Board game design, Strategy

General strategies for board-games

Introduction

Our strategy: Run as hard at the other guys as we possibly can!
Our strategy: Run as hard at the other guys as we possibly can!
“Upgrade my production and go for that huge end-game scoring, or ignore upgrading and take a few points every turn?

There are board-games that rely solely on tactics: Finding the best play for this turn and not really caring about the next. Most games however have at least some sense of strategy: A path you chose and that you follow for the rest (or part of) the game and where you make choices to maximize the outcome of that path.

Interesting games allow multiple strategies to victory.

In this post I want to look into “general” strategies, ones that can be found in a plethora of games.

The goal of this is to help you as a board-game designer incorporate (more) strategies that are relevant and interesting in your board-game. Hopefully it will even serve as inspiration to even more strategies that are not mentioned here (if you do find any, do let me know?!)

What is a strategy?

A strategy in the context of board-games is a high-level choice on how you will (could) play (a part of) the game. This choice is then “executed” through all of the moves you make whilst actually playing the game.

A strategy can be for the entire game (“I’ll do everything to maximize bonus scoring at the end of each round”), or only for part (“I’ll first increase my number of workers, then I’ll see what I can do”).

Strategies can be stand-alone or overlapping (“I’ll increase my workers so that I have lots of actions and I’ll also go for everything that gives a bonus for many workers”).

It’s possible to start a game with a strategy in mind, or to have it form during the game (“I seem to have gotten more workers than anybody else, how about I capitalize on that?”)

General strategies in board-games

In the following sub-sections I’ll describe a number of “general” strategies for board-games. These should be possible for many different (types of) games, but certainly not for all!

Resource optimization

My resources can beat up your resources!
My resources can beat up your resources!
If you have more stuff than the opponent then eventually you will kick their ass.

The core of this strategy is to increase the amount of resources available to you (whatever they might be in the game – see this post on resources in board-games for more). Resources give options and generally with more options you have more flexibility, either to thwart your opponent or to orchestrate your own victory.

Resource optimization works well with “synergy” strategies, discussed below.

“Control” strategies can be an effective counter to this strategy.

Action maximization

Action maximization is a specific form of resource optimization – specifically, you are optimization the number of actions you can take in a turn.

Worker placement games are the poster child for action-based games. In many worker placement games increasing the number of workers is a very effective strategy as each worker should pay for itself, with a bit to spare.

“Actions” are one of the most general resources that you can have, as they can generally be converted into anything.

In Agricola it’s generally a good idea to work towards increasing your family size as quickly as possible as those extra actions are game winners.

Synergy

In a synergy strategy you try to find combinations of resources (cards, board spaces, tiles, tokens, etc.) that when combined give an effect that is greater than the sum of the parts.

Combos

The first version of “synergy” is the “combo”: Two or more effects that when combined produce something that is stronger than the two effects taken separately.

A combo can be very simple and obvious (“3 points for every worker” + “Get an additional worker” is a simple yet effective combo), or it can be deep and intricate.

Combos are generally associated with a certain level of randomness of “getting” the combo. For example in a deck-building game you can have the right cards in your deck but chance still needs to get them into your hand at the same time. When getting combinations is less random it usually becomes a case of engine-building (see below).

Dominion allows for many card combinations that give strong effects together; a deck built of Villages and Smithies will allow you to draw your entire deck almost every turn.

Engine building

That should win the game for sure!
That should win the game for sure!
An engine is a “consistent combo”, a combination of game elements that allow the player to increase (certain) resources with regularity.

Engines are usually based on a positive feedback mechanism (see this post for more on feedback in board-games), where a some resources are fed in, to be returned with interest.

In many so-called “Euro” games, the building of your engine is the most important aspect of the game.

Engines need time to start paying back sufficiently to “pay back” the resources they cost to set up initially. They are sometimes also susceptible to “disruption” in the form of another player taking control of a required resource (see the “control” strategies below).

Powergrid is an exercise in building an engine, where combining elements gives more money, which then can be used to buy more power plants, connections, etc.

Risk – reward

Many games have randomness incorporated, meaning that there are risks to be taken. This can be from hoping to draw the right card at the right moment, to full blown “gambling” games.

There is a skill in assessing possibilities, but taking risks in itself is not something you are skilled at or not. As such a game where the only difference in strategies is based on levels of risk taking will have a winner determined by luck, not ability.

High risk – high reward

Wherever there is randomness there is risk. And where there is risk, there should be a reward. One strategy then can be to take high risks, in the hopes for high rewards.

By its very nature this is a strategy that is far from certain to pay off; it can leave the player far behind without much chance of recovering.

On the other hand, taking extra risk can allow a player that is just a bit behind take the lead (but get even further behind as well of course).

Poker is a good example of a game that allows for both high and low risk strategies: Only play on a great hand, forgoing many plays, or bluff with a hand full of garbage.

Low risk – low reward

I'll see your village and raise you a city! Oh, wrong game...
I’ll see your village and raise you a city! Oh, wrong game…
The opposite of the high risk – high reward is the low risk – low reward strategy. Here you try to keep variance down to a minimum, instead opting to score a limited but certain number of points every turn, making sure nothing goes wrong, whilst hoping that the opponent makes a mistake or runs out of luck.

Control

A final broad strategy is by “taking control”. It is about denying your opponent(s) choices or forcing them go down a path they’re not particularly interested in going in.

Assassination

Player elimination is frowned upon in modern gaming, but it is still present in some games. “Killing” the opponent is the ultimate way of controlling them; out of the game means no options at all.

Even if it’s not possible (or desired) to completely eliminate a player, bringing them enough to their knees can mean that you don’t need to worry about them for the rest of the game.

Being the one brought low however is not a very satisfying experience – there is a reason many games nowadays shy away from player elimination. Be careful when this is a viable strategy in your board-game!

In Risk players can attack each other, to the point of extinction. Many missions however don’t call for the full elimination of a player, but bringing a neighbor down can certainly make your life easier.

Offensive action

By going on the offensive I can force my opponent to defend herself, even though she would much rather be building up her engine.

Taking offensive action means that your opponent is limited in choices – defense has has to come first. This can result in an interesting cat-and-mouse game, where the offensive player needs to try to keep the other on the defense (and thus is limited himself as well!) while the defensive player tries to break through and gain back the initiative.

Continuously checking the king in Chess forces the opponent to do something about it, severely limiting what moves they take.

The rush

No time to talk, got to win the game!
No time to talk, got to win the game!
Games end (see this post on some of the consequences of this). If there is a non-fixed ending condition you can work towards that end, before your opponent “gets going”.

This can be a particularly effective strategy against engines and combos, as they generally spend the early game setting up (and not working towards “victory”), leaving them with few points when that early end is triggered.

Citadels generally takes a fair number of turns. It’s however possible to build only cheap buildings, finishing the game well before anybody else is close to 8 buildings, winning on bonus points.

Monopolist

All board-games use multiple resources (see this post for more on resources in board-games) and generally they are all important for certain aspects.

If you are able to gain control over one or more of the essential resources (a monopoly) then the opponent is forced to deal with you to get what she needs, or find alternative (and probably expensive) means.

An example comes from the game of Monopoly, where it’s a viable strategy to build as many houses as possible and never upgrade to hotels, denying opponents the use of houses (and subsequent upgrades to hotels).

Closing thoughts

There are board-games without strategy. In Bohnanza or Carcasonne you are so dependent on what cards / tiles come up that it’s generally only possible to react tactically. Thus, it’s not necessary to have strategies in your game.

For longer games however allowing for multiple strategies significantly increases the space of things that players can explore and with that the replay value. In a good game each strategy is worth investigating and perfecting, meaning that many games need to be played before it is shelved.

In the sections above I’ve tried to give a number of possible high-level strategies. Not every game needs all of these, in fact I would strongly recommend against trying to incorporate them all. But the list can serve as inspiration for what you could try to incorporate.

It is also not the case that each high-level strategy can be implemented only once. There are multiple ways to creating synergy between your game elements. A monopoly can be acquired on any resource. And with multiple ways of ending the game, there are multiple possibilities to rush.

Feedback please!

The best strategy for learning is by asking for feedback, s, let me know in the comments or on Twitter if you agree or where you think I completely missed the point?!


Bastiaan_smallHi, I’m Bastiaan. The goal of this blog is to learn about game design. That’s hopefully for you as the reader, but just as much for me as the writer.

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6 Comments

  1. Candy

    Thanks, I enjoy your posts, I have printed several to refer to as I design my first game. Thanks for some virtual handholding! If I can think through good answers to all of the above I will have the bones roughed in!

    Reply
  2. Nice article Bastiaan! I was thinking it might also be a strategy to directly counter your opponent’s strategy. Sometimes this is essential (to win) if you can see they have a particularly powerful approach. This forces them to adapt. I thought this might be more general than the assassination or offensive strategies, since it can be as much about denying them access to key spaces or cards, and there is often a decision to make whether it would be better to focus on your own approach rather than spending time harming your opponent(s).

    I’m not sure Carcassonne is entirely without strategy. When there are high scoring regions being constructed I will do whatever I can to either get in on those regions to share the points, or to place tiles to make it as hard as possible for my opponents to complete those regions. That is something I’m aiming to do with any tile I draw. Part of it’s genius is that the random tile you draw can often be used in so many different ways. Once you start building a field say, it becomes a strategy to ensure as many completed cities in that field exist as possible.

    Just some thoughts 🙂

    Reply
    1. BastiaanReinink Author

      I like the “directly counter your opponent” strategy. I believe there is a big overlap with the assassination and offensive strategies, but they’re not exactly the same. For example in Agricola I can take the wood even though I have enough, just so others can’t have it. This would be a direct counter to my opponents plans, but it’s not a direct attack (so not assassination) and I’m not forcing my opponent to do anything specific so not really offense either. It could be seen as a form of control, specifically the Monopolist, though this would be more general: Go for whatever the opponent needs, instead of really trying to control one resource (regardless of the opponent’s current plans).

      And of course there is some strategy to Carcassone, the world hardly ever is black-and-white. It is however a game that is light on strategy and as such worked as a good (yet imperfect!) example.

      Thanks for the remarks (and the compliments)! 🙂

      Reply
  3. Great article.
    Maybe you should have someting about a social strategy. Making alliances if possible or just psycing others with talk. I am no good at it but I sometimes feel manipulated by opponents that are good at talking. (Like some players do in Poker. And the opposite where the player do not say anything).

    Reply
    1. BastiaanReinink Author

      Good one, I hadn’t thought about that! I do wonder if you could build your -entire- strategy around that, but it certainly could be a part of a bigger picture. Thanks!

      Reply

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