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Elements of Strategy

by Brian Gleichman
Feb 11,2003


Elements of Strategy

I discussed in a previous article various core concepts of game design that resulted in tactical play. Now I'd like to cover the big sister of tactics, strategy.

Since there are a number of possible definitions for both tactics and strategy it would be best to nail down the specifics of the discussion before things become more confused than they should be. I'm not using the common one found in military circles (tactical, operational, strategic) since in game terms those concepts are basically contained in the idea of scale. Instead I'll be using a definition that is much the same as the one used in chess and other similar games.

Thus Tactical play is the immediate decisions made for material or immediate positional advantage, or in terms of another previous article- decisions and play that exists purely at the Game level. At its most basic, tactics is playing the board for immediate effect.

Strategic play however takes place at the Near Game or even the Meta-Game level (if not using the finer definitions from the Layers of Design article, I'd simply say it takes place in the Meta-Game). Here the focus isn't directly on immediate concrete concerns, but rather on long-range goals and estimates of how one's opponent is going to move and react. Strategy is not playing the board, but rather playing the man. As an example, in chess one may decide as a matter of strategy to launch your main attack on your opponent's kingside- either because you're more skilled in that line of attack than you are with other options, or because you know your opponent is weaker in that line of defense.

Let's consider the primary elements of Strategy under this definition. Although they are greatly interrelated, almost like dance partners, they can be broken down as follows:


"If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles." Sun Tzu, The Art of War.

This element covers predicting the decisions of your opponent and your own performance. Some examples: Knowing that Joe tends to put his most powerful units in the center or realizing that Sara loses effectiveness in chess if her queen is exchanged. Knowing that your heavy fighters can hold the line long enough to complete the flanking maneuver you have planned. Etc.


"Hence, when able to attack, you must seem unable, when using your tools, you must seem inactive. When we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away, when far away, we must make him believe we are near." Sun Tzu, The Art of War.

This element represents the flipside of Prediction, the ability to conceal your intentions and decisions from your opponent or even convince him that you are following a different course from your actual one. If he has positioned himself to protect from a strong center attack at the moment your Cavalry hits him on the right flank- your chances for victory is enhanced.


"In war everything is simple, but it's the simple things that are difficult." General Carl Von Clausewitz.

This is the causal chain required to implement strategic decisions. If one decides to use your Calvary to flank your opponent on the left while tying down his main body with your infantry- the causal chain is all the steps (and time) needed to properly position your troops in order to reach that objective.

A very important characteristic of the causal chain is its length- how many actions are needed over how much time. If the chain is too short, strategic decision itself will become trivial as the other elements become irrelevant. On the other hand, as the chain lengthens the difficulty and importance of the strategic decision increases. Prediction must look further ahead into increasingly fuzzy ground while deception must be prolonged. Failure on either point can result in catastrophe.

As a result, the length of the causal chain is perhaps the most important of the Elements of Strategy as it determines the impact of the others. Many game designs seek to employ both Prediction and Deception, but by resolving the end result immediately in a single roll or two they reduce the Strategic nature of their design to something no more interesting than rock-scissors-paper; an immediate guess followed by immediate and final outcome. It is still a strategic game design, if a very simple one suited only for those seeking the simplest of challenges.

Given these definitions and moving from theory to more practical (if still abstract) concerns- what design concepts are important to consider in creating or evaluating a game's strategic environment?

Tactical Elements:

A strong tactical game will by nature normally produce a strong strategic one.

Chess is again an excellent example of this case, as it needs nothing but its tactical design to present strategic challenges worthy of centuries of play. Between players of near equal tactical skill the causal chain is long and complex enough that essentially limitless Strategies become available and defeating your foe's perception of the game is nearly as (if not more) important than mastering its reality (as Deep Blue's defeat of World Champion Gary Kasparov showed).

So for strategic groundwork first look to the tactical elements: Resource Management, Dissimilar Assets, Maneuver and Pace of Decision. It will be these elements that define the causal chain and it will be these elements that frame the strategic environment.

A game design however can increase its strategic depth beyond that provide by its tactical environment in a number of ways. This can be used to make a moderately tactical game into something considerably more challenging- or turn an already demanding environment into any commander's nightmare.

Hidden Decisions:

By hiding decisions made by a player from his opponent(s), the need to judge the intent of your foe and predict his actions is greatly increased. Resources that are to be used against you are not in sight. Where could they be? Where would your opponent likely place them?

Hidden Movement is perhaps the most common example of this method in wargames and even in rpgs although the latter seldom emphasizes the subject in the rules directly. D20 for example includes rules for sight range under specific lightning conditions without much comment. My own Age of Heroes takes line of sight limits for granted- a matter for GM judgment based upon the map. Adding this to any system is easily done to great effect.

Beyond the simple fact of hidden movement are active measures taken to hide (invisibility spells, smoke, etc.) or deceive (decoy troops carrying the banners of important units, riders trailing branches to raise dust, etc). All can be given to a player as a toolset to expand his strategic options.


If some attempt to hide things, others will always develop methods of investigation to reveal them.

Adding resources and methods to allow for such in a game adds yet another layer to the strategic environment, especially if by their use other resources are limited or spent. A classic example here are the divination spells from D&D. Information about one's opponent can be had- at the price of losing a spell slot that could have been used for combat magic. Outside of magic, even the use of scouts in almost any system means that resources (which could have been of use in a main force) are diverted to a recon and/or harassment role.

Like the three elements of strategy above, Hidden Decisions and Reconnaissance are each part of a dance- play benefiting from both having their impact. When balanced to a fine degree, one may well discover part of a foe's casual chain and thus act to interrupt it- but interpreting scattered clues to determine the correct causal chain can be left in large part to the Prediction skills of the player instead of being given as simply stated fact.

I'd like to emphasize two factors touched on above due to their potentially vast impact on strategy.

"So in war, the way is to avoid what is strong and to strike at what is weak. Water shapes its course according to the nature of the ground over which it flows; the soldier works out his victory in relation to the foe whom he is facing." Sun Tzu, The Art of War.

I've already covered Dissimilar Assets in the Elements of Tactics article and noted it's impact on Strategy above. One should take effort however to extend this concept. Not only can the assets within ones own force be dissimilar- the type and nature of assets each force can draw from may differ. Wargames such as Warhammer use this to great effect to increase the range of its tactical and strategic environment while D&D gains the same effect from its vast range of creatures and races.

Terrain like ground-to-water shapes the very fundamental nature of a conflict. Woods and hills to conceal one's movement. High ground to provide a combat bonus or a good spotting location. Swamp to reduce and channel movement. All impact the tactical and strategic environment as the hammer impacts a nail. Leaving it out is like leaving chocolate out your devil's food cake- sure you'll have a cake; just don't complain when someone describes it as bland.

One of the easiest tests for good Strategic game design is to see if the classic wisdoms of war apply to the end results. The quotes from Sun Tzu and Clausewitz above for example. If characters in your game can make use of such concepts, you've at least got a good start. If they can't gain victory without using such concepts constantly, you've managed it.

Lastly a challenge to the readers. I've left out at least one important concept in increasing a game's strategic complexity (due to the fact that I wanted this article to be a reasonable length). Can you name it? I'll give you a hint; the quote I would use for it is from Napoleon.

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