position of previous scenarios, each representing a new “interesting times” where the equilibrium reached in the previous game is upset. Sort of an extension to random map generation.

So you could have something akin to the conquests of Alexander or Ghengis, with the followup scenario involving their successor states. Or you could have a scenario end with the foundation of the Han empire, have the next scenario be about chaos in the realm, which they beat and survive, only to have the empire fail in the 3rd scenario and split into Three Kingdoms. Something similar could be done for the rise and fall of the Roman Empire.

There are several things in particular I like about this approach:

  1. It avoids tedious end games, and keeps the climax rightly at the end of the game.
  2. From a multi-player standpoint it allows players to more easily add, drop, play after defeat, or switch sides.
  3. It feels much more like actual history to me.

Similar mechanisms exist in many GMT board games, e.g. Sword of Rome, where you must play cards to move your units, and typically can’t move them all. Hammer of the Scotts also does this schtick nicely, where the English have superior military power, but are hamstrung by their difficulty in wintering troops in Scotland.

In EU: Rome, we discussed this very issue alot during the design phase, and our “anti-big-empire” mechanism was the threat of barbarian invasions and the civil-war mechanisms, which both were more likely to be a danger the bigger you were.

I’ve always been fond of this approach too, which I first saw in Avalon Hills “Civilization” board game. Some of the worst calamities had much more impact on strong players, for example Iconoclasm and Heresy reducing your cities down to a fixed number, or Civil War only really hurting if you were above a certain size. Those doing well had the added burden of purchasing defenses against these risks, and even with protection they tended to level the field.

Sword of Rome also has an interesting twist on this. There are 4 “Main Powers” vying for control of Italy (without the expansion): Romans, Gauls, Greeks, and Etrusans + Samnites. Then there are “Neutral Powers”: Transalpine Gauls, Volsci, and Carthage, which through appropriate card play can be controlled by anyone but their neighbors… It’s like having “Barbarian Hordes”, but knowing they’ll strike when it hurts most, rather than just be a random risk.

Civ 3’s corruption was an example of such limits done wrong; Civ 4 does a much better job with it’s ramping maintenance cost. In general such limits I think are a good thing, despite the possibility of screwing them up – you’ve got to do something about “Infinite City Sprawl”.

One of my recent favorite growth limiting factors is the handling of logistics in Twilight Imperium 3, command points end up being a parallel currency, used for moving your forces, activating your factories, and also supply of fleets (i.e. stacking limits). Bigger empires don’t necessarily have more command points, and so become increasingly inflexible relative to the amount of territory they must defend.

Game of Thrones does a similar thing, by simply giving you a limited number of orders – you can typically only move two stacks.

Can you explain what you mean by abstracted?

I mentioned the Paradox games and their several approaches to address the issue in my initial drafts of both my posts, but removed the references to keep it short.

I agree that in Crusader Kings the demesne-related system was pretty good in this regard.
While having a certain “house-power” of provinces directly under your control was an advantage it was also generally desirable to give valuable lands to worthwhile vassals.

While CK was indeed designed to be played that way and has an advantage becasue of that I’m not sure about the “does feel wrong outside of a feudal time-period”.
I would have had no problem with a very hands-off combat system in EU:Rome, where you give a character some troops and general orders and have him act independently/AI controlled vs the enemy general(s).

With RFC, Rhye used this somewhat opaque stability system on an earth map to ensure that large empires were almost guaranteed to fall. If you expand into other empire’s core areas, or have a weak economy, have lots of cities, or lose a bunch of units (especially outside of your borders) you start to lose stability points. The older and larger your empire is, the greater the likelihood of collapse (which turns all of an AI civ’s cities independent, but leaves you with the capital so that you can rebuild).

So the game starts out with Egypt, India, and China, all of which are almost guaranteed to collapse, and then adds more and more civs to the game over time. When Nationalism is discovered, many of the civs that collapsed/were destroyed have a chance of being reborn and retaking their homelands. When a civ is born or reborn, if the AI holds the land it immediately steals all the cities on its core area. If you hold the land, you can either cede the cities or fight a war in which a good number of your troops defect and you lose cultural control over the area.

It works really well and makes expansion rather nail biting. Get too big and you’ll collapse either due to maintenance or stability. Stay small and you’ll probably lose.

Another neat trick is that you have one swap on spawn. So if you’re playing the Egyptians and get bored because you own everything (or, more realistically, because you’re tired of getting boned up the butt by barbs) you can swap to the Romans or the Arabs or the French or whatever when they spawn. You only get one swap though, which kinda sucks but is apparently a balance thing.

I think one of the big reasons that there’s a big gap in quality between board strategy games and computer strategy games - the former being (IMHO) much better designed than the latter - is that for the most part computer strategy games are designed to be won by the player. In fact, Soren Johnson wrote an article along these lines about 6 months ago I think - the AI shouldn’t be so good that it crushes the player, it should be just good enough to make the player think they’re facing some kind of challenge before letting them win.

Whereas board strategy games are designed to be interesting for a group of three or four or more people, most of whom are going to lose. The game has to be satisfying on a deeper level than just “winning is fun”. And because of various other constraints, this tends to mean the game is designed to have a small number of decisions that can be made relatively quickly, and yet, every decision matters, so that at the end of a 45 minute or a 3 hour playing session, you feel tired but satisfied, having been totally gripped by the intense conflict you’ve been engaged in… whereas computer strategy games tend to be filled with all kinds of “simulatory” decisions that don’t really mean much. You play for 7 or 8 or 9 hours running in a kind of stupor, half-conscious of what you’re doing but mostly just mechanically carrying out all the busywork necessary to implement the one strategic decision you made, 6 hours ago, or worse still, just mechanically responding to whatever the computer players are throwing at you. People praise strategy games for having the “one more turn” quality, but really, if what you’re thinking is “just one more turn and maybe I’ll see something happen (in consequence of a decision I made two hours ago)” then that’s bad design.

The other thing is, way more time and love is lavished on the design of boardgames than of computer games, at least, relative to their complexity. The people who made Caylus, as I understand it, spent over a year playtesting and balancing it before they were satisfied. At a mechanical level, it is a far simpler game than Civ or EU3 or any of the other major strategy contenders on the PC. But in terms of strategic depth, I would argue Caylus leaves those games for dead.

I think the one strategy game I would exempt from this criticism is Crusader Kings, which… suffers from some of the same sorts of problems but is fascinating more as a simulation than as a strategy game. Because it’s genuinely difficult to know what’s going to happen, and has a set of believable constraints on expansion, and “feels right” for the period, I think it’s an outstanding game. But it’s not really a strategy game in the way that a Martin Wallace game is.

Yeah, I was going to mention Crusader Kings but decided not to spam (more). The vassal system I liked and I liked the fact that you had to deal with managing your inbred family, kept things interesting!

By the way, are we going to see a HoI3 AAR soon, Johan? I want to link it to afteractionreporter.com :)

Am still curious as to what computer strategy games out there do a great job. A big fact amongst comments seems to be historical truthiness.

Oh, I was pondering the problem of the innevitable rise when it occurred to me that we don’t link mechanisms enough, eg, faster tech development could lead to greater instability. More of this sort of interlocking of relationships, like the Civ mod mentioned, would be good perhaps.

Apologies in advance for iPhone spelling errors. Scrolling in a box is hard.