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Great Strategy Games Of The Past – Introduction

Hi there. I am Andy and I’m the new kid on the block at The Strategy Game Informer. For my first assignment, I’ve been tasked with producing a series of retrospective articles on classic strategy games. Tackling the classics could be a tall order. Fortunately, I’m of that age where I remember most of them from the first time around. In this introductory piece, however, I’m not going to focus on a single game, instead, I’ll try to bring a sense of context to the genre as a whole by giving my definition of what a strategy game is. Here goes…

Strategy is gaming’s oldest genre. Indeed, its origins lie so far back in time that it is difficult to say where it actually began. Boards for a game called Senet, which relied upon strategic thinking, have been found in Egyptian tombs dating back over 5000 years, whilst The Royal Game of Ur, or The Game of Twenty Squares, was popular in ancient Mesopotamia. Of course, you’ve heard of Chess…

What? You were expecting me to talk about video games? Of course, you’re right, and we’ll certainly get to that. In the meantime, humor me for a moment. My point is that our genre, the strategy genre, shares more than a little DNA with traditional, board-based games and that DNA is truly ancient.

Whether you’re swiveling in a plush gaming chair and using the latest GPU chipset or scrabbling with millennia-old bone dice on a mosaic floor, strategy is and always has been a universal part of the gaming experience. Indeed, there’s an argument to be made that most, if not all games require a degree of strategy to function. So why then is ‘strategy’ even a genre? What defines a ‘strategy game’ in the video game context and what sets it apart from other genres such as FPS, RPGs, or those motion control party games you used to get for the Wii?

Broadly speaking, one could say that strategy games are games which “entertain through reasoning or problem solving” but that only tells half the story. ‘Strategy’, as a gaming genre, is more difficult to define than one might first think, as Simon Dor, Professor of Videogame Studies at the University of Quebec, Montreal, found when he sought to tackle the subject. As Dors points out, there is a marked difference between ‘strategy in games’ and ‘strategy games’, but the line between the two can often be blurred. A game like Tetris, for example, undoubtedly involves a high degree of strategy, but modern parlance would classify it as a ‘puzzle’ rather than a ‘strategy’ game. By contrast, the accusation is often leveled that, many fast-paced RTS games rely more heavily on short-term tactics and twitch reflexes than long-term strategies, yet, RTS is a staple of the ‘strategy’ genre as we know it today. Indeed, if we want to go further down the rabbit hole of genre, or subgenre, definition we need only look to RTS as an example.

In his article, Dors cites Troy Goodfellow, a developer at Paradox Interactive who, when assessing Caesar III stated:

Just because it’s in real-time and is a strategy game doesn’t mean it’s an RTS. Troy Goodfellow

An RTS, he contests is not defined by the words ‘real’, ‘time’ and ‘strategy’, but by a series of gameplay conventions.

“Top-down game in which you gather resources to build and control armies of little guys”. Troy Goodfellow

And he’s not wrong. Were you to ask an experienced gamer to define an RTS, then they’re likely to come up with precisely such a description. This is because the conventions that define RTS as a sub-genre are, by now, well established and epitomized by canonical classics such as Warcraft, Command and Conquer, and Age of Empires. A game that has both real-time and strategic elements, but does not conform to this archetype is unlikely to be considered an RTS–principally because it departs from these well-established genre tropes.

So, if conventions rather than language define genres, what are the main conventions underlying the
‘strategy’ genre as a whole? Genre definition, in any form of media, is not an exact science,
Hybridization is common and sometimes differing samples from the same genre can look wildly divergent. All this can make the specifics of a given genre difficult to pin-down. That said, I shall give it a go nonetheless.

In my experience, strategy games are, in many ways, not unlike the ancient board games I mentioned at the outset of this article, in that, they involve out-witting an opponent, either human or computer-controlled, through the application of strategic thinking.

Like the board games of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, players of modern strategy games tend not to be directly represented within the game through an avatar. Instead, the player takes on an elevated ‘command’ position, whereby they move ‘pieces’ to act on their behalf. Whilst it is not uncommon for players of strategy games to “control armies of little guys” across a map, these ‘pieces’ can take a myriad of forms, from buildings to boats, to bags of grain.

In the aforementioned board games, victory is obtained through territorial ‘control’, enacted across a grid. Likewise, in the video game genre know as ‘strategy’, victory is often achieved through securing ‘control’ from the opponent, this control need not be territorial, it can equally be political, ideological, or even achieved through overcoming the adverse conditions presented by the game itself. If we consider games like Sim City, Frostpunk, or Surviving the Aftermath, for example, there is no opponent in the traditional sense of an adversary. Instead, the opponent is the prevailing circumstances of the game, and victory is obtained by using strategy to gain control over these circumstances. Perhaps, properly speaking, these games belong to the ‘Simulation’ rather than the ‘Strategy’ category, but my definition of strategy is a broad church that willingly accepts ‘city builders’.

Of course, we’ve moved on since the 3rd Millenium BC and so to have strategy games. Consequently, the genre now consists of conventions that are difficult, if not impossible, to simulate on a tabletop. One of these elements is exploration, often typified by a “fog of war” mechanic, whereby sections of a map and the hazards and assets they contain are blocked from view until explored. Likewise, another stock convention of the strategy game is the ‘tech-tree, whereby the player gains access to more advanced game mechanics and/or benefits over time, often forced to choose between one or another in a branching fashion. Modern strategy games also often contain diplomacy mechanics, allowing the player to engage in dialogue with potential opponents or allies. So, according to my definition, a strategy game is:

“A game where a player adopts an elevated position of command, whereby they use their wits to manipulate ‘pieces’ and assets, thus allowing them to overcome an opponent or opponents by gaining some form of control over them. Strategy games often, but not always incorporate exploration, tech-tree, and diplomacy mechanics.”

Now that we have gotten definitions out of the way, I’ll next take a look at some of the great strategy games of ages past (video games this time, I promise). In so doing I’ll pay attention to and point out where these conventions were first established, and I’ll explore how they shifted and changed over time.

Until next time, keep playing.
Andy

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