Tactical vs. Strategic

Plan your actions vs. Your plan of Action

In games, players need to make decisions about what to do next when it is their turn to take actions. These decisions or choices are based on what they know about the current state of the game on this turn and knowledge they might have about how the game needs to be played in order to win (along with many other factors). This is most often called a player’s skill level at the game. Among gamers, players that have a high general level of skill across many types of difficult games are called Tactical or Strategic thinkers. These two terms are commonly used interchangeably but actually have very different meanings when we use them for game design.

As designers, we need to understand the differences between these two ideas so that we can build games that are both tactical and strategic. This will also help us to build games that limit, restrict or simplify the tactical or strategic elements of the game if desired.

Tactic: “An action or strategy carefully planned to achieve a specific end.”
Tactical: “Actions carefully planned to gain a specific end.”

Strategic: “The identification of long-term or overall aims and interests and the means of achieving them.”

Strategy: “A plan of action or policy designed to achieve a major or overall aim.

Plan: “A detailed proposal for doing or achieving something.”

For the purpose of board game design in this article, we will talk about tactical actions as being limited to the current game state. We will use strategic for a player’s total plan for all the actions needed to win the game regardless of the current game state. Let’s take one more stab at a custom board game design version of the definitions:


Tactical: How well thought out, individual or short term, actions are planned


Strategic: How tactical actions are used to form long-term plans


This is why in some games, some players, will take an action that seems at the time to be less than optimal for the current turn (game state), but in the end that action benefited them more on a later turn (game state).

If a player always takes the best option, solely based on the current game state, without regard for an overall strategy they may not always win a strategic level game. They might win a tactical game using that strategy. I hope this distinction is becoming clear now.

Strategy games fall into one of three very broad categories within this subject:

  • Random Strategy = Risk
  • Tactical Strategy = Ticket to Ride
  • Deep Strategy = Chess

No matter what game we are talking about there will be luck, tactics, and strategy. This is because there are always times when a great player might make a mistake, lucky for you. Or you might have found a good tactic to use when playing a random game that helps to better play the odds. For every game you play, you can decide in advance the plan for how you will play that game… and that is your strategy for that game. This means every game is a strategy game (in part). The game complexity, difficulty, and depth change the level of strategy needed to win the game.

Now, I don’t think all games are strategy games but this is in the same sense that I don’t think all games are area control games. All games contain a way to form a strategy for how to play them, it just is not always a large part of the game. All games contain an element of power and control over an area (area control), it just is not always a large part of the game.


For some games this “area” to be controlled is the final score, this is a philosophical design concept and not a game mechanic like “area control”.


People categorize games by the largest forces at work in the game and rightly so. We can’t split hairs for the smallest factors that make up a game or take the time to list every mechanic used in each game.

So, with this in mind here are the three categories again in more detail

Random Strategy = A game having little to no variety of tactical choices and limited ability to form multiple strategies that can be successful in winning the game. These games will normally also have a less than ideal or overused random element. This does not mean an absence of tactics or strategy, only that they are limited in scope and variety.

Tactical Strategy = A game that has meaningful decisions to make that mostly affect the current game state but can have some impact on later turns, generally a dominant strategy or two is the same for all players and the tactical choices made turn-by-turn determine who is the winner. This could also mean that the game changes turn-by-turn to a degree that it prevents predetermining a long-term strategy (not always the case). A player’s long-term plans might need to change several times throughout the course of the game to remain competitive.

Deep Strategy = A game where players have the ability to make and follow a more complicated long-term or game length strategy and normally must do so in order to have a competitive chance of winning against a player who is using such a strategy. This type of game also has many of the desirable features of Tactical Strategy category mixed in. The main truly meaningful difference between the two categories is; the community of players have developed enough variations of effective long-term strategies so that no single dominant strategy has solved the game. (even if solved by a computer normal humans cannot do so)

Most games fall comfortably into the tactical strategy category, this does not mean that they are not wonderful strategic and fun games! In fact, the line between them and deep strategy is thin at best and in some ways, how a game fits into these categories depends more on the skill of the players who play them and not as much on the game itself.

This is because, for all the design skill in the world, the strategies used to play a game are normally developed by the players. Yes, they are originally crafted in some sense by the designer, but only games that are playtested tens of thousands of times by multiple groups can claim that all the possible strategies were built in by design. (this is hyperbole, not statistical fact)

So as designers what do we do about strategy?

I guess… What I am trying to say is, you can’t really design a deep strategy game, only players can. This, of course, is only my opinion, but I hope it gets you thinking about how the tactical paths to victory you build into games might form the ability for it to become a true strategy game over time.

All games have tactics, all games allow players to form a strategy, all games played by humans have luck (not the same as randomness). As a game designer if you want to make strategy games, you need to focus on creating the multiple balanced tactical pathways to victory needed to form a varied strategy. It is also important to think like a player so you can see potential strategies forming from your mechanics.

The main danger is trying to design or create the actual strategies yourself by building or “hard coding” them into the game’s mechanics. This will lead to the game having a more narrow focus than you might want, and in the end, limit the ability of the players to form or create new strategies not built into the game.

Varied strategies come from giving the players raw tools, rules for how to use the tools and deal with other player’s actions, and an objective to reach. By ensuring that the rules are mainly focused on clearly defining these three things:

  • How players can use the tools provided
  • How to resolve conflict if any
  • How players win (the victory conditions)

Many of the greatest deep strategy games in the world are very simple, from a component and rules standpoint. They don’t try to tell the players “how to play the game” just “how the game is played”. These games give the freedom of crafting the strategies to the players.

There is a lot more to building “multiple balanced tactical pathways to victory”. However, that will have to be a topic for another article.


This is intended only as “Food for Thought”. Please let me know what you think, I am by no means the authority on this subject so any input from other designers is greatly appreciated.


“Remember to think outside the box so your games will fit inside!”

@BHFuturist 

“I want to help you embrace the bright hope for your future.”

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