TGDRT #31: Tactics & Repetition

Episode #31 is live!

Jon, Dirk and David discuss tactics in a more general sense. What is a tactical game? What problems does the genre have? Why does Jon hate basically all of them? And is it the players’ fault if their tactical choices aren’t as interesting as they could be?

As much as I want to like tactics games, I feel that the vast majority don’t offer interesting decisions. Instead of dynamic environments and interesting unit abilities, you’re often left with generic pieces on a bland or empty board.

That having been said, I think the games are getting better. The new XCOM game is much better than what you typically see, and part of what makes Unity of Command so amazing is the limited but highly-differentiated unit set.

I know not everyone will agree with me on this topic, so feel free to leave a comment and explain what I’m missing!

– Jon

5 thoughts on “TGDRT #31: Tactics & Repetition

  1. Great show, but I have to throw in a few points!

    Regarding chess: I believe pretty strongly that it’s both a tactical and a strategic game. Tactics exist as a means to an end, which is the player’s strategic goal. Formulating and executing a strategy is one of the signs that a player has moved beyond playing “reactive” chess and is imposing their will on the other player.

    A good example would be Silman’s method of looking for imbalances. There are certain aspects of any game (pawn structure, space, minor piece positioning, etc) that when recognized point toward a clear strategy. It’s a matter of a player finding an imbalance that’s in his or her favor and then exploiting it. Tactics (forks, pins, discovered attacks) are the method by which the player will capitalize on this plan. They’re the short term tools that are used to execute the long term plan. Strategy is a fundamental part of a positional play style.

    The board may be static as an 8 by 8 grid, but the Board, the lay of the land, the dynamics of the pieces, are as fluid a landscape as a player can hope for. I’m waxing poetic at this point, but chess as pure and perfect of a game as I can imagine – there’s a reason people have been playing it for hundreds of years and will still be playing it long after we’re gone.

    Finally, dungeon crawls: I’ve heard the dungeon setting described as “gaming shorthand”. The dungeon is part of the gaming zeitgeist in that it doesn’t need explanation or lengthy exposition. It allows the player to drop into whatever scenario or ruleset the designer has made and know how almost all the base systems such as potions, traps, doors, and mobs all work. There’s value and economy there for both the designer and the player. I think there’s room for new mythologies and exotic themes to coexist with the dungeon crawl that everyone knows and loves. It’s the sitcom of the gaming world – everyone knows how it’s going to play out and that’s okay.

    (I’ve spent more time with Dungeon Crawl: Stone Soup than any other game in the last 10 years. It’s a 16-color game with no graphics (only using ASCII characters). It may be the anti-Dirk game as theme is the absolute last priority – there’s no story, no theme beyond the dungeon, and it uses every D&D-esque trope in the book. But I still love it.)

  2. I’m not sure if the podcast’s website just swallowed my comment or something as I was using my iPod to write it and it actually appeared at first but now seems gone. So, I’ll repost it here, but feel free to delete any one of them, if the original appears again somewhere. 😉

    Huh, you seemed to struggle with the definition of tactics vs. strategy there. When I think of strategy I immediately think about (long-term) planning. Whereas tactics are about (short-term) decision making, maybe more about reaction.

    Pretty much the first source I found on the difference ( seems to agree: it defines strategy as the plan and tactics as the plan’s execution. In fact, applied to Civ you could think about choosing which victory condition to go for as strategy and e.g. movement of units as tactical, which pretty much fits my intuition of the terms. I think games rarely are PURE strategy or tactics anyway. You mentioned XCOM, where the distinction is very obvious: Strategy layer (base building etc.) and tactical combat.

    So, a “tactical game” to me is a game, that emphasizes tactical aspects and involves little strategy. Chess is certainly more of a strategy game to me as almost any decision has to be made based on at least some long-term considerations. You ideally would “think through” the whole game before making a move. For The Win (also an abstract, I don’t know if you’ve heard about it) on the other hand is very tactical and you rarely (are able to) really plan. You are making the best decision in the given moment and situation with the current state mattering by far the most.

    Alright, that’s that. I have to say, I really enjoy your podcast for the same reason I enjoy the games, that I enjoy: It always makes you think, which is a rare sight in today’s entertainment world. Keep up the great work!

  3. I would define the distinction between tactics and strategy as this:

    Strategy is fundamentally about the allocation of resources. You have X minerals and Y vespene gas, do you want to direct them into building unit A or unit B? You have N tanks, do you want to send them to frontline North or South? You have C workers, do you want them to chop wood or mine stone?

    Tactics is fundamentally about maneuver. Does my XCOM trooper go left or right? Does he throw a grenade or not? Does my tank advance, exposing its side, or not? Resources might exist, but they exist purely to be consumed – you aren’t concerned with producing them, and generally in the long term the resources you have consumed don’t greatly matter – you’ll get a fresh batch of grenades later.

    Chess then is strategic, in so far as you are facilitating exchanges of your units for theirs at a rate that you hope is beneficial. Chess is also tactical, because you are trying to arrange your units in desired positions. I think the two aren’t mutually exclusive.

    Freedom Force is a good real time tactical game.

    1. I love these definitions: strategy is about resources, tactics is about space. It should be noted that games which have one also nearly always have the other. In fact, I might say this is always true of ‘tactics’ games, where every action taken by a unit is a resource allocation of some kind.

      – Jon

      1. Sure, so there’s a little tricksiness in there. 😉 But I think there is an issue of focus. For example, some games definitely work to reduce the resource element – in Frozen Synapse, for example, ammo isn’t counted, health isn’t depleted, and even the loss of units is actually not that important in terms of running out of resources, because a single solitary soldier can play hide and seek effectively and regularly achieve late reversals. Some other games, however, diminish the importance of space, and make it more a matter of arriving at a battle with more soldiers than the other guy. Civ 4 is, arguably, very much like that.

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