Tactics & Strategy in Game Design
Part I: Introduction
In the old wargame era, games were divided into Tactical, Operational and
Strategic scales matching the rough military use of the terms. By scale, we
mean the size of the individual maneuver element be it man, squad, company,
division, etc. Strategy (in addition to scale) also tended to add in
production, diplomacy, and the other factors of war.
These definitions have little meaning when examining RPGs since by definiton
RPGs default to the individual scale. However Tactics & Strategy have
meanings outside those of scale, and those are much more useful to us here.
1b: the art or skill of employing available means to accomplish an end
Strategy- 2b the art of devising or employing plans or stratagems
toward a goal
We'll also need the definition of
1b: a cleverly contrived trick or scheme for gaining an end.
To put this in game terms, letís use examine chess using with these
definitions (instead of its more common one focused on long range vs. short
Here Tactics can be referred to as playing the board, i.e. the proper moving
of oneís pieces towards the end of winning the game. This would include
attacking the opponent's pieces, guarding your own, attacking and pinning
the enemy, etc.
Meanwhile Strategy can be referred to as playing the man, i.e. attempting to
deceive the opposing player as to your goals or playing upon a weakness of
his individual style of play. He may really like using his Knights, take
them away in an early exchange. Or move such that he expects a King-side
attack, then switch to an Queen-side one after heís committed his pieces.
Moving these concepts to rpgs, the same principles apply.
Thus tactically one uses the abilities of the character (as defined by the
rules) to reach a desired end. Typically this is winning in combat although
other means are possible. Questions here involve where you move, which
attack to use, etc.
Strategically however youíre interested in exploiting your foe by tricking
him or playing upon his weaknesses. In a rpg a foe can be the GM whoís
running your opponents, other players, or even NPCs/PCs if the person
running them is role-playing a different set of knowledge and weaknesses
other than his own.
Referencing Layers of Design
, itís rather clear
from this that Tactics are a Game Layer consideration. They are concerned
completely with the actual state of the board and what moves can be made.
Meanwhile Strategy is a Near-Game or a Near Meta-Game Layer consideration.
It's concerned with what your opponent is or is not thinking.
From this break down it should be clear that one would use different
mechanics from Game Design PoV to enhance Tactics than one would use to
Part II: Tactics
Now that weíve defined the differences between Tactics and Strategy, how
does a gameís design enhance such play? Weíll start with Tactical game play,
which at its simplest has three major elements.
Element 1: Resource Management
One of the bedrock concepts of tactical play is to make the most gain with
the least expenditure. After all if you have unlimited resources and no
reason to avoid using them, you can do anything. And being able to do
anything hardly makes for good tactical play, instead of working towards of
a goal with clever play- you just do it.
The exact nature of resources can vary greatly in RPG design. The number of
spells you can cast in a day. The amount of ammo you can carry. The number
of Hit Points you have and the number of healing potions you have to restore
them. At the most basic, thereís the number of characters in play and the
number of actions each can take in a turn.
Earlier D&D editions have always been a masterful example of a game design
heavily built on resource management- limited charges on items, limited
number of potions, only so many pre-selected spells per day, etc. D&D forces
its players to decide how to best spend resources at almost every turn. Even
in 4th edition, once-a-day and once-an-encounter abilities represent
resource management although at a weaker level.
As a general rule, increasing the number and types of resources you have to
manage increases the tactical play of the game.
Element 2: Dissimilar Assets
To study tactical battle one must study combine arms (the concept, not the
modern military use although thatís fun as well). Combine arms is nothing
but the use of Dissimilar Assets to achieve a goal.
To use a modern warfare as a model: Artillery is powerful and long ranged-
but vulnerability to almost any attack. Armor combines protection, firepower
and mobility into one package- but encounters major problems in certain
infantry defended terrain. Infantry is slow and light on weapons- but can
make maximum use of terrain. Name an asset and you name both strength and
weakness in a single word.
Combining Dissimilar Assets into a functional and dangerous whole takes
skill and knowledge. Failure to do so (like Franceís failure in WWII) can be
disastrous in the extreme.
Early game designs had Dissimilar Assets and thus Combine Arms as a core
feature. D&D with its classes- Wizards are very different than Fighters who
in turn are used differently than Clerics. Even later games still maintain
this to some extent. Vampire has its clans. Deadlands its gunslingers,
hucksters, and blessed. These games are designed such that each character
becomes its own niche, its own type of Dissimilar Asset that enhances
tactical play when viewed from within its own group of players.
Other games however consider such stark limits as unrealistic and seek to
reduce all the characters to common terms.
As a system weakens character niche, it reduces tactical play. Universal
Resolution systems, lack of character differences, sole dominating weapon
selections, all these things combine to create a tactically bland experience
where the answer to any problem is obvious and unchanging. Even though such
reduction is often done from the standpoint of realism, a simple look at
real world combat would show that it is in fact a failure from even that
perspective- there are no single dominate weapon, no one solution to every
threat, no plan that survives contact with a foe.
Element 3: Maneuver
Managing resources is the bedrock of tactical play. Controlling Dissimilar
Assets each with their own resources is the first step to being a tactician
instead of an accountant. It is however with Maneuver that one masters the
subject. Sadly it is in Maneuver that most RPG design perform worse.
At its most basic, Maneuver is getting the right resources into the right
position at the right time in order to maximize your chance of success while
protecting against the same from your opponent.
Of course for Maneuver to matter, you have to be able to maneuver. Many
designs forgo the use of a map completely and either ignore movement or
abstract it out of the realm of character decision.
A design that focuses on tactical movement will include rules for facing
(and flank and rear attacks), multiple opponent rules, the effects of range,
the impact of terrain and other factors that can (when properly used) allow
a force to defeat unskillfully played opponents with greater resources.
Pace of Decision
The three elements above, added to the rule system in use determine
something I call Pace of Decision. Pace of Decision is at its most simple
how fast can the player lose. Itís a measure of the importance of each
decision and movement.
While a number of factors determine a game's Pace of Decision, how lethal a
system is may be the most important.
For example: D&D provides Resource Management by having Hit Points. However
these same Hit Points reduce the game's Pace of Decision since they act as a
buffer to bad tactical choices. You can lose a few hit points by moving to
an inferior position, but itís easy enough to move again afterwards and use
a healing spell or potion and thus carry on the battle. In other games, that
single bad decision could result in a disabled or dead character. Hence the
Pace of Decision can be said to be Low (D&D like systems where many hits are
needed to kill) or High (one hit means a dead character).
If Pace of Decision is too low, any tactical error can be forgiven since its
impact is minor at best. The winner is almost solely determined by who had
the greater resources. On the other hand if it is too high, the battle is
over before it started with initial deployment likely determining the
The ideal position between these two extremes is one of personal
taste.Indeed, the combination of the elements above that work best is a
question that can only be answered by each individual. Everyone has his or
her own tastes and the possible range of answers here is immense. And this
explains more than anything else, why there is room for more tactical games.
If one reads between the lines above, youíd find an interesting common
thought. The core of tactics is providing options (resources, different
assets, movement options)- but its framework is one of limits.
A resource once spent is lost for an important period of time. A dissimilar
asset canít do everything. Requiring maneuver means that you canít be
The heart of tactics is bringing the best assets and resources to bear at
the correct point at the correct time. The theme of tactics is overcoming
limits. Consider that the next time you look at a game that promises to let
you do anything.
Note: Part II above is an edited and slightly
updated version of this
Part III: Strategy
In part I we defined Tactics and Strategy, part II discussed key concepts of
game design that resulted in tactical play. Now letís turn our attention
Strategic play takes place at the Near Game, Near Meta-Game or even the
Meta-Game Layer of Design
. Here the focus isn't
directly on immediate concrete concerns, but rather on estimates of how
one's opponent is going to move and react. Thus to repeat the phrase I used
before- Strategy is not playing the board, but rather playing the man.
As we did before, letís 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:
ďIf you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the
result of a hundred battles.Ē
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.
ďHence, 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
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
Calvary hits him on the right flank- your chances for victory is enhanced.
"In war everything is simple, but itís the simple things that are
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
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.
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.
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?
A strong tactical game will by nature normally produce a strong strategic
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 foeís perception of the game is nearly as (if not more)
important than mastering its reality.
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 commanderís nightmare.
Many game designs seek to employ both Prediction and Deception, but do so in
a single step mechanic.
Examples include Top Secret were melee combatants would select an attack and
defense stance that would thereafter be cross-referenced on a table to
determine the result. Riddle of Steel would have opposing players drop a
blue or red die simultaneously to declare that they focusing on attack or
defense that round. Some LARPs actually use Rock-Scissors-Paper as their
conflict resolution mechanic to determine the victor in one step.
All these are Strategic methods; however the causal chain is exceedingly
short. Thus they are best used as part of a whole (as in the Riddle of Steel
example) rather than the entire result. Even here, many such as myself find
them so deep in the Meta-Game Layer that they directly drag your opposing
player (rather than his character) into the conflict breaking character
modeling and immersion.
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
Adding this to any system is easily done to great effect. Most often all it
takes is using a battle map with terrain and line of sight rules.
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 older versions of D&D. Information about oneís 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 foeís casual chain and thus act to interrupt it- but interpreting
scattered clues to determine the correct causal chain should be left in
large part to the Prediction skills of the player instead of being given as
simply stated fact. Otherwise you risk reducing Strategic play inside of
"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
One of the easiest end of day 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, youíve at least got a good start. If they canít gain
victory without constantly using such concepts, youíve achieved it.
Note: Part II above is an edited and updated version of