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.
We'll also need the definition of Stratagem- 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 term goals).

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 enhance Strategy.


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 winner.

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.

An Observation

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 everywhere. Etc.

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 2002 article.


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 towards Strategy.

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 near.Ē 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 difficult.Ē 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. 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?

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 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.

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. 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 enhancing it.

"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 this 2003 article.