Sunday, November 05, 2006

Strategy and Tactics, a couple of definitions

I have only recently been able to play Shear Panic and Caylus, two games that made a big splash in Germany last fall. I enjoy both games very much, but they set me thinking upon on of my favorite topics, a comparison of the concepts of strategy and tactics. While someone else may want to provide a textbook definition, I will presume to provide my own for the purposes of this column. Tactics would be a consideration of possible responses to a specific situation, such as a single turn in a boardgame, whereas strategy is best applied to situations where decisions are made about very long-term goals. A strategic choice will help dictate how to proceed in the present, with an eye towards some general future, but a tactical decision focuses on the here and now. A strategic decision can be made even before a player is confronted with the specifics of the game-state on their turn, whereas a tactical decision relies almost entirely on the situation at hand.

As is the case with most attempts to separate things into two neat categories, this perception of strategy and tactics can be argued to be more of a continuum. A tactical decision of quality will include the consequences of a move for the next turn, the turn after that, and so on. One can argue that a _good_ tactical decision will thus include thoughts that roll on off into infinity making the decision far closer to a strategic one (since it is actually long term). So, if the future consequences can be well predicted, a tactical decision will have a strong strategic aspect. In the same way, if the long-term consequences of an action are unknowable due to chaotic conditions, most decisions will have to remain entirely tactical. This trend can even be continued back into the past, prior to a decision being made. So that a chaotic situation leading up to a decision forces a player to play in the moment, making each decision a tactical one, and inhibiting any long-term strategy.

To help explain what I’m talking about, here are some concrete examples…. Let’s start with the classic game of Chess. Since there is a single way to win in chess, taking the opponent’s king, one could assume that chess and most other abstract games should be thought of as mostly tactical – responding to one’s opponent. On a given turn, a chess player has a limited number of reasonably intelligent moves. In a standard game, an opponent will probably respond with one of a limited number of intelligent moves. Thus, it is actually possible to predict a number of moves into the future. A good player will try to predict which of this branching-tree of possibilities is the best choice, and is thus implementing strategy. A second way to implement strategy is to have a game that is very closely analyzed. As with Chess, if a game has been the subject of deep scrutiny, broad-based concepts can be applied to a decision in such a way that a player is actually implementing strategic rather than tactical play. Chess openings have been studied to a great extent, so a player may choose to go with one or another set of opening moves with only a cursory connection to the plays their opponent are making. A mediocre chess player will play the game as an exercise in tactical decisions, but a higher class of player will consider the multiple branching elements of possibility and play on a level I consider strategy. So, with enough background, thought, and training, what is basically a tactical game can turn into one of strategy.

All this rambling is to lead in to an analysis of my opinion on Shear Panic and Caylus. I have found that, while I find I am better than average at playing tactical games, I much prefer a game that allows strong strategic elements. I can find elegant and surprising actions that will help further my goals, but I enjoy doing so much more if it is furthering some larger, master plan. In Caylus, I have found an excellent strategic game. As is the case for most strategic games, in the first few turns of the game I have several strategic choices open to me for a long term goal. I may have preferences for one strategy or another; as in the various lines on the favor track or a building-focused strategy, but one strategy will tend to rise to the top as I analyze the opportunities available in the initial few turns. Once the opening of the game is past, my long-term strategy is set and many of my later decisions are affected by that. Of course, no good player will stick to one strategy no matter the cost, it will often need to be modified and adjusted as the game progresses. Puerto Rico is an even better example, as deciding to go heavily into shipping goods or a strong income/building strategy will affect the entire second half of the game. Compare this to Shear Panic. I find Shear Panic to be an enjoyable game, but in a three or four player game all the decisions are almost entirely tactical. After two or three players have taken an action, the entire board will be readjusted as the sheep cluelessly wander hither and yon subject to your opponents’ whims. Some small amount of strategy can be employed in conserving your “best” moves for later, and for those rare times when a scoring round looms close enough to make a few predictions about an opponent’s next move. However, the chaotic nature of the game makes it remain primarily a tactical one.

So, since I prefer strategy to tactics, I do find myself enjoying Caylus far more than I do Shear Panic. Both games have their place, particularly since Caylus is about 3 times longer (or more) than a game of Shear Panic. The cute little figures and silly theme are what Shear Panic is all about, and those attributes easily overcome my prejudices against tactical games.

I am not a game designer (I attribute this to my tactical skill, I’m much better at playing with what is there and abusing it for my own nefarious designs, rather than creatively coming up with something entirely new) but can see several ways in which strategy can be introduced or removed from a game. The first is randomness. As random events or values cannot be predicted, the more randomness present in a game, the more tactical it will become. Thus, I find the random tile draws in Tigris and Euphrates to make the game entirely too tactical for my taste when it seems to cry out to me to be a strategic game. The second way to affect the amount of strategy is to introduce multiple players. Humans are notoriously unpredictable and could be considered randomizing factors. The more players present the more chaotic the game, and the more tactical a game will tend to be. This is minimized when all the players are of high quality and most information is public knowledge. Thus, if other player’s moves can be predicted with reasonable accuracy, a longer-term strategic plan can also be constructed. A third way to introduce strategy into a game is to include multiple paths to victory. This is even more important if those paths are true paths and require multiple stages for success. If there are several choices to be made throughout the game, players will begin to commit to one or the other and it will then affect further choices that have yet to be made.

I love a good strategic game, but that doesn’t mean I refuse to play anything else. However, if I plan to play a game that lasts a while, I much prefer it to have a good dose of strategy. Playing a game is so much more rewarding when I can have a plan and watch it grow to fruition throughout the course of play. If I sit down and spend hours in a game, I find it rather wearying for it to be one where each turn has little affect on previous or later turns and it ends up being simply a series of short optimization problems.


huzonfirst said...

I also wrote about this very intersting topic a while ago, Matt:

I actually prefer tactical games, which fits in well with how the games get played by our group: lots of new titles, with each game only getting limited repeat playings. I do like it if the games have at least a little strategy, though. My favorite game is Puerto Rico and one of the appealing things about it to me is that it's a very good mix of the tactical and the strategic.

Pawnstar said...

An interesting and engrossing post, Matt. I have never thought of either strategy or tactics as asymptotic to the other; I have always seen strategy as the plan and tactics as the implementation of that plan. Inseperable.

qzhdad said...

How would E & T be if players selected tiles instead of drawing randomly?

Dr. Matt J. Carlson said...

Very good comments.

Scott: Oooh, I like that idea immensely. I wonder if T&E would shoot up in my opinion if there was a tile draft of some sort? (The additional infomation available to other players would also have some interesting effects.)

Chris (& Fellonmyhead):
I'd have to agree that you can't have a strategy game with out tactics coming into play to execute one's strategy. I guess I'm trying to define strategy as some sort of nebulous idea that a player has that will permeate their tactical decisions.

To counterpoint the Puerto Rico example, I would argue that there are times when going one route or another is not entirely set in stone, just probable benefits (as you mention in Settlers - where I agree strategy can play a large part in terms of types of resources you go for...). So, early on I might have the choice to lean towards shipping or building and need to make a strategic choice since 3-4 turns down the line are not so clear (ie. the other players have not yet revealed their total preference). Yes, Puerto Rico has a heavy tactical emphasis, but there is also some strategy involved (unlike Shear Panic, as mentioned in my column)

I'm aware of wargamer's preferences towards tactical and strategic, but as I'm first and foremost a broad-based board game player, I prefer to use the terms broadly as a way to discuss mechanics. (To be facetious, I could then call Ticket to Ride a tactical game since I only have to deal with 3-4 opponents... ) The same wargamer would also roll on the floor if I claimed Squad Leader had no strategy.

Pawnstar said...

The wargamer's terminology is a derivation of the military concepts of "tactical level warfare" and "strategic level warfare". Essentially it is a matter of scale, though clearly there are tactics involved in the use of strategic weaponry. The definition of "tactics" and "strategy" cannot be gleaned from these concepts - something I was once assured of when I made the same mistake myself.

Anonymous said...

Strategy and tactics are precisely a matter of scale, agreed, but the scale is fluid.

An example. Playing Caylus or Puerto Rico, I might decide on a particularly strategy based on an early assessment of my own and others players positions and will likely succeed to the degree that my tactics build to inform my strategy.

But I might be playing the game with my spouse and decide to back off a little on my competive impulse in order to introduce a new game which I hope we'll play regularly once she gets the hang of it. At that point, anything that happens in the game is tactical.

There isn't just a single tactical and a single strategic level. One level's strategy nests as a tactic to higher level strategies. The terms are useful to orient within a level, as it were. They're how you tell up from down and keep from making penny-wise, pound-foolish moves.

Imho anyway,
Al Tabor