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Strategy Games Are Broken
by Jon Shafer on 02/05/13 03:40:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


You can read more of Jon's thoughts on design and project management at his website. You can also find him on Twitter.


Strategy is among the oldest and most beloved gaming genres. But all is not well with this venerable stalwart. The list of issues plaguing digital strategy games is growing, and if this trend isn’t reversed it could result in this form of entertainment becoming completely marginalized or transformed as the technology used to consume entertainment continues to evolve.

In this article I’ll be analyzing the biggest problems with the genre, and on Wednesday I’ll be offering up my answer for them.

Lack of Clarity

The very essence of a strategy game is evaluating situations, crafting plans to achieve a goal, and adapting as necessary during execution. Many titles fail right from the start, and don’t provide players with enough information to properly evaluate what’s going on. There are two major culprits here.

The first is 3D graphics. High-detail art is great for providing immersion, and there is certainly value to this even in the strategy genre, but many times the priority has become good graphics for the “sake” of good graphics. The target of effectively conveying information is forgotten, and the game suffers as a result.

Another pet peeve of mine that’s particularly pertinent to to this genre is bad user interface and tutorials. If players A) don’t know what’s important, or B) don’t know what tools are available to them, then how are they supposed to make meaningful decisions? Sure, some people will plow forward until they’re able to eventually figure the game out, but why turn away everyone else?

It’s easy for developers to forget what it’s like to play a complex game for the first time. Effectively teaching new players is one of the most important elements to get right, and unfortunately it’s also one of those done wrong most often.

Solving Puzzles is Not Strategy

Finding solutions to  puzzles can be interesting and fun. But it’s not strategy. A truestrategy game has no “correct” solution, and instead offers players a variety of tools to achieve a goal. It’s impossible to achieve perfect balance, so there will always be some puzzle-like elements in all strategy titles, but some completely abandon this pursuit and can be boiled down into a small subset of correct play.

Anyone who has been reading my articles for a while knows I’ve spoken at length about the vital role player adaptation can and should play. The entertainment provided by a strategy game comes from facing a challenge, developing an answer for it, and then overcoming that challenge. The key is that final piece. Overcoming. The tougher and more frequent the challenges being overcome, the more enjoyable the experience.

Puzzles can only be overcome once, and as a result offer almost no replayability. The reason why the Civilization games can remain interesting for so long is because it takes much longer to “solve” the variety of situations players can find themselves in.

Midgame Drag

Have you ever been playing a grand strategy game and about halfway through said to yourself, “you know, this isn’t really all that interesting any more… maybe I’ll start a new game.” Well, the three of you who said “no” – sorry, I know you’re lying! Many titles in this genre seem to lose steam about halfway through. Why is that?

The reason is that these games tend to outstay their welcome. A good analogy would be a long-running TV series which stays on the air simply because it keeps making money. The writers might have wanted it to end a while ago, but forces outside of their control are keeping it going. The only place where this analogy doesn’t work with strategy games is that the designers do have the ability to cut the game off whenever they so choose.

Many of these games continue slumbering onward because their subject matter demands it. In a game that claims to cover all of history, it would be a big faux pas if the developers said, “well, the game stops being fun around 1600 AD, so we’ll just end it there.” Such a decision might make sense from a game design perspective, but it would be a marketing nightmare. And so they have no choice but to continue sputtering on until they finally collapse across the finish line.

But why do they lose their momentum at all?

A moniker often used for empire builders is “4X”, for exploration, expansion, exploitation and extermination. Unfortunately, once you get halfway through a game the first two Xs – by far the most enjoyable for many players – are pretty much wrapped up. Unless you really enjoy watching meters fill up or have a particular love for the less-than-perfect combat systems these games tend to feature there’s really not much left to see. And so we quit and start over.

Too Much Fluff, Not Enough Strategy

As we’ve already noted, the essence of a good strategy game is having the information to make difficult, interesting decisions. A trap many games fall into is to include so much stuff that determining what’s important becomes difficult. And that’s not fun. If players can’t wrap their head around the options available to them, how are they to choose one? And even if they do, how can their choice have any meaning?

The foundation of Unity of Command’s brilliance is its minimalism. No aircraft, no Panzer Mk IIIEs, no AP versus HEAT ammunition. But those elements which areincluded are all clearly important and worth your full attention.

There is certainly room for more detailed strategy games, but that doesn’t absolve developers of analyzing every aspect of their work and honestly ask themselves, “could my game be better if this were removed?” Much of the time the answer to that is “yes.”

So I’ve done an awful lot of complaining about the state of strategy games, and you might be thinking, “well, if he’s so smart, what would he do differently?”

In fact, that question will be answered in full starting Wednesday morning, when I’ll be announcing my new game and we’ll be embarking on a new lengthy series of articles.

See you all then!

- Jon

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Game Designer


E McNeill
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Looking forward to the announcement!

Alex Nichiporchik
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Two words: Kingdom Rush

Chris OKeefe
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I think there are a lot of good points here. I actually went in with scepticism but for the most part these are all sensible observations. And probably not ones that most strategy designers have missed. They are often easier said than done, I suspect. It's hard to judge what will make a game better or worse until you've received a significant sample of player response.

One thing I do take issue with is the 'mid game drag' argument. He blames this largely on the absence of certain aspects of the game - in this case, exploration and expansion being wrapped up. I think this is entirely wrong. Many of the greatest strategy games I have ever played had limited exploration elements and manage to keep the expansion game going indefinitely. People do restart often because the beginning is often the most exciting part of any game, but this is not a reason to ignore the midgame in favour of ending it.

I do think that forcing an endpoint is better than allowing a game to stagnate due to a lack of content/features to make the midgame more entertaining. However, if you are going to simultaneously say that you want to remove features that 'may not be necessary' and that 'may make the game overly complicated' and then wonder why the midgame tends to drag?

Well. Need I say more.

I think the most elegant strategy game designs are the ones which layer in new mechanics as you progress. I think one of the best examples would be Crusader Kings 2, which has three tiers of play and many avenues to success. Playing as a Count in CK2 is less involved than playing as a Duke, and again less involved than playing as a King. All three tiers can be played within the same game session, allowing the player to start simple and develop their skills as they tackle bigger problems.

Another example that is less strategy and more city-builder - but the design philosophy remains - is Anno 2070. As you start off you have relatively simple problems to solve, and a limited number of ways to solve them. As you progress your people become harder to please and require more and more elaborate industry in order for the player to progress. In that way the entire game's structure acts as a tutorial, but in a very subtle way. It doesn't hold your hand but it does introduce new concepts one after another as you show proficiency with previous concepts.

I think the MAJOR problem with strategy games - and Civ 5 is included in this - is that the bulk of the game is right there in front of you when you start. As the game progresses it adds less than it subtracts in terms of features and options and ways to play. It may add new structures to build or new units to build or new terrain you can cross (like water), but the fundamentals remain very much the same. By the time you reach the midgame you are not going to see anything new other than maybe some new units.

It is alright to pile on features into a game as long as you introduce them at an appropriate pace. There are plenty of strategy games where the midgame is by far the most entertaining part, because that is when you have the MOST options.

Maybe the question should be 'how can we make people excited to reach the midgame,' not 'how can we shrink the scope of the game down into a space where our feature list doesn't stop being interesting after six hours.'

Lars Doucet
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Definitely a cogent analysis of the problem, _especially_ the mid-game slump phenomenon, that was one of my biggest pet peeves with 4x, especially the MOO games - eventually there's nothing left to do except commit genocide on everybody or kiss babies until you're elected president of the galaxy.

Robert Boyd
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The mid-game slump phenomenom is probably my biggest problem with typical strategy games. I checked my Steam stats and it says I've played Fallen Enchantress for over 50 hours and yet, I've never actually beaten a game. I always get bored before I reach the endgame and start over.

One big factor contributing to the mid-game slump is that most strategy games have a "Rich get richer" mentality. If you do well in the early game, you'll have advantages that make it easier to do well in the mid-game which makes it easier to do well in the end-game. You frequently reach a point where you've essentially "won" the game long before the game actually ends. Essentially, you have a reverse difficulty curve where the game starts off difficult and becomes easier the longer you play - no wonder people get bored!

I think Spore had the right idea in its multi-stage gameplay, although the execution left much to be desired.

Chris OKeefe
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I think you make some really good points, and a lot of strategy games suffer from the fact that whoever is in the lead is largely going to stay there. The gap tends to widen. Not enough strategy games implement methods to keep this in check, and games either become too easy or too hard - that rare challenging game can be hard to achieve, and relies more on the 'board' or the 'world' you're playing in (and starting positions) than it relies on the systems at play.

The first hour or two of a game is the most challenging because everyone starts off on more or less equal footing. When you win a fight it's because you played well, not because you are bombing cities from the air while they are trying to defend with crossbows (as tends to happen in the midgame of most of my Civ 5 games).

It seems like there should be a lot of ways to solve that kind of problem. Incentivize the AI to be more likely to gang up on threatening, overpowered neighbours. Put hard limits on a nation's ability to engage in conquest (as CK did with cassus belli). Limit expansion in a meaningful way, rather than creating a system where the best way to win is to use the game mechanics to maximize your expansion potential. Technology bleeding from advanced empires into neighbouring empires. Etc. Etc.

So why is it so often that the player's success runs away with them? Are developers afraid to challenge players?

Robert Boyd
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Several strategy games do the whole "AI gangs up on the person in the lead" and I think that approach doesn't work very well. It makes the player feel like the computer is cheating against them and not playing fair.

Bob Johnson
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The AI is a tricky thing too. It is usually too easy or too hard. You figure it out and can beat it or you can't.

This is another reason the early game decides the outcome of the late game.

The problem with making the early game "not count for as much" is that the early game will likely then become tedious. If you know no matter what you do early on that you can "come back" then what is the point?

The multistage gameplay may be where it is at or definitely an alternative to explore. Where you earn a grade for each stage and then go on to the next one where the "score" is reset while keeping some of the results of the 1st stage. For example, you dominated in the first stage and thus the 2nd stage would show how your influence spread to your neighbors through out the world. It might show how your country became divided too. If you were dominated you might begin the second stage with some of the culture of your conqueror. This would be determined through various algorithms. And this the board is sorta reset from stage to stage yet influenced by the outcomes of the stage before that although perhaps superficially in an achievement or trophy sort of way.

Dave Ingram
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f2p business models for strategy games are staining the reputation of the genre, as well. There are so many new mobile strategy games that I would love to try, but the "pay for time boosts or wait 5 hours for every action" model is simply unacceptable to me as a player, so I miss out on some fun experiences.

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Maria Jayne
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Ai needs to understand the value of survival. It can do hatred really well, it can do apathy even better, but when it comes to negotiating or reacting to its own imminent demise, it's blind. Until the AI wants to survive it can't fear dying, it can't be willing to negotiate or consider sacrifice/alliance.

Dave Ingram
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If we figure this out then the world is doomed. Have you ever seen Terminator?

Bart Stewart
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I'd like to suggest that getting bored halfway through a strategy game is not a bug, but a feature. If your decisions have assured your eventual victory, you (the player) are doing strategy right!

Strategy is not a synonym for tactics. Strategy is about perceiving large-scale patterns in space and time, and creating plans for manipulating the connections controlling those patterns to change the whole system to better satisfy your high-level goals.

Being good at strategy -- including playing a game that allows good strategy -- means being able to see how the active elements on the board affect each other over time, and being able to come up with sequences of actions that will maximize all those relationships to your advantage. So when a player is doing so well by the mid-game that the rest is just mopping-up, that's actually the game rewarding the player for being good at strategy.

This is one of those cases where simulation (in this case, rules of play and game features that enable strategy) is the enemy of fun mechanical play. That pretty much implies that solving the mid-game drag problem requires mechanical changes to keep the challenge level constant, even if those mechanics degrade the fidelity of the simulation.

The trick is to do this in a way that still rewards the player for good strategic perception/planning. As noted above, one way is by not allowing static strategies. Changing the large-scale environment (independently from player actions) over time is a good possibility. But there must be other ways to keep a strategy game fun without losing too much of the strategic play that defines the genre....

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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Bart Stewart
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In theory it shouldn't drag at all.

One possibility is the idea Jon is trying in At The Gates: resource depletion will force the game to end.

Another option (for a singleplayer+AI game) might be to let the game "see" how you play -- your strategy -- and then let the game take over for you when you press the "Mop Up" button, quickly executing the actions it assumes you would have taken, until someone wins. If your strategy was really that good, then you can get closure for that game without dragging through all the tedious clicking yourself. And if your strategy loses? Reload and play yourself for a while longer. :)

Phil Freihofner
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In classic strategy board games (Chess, Go), there is a simple solution for the situation when a game becomes strategically "won" at an early or mid-stage. The losing player resigns! Then, an new game is started, possibly with a new handicap.

As part of an AI resignation event, there could be three options given to the User:
(1) accept and end the game;
(2) play on;
(3) play on, but with the difficulty level re-calibrated.

The third option can make sense in a plot line, if the enemy is deemed capable of "learning from their mistakes".