Strategy games have been an important part of video game history, and have certainly evolved over time. With the success of titles such as Armello, Fire Emblem: Three Houses, and Xcom 2, it is clear that the market for the strategy game genre is still going strong to this day. But what separates a boring strategy game from a timeless classic? And how do you get started making your game idea into a reality?
In this article, we’ll go over some of the mistakes developers can make in the pursuit of making the worlds’ next great Age of Empire or Command and Conquer, as well as some crucial steps to make it happen.
Let’s begin with some basics. What exactly is a strategy game? Strategy game design in the simplest terms is all about crafting a decision-making contest, where one player’s use of available resources, positioning, and planning are pitted against those of another player or AI.
This entails more than just occasionally selecting from a list of dialogue options or changing equipment. The choices are deeper and require planning. Do I move my archer into the forest now to give them cover, or is that too close to the enemy? Should I use my resources to build a second town or to upgrade my town’s defenses now while I can?
In a strategy game, success is determined by every decision you make. Usually (though not always) played on a grid; they can be turn-based or played in real-time. But they all share one thing in common. Your wits are the greatest tool at your disposal.
So now you may be wondering, what makes a strategy game successful? By what criteria are they judged? I believe it boils down to three things.
High Risk vs High Reward
First, the high risk versus high reward decision making. In Civilization VI for example, early on after you have built the first settlement you are given a number of critical choices right away. There are ores to collect, areas to uncover, and plenty to build if you want to have the edge over your opponents.
The problem is that you will almost never have the time or resources to do all of the actions you want. You have to choose. Getting the ore right away could mean having more wealth than your opponents, but it could also leave you undefended. Any successful strategy game that has stood the test of time will be filled with choices like this.
Second, an ever-changing gameplay loop. Two rounds of a good strategy game should feel completely different, even if you are a veteran player. Sometimes this means having some random elements, such as a changing map or changing the starting locations.
But even if the maps are consistent, how the players’ opponents act should be different enough to make each game feel completely unique. If the rounds begin to feel too similar, it’s only a matter of time before the player will stop engaging with your game.
Third, Schemes. Nothing feels better in a strategy game than watching a plan come together. Watching your opponent lure their army directly firing range or finally taking over a territory you’ve been eyeing is extremely gratifying.
Of course, it wouldn’t be gratifying if it was easy, and learning the mechanics of the game and then mastering them to such a degree that you can overcome your opponents is what makes it fun. In an excellent strategy game, you couldn’t accomplish this by being lucky. Only through careful plotting could you push your forces to domination. This is a feeling that simply is not catered to in any other genre of video games
So now that we’ve established what a strategy game is, as well as what makes them great, here are a few tips to help you get started making your very own.
Make a Board Game First
Game design is an expensive and laborious process. But unlike a platformer or a Role-Playing Game (RPG), for a strategy game, a lot of prep work can be done before a single line of code is written. Strategy board games and strategy video games are both decision-making contests. In fact, many strategy video games began life as board games.
With simple tools such as pencils and paper, some cardboard cutouts, and a little imagination, you can create a rudimentary version of the video game you want to make for almost no cost.
So get a group together and playtest it. Make note of what works and what doesn’t. Tweak the factions or units that seem unbalanced, and playtest with them again. Draw up multiple maps and take note of the ones that stick with you and the other players. Most importantly, try to gauge how much fun everyone is having.
If your group isn’t pestering you about when the next play session will be, there is something wrong. The idea here is to save yourself time and money. If you have a firm grasp on how your strategy game works as a prototype, it will be easier to turn that prototype into a functional video game later.
Accept That Things Will Change
The planning will help, but all the planning in the world will not spare you from the realities of game design. Even if you followed the last step and made an undeniably fun board game, video games are still a different medium. Not everything that was fun during the prototype phase will work as effectively as a videogame.
In addition, anticipate that there will be content you will have to cut and focus on implementing the most important and fun aspects of your game first. Once that’s out of the way, it’s much easier to have an idea of how much effort it will take to add in the rest.
The Balancing Act
Balancing a strategy game is far more difficult than it would seem and is a problem any designer will have to face. But balancing does not mean you should force every game versus every faction or character to be completely even. No matter how hard you try, it will never happen, and perhaps shouldn’t.
Take the Starcraft series, a pioneer of real-time strategy games. In this game, players developed the Rush, Boom, and Turtle strategies that are still used in most Real-Time Strategy (RTS) games to this day.
To summarize, Rushers build their armies and attack quickly, causing problems for Booms, who prioritize building their economy and winning in the late game. But Turtles, who focus half and half on the building while having a small army, can counter the Rush players, but struggle against Booms.
If this system were completely balanced, Starcraft would boil down to a game of rock, paper, scissors. However, what makes Starcraft exciting is that a clever player can turn the tide and still win, even against an enemy using the strategy they are weak against.
The game is not completely balanced, and that’s alright. Smaller maps benefit the Rush players, who can reach their enemies quicker, but that makes overcoming them more satisfying. In other words, when balancing, don’t strive for perfection. Strive to make it interesting.
If sometimes the odds are tilted towards your opponents, it isn’t a problem as long as sometimes they will be tilted towards you as well, and as long as victory is still possible. The trick to balance a game and make it memorable for generations is this – too much balancing and the game is boring. Too little and it’s frustrating and unfair. Keep that in mind as you design your game, and try to find the right amount of balance.
In addition to this advice, here are a few common mistakes developers make when designing these games.
How Do I Play?
A major hurdle to designing strategy games that will appeal to a massive audience is that strategy games can be complicated. Designers can fall into a trap of putting so much effort into making their strategy games competitive, intense, and challenging that they forget it also has to be accessible.
You’ve planned out your game, you’ve worked hard to balance all of the playable factions or characters, you know all the rules by heart and can come up with dozens of strategies for any possible scenario. You know exactly how fun your game can be if you know how to play it.
The problem is, new players, do not know your game the way you do. If the first hour of gameplay is the equivalent of reading the manual of a board game, the player may lose interest before ever getting to see what your game is really like.
So what is the solution? The traditional answer is to have a tutorial where the rules are openly laid out and digestible. This isn’t exactly wrong, but how you approach the tutorial can make all the difference. Huge walls of text are intimidating. But holding the players’ hands too much is just as annoying.
The best approach I’ve found is to make the tutorial feel as much like the regular game as possible. Set up a tutorial scenario, offer up the basic controls and goal, and let your players experiment. In this scenario, complicated strategies such as the ones that will appear later should be possible for clever players, but not necessary to win. That way players can have an “Aha” moment, and figure out your game without even needing a wall of text.
You can drip feed the players more complicated game features as they progress, but it is crucial to allow the player some freedom in the first hour of gameplay. Do it right, and they will be having as much fun when they’re novices as they will when they finally become experts.
The Story Problem
Strategy games are not RPGs. While the lore and setting can add a distinct personality to your game world that will distinguish it from the crowd, the story is not as important to a strategy game as you might think. Designers who know and love their world well are eager to sell its story through a grand narrative campaign. But unfortunately, creating such a campaign will take a lot of time and plenty of focus, or in a worst-case scenario even most of it.
This can be the death knell for a strategy game because once the preplanned scenarios of the single-player campaign mode are finished, players might find there’s not much reason to come back. The time and resources are better spent polishing up the multiplayer experience, and creating new ways to enjoy the base game.
If the game is addictive enough, players will want to learn more about the lore and story on their own. In short, have the story and lore of your game in mind as you progress, but tread very carefully as they can become a dangerous distraction.
In summary, there is still plenty of room for the next great strategy game; their current popularity speaks to that. But creating it won’t be easy. It will have to be a compelling decision-making contest where every choice feels important and valuable. To be remembered well into the future it will have to be tightly balanced, but not to the point of being restrictive.
In short, strategy video games are not going anywhere but making a great one that players will never forget will take just as much strategy as the game itself.