|Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #101:
Strategic Introductions: Tabletop Games
January 2, 2003 - Welcome friends to a new year, a new century of TT&T articles, and also a new topic for discussion: strategy games.
Traditionally this column has been about roleplaying games online roleplaying games to be specific, with particular attention paid to the games at Skotos, including Castle Marrach, The Eternal City and Grendel's Revenge, which have all acted as excellent examples over the course of this series. But, roleplaying games are no longer the entirety of the Skotos experience, and thus not the entirety of what I think about when I'm designing.
We introduced our first strategic game to the Skotos community way back in April of 2001. That was Galactic Emperor: Succession, a game that we ultimately had to pull, as I've chronicled elsewhere. However, since then, in March of 2002, we introduced a second strategic game, Galactic Emperor: Hegemony, and that game has achieved its expected level of success a small, solid, loyal community of players.
Because of the success of Hegemony we'd like to introduce more strategic games to Skotos, as a complement to our strong roleplaying community. We have a few offerings on the table from external designers. Heck, I'm even hoping to produce another Galactic Emperor game myself, called Merchant Kings, if time allows. I'm not sure which will work out and which won't, but I have high hopes that by the end of 2003 we'll have at least one more strategic game out there, and thus be able to start forming a real community of strategic game players.
Which leads me back to this column and the ones that follow. I want to try and distill some of lessons I've learned about strategic games in the last couple of years and in actuality, over a much longer period than that; I've been playing strategic computer games for close to two decades, and even designed one strategic board game, with a very good friend, called Doom of the Old Ones six or eight years ago. (It's, alas, unpublished.)
So, prepare yourself for a series of a fair length. I've got a total of fourteen or fifteen columns lined up on strategy, starting with game components and running to end games and variants, with examples made of The Settlers of Catan and Civilization along the way.
If you're a roleplaying designer, I encourage you to stick around for these strategic talks. I think a lot of the design of strategy games applies to roleplaying games as well, and I plan to make that explicit in the planned final article, "The Strategy-RPG Connection".
A Nod To History
In actuality, this isn't my first TT&T article on strategy. As I've already said, strategy has been an element of the Skotos community for almost two years. If you're particularly interested in the topic, you might want to read the following past articles.
These ones were explicitly about the design of the Galactic Emperor series of games:
This article also mentioned Galactic Emperor, but wasn't as specific to the genre:
This article was about the Survivor TV show, which is essentially a strategy game of a different sort:
Defining Strategy Games
Before I get much further, it's probably useful to define what I mean when I say "strategy games". Generally, I mean games whose heart involves players strategizing rather than roleplaying, but I'll be talking more about the specific differences between strategy and RP genres in just a bit.
I believe that strategy games can be perhaps better defined as those that tend to emphasize thinking, not interpersonal skills (like roleplaying games do), not social icebreaking (like party games do), and not physical skills or talents (like athletic games do).
Strategy games are best exemplified by their tabletop incarnations, which are what I'm going to mostly concentrate upon in this series of columns. Checkers, Chess, and Backgammon are the old favorites. Perhaps you played Candyland as a child, Clue while growing up, or Risk in college. Europeans gamers might have played The Settlers of Catan, Carcassonne, or other bestsellers. These games mostly tend to be classified as "board games", and I was tempted to use that name as the basis of these columns until I came to the conclusion it was too limiting.
In my book, strategy games also include card games of all types. War, Old Maid, Poker, Bridge, Hearts, and a host of others. In addition strategy games also include games which use less common tokens, such as Yahtzee, dominos, Chinese checkers, any number of miniature games, and Go. I'll be talking some more about those weird types of tokens next week.
I do expect traditional board games to be the heart of my discussion, because they tend to combine complexity, player choice, and good design in the best ratios, but don't be surprised if I stray now and then; it's all strategy.
Of slightly more relevance to us as online game designers are the phenomenon called web games. I do plan to visit those as well, starting with the fourth article in this series, but in all honesty they're still at a fairly primitive level of design with a much more limited history of design thought. A lot are just crude adaptations of board or single-person computer games, without much consideration for the strengths and weaknesses of the web game medium. On the other hand, new games being developed solely for the web more often tend to be amateur affairs. Some of the best web games do show very good design sense, and really rise above the rest, but they're still the exceptions, not the rules.
Nonetheless, figuring out how to adapt the various precepts learned from tabletop strategic games to the web medium will be a definite point of interest before this topic is through.
Roleplaying v. Strategy
When listing out specific examples of strategic games, from Bridge to Risk, it seems pretty obvious what they are. However it becomes a lot muddier when you look at these games in the abstract, and try and figure out how they truly differ from roleplaying games.
I actually suspect that you could find every "roleplaying" element in some strategic game and every "strategic" element in some roleplaying game. It's all a continuum, with an individual designer figuring out how much he wants in the way of strategy and how much he wants in the way of roleplaying (and how much he wants in the way of athleticism or other skills).
However, when compared to roleplaying games, I think strategy games tend to show a number of trends, though as you see via my various counter examples, none of these are hard and fast rules.
In general, when compared to roleplaying games, strategy games are...
More Strategic. This is that aforementioned "thinking", as opposed to socialization. It's probably the vaguest of all of my trends.
More Competitive. Possibly the most important test. Most often, social RP games involve cooperation, though this tends to get more blurry in online games where you're not always dealing with your "friends". Contrariwise, strategic games are almost always about defeating each other. In general you can address this point as a question: when faced with a decision, is a player more likely to choose personal gain (competition) or story (cooperation).
More Goal-Oriented. This is closely related to the question of competition, but even in non-competitive strategic games, there tends to be some goal that the players are working toward (eg, save the world from Cthulhoid horrors, destroy the One Ring). RP games do still often have goals, such as leveling up, but it's not the sole emphasis of the game, as tends to be the case with strategic games. I'd note this trend as another important test, because it's pretty hard to come up with strategic games that don't have some goal.
Less Personal. In general, RP games are about you taking on the role of a singular, discrete character who is your alternate persona. On the other hand, strategic games tend to be about overseeing entire cities or nations. Often, you don't even take a role, but just move pieces around in an attempt to defeat your opponent. If you are given a persona to play (ie, a tribe of Israel in The Settlers of Canaan or a historical figure in Civilization III), that assignment is really just intended to add color to the game.
More Abstract. In RP games, you tend to inhabit a real world that you can move around in and interact with in a physical way. In strategy games that physicality tends to be abstracted to various degrees. Perhaps you're just interacting with things at a very large scale, as is the case with Risk. Alternatively you might be dealing with entirely abstract pieces which work more as a strategic exercise than as any representation of a real place. The most classic board games Chess, Checkers, and Backgammon all tend to be highly abstract.
So, with all that said, is a game strategic or not? If it shares more than a couple of these common strategic trends, I'd say quite possibly. If it has 4 or 5 of them, then almost definitely. But, as already commented, it's a continuum.
Thanks & Onward
And that is my introduction to strategic games. As I've said already, it's going to be the topic of this column for a few months (though I may take a couple of breaks when particularly interesting topics rise up from Skotos' RP games). However, though strategy is going to be my emphasis, that doesn't mean the topics will only be relevant to that genre; as I hope my comparison of RP and strategic games has already shown, there's also a lot of overlap between strategy and roleplaying.
Before I move much further I'd like to offer some general thanks that I think will apply to this entire series. Saul Bottcher and Matt Seidl have both already offered some great feedback on my tentative strategic design thoughts over the last few months. In addition, the folks at Skotos have been very patient as I've led them through a long series of strategic game playtests, both to help me think about this column and to start seriously considering the design of Galactic Emperor: Merchant Kings; Christopher Allen in particular has offered some very insightful thoughts about the design of some of the games we've played. I've also grateful to the RPGnet review community; the site's offered me the opportunity to write my design thoughts about bunches of games, and I've gotten great responses from people on them. If you're interested in reading my reviews, just do a quick search on my name as reviewer, though I'll link the most relevant ones here as I move forward.
For the next couple of weeks I plan to overview the four major parts that make up a strategic game, and then briefly introduce what a web game looks like. And after that we'll be getting into the real nitty gritty.
I'll see you in 7.