The Joy of Strategy

“I love it when a plan comes together.”

There’s a certain pleasure to be had from successful planning. Whether it’s a birthday party that goes really well, or managing to meet a deadline just in time, our brains like to reward us with a flood of chemicals to signify satisfaction.

Good strategy games know how to tap into this. Sure, there’s the typical reptillian reward mechanisms in strategy games too, the unlocking, improving, increasing of various stats and virtual baubles. For good strategy games though, that’s just a side-note to the true escalation of the experience– ever-increasing difficulty. As you (and your virtual counterparts) improve, so too do the opponents. Strategy games, moreso than any other type of games, are about learning. Learning the rules, and then learning how to exploit them.

This can carry over to other genres too. See for example, the popular pass-time of many RPG-aficionados to min-max their characters. It’s utterly counter to the idea behind role-playing, but people insist on doing it anyway, and derive a lot of pleasure from doing so (and occasionally bragging about it). Like any physical sport, it quickly becomes about striving for perfection. Gamers will play the same levels, over and over, increasing the difficulty to its highest point, just to test themselves; see if they can succeed.

It’s interesting that (successful) strategy games are typically firmly planted in one of two camps: turn-based or real-time. Turn-based games are about contemplation, and arouse similar interests in the gamer as playing chess. You weigh up variables, try to think several moves ahead. This is probably strategy at its purest, unspoilt by the imperfections of the human body.

Real-time strategy on the other hand is a different matter. Actions per minute make all the difference, meaning that your body (or at least parts of it) needs to be conditioned, your reflexes need to be fast and you have to think (an improvise) very, very quickly. You have to become one with the machine, not allowing matters such as interface to slow you down. A different kind of skill, and certainly a different kind of satisfaction.

Perhaps the oddest thing about strategy gaming is that you encounter more or less the same emotional high, whether competing against another human or not. Games like Gratuitous Space Battles even allow us to play against ourselves (by creating a challenge for others but playing it yourself). As a kid I would sometimes play board games against myself just for practice (although I’d end up either cheating or favouring one side over the others for some reason), and with video games I can now more properly relive and explore that experience.

There are many devices used by different games to ensure that the experience is as compelling as possible. Seemingly impossible difficulty levels are the obvious requirement for a challenge. Permadeath will maximise the risk/reward factor. But then there’s my personal favourite, battling against impossible odds.

Some games are conceived to be very carefully crafted experience, guiding (even hand-holding in some cases) you through the designers’ vision. Some are intended to be a sandbox, giving you a playpen and some virtual tools to run amok. In-between the two, there’s a sweet spot, which is strategy gaming at its best.

Your thoughts on this?