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.

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Board game design

Introduction

For most board-games it's win or bust!
For most board-games it’s win or bust!
We play a board game and at the end of it one person does a fist pump while the others hang their heads. One winner and multiple losers.

The difference can be one lousy point (on a total of two hundred) and still there is a watershed between glorious victory and humiliating defeat.

As a board game designer this fascinates me: Why is “the winner” so important?

No-winner game: Sim-City

There is a whole swath of computer “games” that can’t be won, with Sim-City being the first that comes to mind. I spent hours staring at my screen, trying to get enough money to be able to create more space for houses so that I could get more money…

Technically such a “game” would be better qualified as a “simulation”, but it’s not my intention to get into semantics here.

And though you can’t win Sim-City, I generally did have an idea of what I wanted to do: Get the biggest city. Or create a city without any pollution. Or see how quickly I could completely raze what I built up using tornados. What I wanted to do became my goal for that particular session. I wouldn’t “win” the game. But I could most certainly achieve something.

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