Board game design, Strategy

After a long time of just plodding along, Voluntarios, the game I’ve been working on, has moved forward in a big step. The core seems to work and I’m about ready to start on some serious balancing.

Before doing that I decided to take a step back and look at the game from a distance.

Got to love the deep strategy in this game (yes, that’s sarcasm)
Yes, the core works, it’s fun, there are interesting decisions, there is a reasonable amount of tension. But still there was something missing…

When playing Voluntarios you’re really trying to answer “What is the best move right now?”. The game is highly tactical, but it’s hardly strategical. That’s doesn’t need to be a problem, but if I could add strategy without making the game much more complex, that would certainly increase the replayability of the game (and thus its awesomeness!).

So I got digging into the idea of “strategy”. Join me to see how deep this rabbit hole goes?

What is strategy?

The first question to answer is “What is strategy?” or “What does it mean for a game to be strategical?”.

My first and intuitive answer would be that a game is strategic when it offers different (viable) paths to victory. An example of this would be Puerto Rico, where one viable strategy is to produce a lot of cheap stuff and ship it, while another is trying to get as much money as possible and get to the expensive point-producing buildings. These are two main strategies, with many variations on how to actually execute these.

In my mind this means that (once you know a game well) you can chose a strategy before the game begins and then follow that. Of course you’ll still need to make turn-by-turn (“tactical”) decisions while playing, but those should choices all be geared to execute your strategy as much as possible, given the state of the game.

But then what about Agricola? I’d say this is a fairly strategic game, in that there are medium term goals you’re trying to achieve, like building your food engine, getting the well or growing your family. But at the end of the game everybody generally achieved more-or-less the same. Everybody has multiple family members, a few animals, some professions, etc. In Agricola you don’t go in deciding “I’m going to have all my professions and win that way!”. Still, working towards medium-term or intermediate goals is strategic as well, isn’t it?

And how does Carcassone rank? I’ll put my tile here to start a new city which I can claim and then finish over the next few turns. Is it a strategy to start that new city?

The conclusion from the examples above would be that a “strategicalness” (is that a word? It is now!) comes in different time-frames, from long-term (over the entire game) to short-term (for the next round only)

What is strategy – take 2

Left, right or straight, what’s the best strategy?
Whilst working through this I posted a question on Reddit (see here for the discussion) and someone posted what I think is a great way of looking at strategy:

”Strategy emerges when players have different options later on in the game, based on decisions they made earlier in the game.”

You play the game, you make choices and because of that new choices become available. This fits all of the examples above, whether they are “long term” or “short term”.

I would add one thing to this though. It’s not only making different options available, but also making different options lucrative. By this I mean that a certain option can always be available, but whether it is a good option depends on earlier choices. As an example, in Agricola at some point the option to increase your family becomes available. After the card is flipped this option is always there, but whether it’s a good option for me very strongly depends on how much food I’m able to produce.

The summary is that any choice that changes how you would play the rest of the game is a strategic choice!

And thus a game that has many of such choices is high in strategy.

Why strategy at all?

Of course there are options for adding depth as well…
So we’ve more-or-less answered what strategy is. But there is a more fundamental question to be asked: Why do you need your game to be strategical at all?

In the introduction I already touched upon one reason: Because it adds replayability (“depth”) to a game.

A game that allows for multiple (viable) strategies remains interesting for much longer. On different plays you can try a new strategy and as you’re doing things differently (doing different things!), in a sense you’re playing a new game.

And of course you won’t perfect a strategy the first time around, so you’ll need a few games to really find out whether it works (and is better than some of the other strategies available).

The “longer term” a strategy is, the more the above holds. In Carcasonne I can try out the “roads” and “cities” strategies very easily in the same game and figure out that cities gives me more points. In Puerto Rico however the “big money” and “deliver cheap stuff” strategies really do require separate plays (and multiple of them!) before you can compare.

A second reason is that strategic and tactical options can clash, creating interesting decisions (see this post for more on interesting decisions): Go for the pile of wood which I can only take this turn but which I don’t need for my strategy, or strategically expand my family so I can produce more in the long run?

Third, strategic choices are generally harder to make than tactical ones (you need to “oversee” a lot more potential results), which makes a game more interesting for a fair amount of people (and will make them less interesting for people who prefer their games simpler).

Fourth, making strategic choices available makes that your game changes while playing it. ”Strategy emerges when players have different options later on in the game, based on decisions they made earlier in the game.” When we turn this around, making a strategic games gives players different options later in the game than they had in the beginning. This means that the game “refreshes”, that you’re not making basically the same choices over and over again.

Strategies and viable strategies

A game may have many choices that change how you play the game, but if they very obviously don’t help you to win the game, they might as well not be there. As an extreme example, it’s possible to “concede” on your first turn in a game of chess and it will make the game play out very differently than if you didn’t. Does that make it a “strategy”? Technically maybe, but not in any real sense!

A slightly less extreme example would be Catan. At a tactical level there are many choices (”Build my road here or there?”) and even for the short term there are “strategic” choices to be made (“Save up for a city or a village?), but for the long term there is really only a single over-arching viable (long term) strategy for winning the game: Build stuff that gets you resources as quickly as possible and use those resources to build more stuff.

It can be that different strategies are “viable” against different opponents. When you’re sitting down with people who have never played Agricola before it might work perfectly well to not bother with building out your house, getting multiple family members and setting up a food engine. For a game with veterans however you will most definitely need to do these things if you want to have any chance of winning.

Strategy versus progression

Now that’s the kind of progression I’d like to see!
The last reason for strategy from the previous paragraph says that strategy means you don’t do the same thing again and again. In this way it creates a sense of “progression”.

It is however not the only way of creating progression in a game. In Agricola you open up a new card every turn, meaning that every turn there is (at least) one new thing that you can do (or at the very least should take into account).

And it is also possible to have players “progress” without making deep strategic choices. In Catan players start out building roads and villages and then at some point “progress” to cities and development cards. This is not set in stone: It’s perfectly possible to start out buying development cards from the get go and as such this could be deemed a “strategy”. But as explained in the previous paragraph, it’s not really a viable strategy and thus everybody ends up doing more-or-less the same. The progression then is a result of being “forced” to follow the only viable strategy.

Playing for the long term

Board games have a goal: To win! That means that anything that helps you reach that goal is a good thing to do. In Chess you can sacrifice half of your pieces if in the end you get that check-mate.

In this sense, anything you do is for the long term; and thus any move is “strategic”.

Except that most modern games aren’t as binary as Chess. Instead of doing this one very specific thing (the check-mate), you’re either trying to get more (victory points mostly) or go faster (to the finish line) than your opponent. Agricola is about getting the most points, Catan is about getting ten points the fastest.

Both games work great, but there is a downside (from a strategy point of view): Instead of a grand finale (the check-mate) there are many steps that all need to be taken to bring you closer to the final goal – every victory point needs to be earned and each brings you somewhat closer to winning. This makes these games “shortsighted”; instead of asking “How can I win this game?”, you’ll be wondering “How can I get my next victory point?”.

This then turns a potential long-term strategic arc into a much shorter-term one. This makes it much easier for players to understand what to do (get the next point!) but it detracts from taking a long-term and in-depth view of the game.

Closing thoughts

Having a deeply strategic game can make a game better, but it certainly comes with downsides; it will generally make the game more complex and thus it might take longer and invite paralysis analysis.

Strategies come on a spectrum of time, ranging from the full game to looking ahead only to the next turn. Both advantages and disadvantages become more pronounced with a longer time-frame.

Strategicalness is intertwined with a sense of progression in a game, though there are other ways of accomplishing this as well.

The yardstick of any game is whether it’s fun to play. Adding strategy can make something more fun for a group of players whilst detracting for others. Who are you building for?

In writing this post I had my own game Voluntarios in the back of my mind. I found that it already has quite some medium-term strategy and I’m wondering whether it’s necessary to add further long-term strategy to it. It currently is fairly light, does it need to be burdened with extra weight? I don’t have the answer to that yet, but I certainly understand better what the question means!

Further reading

If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read:
7 general strategies to add to any boardgame
Creating interesting choices

About the author

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.

Help me to learn? Leave a comment (below) or connect with me on Twitter? You can also subscribe to this blog (see the sidebar) or like it on Facebook, to get updates when I write them.

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Board game design, Strategy

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.

Help me to learn? Leave a comment or connect with me on Twitter? You can also subscribe to this blog or like it on Facebook, to get updates when I write them.

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Board game design, Strategy, Tactics

Introduction

A recent version of Voluntarios
A recent version of Voluntarios
The other day I was at the London Playtest Meetup, having just finished a test-game of Voluntarios. One of the players was pretty positive, but the other had this pensive look on his face: “It’s really hard to put my finger on it, but something is missing…”

This echoed my own feelings, so we discussed further, trying to find out what that “it” was. And after a few minutes we got it:

There were no interesting decisions that needed to be made!

In the game you pick a project and though they are cosmetically all different, they’re all fundamentally the same. And you’d have to gather resources, but one way or another, you’d get what you need. Sure, you could do things more or less efficient, but that was about it…

This of course is a very serious design flaw and so it needs to be fixed. But how?!?

Time to think deeply about what “interesting choices” in board-games are.

What is not interesting

To start out, let’s look at what are choices that are not interesting to make.

The obvious choice

You could have a hundred choices, but if one of them is so obviously the best one, then the other 99 might as well not exist.

In Voluntarios you lose points for having resources left at the end of a round. This means that spending any leftover resources becomes very obvious, even if it doesn’t gain you anything. You could not spend them, but that would just be silly.

The non-choice

Which ever way you go, it seems to be the right way. No interesting choices to be made here...
Which ever way you go, it seems to be the right way. No interesting choices to be made here…
“I can take that wood now, or I can take it later.”

Technically this is a choice, but the result of the two options is exactly the same and thus it is not an interesting choice.

Stated as above it’s pretty clear that this is not an interesting choice, but what I’ve found in Voluntarios that such a non-choice can be hidden somewhat: “I can take the wood now, but then Sarah will take the coins so I’ll have to pay in reputation to get my coin. Or I could take the coin now, but most likely Max will have grabbed the last wood, so I’m down some reputation to get that…” Again the result is exactly the same, but you’ve done quite some mental work to figure that out. Brainpower wasted (analysis paralysis!), without any real gain.

Another example of this is the Voluntarios projects mentioned, which do not fundamentally differ from each other.

The scripted choice

One choice can lead to others that you have to make.

In Voluntarios you pick a project and then you have to gather the resources to finish that project. Get that wood, or you’re simply not progressing (or worse, moving backwards). The one choice (of project) very much dictates which further choices you will be making.

Interesting choices

In the above there are some examples of what are not interesting choices.

What do all of these have in common?

They are all easy choices to make!

That is not to say there is not a lot of thinking done before: You need to analyze what the impact of each choice is. But once that impact is done, it’s clear which choice you should make. It’s the obvious one. Or the scripted one. Or it doesn’t matter because all options give the same result.

This should make it clear what makes for an interesting choice: One that is hard!

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