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Strategic Thinking Is Becoming Rare Among Game Players

30-40 years ago many game players preferred games of strategy. Lately I have found that strategic thinking amongst gamers is in short supply, and many prefer a less cerebral form of entertainment that is more like playing cards than playing chess.

When I was a teenager one of the best aspects of the new Avalon Hill style board wargames such as Stalingrad and Afrika Korps was that they were games of strategy.  They were not family games, they were not games dominated by chance although chance was involved, they were games of skill where a good grasp of strategy made a big difference.

These games were succeeded as my favorite at age 19 by Diplomacy, a game with no overt chance elements, and a game for more than two players rather than for two, so that playing the player became much more important and playing the system much less.  But it was still a game where strategy was very important, though strategy at a higher level: grand strategy.

When I began to design games in my mid-teens, before I knew Diplomacy, I designed games of strategy and grand strategy.  All of my published games from “back when” are games of strategy and grand strategy.  They can be described as “chess-like” even when dice and more than two players are involved.  (Though I have to say that I “retired” from playing chess itself when I was 15: it was too much like work, perhaps because there was no chance element and it was too puzzle-like.)

But that was 30-40 years ago.  Lately I have found that strategic thinking amongst gamers is in short supply, and many prefer a less cerebral form of entertainment that is more like playing cards than playing chess.  Consequently, many of my recent games are “screwage games”, relatively short games that allow the players to competitively mess with their friends and acquaintances in a relaxed context.  This kind of game does not appeal to Eurostyle gamers who are accustomed to an absence of direct competition, but it appeals quite strongly to most college-age gamers.  These are definitely games that you play with and against other players, far from multi-player solitaire or the puzzles disguised as games that are now quite popular in the Eurostyle.

In game design terms, players of screwage games are happy to compete, and prefer to adapt and improvise rather than to plan [see].  They prefer fewer plausible choices rather than many choices [see]. They prefer games that they don’t have to study to master.  In terms of “strategic depth” they like relatively shallow games, and by their nature screwage games are not strategically deep.

Before going any further let’s look for some definitions.

Google: “strategy  Noun:   
    A plan of action or policy designed to achieve a major or overall aim.
    The art of planning and directing overall military operations and movements in a war or battle.”

Wikipedia: “Strategy, a word of military origin, refers to a plan of action designed to achieve a particular goal. . . Building on the work of many thinkers on the subject, one can define strategy as "a comprehensive way to try to pursue political ends, including the threat or actual use of force, in a dialectic of wills – there have to be at least two sides to a conflict. These sides interact, and thus a Strategy will rarely be successful if it shows no adaptability."

Notice that planning is central to both definitions. 

So why is strategic thinking in games less common now than it used to be?  My view is that people are much less likely to plan ahead for any purpose, not just in games, now than they were 35 years ago.  Part of this is the very large number of distractions of modern life. 

Furthermore, people have been trained by advertisements and government regulation to believe that someone else will take care of them and that they don’t have to take responsibility for themselves, and that means feel less need to plan.  Furthermore , they’re less likely to have the patience to time their actions most effectively, compared with 35 years ago.  This is the “microwave” age, the age of instant gratification, the age of convenience. 

Players are also less willing to think when they play a game than they were 35 years ago.  Video games, after all, tend to emphasize movement and action/reaction rather than thought.  Students are taught to minimize logic and precision and rely on their feelings.  “Use the Force Luke” (rather than rely on a targeting computer to destroy the Death Star) is from 1977's Star Wars but applies more and more to modern attitudes as time passes.  The result is that what I’d think were obvious points about strategy are lost on the average board and card game player, even those who play every week.  Most people “don’t have it”. 

There has been a shift in the kind of thinking that people bring to games as well.  Strategic thinking has been displaced, where people are willing to think about what moves to make as they play a game, with another kind of thinking which video games and Euro-style games encourage and which allows success in those games.  That is puzzle-solving. 

What’s the difference?  Military strategy is closely related to maneuver, use of forces, and economics.  These are rarely prominent in puzzle-solving.  Military strategy depends heavily on interaction with the opposition, and the best generals often correctly anticipate what the opposition will do and take advantage of that anticipation.  In puzzles there is no opposition, nor can you “read the mind” of a puzzle the way you can read the mind of an opponent. 

So in the largest sense strategy is about outwitting or out-thinking intelligent opposition, while puzzle solving is a completely different skill.  Strategy involves both logic and intuition (“yomi”, reading the mind of the opponent).  Puzzle-solving is also logic and intuition, but differs in an important respect.  If you use trial and error in strategy, you lose, while in puzzle solving you can fail to solve the puzzle but in most cases that does not mean that you lose, you just try again. 

This is why you can resort to trial and error.  In a video game you can just keep playing again and again until you succeed.  In a Eurostyle game you lose, but the elements of competition have been strongly minimized in typical Eurostyle games so that people are much less likely to feel disappointed about losing.  They focus more on what they’re doing in a game than on the possibility of losing.  In a strategy game the possibility of losing looms larger.

Whatever the reasons, in practice, in game playing we have many more players now who prefer to improvise, or to adapt to circumstances with short-range plans, and fewer players who are willing to plan for the long term, which is a necessary element of strategy.  Yes, we know the old maxim that a plan does not survive beyond first contact with the enemy, but that is less true in a game than in reality, and even in reality we know that the planning itself can include contingencies to deal with what happens when we first contact enemy.

When I was 24 Diplomacy was succeeded as my favorite game by Dungeons & Dragons, about as different from Diplomacy as two games can be.  Much of the reason was that I no longer was keen to play against other people and D&D is a cooperative game, though there is still intelligent opposition as conducted by the referee.  For the rest I had always been a fan of fantasy, and the role-playing aspects of being a goodguy, a hero (not a thug like the typical D&D player), attracted me.  D&D is very versatile insofar as it can be played as a strategic game or it can be played as a game where players have to adapt or improvise, or it can even be played as a semi-random game (what I used to call “lever pulling/button pushing D&D”). 

Moreover, it can be played as a wargame or it can be played as storytelling, and I played it is a wargame.  To me D&D is a microcosm of life because it shows that sometimes no matter what you do things are going to come out against you, but it also shows that you can minimize the number of times that you need to depend on luck to get you through.  Despite it being a game where lots of dice are rolled you can play it so that you rarely have to get a particular role to succeed.  (I’m talking about first edition D&D.  Fourth edition D&D is not much like first edition.  Much of the decision-making and strategic depth has been removed and it’s really hard to fatally screw up, rather like World of Warcraft and most other video games.)

D&D is still my favorite commercial game to play, but my favorite “game” is the game of designing games. And I don’t design role-playing games.  Perhaps because, as one boardgamer said, they are too “loosey goosey”, too imprecise, for my taste in design.

Someday I’ll get my long spiel about what constitutes strategy and strategic depth in a game up to speed.

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