A Clarification of Genre: Strategy

Please read A Clarification of Genre: Introduction because this post will be building off of the foundation concepts put forth there. That post also contains some clarifications for how I will be writing this series. You can read the previous entries: Action, Adventure and RPG.


I’m going to frank and upfront about this. I know very little about the Strategy Super-genre. My experience with this type of game is limited to a handful of titles and has nowhere near the depth and understanding the complexity others do. In fact my definition of Strategy games was outsourced to those who do know better. My work on this genre is based on their short discussion on this episode of Three Moves Ahead.

Because of this I invite Troy Goodfellow, Rob Zacny, Julian Murdoch, Tom Chick, Bruce Geryk and any other of the alumni of the Three Moves Ahead podcast to come here and tear this entry to ever-loving shreds. Poke any holes, ask any unanswered questions and tell me where I’m just plain wrong in my think or missed an obvious example.

Having said that, here’s the definition:

Strategy – a focus on the management of limited resources towards a long range plan, where the physical execution is not the deciding factor

This is where the main separation between Action games with strategy and Strategy games that utilize a clock. There is some difficulty in separating the two concepts especially in RTS where minute manipulation of units can become a deciding factor of a match. But Strategy is its own separate entity from the other 3. There are enough pure strategy games with enough sub-genres and sub-types to set it aside as its own thing. The closeness of certain titles is the exception to Strategy games, not the rule. I don’t believe anyone would make this mistake who reads this blog, but I’d like to make the point nonetheless.

The focus of a game is the primary interaction of a work and where the dynamics come from. In thinking of Strategy games looking to a common element requires that you slow down the play and pick apart what you are fundamentally doing. In StarCraft you collect resources and build units in order to take out your enemy. This is the same outline to Neptune’s Pride, Heroes of Might and Magic, Civilization, WarCraft and that’s pretty much the extent of my play experience. But the Tower Defense games follow a similar, yet not exact method. You have limited resources to execute a defensive strategy against wave of enemies. Then there are management games like Diner Dash or Football Manager that focus on limited resources, but not their collection, but merely the implementation. And then there is Chess. There is no collection of resources, just the pieces set out at the start of the game and implementation of moves. Yes, you can upgrade a pawn should it get to the other side of the board, but is that really what makes Chess a Strategy game? No, it is the management of those pieces towards an end goal of checkmating the king that makes it a Strategy game.

I bring this up, because I amended the language of the original definition. Originally it was “the collection and spending of resources” well Chess alone disproves this as do tower defense games and certain story missions of RTS games. Which means that it while it captured the essence of the idea, the meaning of the words fell short. “Management” I think is a better words as it covers a wider range of actions to be done with the various resources a game puts in your command.

Now what do we mean by resources. Nominally resources are the things you collect on the map to spend in the constructions of building and creations of units. But those building and units are resources in themselves. Troops are resources in a battle that you have to manage to get through a skirmish and on a wider scale get through a campaign. Boiling it down again, what other resources do you have in Chess other than the sixteen pieces on the board? Sure there is area of influence and special control, but it is the pieces the player directly interacts with. Anything that can be gained and lost with regards to the end goal or sub goal I think would be a resource.

Then there is a long-range plan part of that definition. This is the part I am most uneasy with. I’m not sure about its inclusion, but on the other hand it is the goal in a game and without a goal would it be a game. It doesn’t specify if the long range plan is set down by the game or at the player’s own whims which I like, but is it necessary to the definition at all. I included it because it was in the original definition given by Troy Goodfellow and unlike the other part I could come up with no suitable counter to it, but then I’m not sure it need be included at all. Another possibility is that it is a matter of word choice that makes me uneasy. This question was sprung on them at the last minute so I can’t fault them for thinking on their feet and doing their best. Of course there may not be a problem, but it is a point that sticks out for me and I’d like it addressed one way or another.

A Matter of Timing

This needs its own category – the difference between Action games and Strategy games. Action games are all about the timing of player use of mechanics, while Strategy games are about the management being the defining factor and not the minute interactions. With most games this is fine. A battle between a tank and an infantry unit would be akin to a boss fight in a shooter with the player having to dodge and weave before getting the anti-Tank weapon de jour and taking it out, whereas in a Strategy game the systems calculate how this scenario plays out. Again this difference is easier to see when extrapolated out, as in easier to see in an FPS verses a turn based Strategy game than it would be in StarCraft or the like.

But speaking of StarCraft, isn’t that game determined by clicks per minute to the point that clicks per minute (CPM) is a term? Yes and no. This tripped up both Troy and Rob in their quick 5 minute answer, but I think I’ve got it with a couple of weeks worth of rationalizing put into it. Again the determination of a Super-genre is not the mechanical nature of the systems, but rather the point on which the game focuses on. With very little effort I’m sure StarCraft could be transformed into an Action game (and thanks to mods probably has a dozen times over), but the focus of the game is not on the minute detailing of destroying an enemy unit. It is in giving orders to the units to do the work. You are managing units to attack and defend areas of the map, but you are also managing something else, time. Remember adding a clock does not make a game Action. The clock in StarCraft’s case would be the resultant changes in enemy unit placements and the relative health of each one for it to last an encounter verses your own, but this only means you are now managing another resource: time. This is not changing the fundamental nature of the game. Were you to slow the game down to half or even a tenth the speed the game would remain the same, just the time in which to manage you decisions would change. You are not only managing the resources of currency and units, but time in which to enact the steps of your long-term plan.

To further illustrate this point I look to the other example they brought up during the short podcast discussion: speed Chess. Adding a clock does not make a game Action. Adding a clock to Chess just means that in addition to managing the pieces on the board you are also managing the clock and the time in which you have to act out your move. Seeing the clock, set to a set amount of time dictated to each turn, added to a turn based game makes it easier to judge the fundamental discrepancy between an Action game with strategy like Football where the ultimate execution decides the outcome verses a Strategy game where the fundamental strategy executed in a certain amount of time decides the outcome.

Yes real physical aptitude does become apart of the execution, but only so much in that it can match the strategy you are implementing. The higher you go up the rankings in StarCraft 2 the more difficult the match will become physically in terms of clicks per minute to stay competitive, however clicking fast and doing so in an effort to execute strategic decisions in a different matter. Action games are focused on execution towards the actual timing, while a Strategy game is focused on the execution of a plan within a timed scenario.  They are similar on the surface and can indeed get confused for one another should a person choose to focus on mechanics and excursion of what the player is doing rather than the fundamental focus of the design who and see what is going on underneath the surface apparent elements.

In working on this series I erroneously kept attributing the puzzle game Tetris as an Action game due to the nature on timing. The quick movements to position the blocks in the right place to be able to continue playing were what I looked at. Since puzzle games are not confined to any single Super-genre and are simply a method of dynamic interaction with a game that can appear anywhere. I failed to see the concept behind the interaction of Tetris. Yes it is a faced paced game with minute alterations within a window to achieve success and failure, except that it isn’t. That part is just a clock added to the fundamental Strategy game underneath. I should have known because of the game’s history that started as a tabletop management game to fit blocks together. Adding a clock does not make it an Action game. In Tetris you are managing the pieces as they fall into an optimal structure for the long term plan of keeping the game going for as long as possible. The idea is to position the shapes in the most optimal way to so that you would remove as many lines as possible to keep the game going. This is management, this is strategy, this is a Strategy game.

The RPG Overlap

Remember from my last piece on RPGs that combat caused no end of headaches in part because the game turns into a Strategy game during the fighting of many as you try to manage the stats and create an optimal outcome. World of Warcraft in particular comes to mind with regards to fighting. Since the RPG has its genesis in the wargames of old where the concept was reduced from a squad down to a single individual many of the mechanical focus seems very much Strategy oriented. The more battles between choices and development of your character(s) the more like a Strategy game it seems to become. Even if the battles become difficult and seem to lack strategy as attack, attack, and attack some more becomes a viable strategy doesn’t loose that feeling. A poor Strategy game is still a Strategy game. No game is excluded from it’s Super-genre on account of difficulty or lack thereof.

Of course none of that answers the developmental problem that RPGs and Strategy games have due to the slim divide in certain portions of their play. Baldur’s Gate plays very much like a Strategy game while in combat. Pausing the game while you give orders to the individual members of your party is very Strategy like. Even earlier games are more like that with the combat in Wizardry and Bard’s Tale seeming like the old wargamming back with a squad of people instead of the focus on the player character. Again it’s this dogmatic adherence to combat in RPGs that confuse them even within their own game. Many RPGs feel divided in their elements with the RPG on one side and Strategy game appearing every so often. Again I have to say it comes down to a case-by-case basis to determine what exactly the focus is with regards to RPG combat. Is it a Strategy slog or is it a test of your RPG choices?

Now I feel the need to point out Strategy games that utilize RPG elements as another added resource to work with. In this case I’m thinking of Heroes of Might and Magic II in particular. You have heroes that travel around the overworld map with armies that appear in battle. These armies have their effectiveness altered by the heroes stats and special abilities that he gains when he gains a level via experience points earned through battle or certain locations on the overworld map. You can gain either experience of gold at treasure chests and witch huts or just increase you stats at certain overworld buildings. These are RPG elements used not in a character development, but as another contending resource. They are firmly in the Strategy game sphere of influence despite being a set of mechanics popularized by another Super-genre.

What Falls Under Strategy Games?

I know I’m going to miss a lot, but let me give it a go. Turn based Strategy games like Civilization, real time Strategy games like StarCraft and it’s predecessor WarCraft, there are tower defense games, management games like Diner Dash, simulation strategy like Hearts of Iron III. The 4x genre mostly made by Paradox Entertainment. And this is where my inexperience with this type of games shows. I can list of a litany of games I’ve heard of from the Three Moves Ahead podcast, but my knowledge of how far each goes and the specifics of what constitutes a genre or sub-genre are limited.

Strategy Analogs

I’ve mentioned quite a few already. The granddaddy of the all Chess of course and it’s older counterpart Go. Checkers, Backgammon, Candyland, Monopoly, Clue, basically any board game ever. The only one I can think of that isn’t is the previously mentioned basketball catapult game. Of course the tabletop wargamming scene is where much of the Strategy game history started with as they got converted in the 1980s to digital format. Though I’m not sure about the original tabletop wargame Little Wars. May need to have the experts check that out. Card games like Poker are essentially Strategy games with a bit of luck that a good player can effectively ignore. Gin Rummy, Go Fish and Magic: The Gathering are all card based Strategy games. The only card game I can think of that isn’t one is previously mentioned Egyptian Rat Screw.

One interesting thing to note is how thanks to board game adaptations we can see how the thematic qualities can be converted into different genres. The Gears of War board game is a Strategy game that has been translated from an Action game thanks to an alteration in mechanical focus. The themes are the same and emotional resonance of the Action game is apparently well converted over into a turn-based scenario. Horror as well has been translated into every Super-genre with the like of Arkham Horror the board game and House on Haunted Hill. I bring this up that these Super-genres don’t limit what they are capable of, merely explain how they accomplish what they do. It is important to understand the focus of something in order not to mess it up.

Strategy Conclusion

This is the shortest entry yet, mainly because I know so little about the Strategy Super-genre. I know some games and of course the classics like Chess and Go, but I’m at a loss of the nuance and detail of their modern incarnations. I do feel that I have covered the general essence of what Strategy games are and closed a few obvious confusion loops in the logic, but I’m sure there are other things I’ve missed. Once again I invite the Three Moves Ahead crew or their audience to point out what I may have missed or left open.

Next up: Immiscible Games

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