The “perfect” strategy game
November 25, 2013, written by Simon Design, Game Development

Working on Aril has taught us a lot about strategy and strategy games. What I’d like to do with this article is show you what I’ve learned and observed regarding strategy and its implementation in games and how to make the “perfect” strategy game.

First off I’d like to define the kind of strategy I’ll be discussing. Strategy is a very broad term which describes a set of ideas that bridge means and end together. So basically it’s the implementation of a plan to achieve a (long term) goal. A strategy game would be a game that requires strategic thinking to win. Every game in which your decision making rather than chance or motor skills determines the outcome is a strategy game. This describes more than half of the games I know so I’m narrowing it down to strategy regarding combat.

Let’s look at the way strategy and combat are being implemented today and have been in the past. These games are commonly divided into two types: real-time strategy and turn-based strategy. Even though this describes most strategy games, there are exceptions like the text-based strategy game—Travian, OGame–which is neither. It isn’t always possible to classify a game as one of the two. The Total War series, for example, features both real-time and turn-based phases which are equally important. Most strategy games offer low-level decision making (building bases, gathering resources and researching technologies), and high-levels decision making (how, when and where to attack).

So what would, in theory, be the perfect strategy game? Since we already defined that a strategy game relies on decision making instead of chance or motor skills we can now see what we can do to further enhance and exploit these given facts.

Motor skills
Let’s first exclude as much motor skills as possible. Since strategy games are often vacant of things like aiming and direct control of units there isn’t much motor skill required to begin with. Yet in real-time strategy, looking at diamond-league StarCraft players for example, faster and better control of units pays off. If we could remove this aspect of control and enable you to, let’s say, mind-control your armies there’d still be things like reaction time and keeping track of all your units. These aren’t technically motor skills, yet they are in conflict with requiring victory through decision making so we want those out as well. The best way to do this is to make your game turn-based. This allows each player to assess the situation and make informed decisions.

Now for chance, there are a lot of different ways strategy games implement an element of chance. Examples are hit chance, critical hit chance, random buffs and random drops. Most of the time factors like these don’t decide the outcome of a game, but if you are about to achieve a Pyrrhic victory any of these elements can rain on your parade so we shall have none of these.

Then there’s a third thing we want to avoid, which is obscurity. Hidden information interferes with the decision making process. With a lack of knowledge certain decisions are a shot in the dark. Most obscurity in strategy games is implemented deliberately and is called fog of war. Fog of war is the uncertainty in situational awareness experienced by participants in military operations. In a lot of strategy games actual fog is used for fog of war. There is much more to it though. Not knowing where your enemy is, what his numbers are and how much resources he has are also considered fog of war.

Besides fog of war there’s unintentional obscurity. This is everything else that isn’t clear to the player. If I have a huge army of foot soldiers and my enemy has a huge army of foot soldiers it is hard to predict who of us is going to win and how much units will be left on the victorious side. So attacking his army is taking a gamble, thus an element of chance. This is mostly a problem for real-time strategy games, yet there are a lot of turn based strategy games in which the only way to know how much damage your attack will do is through experience from earlier matches.

Those were the don’ts, now for the do’s. Since strategy games are all about decisions, your game should allow for good decision making and an overall strategy. Make sure there are as many options as possible in any given situation, for example, one of the other player’s armies poses a threat to one of your armies. You can attack them first, stand your ground and wait for them to attack, flee, or call in another army to resolve the situation. Each one of these actions has different consequences for your main strategy as well as for the strategy of the other player. This allows you to make your decisions with your strategy in mind. A wider set of choices allows for more variation in strategies.

Decisions should offer different options with equal value. Dilemmas with a clear right or wrong solution are bad since there isn’t actually a decision to make there. A lot of strategy games with rock-paper-scissor elements cope with this problem. If your enemy throws scissors, the only sensible thing to do is throw rock. In this case there is clearly a best action to take regardless of your overall strategy.

In conclusion:

  • Remove as much motor skills and time-related skills as possible.
  • Remove any element of chance.
  • Remove intentional and unintentional obscurity.
  • Have many different options in every situation.
  • Make sure options have equal value.

Following these steps should, theoretically, result in the perfect strategy game. However, this doesn’t mean it’ll be a good game. It might not even be fun to play. There’s a reason there are very few games that check all these boxes. A game is much more than a good implementation of the genre. A lot of games play with elements of chance and obscurity because it makes the game more exciting. To be fair, strategy isn’t the most action-packed genre (especially turn-based strategy). Game developers tend to find ways to market their games to a broader audience who crave action and excitement.

According to this list Aril is far from a perfect strategy game, and that’s ok because we don’t want it to be. We’ve learned that implementing a lot of these “rules” results in a good strategy game. We chose to make the game real-time because the main mechanic of capturing territory would work better that way. We also added some intentional obscurity by making ghost mode invisible. This can make the game really frantic at moments. When your design clashes with “correct” implementation of a genre you should adjust the genre to your game, because at the end of the day it’s more important to have a good game than a right game.