Criteria for Strategy Game Design

In the context of this article, strategy games are defined as “contests of decision-making” and therefore a very specific form of interactive system. These potentially highly replayable games are usually played in matches and demand creative finesse in coping with diverse challenges. They can’t be “beaten” and are therefore fundamentally different from linear games with a preset story or level structure (such as Uncharted or Super Mario Bros.). The following article elucidates the core concepts underlying these systems to then derive specific quality criteria for their gameplay design.

Dissecting Decisions

Designer and author Keith Burgun would simply call decision-making contests “games” in his taxonomy of interactive forms, thus separating them from goal-less toys, solvable puzzles, and “pure” contests (which measure a single specifically defined skill). A decision is defined as a situation, wherein the player has enough and insufficient information at the same time: On the one hand he can’t be completely sure as to which action alternative is the best one, else there would be nothing to decide since the correct solution is already known. On the other hand the player must have some information on which to base his choice, otherwise every alternative would effectively be the same, again destroying the decision (in other words, it might just as well be “decided” by a die roll).

Efficiency and Transparency

Efficiency describes the frequency with which interesting decisions occur during gameplay. It can thus also be called “density”. Assuming the (primary) value of the system really lies in making these decisions, more decisions per second are of course better (given equally high interestingness). In general as little time as possible should be spent waiting or performing mentally trivial tasks. Besides obvious examples such as cutscenes, housekeeping busywork and manually adjusting the camera, this also concerns more subtle elements such as animations in turn-based games. They have no mechanical meaning and therefore do not affect the decision-making process (in contrast to real-time games where the time an animation needs to play out is an actual resource). Therefore they should either not exist or run asynchronously to the player’s input so that he can still issue commands as quickly as possible. Essentially this principle comes down to valuing the player’s time and making sure not to simply waste it.

Elegance and Variety

A little less tangible but at least as important is the concept of elegance. Jesse Schell describes it in “The Art of Game Design” as follows: “Elegance is one of the most desirable qualities in any game, because it means you have a game that is simple to learn and understand, but is full of interesting emergent complexity.” Thus the basic principle is “easy to learn, hard to master”. This means that the overall system has to consist of elements that are easy to understand (having little inherent complexity), and only in working together create a lot of depth and possibilities (emergent complexity). In other words the system does a lot with relatively little. A game can be immensely complex and still elegant if it just creates far more depth than it has by the inherent complexity of its rules alone. The other way around, a simple game can be inelegant if there’s actually not much more to it than what can be seen on the surface (see Tic Tac Toe). In general though, a great design expresses itself in as few and simple components as possible.

Luck and Execution

By contrast, a “natural enemy” of the decision-making contest is the dependence of a player’s success on mere luck, for example caused by output randomness (like rolling dice to determine the amount of damage done in an RPG) or input randomness with unfairly high variance regarding its effects on different matches or players. These elements are in immediate conflict to the system’s core: the decisions. The more the outcome of a match depends on luck and randomness, the less weight a player’s decisions have in the end. On top of that, the systemic feedback is distorted by chaos: Did I win because I made better decisions? Or was it just luck? In most cases it’s simply not possible to draw a clear line between the two factors. The phenomenon of “imagined agency” is therefore closely related to this problem: In the case of defeat many players assume they were just out of luck. Any victory however they quickly ascribe to their superior skill.

Final Thoughts

Of course all these criteria and observations are mostly mechanical and systemic affairs. And indeed in terms of the ruleset design (which is the focus of this article), things like story, characters, setting and even theme play a subordinate role. For a decision-making contest the main purpose of a theme is to make the mechanisms feel more intuitive. It’s for example easier to grasp and internalize that “the sword fighter can only attack adjacent enemies, while the archer can attack enemies in a distance of two tiles” than a more abstract “the square stone can only remove adjacent stones, while the round stone can remove stones in a distance of two tiles”. Theme means using the player’s common knowledge to ease him into learning the rules. By extension, the presented criteria inherently incentivize innovation: Two decision-making contests that only differ in terms of theme (not in terms of how intuitive they are), but are mechanically equivalent, do actually not differ at all.