Meditations on Strategy #0: Preamble

I’ve been thinking about strategy lately.

I find it best to start with an anecdote again. Some time ago, I bought the historical strategy game Europa Universalis IV. I’m not a total stranger to grand strategy or Paradox games—I’ve played quite a bit of Crusader Kings 2—but this was my first expedition into the EU series. As an experienced CK2 player, I got the hang of it pretty quickly… or so I thought. In one of my first games I chose to play France. I handily won the Hundred Years’ War (there’s a reason England lost in real history) and set about attempting to consolidate my borders into those resembling the modern French ones. I overran the weak surrounding nations such as Brittany and Orleans easily, annexing one after another.

Then, just as I was mopping up the last remnants of independent Provence, my peaceful neighbors in Aragon and most of the Holy Roman Empire—as well as England, eager for revenge—unexpectedly declared a “Punitive War” on me for what at the time seemed like no apparent reason. My army was quickly wiped out by their combined might, and I quit the game, confused and upset. I then asked a more experienced EU player why half of Europe had suddenly taken offense to my existence.

“Oh, your Aggressive Expansion must have gotten too high,” was the response.

I’d seen the words ‘Aggressive Expansion’ on the peace negotiation window, as some sort of attribute you gain for receiving territory in a peace deal, but not thought to look up what it meant. If I’d paid more attention to diplomacy in that game, perhaps I would have noticed it as a negative opinion modifier and figured out what it represented. The fact is—though a zealous strategy gamer might argue I’m to blame for this and not the game—EU4 failed to make it clear to me that conquering too much, too fast, would worry my neighbors enough to make them all join forces against me. (Perhaps this is even the intuitive consequence; I was probably mislead by the fact that CK2’s more rigid casus belli system prevents your neighbors from declaring war merely over geopolitical considerations.)

At the time, I accepted that mistake as merely part of the process of getting used to a new strategy game. I’ve had my share of similar experiences in the past, in games like CK2, Total War and Civilization. But then I happened to ask a friend, out of curiosity, why they didn’t like strategy games as much as I did.

“They don’t tell me what I’m doing right or doing wrong,” was the response that time. “Whenever I play one, even if I’m not losing, I still have no idea what I’m doing most of the time. It’s not fun.”

In a way, we had a common experience. I thought I knew what I was doing in EU4, due to my past experience with CK2, but I was gravely mistaken. My friend suffers under no such delusion. And I can certainly empathize with the feeling of not knowing what one’s doing—even for someone used to strategy games, the first few hours spent with a new one tend to feel like that.

But for purposes of comparison and contrast, let me talk about another game; the recent remake of XCOM: Enemy Unknown. (As it so happens, this is one of the few strategy games that the aforementioned friend of mine is able to enjoy.)

XCOM is not a forgiving game. On higher difficulties, it will punish every mistake you make and every unwise risk you take. But there’s one way in which XCOM is far kinder than the average strategy game; even as a new player, you can tell what the mistake you made was, or when you took a risk that wasn’t worth it. If you move your squad too carelessly and got them flanked or ‘triggered’ too many enemies, or miss a shot and were punished for the attempt, it wasn’t outside the realm of reasonable expectations given the information that was clearly and unambiguously presented to you (unless it was a glitch, of which there are no shortage.) Rarely will XCOM make you ask, in genuine bewilderment, “What did I do wrong?”

Does this make XCOM intrinsically a better-designed game than EU4 or Civilization or Total War? I wouldn’t go that far. But I think there’s value to be found in comparing them and asking how we can make strategy games more intuitive—or if doing so is even a good idea.

I’ll save the rest of those thoughts for another week. They still need a bit of sorting out.

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