Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Designing for Tactics and Strategy

Max writes about the differences between tactical, short term choices and strategic, long term decisions.  Many games' appeal rely on intersection between of these elements, so Max discusses the design of good tactical mechanics, the design of good strategic mechanics, and what to do if your game is lacking one or the other.

Many games, both digital and nondigital, are based on pairing tactical and strategic decision making.*   There's no real way to draw a line between what counts as "strategy" and what counts as "tactics," but I can define both.

Tactical agency, or short term agency, is comprised of the the decisions you make every turn (in turn-based games), or the split-second reactive choices you make (in real-time games including many digital games).  These are things like "which card do I play from my hand?" "How much do I bid?" Or simply, "Which enemy do I right click on to attack?"  They are all a choice among specific options.  Short term decisions must have quick feedback from the game system on whether I did well or poorly.  I've already written about short term actions in digital games and the compelling instant gratification that they give the player, but even turn-based nondigital games can work very similarly.  For example, in a hidden bidding game, I might reveal my bid for a painting and find that I beat out my opponents by a slight margin (what we call a "Fist-Pump Moment" at Tiltfactor).  Or I might find that my opponents outbid me (what I call an "Oh Shit Moment," only slightly less fun than the fist-pump).  Immediately after I took the action I can see how I did, and I will do this action again many times during the game.  It's obvious that designers should be designing fun and compelling "hooks" for their games that occur at the tactical level - most designers understand this.

Strategic agency (or long term agency), by contrast, is the long-term plans you make over the course of gameplay that often determine whether or not you win.  Strategies are just as much discrete choices as short term decisions are.  They are things like "What type of character do I build: spellcaster or warrior?" "Do I want to collect a bunch of quick victory points and then force the game to end early, or should go for tons of points late game?"  "Based on my team and the opposing team, which of these items should I be saving up for?" "Should I put lots of this card in my deck, or lots of that card in my deck?"  Note that these strategies are, just as with tactical choices, chosen from among a set of distinct options.  Unlike tactics, however, strategic choices do not offer immediate feedback; this is because they take a long time to implement.  In a board game, it usually takes the entire course of the game or the course of several games to figure out if a particular strategy is consistently effective.  In a digital game assessing a strategy might take hours and hours to achieve and then assess.  Again, when we design games we tend to implicitly understand that strategic experiments are fun.

So: tactics are small, frequent decisions in which there is often one or several right answers (that are often determined through analytical reasoning in nondigital games, e.g. "This is the best card for me to play right now."), whereas strategic choices are large, infrequent decisions that are often chosen through experimentation and intuition (e.g. "these two talents seem like they would combine really well with each other and my new bow... I will work towards those and see if they make my character more powerful than the alternatives.").  Both are understood to be an important part of games, but oftentimes when designs are flailing, I find that designers have overlooked or prioritized one or the other.

Here are a few examples of tactical and strategic mechanics in a wide variety of types of games:

Simultaneous Action Selection/Engine Building - Race for the Galaxy
The card game Race for the Galaxy has two core mechanics.  First, it has simultaneous action selection where, players each choose one of five (and a half) actions to play, with the catch that if they choose one of the actions, then all the other players get to do that action.  This is an exciting tactical mechanic that is done each turn, and much of the core of the game is predicting what your opponents are going to do and choosing an action that will allow to springboard off of theirs into greater prosperity.  If you make your choice, everyone turns their chosen action cards face up, and you predicted correctly it's instant gratification - a great fist-pump moment!  The other half of the game is what the actions actually allow you to do: most of them are centered around building engines that produce goods and sell good based on a deck of exception based cards.  The strategy of the game centers around what kind of engine you want to build.  Do you want to produce novelty goods and sell them for victory points?  Do you want to recover alien technology to draw lots of cards?  Do you want to be a military power and take over many worlds?  These two mechanics combine to make an exciting game that wouldn't function without both a tactical and a strategic element.

Real-Time Decision Making/Character Talent Trees - World of Warcraft
Because digital games tend to base their gameplay off of time-based and dexterity elements that are harder to capture in nondigital games (i.e. real-time gameplay), the short term decision-making tends to be focused around these real time decisions.  In light of this, longer-term decisions are often wholly separate from this tactical "twitch" gameplay.  Many games are an excellent example of this, but I'm going to use World of Warcraft.  While actually in combat, players spend most of their time focusing on their actions skills and using them in the right order.  Choosing which one to use when is an art, and over time players develop a kind of zen rhythm to the use of action skills - this is one of the tactical/short-term cores of the game.  One of the centers of long term decision-making, however, has little to do with choices in combat.  Instead, strategy lies in character building, partially through talent trees.  Players make long term goals and decisions about what kind of role they want to play in combat and what kind of abilities are effective for them by deciding which talents they want to unlock.  Talent points come very few and far between at higher levels, making this a very measured choice.  WoW has many more tactical and strategic elements, but these two are central to the game experience.

Menus are always a great way to capture exciting real-time choices!

Tactics and Strategy From The Same Mechanics - The Hearst Collection
Many nondigital games elegantly capture both tactical agency and strategic agency with the same system instead of separate mechanics.  Instead of talking about a traditional board game, I'm going to use the installation game The Hearst Collection as an example.  I wrote about this game, which I played at the Come Out and Play festival, back in June.  Just take a look at the picture below and you'll see how it's played.

In case it's not obvious, you need to maneuver your body through the room, grab the painting at the end, and then get back through without crossing the lasers.  The rules are extremely simple, but they still allow both tactical and strategic decision making.  At the strategic level, players scope out the room and plan their attack... "When I get in there, should I go over this laser or under it?  Should I climb over the table or go around?  When I have the painting do I try to toss it out and then follow it, or should I ride it like a sled under the final lasers?"  Of course, the tactical choices come when you're actually among the trip lines: "Do I have enough room to lift my leg?  Will I fall over?"  In this game both of these levels of play arise from just one simple set of rules.

What does all of this mean for designers?  Well, different audiences want different breakdowns of strategy and tactics, with some enjoying more tactically-focused gameplay, and others enjoying strategically focused gameplay.  For example, party games tend to be strictly tactical and only based on the decision you make each round.  I find that at least many gamers enjoy games with strong elements of both.  When working on my own designs, or critiquing designs by colleagues or friends, I often find the games lacking in either tactical or strategic depth.  Fixing this lack is another issue.

This list is by no means exhaustive, but if a game has strategic depth but is lacking interesting tactics, the following approaches are some that can make for fun tactical mechanics:
  • Dexterity based mechanics (slapping, aiming, flicking)
  • Real-time time management (playing cards in real-time, building cool sequences)
  • Perspective taking exercises (bluffing, bidding, simultaneous action selection, worker placement, drafting)
  • Logic exercises (deduction)
If a game lacks strategic core mechanics, I like to use twists on engine building or set collection.  Here, crafting discrete strategic options that your players can choose (e.g. I'm going to try to collect red military worlds in Race for the Galaxy because they seem to work well together) is key.  Make sure you as the designer know what four or five distinct strategies you are designing into the game for players to experiment with.  They will probably find more strategies, and this is good, but don't rely on the strategies being emergent.  Oftentimes games will have suits of cards (as in Race for the Galaxy) to help players see these potential strategies.

Does your game have enough short term and long term decision making?  If it's not working, maybe it's missing one or the other.

*I'm not making a claim that this kind of pairing is essential to games; I am merely pointing out a frequent commonality based on my observations. 


Unknown said...

Yeah I enjoy a good balance between tactical and strategic decision making. And moreso when there is a little tension between the two (eg "by itself that card is the best, but the other one fits better with my strategy... hmmm") I think this engages different parts of the brain in a satisfying way.

Another idea for increasing tactical play is to interlace micro / 1 action turns (getting closer to realtime or simultaneous play) so that every decision you make can be a reaction to other players decisions and vice versa. This still allows for combinational play but in a more interlaced, interactive and engaging way requiring more successful implementation of tactics. I still see all too many games where a player has their turn and they can do as much as they can do within their economic cap (eg cards, money, action point limit) without me being able to do much at all. Yawn.

Unknown said...

There is a saying about Strategic, Operational and Tactical levels of involvement. On the Strategic level you know that somewhere shots are being fired. On the Operational level you can hear the shots being fired. On the Tactical level you are being fired on.

Bastiaan said...

Even in 2017 this is an interesting article! :-) But then, I don't think tactics and / or strategy will ever become unimportant in games.

As I think other people would benefit from you post as well I made it part of my "Learning board games around the web" blog post: http://makethemplay.com/index.php/2017/05/17/learning-board-game-design-around-the-web-6-great-articles/