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Thinking Virtually

#56: Strategic Introductions: Tabletop Games

by Shannon Appelcline
Jan 10,2003


TV logo Welcome, folks, to the return of Thinking Virtually. When we last left this intrepid column it was dutifully considering online roleplaying design step-by-step, while at the same time often reprinting the best, most relevant articles from Skotos Tech.

Alas, Ye Plunky Young columnist became too busy around last March to maintain two weekly columns, and thus Thinking Virtually fell by the wayside after finishing up its final season in May of 2002. If you'd dearly love to read my previous columns, which discuss the design, plotting, and engineering of RPGs, with particular emphasis given to online roleplaying games, I cheerfully direct you toward my topical index of the first four seasons.

This January I've started work on a new series over at Skotos on the design of strategic games--which is to say board games, card games, and ultimately web games. Since much of the topic is going to be most specifically about tabletop board games, it seemed natural to bring this new topic over to RPGnet, and thus I'm going to be syndicating my board and web game discussions over here as the fifth season of Thinking Virtually for the next few months. I hope it will be of interest to you, and also that you'll have lots of great feedback.

Defining Strategy Games

Before I get much further, it's probably useful to define what I mean when I say "strategy games". Generally, I mean games whose heart involves players strategizing rather than roleplaying, but I'll be talking more about the specific differences between strategy and RP genres in just a bit.

I believe that strategy games can be perhaps better defined as those that tend to emphasize thinking, not interpersonal skills (like roleplaying games do), not social icebreaking (like party games do), and not physical skills or talents (like athletic games do).

Strategy games are best exemplified by their tabletop incarnations, which are what I'm going to mostly concentrate upon in this series of columns. Checkers, Chess, and Backgammon are the old favorites. Perhaps you played Candyland as a child, Clue while growing up, or Risk in college. Europeans gamers might have played The Settlers of Catan, Carcassonne, or other bestsellers. These games mostly tend to be classified as "board games", and I was tempted to use that name as the basis of these columns until I came to the conclusion it was too limiting.

In my book, strategy games also include card games of all types. War, Old Maid, Poker, Bridge, Hearts, and a host of others. In addition strategy games also include games which use less common tokens, such as Yahtzee, dominos, chinese checkers, any number of miniature games, and Go. I'll be talking some more about those weird types of tokens next week.

I do expect traditional board games to be the heart of my discussion, because they tend to combine complexity, player choice, and good design in the best ratios, but don't be surprised if I stray now and then; it's all strategy.

Of slightly more relevence to us as online game designers are the phenemonon called web games. I do plan to visit those as well, starting with the fourth article in this series, but in all honesty they're still at a fairly primitive level of design with a much more limited history of design thought. A lot are just crude adaptations of board or single-person computer games, without much consideration for the strengths and weaknesses of the web game medium. On the other hand, new games being developed solely for the web more often tend to be amateur affairs. Some of the best web games do show very good design sense, and really rise above the rest, but they're still the exceptions, not the rules.

Nonetheless, figuring out how to adapt the various precepts learned from tabletop strategic games to the web medium will be a definite point of interest before this topic is through.

Roleplaying v. Strategy

When listing out specific examples of strategic games, from Bridge to Risk, it seems pretty obvious what they are. However it becomes a lot muddier when you look at these games in the abstract, and try and figure out how they truly differ from roleplaying games.

I actually suspect that you could find every "roleplaying" element in some strategic game and every "strategic" element in some roleplaying game. It's all a continuum, with an individual designer figuring out how much he wants in the way of strategy and how much he wants in the way of roleplaying (and how much he wants in the way of athleticism or other skills).

However, when compared to roleplaying games, I think strategy games tend to show a number of trends, though as you see via my various counter examples, none of these are hard and fast rules.

In general, when compared to roleplaying games, strategy games are ...

More Strategic. This is that aforementioned "thinking", as opposed to socialization. It's probably the vaguest of all of my trends.

Examples: Chess, Backgammon.
Counter Examples: Candyland, Monopoly.
RP Games with this Element: Most RP combat systems.

More Competitive. Possibly the most important test. Most often, social RP games involve cooperation, though this tends to get more blurry in online games where you're not always dealing with your "friends". Contrariwise, strategic games are almost always about defeating each other. In general you can address this point as a question: when faced with a decision, is a player more likely to choose personal gain (competition) or story (cooperation).

Examples: Clue, Monopoly.
Counter Examples: Arkham Horror, The Lord of the Rings.
RP Games with this Element: PvP online games.

More Goal-Oriented. This is closely related to the question of competition, but even in non-competitive strategic games, there tends to be some goal that the players are working toward (eg, save the world from Cthulhoid horrors, destroy the One Ring). RP games do still often have goals, such as leveling up, but it's not the sole emphasis of the game, as tends to be the case with strategic games. I'd note this trend as another important test, because it's pretty hard to come up with strategic games that don't have some goal.

Examples: Monopoly, Risk.
Counter Examples: The Ungame.
RP Games with this Element: most RP games have leveling up as at least a secondary goal.

Less Personal. In general, RP games are about you taking on the role of a singular, discrete character who is your alternate persona. On the other hand, strategic games tend to be about overseeing entire cities or nations. Often, you don't even take a role, but just move pieces around in an attempt to defeat your opponent. If you are given a persona to play (ie, a tribe of Israel in The Settlers of Canaan or a historical figure in Civilization III), that assignment is really just intended to add color to the game.

Examples: Risk, The Settlers of Catan.
Counter Examples: Clue, The Game of Life.
RP Games with this Element: Troupe-style RPing.

More Abstract. In RP games, you tend to inhabit a real world that you can move around in and interact with in a physical way. in strategy games that physicality tends to be abstracted to various degrees. Perhaps you're just interacting with things at a very large scale, as is the case with Risk. Alternatively you might be dealing with entirely abstract pieces which work more as a strategic exercise than as any representation of a real place. The most classic board games--Chess, Checkers, and Backgammon--all tend to be highly abstract.

Examples: Chinese Checkers, Mancala.
Counter Examples: Clue, Formula De.
RP Games with this Element: Rare games that allow the RPing of more abstract entities, such as Aria.

So, with all that said, is a game strategic or not? If it shares more than a couple of these common strategic trends, I'd say quite possibly. If it has 4 or 5 of them, then almost definitely. But, as already commented, it's a continuum.

Thanks & Onward

And that is my introduction to strategic games. As I've said already, it's going to be the toptopic of this column for a few months. However, though strategy is going to be my emphasis, that doesn't mean the topics will only be relevant to that genre; as I hope my comparison of RP and strategic games has already shown, there's also a lot of overlap between strategy and roleplaying.

Before I move much further I'd like to offer some general thanks that I think will apply to this entire series. Saul Bottcher and Matt Seidl have both already offered some great feedback on my tenative strategic design thoughts over the last few months. In addition, the folks at Skotos have been very patient as I've led them through a long series of strategic game playtests, both to help me think about this column and to start seriously considering the design of Galactic Emperor: Merchant Kings; Christopher Allen in particular has offered some very insightful thoughts about the design of some of the games we've played. I've also grateful to the RPGnet review community; the site's offered me the opportunity to write my design thoughts about bunches of games, and I've gotten great responses from people on them. If you're interested in reading my reviews, just do a quick search on my name as reviewer, though I'll link the most relevent ones here as I move forward.

For the next couple of weeks I plan to overview the four major parts that make up a strategic game, and then briefly introduce what a web game looks like. And after that we'll be getting into the real nitty gritty.

I'll see you in 7.

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What do you think?

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