Strategy Games Are Broken


If you haven’t done so already, I ask that you check out the At the Gates Kickstarter page. Our goal is to innovate and take strategy gaming to the next level, but this campaign will be our sole source of funding for development. And hint, hint: the more successful ATG is the more articles you’ll have to read in the future!

To those of you who have already contributed and helped us reach our funding goal, I offer my most sincere thanks!

Strategy is among the oldest and most beloved gaming genres. But all is not well with this venerable stalwart. The list of issues plaguing digital strategy games is growing, and if this trend isn’t reversed it could result in this form of entertainment becoming completely marginalized or transformed as the technology used to consume entertainment continues to evolve.

In this article I’ll be analyzing the biggest problems with the genre, and you can check out my latest project, At the Gates, to see how I’m hoping to solve them!


Lack of Clarity

The very essence of a strategy game is evaluating situations, crafting plans to achieve a goal, and adapting as necessary during execution. Many titles fail right from the start, and don’t provide players with enough information to properly evaluate what’s going on. There are two major culprits here.

The first is 3D graphics. High-detail art is great for providing immersion, and there is certainly value to this even in the strategy genre, but many times the priority has become good graphics for the “sake” of good graphics. The target of effectively conveying information is forgotten, and the game suffers as a result.

Another pet peeve of mine that’s particularly pertinent to to this genre is bad user interface and tutorials. If players A) don’t know what’s important, or B) don’t know what tools are available to them, then how are they supposed to make meaningful decisions? Sure, some people will plow forward until they’re able to eventually figure the game out, but why turn away everyone else?

It’s easy for developers to forget what it’s like to play a complex game for the first time. Effectively teaching new players is one of the most important elements to get right, and unfortunately it’s also one of those done wrong most often.



Solving Puzzles is Not Strategy

Finding solutions to  puzzles can be interesting and fun. But it’s not strategy. A true strategy game has no “correct” solution, and instead offers players a variety of tools to achieve a goal. It’s impossible to achieve perfect balance, so there will always be some puzzle-like elements in all strategy titles, but some completely abandon this pursuit and can be boiled down into a small subset of correct play.

Anyone who has been reading this site for a while knows I’ve spoken at length about the vital role player adaptation can and should play. The entertainment provided by a strategy game comes from facing a challenge, developing an answer for it, and then overcoming that challenge. The key is that final piece. Overcoming. The tougher and more frequent the challenges being overcome, the more enjoyable the experience.

Puzzles can only be overcome once, and as a result offer almost no replayability. The reason why the Civilization games can remain interesting for so long is because it takes much longer to “solve” the variety of situations players can find themselves in.



Midgame Drag

Have you ever been playing a grand strategy game and about halfway through said to yourself, “you know, this isn’t really all that interesting any more… maybe I’ll start a new game.” Well, the three of you who said “no” – sorry, I know you’re lying! Many titles in this genre seem to lose steam about halfway through. Why is that?

The reason is that these games tend to outstay their welcome. A good analogy would be a long-running TV series which stays on the air simply because it keeps making money. The writers might have wanted it to end a while ago, but forces outside of their control are keeping it going. The only place where this analogy doesn’t work with strategy games is that the designers do have the ability to cut the game off whenever they so choose.

Many of these games continue slumbering onward because their subject matter demands it. In a game that claims to cover all of history, it would be a big faux pas if the developers said, “well, the game stops being fun around 1600 AD, so we’ll just end it there.” Such a decision might make sense from a game design perspective, but it would be a marketing nightmare. And so they have no choice but to continue sputtering on until they finally collapse across the finish line.

But why do they lose their momentum at all?

A moniker often used for empire builders is “4X”, for exploration, expansion, exploitation and extermination. Unfortunately, once you get halfway through a game the first two Xs – by far the most enjoyable for many players – are pretty much wrapped up. Unless you really enjoy watching meters fill up or have a particular love for the less-than-perfect combat systems these games tend to feature there’s really not much left to see. And so we quit and start over.



Too Much Fluff, Not Enough Strategy

As we’ve already noted, the essence of a good strategy game is having the information to make difficult, interesting decisions. A trap many games fall into is to include so much stuff that determining what’s important becomes difficult. And that’s not fun. If players can’t wrap their head around the options available to them, how are they to choose one? And even if they do, how can their choice have any meaning?

The foundation of Unity of Command’s brilliance is its minimalism. No aircraft, no Panzer Mk IIIEs, no AP versus HEAT ammunition. But those elements which are included are all clearly important and worth your full attention.

There is certainly room for more detailed strategy games, but that doesn’t absolve developers of analyzing every aspect of their work and honestly ask themselves, “could my game be better if this were removed?” Much of the time the answer to that is “yes.”

So I’ve done an awful lot of complaining about the state of strategy games, and you might be thinking, “well, if he’s so smart, what would he do differently?”

The answer to that is my new game, At the Gates. If you’re curious as to how it will differ from Civ 5, I’ve written a lengthy article explaining just that. Check it out!

– Jon

16 thoughts on “Strategy Games Are Broken

  1. On the flip side of focusing too much on graphics, there are many strategy games that don’t focus enough on it. Having a strategy game that is cold and devoid of graphical style can also be a real tun off when you take the time to try it out.

    This is not to say that strategy games need cutting edge graphics to draw players in, but they do need to have “character”. Without graphical character, new players will have a feeling that the game is missing something.

  2. “A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” Antoine de Saint-Exupery. Another form, about Japanese gardening actually, is “Your garden is not complete until there is nothing else that you can remove.”

    But video game designers, being accustomed by and large to making interactive puzzles with correct solutions, where greater complexity makes the puzzle harder, have lost touch with how games originally worked.

    Board military strategy games work because they must be made simple, given the limitations of the medium, and because it’s the other players (often more than one other player) who provide the challenges through the game, not the designer. The designer provides the context for the challenges.

    I look forward to hearing about your game. In the end, though, military strategy games are doomed to a small niche because the object of the vast majority of game players has changed from earning something, from accepting the consequences of poor decisions, to being given something, to reward-fests, to success through sheer persistence (even though many are not persistent).

  3. Terrible Tease.

    So is this an invitation to wild speculation?

  4. Now we expect nothing less than a revolutionary minimalistic redesign of Civilization. Don’t disappoint us! 🙂

  5. i expect Go after reading this blogpost

  6. Great post, thanks!

  7. Unfortunately for me civ 5 has been a step down from civ 4 (which i still play online)

  8. I agree “Solving puzzles is not strategy” but you can use strategy and tactics to solve puzzles. And he also says that “Puzzles can only be overcome once, and as a result offer almost no replayability.”. I don’t agree, a Rubik’s cube is seen has a puzzle and has many solutions and strategies and is replayed. Replaying can be just a question of finding new objectives, like finishing it faster, for example.

    “A true strategy game has no “correct” solution”, I agree that games that are more based on strategy decisions like Civilization isn’t a puzzle because theres to much of abstraction. But tactical games, I do think they can be puzzlelike because each present turn, your moves can have a fast controlled outcome. You can win the game because the sides are so balanced that losing one unit can change the game (ex: chess). Also your moves can make your opponent do what you want, achieving a small objective. Even more if its deterministic.

    Games like Telepath Tactics, for me is a puzzle like game, because every attack for example is deterministic. But games like Wesnoth is too random, which makes it hard to preview the outcome, maybe that’s why I think its MORE of a strategy game and Telepath Tactics is MORE a tactical game.

    So agree stategy games are no puzzlelike and turn based tactical games are.

  9. I think it’s time for strategy games to go dual-monitor. It used to be you shut out half your market if you gave someone with dual monitors an advantage, but I think it’s time now. For example take Civilization: your global map on right monitor, double-click on cities and it brings up the city screen on the left. Or your military advisor on the left, global map on the right; double-click on a unit in the advisor, and it zooms on the global map. Or take RTS games: the best players will be the ones who best can navigate their monitors for good recon. Jon is clearly an innovator. This is an innovation I would like to see. I think it would pay off.

  10. Jon, agree with everything you say except for the point about 3D. 3D must be able to work. Table-top strategy games were “3D” decades before computer games, so it must be able to be translated into the game.

    Other than that, totally agree with you. Many strategy games try to have “too much”. Too much graphics, too much “stuff”, too much directing the player.

    IMO, strategy games themselves suffer from the very tactic that usually plagues the gameplay of those same games: “Bigger is always better”, when in reality it isn’t.

  11. I’ve always been dissapointed with the civ and 4x games. I just want to build stuff, watch things grow, and I get fed up as you endless war decends in the end. I’m glad to know others think the same.

    They always focus on pointless details, and micro management. I’ve actually been working on my own 3x game design.

    I dont think these games become dull because they outstay their welcome, I think its because their is nothing more to see, you know nothing new will happen. Games are very predictable in their patterns.

    You could easily make the game enjoyable for longer, I’d make a game where you can restart within the game without actually restarting. Civilizations death, failure, and rebuilding was a part of our history so why not make it part of a game.

  12. You’ve presented an excellent article and, though I fully agree with you on almost all points, I would have to disagree about the “exploration, expansion, exploitation, and extermination argument.

    A game that I always love to play (and never restart once I’ve started) is Civilization IV.

    Though admittedly the game DOES lose some of its luster once you’ve explored and colonized the entire map, the challenge of conquering and competing with your opponents is still there. Though the game’s combat and diplomacy do have flaws, it’s still really fun to play.

    Plus, there’s the vast amount of mods that are readily available if you do get bored of the vanilla game. I can’t tell you how many hours I spent playing Fall from Heaven II.

  13. Very interesting read, thank you very much.
    It’s great to know that there developers out there who understands graphics is not the answer for everything, nor complexity neither tons of stuff.

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