Meditations on Strategy #1: Choice

If there’s one thing game designers and ludologists love to do, it’s redefine terms.

Recently I’ve been reading a well-regarded textbook of game design theory, Rules of Play by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, and the first 150-ish pages are dedicated to defining seemingly obvious terms such as “game” itself, “play”, and “interactivity.” Though Rules of Play settles on its own definitions for use in the meatier parts of the book, my main takeaway from reading this is that there’s a surprising amount of disagreement even over these ‘seemingly obvious’ principles, and thus when one discusses game design it’s always useful to present your own definitions.

And so I’m going to present my own personal definition of strategy games: A strategy game is a game in which choices have lasting consequences.

To illustrate what I mean by this, I’m going to list some types of choices that don’t enhance the level of strategy in a game. (It might be more straightforward to just come up with my own personal definition of the term choice, but I’m going to try and buck the trend by avoiding redefining more terms than necessary.)

Choices that are unconscious. To borrow an example from Keith Burgun, one day I was walking down the street, and chose not to trip and fall. That’s a strange way to use the word “choose,” isn’t it? Yet sometimes people argue that mistakes like missing a shot in an FPS or hitting the wrong note in Guitar Hero are choices—typically when a value judgment about games or game genres is being made based upon the amount of choice involved. I hope no one perceives this article as attempting to make such a value judgment, but it’s prudent to disqualify these as strategic choices nonetheless.

Choices that are obvious. Closely related to the above are choices in which one option is clearly optimal and the only reason to choose otherwise would be willful defiance. For instance, in an RPG you might have a sword that does 5 damage and an otherwise identical sword that does 10 damage. It is not a meaningful choice to equip the superior sword, as there is no apparent reason not to do so. If the ‘lesser’ sword also grants a +5 bonus to defense, on the other hand, it creates strategy—some players might view the optimal strategy to be that of killing enemies as quickly as possible, while others might go for a more defensive playstyle.

Choices whose consequences don’t last. To use FPSes as an example again, regenerating health is a common trend in the genre as of late. Level designers love it because it allows them to be sure that the players will arrive at each encounter at full strength, and not become discouraged if they’re made to confront a challenging boss at half health as a consequence of their incautious approach to prior firefights. On the other hand, this negates an element of strategy existent in classic FPSes where each encounter has to be approached judiciously in order to conserve health for the rest of the level.

The nature of the choice itself may also influence how long it lasts. For instance, choosing between two types of weapons may not matter in the long run, even if that choice is permanent, if one stops using those weapons later.

It may be helpful to think of how long the consequences of the average choice remains meaningful as a continuum, to broadly identify the amount of long-term strategy present in a game.

  • Momentary: In some cover-based FPSes and action games, having been injured doesn’t matter anymore once the red borders fade from your screen. These games have minimal long-term strategy.
  • For the encounter: An FPS (or other game, such as Guild Wars 2) with regenerating health.
  • For the level: Classic FPSes and action games with health bars.
  • For the entire game: Roguelikes, RPGs, 4X and grand strategy games. These games have maximum potential long-term strategy; a choice made at the beginning of the game (such as character class, or starting race/nation) can and often will remain meaningful throughout.

It’s noteworthy that this continuum is closely tied to how long the game actually lasts. For instance, in DOTA, Starcraft and Tetris choices may have consequences that last for the entire game, but each game is rather short. Many puzzle games could be considered strategy games under my definition, but most people don’t think of them as such because the games themselves may last only a matter of minutes.

So should all choices in a game be conscious, obvious and have lasting consequences? Only if you want to make your game as strategic as possible, which isn’t an instant ticket to making it fun or good. In this article, I’ve attempted to define what makes a game a strategy game; next week, I’ll write about feedback, the key to making a strategy game approachable.

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