Series Info...Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #150:

Strategy & Tactics

by Shannon Appelcline

Strategy & Tactics

Any number of elements go into making an online game good. Many games are about socialization, and I've discussed often in the previous 150 articles about how to empower socialization. Storytelling is often a popular focus too, and so I've talked about setting, plots, theme, and other important storytelling elements previously in this column.

A third element important to making a good online game is, simply, gameplay. In other words: allowing players to make difficult & meaningful decisions that could better (or worsen) their lot in life. To be honest, I don't think a lot of online games to date have concentrated much on gameplay. Socialization games often don't even touch upon it, while achievement games instead offer gameplay free of decisions ("click the dragon") or else gameplay where decisions are obvious ("runaway if my health drops below 20%").

So this week, I want to talk about the topic. In the process I'll be revisiting my old friend, the tabletop strategy game, and see what lessons it can offer us for improving gameplay in online games.

Strategy vs. Tactics

When talking about gameplay, it's first important to divide it into two main categories: strategy and tactics.

Strategy means that you can make long-term plans which will develop throughout the game and have long-lasting effects.

The Settlers of Catan is a good example of a game with strategic play. At the beginning of a game, you choose where to specialize your resource production, usually in wood & brick or in ore & wheat. This has direct results in what you can build, and as the game goes on it gives you unique access to certain victory conditions (longest road & largest army, respectively, for the two strategies). In addition, your strategy is highly specialized, which means that other players can't easily overtake it (as adding new production is possible, but takes real work).

(Generally, specialization should be considered a requirement of strategy, because without it--if players can easily change from one strategy to another with no loss--you don't actually have long-term strategy, just tactics.)

Tactics means that you can look at a specific situation on the board and figure out a "best-case" move, then take it. There's not much thought about long-term good here, but only short-term reward. Usually tactics appears in games with a high chaos factor (see Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #106, The Random Factor). If you can't predict how the game will change from turn to turn, then you have to fall back on tactics.

Carcassonne is a so-so example of a tactical game. Every turn you draw an individual tile from a draw pile, then try and figure out how to make it best fit onto the board. Often an experienced player will fall back upon calculating the point score for himself for each individual play to determine where the tile should go.

I say it's a so-so example, because there is strategy in Carcassonne regarding how tiles stack up from one turn to another. I've played plenty of more tactical games, including Reiner Knizia's Samurai, Dos Rios, and Reiner Knizia's Kingdoms. In each one the board changes enough each time around that you really have to make a one-time decision, and effectively takes your points and run--but I picked Carcassonne out because it shows at least some of the ideals, and is much more popular than any of the others.

Meaningful Decisions

In order for strategy or tactics to work, the decisions involved must be meaningful. This has a couple of different facets.

First, the decisions must be difficult. If there's always one best strategy or always one choice in a tactical array that's obviously the correct one, you don't have strategy or tactics in your game at all.

Second, the decisions must have repercussions. If you make a decision, but both of the results are the same (either now, or inevitably), that's not a decision at all.

The best games I've played are the ones that make me absolutely cringe over a decision. Ticket to Ride, the recent Game of the Year in Germany, is just such a game. Each turn you can either choose to collect cards, which you need to lay tracks; or you can choose to lay tracks by playing cards. If you collect cards, someone else might snatch up a location you'd choosen to lay track, while if you lay tracks you might lose out on some cards that would have been ideal for your current building plans. (Note that this game makes the decision meaningful through twin contraints: limited building locations and limited cards. It's one of many ways to make decisions tough.)

False Strategy

One of the things that bugs me most in a game is "false strategy". This is to say, something that looks like strategy, but actually doesn't have meaningful decisions underlying it. When I write reviews of games with false strategy, I often get into trouble with fans of the game, because they feel the game is highly strategic, while I feel like I've seen through the veneer (and found that the Emperor wasn't wearing any clothes).

Nautilus is a game that falls solidly into this category for me. In this game you make a decision between 5 different technologies to upgrade, and by doing so hope to achieve premier status in that technology, and thus gain additional victory points. Unfortunately, there's no way to stay ahead in the technological race, and thus your seemingly strategic decision becomes meaningless by the end of the game.

Smugglers of the Galaxy is another recent game built on almost the same fallacy. You have a spaceship that you can upgrade in five different technologies. Choosing an individual technology appears to be important, but in actuality everyone will have the same set of maximum upgrades within an hour. Specialization failed, and so the apparently strategic decision turned false.

It's just as easy to have false tactics as false strategies if you imply an immediate decision that actually isn't meaningful. Here I had problems with Age of Mythology: The Boardgame. In combat you make a round-by-round tactical decision about which of your troops to send into the fray. Each troop is better against certain enemy troops and worse against others. There appears to be a pretty clear tactics here, centering around which troop to choose.

Unfortunately, the choice fails on both extremes. Most often an opponent will have a pretty full complement of troops, and some of your troops will be better against some of theirs and worse against others. A random choice is just as meaningful as one that's agonized over. In the rare case where an opponent has gaps in his troop types, the choice instead becomes obvious: you have a troop that's better against every one of theirs, and so you use it.

(Before closing here, I'd like to say that the obvious strategy or tactic is just as dangerous to a game as the false strategy or tactic--it's just a lot easier to explain and to see, and so I haven't gone into it to the same length).

As an aside, note that this all goes back to my discussion of decisions in Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #105, Designing Strategy: Decision Sets. Strategy & tactics are the language of decisions, and saying they must be meaningful also says that the options in a decision set must be meaningful.

Back to Online Games

If you're doing some type of strategic online game, the use of carefully considered strategy and tactics should be obvious. However, these decisions should also be considered for your MMORPGs; in particular, any mechanical subsystem of an MMROPG should have important strategic or tactical decisions built into it.

Consider combat systems, for example. If you're just clicking a monster until it's dead, there's not a lot of strategy or tactics there, and as a result your combat will probably be seen as the treadmilled hoop-jumping that it is. However, if instead every type of character, from fighters to magicians, from netrunners to cyborgs, has important tactical decisions (what spell to use? what manuever to initiate? what cover to use?), each combat will become a mini-game that's fun in and of itself.

No, it's not the easiest route to take as a programmer, but the easy routes are rarely the rewarding ones.

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