This Thing Called Strategy: An eXposition

Geopolitical strategy, circa 1675

For the past few years, a question has been haunting my dreams: What is strategy? A narrower follow up question is: What makes a compelling strategy game?

One reason this question has been bothering me, particularly in terms of 4X or Civilization-style games, is that so often the gameplay does not feel like what strategy is or ought to be, at least for me. If the gameplay isn’t strategy, then what exactly is it? And if I’m not getting what I want out of a strategy game, then what in the heck do I really want?!

I have a number of pet theories floating around these troubling questions, which might help me work towards an answer. Fair warning though, much of this article will be spent in the realm of “pontification” or “theorycrafting.” Back in the old days, we called this “BSing.” You’ve been warned!

That said, the concepts I’m trying to discuss are hard to wrap the mind around (well, my mind anyway), so I’ve tried to break my thinking down into bite-sized morsels. These morsels are parts of a bigger thesis I’m working towards. Usually the thesis statement goes at the beginning, but I’m saving it until the end for dramatic effect.

Simulation, Game, Sandbox, Toy, or Puzzle? Or none of the above?

Games, Contests, Puzzles, and Toys, Oh My!

I’m going to start with something that might ruffle some feathers: many of the games we love to play aren’t really “games” at all. Game designer Keith Burgun, in his hierarchy of interactive forms, describes proper games as a “contest of decision making.” What does that mean? Let’s step back for a moment and consider Burgun’s hierarchy in full.

At the basic level there are toys. Toys are a system of interaction that may have any number of rules (from just a few to a great many) that describes how the system works or operates – but there are no prescribed goals. A big pile of LEGOs on the floor is a perfect example of a toy. It’s a sandbox where you can do whatever you want subject to the constraints (i.e. rules) of how the pieces lock together. Even then, you can break or bend the rules with few repercussions.

Now consider a puzzle. Puzzles are systems of interaction that generally have a single solution or prescribed goal state. A jigsaw puzzle has a correct final arrangement, just as we might follow the instructions to build a LEGO set and arrive at the “goal” of the finished castle/spaceship/hospital. Puzzles generally have optimal or perfect solutions – they are about solving for something.

At the next level are contests. Contests build on the notion of a puzzle by layering in a means of evaluating the result. With a jigsaw puzzle, it is either solved or it’s not. But in a contest, the end result can be measured in some objective way and compared across participants. A running race is a contest to see who can cross the finish line first. We could likewise start a stopwatch and see who can build a certain LEGO set the fastest. Generally however, there are few decisions to make in a contest. The optimal path is usually clear and it comes down to who can execute or solve it better or faster.

Finally we have games. Games introduce the notion of making decisions. The need to make decisions exists because the “optimal paths” to victory are unclear and interlinked with the decisions of other participants. You might not know what move your opponent is going to make, or what the results of a combat encounter will be, or what diplomatic arrangements your enemies are making behind your back. And so you have to make a decision about how to move forward without having perfect information and without knowing the optimal route to accomplish your goal. To round out the LEGO example, consider the game Mobile Frame Zero, which creates a miniature battle “game” out of constructed LEGO robots.

I need to pause for a moment and make an important distinction. Burgun’s use of the word “game” is very specific – and in this article I’m not intending it to replace the more common understanding of a game as a type of media (e.g. a video game or a board game). So, we can have a video game or a board game (or a sports game) that is structurally a puzzle, or a contest, or a toy, or a proper “game.” When referring to Burgun’s definition of a game, I will use the term “game” (in quotes) or the term proper game or strategy game to keep things clear.

Each step in the hierarchy builds on the prior, and so “games” are contests but with the additional element of making decisions. If we think about 4X games, it isn’t hard to imagine one manifesting as any of the four interactive forms. Imagine a 4X game with no opposing empires and no random events. Two players instead play separate instances of the exact setup and we see who gets the highest score at the end of a certain number of turns. We just made a 4X contest. Take out the ability to compare scores, leaving a singular, solved “win state” instead (e.g. transcend or colonize 50 planets!), along with no competing empires, and we just made a 4X puzzle. Strip out any sense of goals, and we have some sort of space colonization sandbox – a toy, or perhaps an empire simulation.

Civilization: A study in internal versus external game mechanics for over 25 years

Internal vs. External Systems

Now that we have a basic understanding of interactive forms, we can examine how different mechanical systems relate to each type of form. In particular, there is an important aspect to 4X game mechanics that drives what sort of interactive form it is: internal versus external systems.

Internal systems relate to gameplay mechanics that exist and operate primarily within and amongst the assets you control directly in the game. In a typical 4X game (Civilization, Alpha Centauri, Master of Orion, etc.), internal systems include city or colony management: production queues, population happiness, tax rates, economic balance, research priorities, etc. Consider this: if there were no other players or empires in the game, which mechanical systems would continue to function more or less as normal? Those are the internal systems.

The external systems are gameplay mechanics that create and/or depend on interactions with forces outside of your control. Most often these are the interactions you have with other players or empires through the likes of military conquest, espionage, diplomacy, trade, foreign relations, and so on. Beyond other players or empires, it could also include asymmetric forces like random events, endgame threats, space amoebas, or other sources of randomness that add chaos and unpredictability to the gameplay. The key aspect to keep in mind about external systems is that they are outside of the player’s control.

These differences are critically important. In order to have strategic gameplay there has to be an engagement with external systems. Why? Because these external systems and resulting interactions, per Burgun’s hierarchy, are what enable a game to be a proper “game” – and not a puzzle or a contest. External forces provide ambiguities, which obfuscate the optimal paths to victory, and in turn create room for strategic play where we can’t be certain whether our long-term decisions will pay off or not. Moreover, being able to navigate these ambiguities better than your opponent is where skill matters in determining the eventual winner. Games that have many levels of skill (e.g. Chess rankings) and more elaborate heuristics, tend to be deeper and more strategic games.

By contrast, the more a game leans on internal systems, the more puzzle- or contest-like it tends to be (e.g. Apollo4X). In most 4X games, for a given setup, there is an optimal path to expand and grow your empire that follows the rules of the game. This optimal solution can exist because there are few (or no) external systems that make the potential results of the decision process unclear. Of course, external pressures might shift or change what you are optimizing towards during the game – but once that shift in direction is decided, the actions that follow are largely self-evident.

In some games, survival is the only form of winning

The Goal of Succeeding versus Surviving

A curious quality to games is the difference between succeeding (e.g. meeting a victory condition) and surviving. Some games are structured around the notion that eventually you will fail to survive. Consider the game Tetris. Eventually, the blocks will fall so quickly that the game becomes mechanically unwinnable, and so the game ends and you get a final score. Burgun’s iOS game Empire is the Tetris of 4X games. Eventually your empire will be overrun by external forces – the challenge is to see how long you can survive and how big your final score will be.

Survival games can also be driven by more passive or internal forces. There are plenty of survival sandbox games these days (The Long Dark is a nice one), and here it is less about keeping ahead of some menacing threat actively trying to kill you and more about managing your own affairs and assets such that they don’t unravel and lead to your demise.

Similarly, Paradox’s grand strategy games tend not to have specific victory conditions. Games usually end when the time period covered by the game is over, and the main question is whether or not you survived to that end point. Players might also establish goals of their own choosing during the game. In this regard, these games function more like Burgun’s “toy” definition – although I’m inclined to call them “simulation sandboxes” given the level of complexity and the potential for “failing to survive.” So does the lack of a defined victory condition make it less of a proper “game?” I’m not sure – but maybe.

Most 4X games, however, concern themselves with the notion of victory and “succeeding” – being the first to reach a goal or victory condition. Granted, there may still be an aspect of survival at work, as other empires may decide to wipe you off the planet (or galaxy)! And so in many 4X games, there is a tension between the need to survive and the need to achieve victory; finding the balance is certainly a question of strategic decision making.

So what then are these strategic decisions?

Civilization. Civilization never changes (Heiko Günther’s Advanced Civ Re-design)

The Balance of Actions

The next theory I want to lay out is an approach for categorizing the different types of actions or activities one might take in a strategy game. Personally, I want games that emphasize making interesting choices as opposed to making mindless non-decisions. Think of it this way: deciding whether to spend the afternoon at the park or going to see a matinee movie might be an interesting choice, but deciding to turn on the car in order to drive is a necessary (and boring) part of achieving either goal. We’ll get to what interesting means in game terms in a bit. For now, I tend to see actions in the following types:

Strategic Decisions: These are high-levels decisions that feed into how you are going to win the game. Most often, strategic decisions are influenced by external systems. Is my neighbor going to invade me (or not), and should I therefore strike first (or not)? How much should I invest in building military units versus funding empire growth? Who should I conduct espionage against or form an alliance with? What type of victory condition am I working towards, and how will I get there before everyone else? Do I need to shift strategies? Strategic decisions exist in our minds – they don’t play out in the physical game space. They are about establishing objectives that set you on a path to victory.

Tactical Decisions/Actions: These are the important decision points and/or actions players take to actualize their strategic decisions or to respond to short-term issues and events. They relate to how you will accomplish an objective. If a long-term strategic plan calls for subjugating a neighboring empire, how are you going to do it? What type of fleet will you build and what route will it take? How will you deal with enemy forces or planetary defenses? Unlike strategic decisions, the result of making a tactical decision is usually reflected by a change to the game state – e.g. I move my fleets to another system, and thus the game state has changed.

Optimization Activities: These are actions that relate mostly to internal systems and consequently ask you to solve or optimize for a particular objective. Do I build my research lab and then my production facility, or vice versa? A lot of time can be spent in 4X games optimizing a particular decision point, and, depending on the complexity and math involved, can be very challenging or relatively trivial. Adjusting the allocation of workers on a colony between production, food, and research is an optimization task as there is often a best solution for a given strategic goal. 4X games are occasionally derided as being “spreadsheet managers,” and the need to optimize outputs (or military efficiency) strikes at the heart of that criticism.

Upkeep & Overhead Actions: These are the routine actions that relate, again, mostly to internal systems and are part of the maintenance or upkeep of your assets. Generally, there is little choice in these actions, they are things you just have to do to advance the game state. In board games these upkeep actions are quite common (reshuffle decks, refill tokens, pay upkeep costs, etc.). We see these in 4X video games, too: tweak the ship design to add the newest laser weapons, add the newly-researched building to your all your production queues, send constructed units to the rally point, clear notifications to advance the turn. These are “no brainer” decisions that rarely require much thinking.

I’ve often found myself critiquing strategy games by asking “what percentage of my time am I spending on what types of actions?” The optimal balance is, of course, a matter of personal preference. For me, I’d much rather spend my time making strategic and tactical decisions, rather than running optimization exercises. Overhead actions, ideally, are just automated and resolved by a competent AI or streamlined UI – or else removed entirely. As a result, I tend to prefer games that emphasize external systems (e.g. more wargame focused 4X titles) over those focused on internal systems and hence optimizations and puzzle-solving.

The notion of survival versus success is also relevant to this topic. Strategic or tactical decisions are easiest to see as they relate to external factors (e.g. other empires), which in turn relate to the choices you make to move closer to success. Less common, but certainly possible, are strategic and tactical decisions relating to survival and internal mechanisms. Grand strategy games often latch onto this idea – where various internal pressures (e.g. mismanagement) can result in a revolt or collapse (e.g. a coup or assassination). This transforms them into external factors, which could then destroy your empire. But I feel like more could be explored along these lines.

A stone here, a stone there… Where will you Go?

The Deception of Complexity

Consider for a moment the classic board game Go. Go has a ruleset that can be explained in a few sentences. And while it’s one of the simplest strategy games, it also has nearly unrivaled depth. This no doubt accounts for the game’s lasting appeal over the course of thousands of years (yes, thousands). The key point is that mechanical complexity does not equal depth, and Go is a testament to the notion that great depth can emerge from simple systems. And so, if we can achieve great strategic depth through simplicity, what role does complexity then play in strategy games?

Complexity can affect gameplay in two fundamental ways. First, complexity can affect the size of the decision space. Playing Go on a 9×9 grid is less complex than playing on a full 19×19 board, where there are vastly more possible moves and game states. Second, complexity can affect the number of factors or layers that go into making a decision. Imagine a simple, multilateral wargame with no option for diplomacy. Now insert diplomacy – suddenly there is a new system for interaction that can influence your decisions for who to defend or war against.

But does this added complexity always make for a deeper strategic game? Not necessarily.

Perhaps enabled by increased computing power, I feel that strategy games have become more complex over time. For many, this added complexity is welcome because it means the game has more longevity – it takes longer to tease apart all the inner workings and to build up skill. We see this frequently in modern board games as well, where learning the rules of the system is a major part of a game’s appeal. Players discuss the joys and thrills of learning how a new system operates and what all the levers and cogs do. But this can be a double-edged sword.

In many cases, complexity merely makes the math of solving optimization problems more convoluted and challenging – diverting attention away from the real strategic interactions in the game. For example, many 4X games have giant tooltips filled with positive and negative modifiers explaining all the factors affecting a colony’s happiness. Maximizing happiness, and in turn productivity outputs, requires identifying what options you have to mitigate each of the contributing factors and determining which has the best net return. You might even conduct this optimization task across all of your colonies to determine exactly which one yields the most bang for the buck. In this regard, the complexity is making the optimization harder, but it doesn’t really deepen the strategic landscape – you are still trying to solve for the same X.

Moreover, once you’ve cracked the code and learned these internal optimizations, you have solved the major puzzle of the game – and can then beat it relatively easily over and over again. There might be strategic or tactical decisions to be made – but they are no longer as interesting and gameplay depth has been diminished as a consequence. A question to ask yourself is this: does a given strategy game become more interesting or less interesting as you play it more?

That’s the same face I make when I strategerize…

The Quest for Deep, Interesting Decisions

My ideal strategy game is one where I spend most of my time making interesting strategic and tactical decisions – compared to optimization and upkeep actions. But what makes a choice interesting in the first place? Principally, an interesting strategic decision is one where you have to make a choice and you are uncertain about what the long-term payoff of that choice will be. But you are not shooting blindly in the dark, either. This balance of uncertainty – and the nature of it – is crucial because otherwise the “game” is reduced to a solvable, though potentially quite complex, puzzle.

Uncertainty itself can arise from a number of sources, each of which has an implication on the strategic depth of a game.

One source of uncertainty is chaos or randomness in the game system. If random events, die rolls, or the Wizard-Kings of Probability have a bearing on your long-term decisions, then clearly the outcome has uncertainty to it. However, this may not make a deeper or more strategic game; rather it may just make it more unpredictable and harder to predict. Would chess be considered as skillful and deep if there was only a 50/50 chance to capture a piece? The randomness would make it difficult to strategize and diminish the potential gains for careful planning. In other cases, for example in a game like poker, high degrees of uncertainty adds another level – one of probability and risk assessment – to the optimization activities. It makes decisions more uncertain and harder to calculate, but maybe not in a fundamentally more interesting way. What makes poker interesting is that the randomness of the deal is filtered through the skills and behaviors of other players in an interactive way.

So then, the other major source of uncertainty is related to the interactions between players – and here is where decisions become more interesting. If “games” are understood to be interactive systems that are contests of decision making, then having to account for and react to the actions of your opponents is crucial. Player interactions are external in nature and manifest across a number of 4X game systems: diplomacy, military positioning, espionage, etc. They can also take on a number of different forms: open negotiation, bluffing and feigning, double-think, maneuvering, etc. The crucial skill is being able to read your opponent based on understanding their position, personality, and playstyle, and in turn identify your likely moves (and countermoves). This is where you can leverage your own wit or cunning to achieve a strategic advantage. This is where skill and experience comes into play.

Ultimately, what makes choices interesting is whether or not the strategic landscape of the game – the multi-layered decision spaces that exists in your mind – allows unique and consequential decisions to emerge. In the board game world, games are often discussed as having either “pre-baked” strategic pathways that are created by the designer (and to be discovered by the player) versus games that are more player-driven and emergent in the game states and situations that arise. The pre-baked path approach relies heavily on “learning the system” and on complex internal mechanics.These are often paired with limited player interaction and less volatility as a result. The player-driven approach is more in line with the “simple to learn, lifetime to master” notion – where the depth and interest comes from unique situations where player personalities mix in an interactive and dynamic environment. The former is predominantly about optimizations, the latter is concerned with strategic or tactical interactions

Diplomacy for another age

Implications for 4X Game Design

I’ve laid out a number of pet theories in this article:

  • The definition of a game versus a puzzle, toy, contest, or simulation
  • Internal versus external systems
  • Surviving versus succeeding (victory, goals)
  • Types of actions (strategic, tactical, optimization, upkeep)
  • The roles of complexity
  • Interesting decisions, uncertainty, and player- vs. system-driven games.

What does all of this mean for 4X games? If I have one big critique (here is the thesis!) of 4X games, it is that they often emphasize the exact wrong things in their design (given my preferences), and so I don’t find many of them to be all that strategic as a result. In many cases I’m not even sure they could be classified as proper “games” (per Burgun’s hierarchy) – they feel, to me, more like puzzles.

Complexity appears to be increasing in 4X games, but much of this complexity is directed towards internal game systems: ever more intricate systems of colony management, internal policies, worker optimizations, more complex development pathways, and so on. Little of this really affects how interesting the big long-term strategic decisions are. In fact, the focus on creating compelling or interesting victory conditions (essential for a proper “game”) seems to be in decline – making the choice of what you are optimizing for all the more obvious. In so many 4X games, I feel your race selections and starting position railroad you down a certain track towards a certain pre-ordained victory condition. You might start the game game knowing you are going for a technological win because your empire/species is all about boosting technology. The decisions that follow from there are all about optimizing and solving for X. It’s a puzzle, not a game.

One of the challenges with complexity also has to do with the AI’s capabilities and level of cunning. On one hand, a shift towards greater focus on internal system complexity could be seen as a way to sidestep a weak strategic AI. However, the AI still has to navigate these complex internal systems, and often it ends up receiving bigger and bigger bonuses to compensate for its inefficiencies. This isn’t a good foundation to build a competitive strategic game. On the other hand, simpler game systems might be able to better leverage a computer’s brute-force calculation power to legitimately out-optimize or out-wit the player. I have a Go app on my phone and the AI, sans bonuses, absolutely trounces me. Go figure…

Other types of 4X games (and especially grand strategy games) take a different approach. They are using increasing complexity as a basis for building more detailed simulation models. Within this type of simulation, players are at liberty to decide their own goals and what game systems to focus their choices around. It is a sandbox experience and, short of a failure to survive, is not usually oriented around goals or victory conditions at all. This is, of course, a perfectly valid approach, and simulations have a great capacity to allow for player-created narratives to emerge. But in a certain sense, these really are not “games” either – at least in the strict sense of active competition for victory.

Depth through simplicity?

So, 4X games appear stuck between a puzzle optimization pole on one end and a complex simulation pole on the other. And neither of these really results in a focus on making interesting strategic decisions based on external, player-driven interactions.

Personally, I’d love to see a 4X game take a different approach and embrace mechanical simplicity – using it to build a more interesting interactive player environment. What would a 4X game with practically zero empire management look like – with all the focus instead on diplomacy, military maneuvering, controlling shared markets, and cultural exchange? The skill of the game, and its potential depth, would be less contingent on knowing the optimal pathways and instead about making strategic decisions within an emergent and dynamic game space, including the personalities and eccentricities of your rivals.

Most titles seem to drift towards either the survival/sandbox simulator or the optimization/ steamroller to victory. There are a few games that strive to zero-in on interesting strategic decisions and that focus more on external interactions as a result. Age of Wonders III, for example, has relatively simple empire management and de-emphasizes optimization tasks. Instead it emphasizes military positioning, maneuvering, and the careful use of magic resources – all higher level strategic or tactical decisions. This bring it closer to a proper strategy “game” than many other 4X games, at least given my preferences. I would put Master of Orion (the first one) or Sword of the Stars (the first one) in the same category. They are relatively simple games mechanically that emphasize external interactive systems over complex internal mechanics. But fewer and fewer games seem to follow in their footsteps.

As a parting thought, consider these various pet theories and whether they have informed or changed your perspective of 4X games that you have played. How do your own interests and preferences align or not with these concepts? Do you see other styles of 4X or strategy games that do or could exist? Do you feel that the games you play are are “puzzles” or “contests” or “games?”

As always, the comment line is open.

21 thoughts on “This Thing Called Strategy: An eXposition

  1. I’m not sure that you are properly distinguishing between strategy and tactics. Going back to board gaming, strategy deals with setting an overarching long-term series of goals, often (depending on the game) including having to deal with logistics, economics, diplomacy, and building. So your example of “What kind of fleet should I build” has always traditionally been considered a strategic decision. Tactics deal making the best use of individual units within a single turn in order to further my strategy.. If my decision is to bring a whole mess of units by a specific route, to bear on a city, that’s a strategic decision because of the scale. But if I have to micromanage a battle, decide how to best use each unit within the confines of a battle (even if there is no separate tactical layer) that’s tactics. For example, in Civ, you generally keep your catapults a couple of spaces away from your city in good defensive positions, place defensive units to protect them, have units ready to assault the city — how you do that is all tactics.

    Tactics is combat, strategy is everything else.

    Not all games fit this strategy/tactical model, especially when you get into Euro-games, or games where you may have more sophisticated economic or diplomatic systems. You may have complex systems where there are minigames that compose the larger systems, and then you might be able to argue that those minigames are also part of a tactical layer. I can’t think of any examples off the top of my head, at least with regards to computer games. But it is conceivable.

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  2. I didn’t want this article to be a massive discussion of strategy vs tactics, because really there are lots of different ways you can slice that distinction – and they all their merits and value for informing game design.

    On one hand, there you can talk to military historians, or board game wargamers, and they’ll talk about different scales: strategic > operational > tactical, etc. as as function mostly of the geographic scope relative to the larger war being depicted.

    But that approach doesn’t always work when you start looking at other contexts, historical or not and military-focused or not. I think the tactical / strategic divide is a nice example of a nested hierarchy. Which is to say that was is strategy versus what is tactics depends on the relationship between two systems relative to themselves rather than to a broader context.

    Think about tactical battles in 4X games (e.g. Age of Wonder 3). It’s easy to say that resolving the battle is a tactical-level thing relative to the strategic level of the campaign map. Yet the tactical battle itself may have its own “strategy layer” the player must consider in how to win the tactical fight. Likewise, a miniature battle game (like Warhammer 40k) very often hinges on larger strategic decisions about deployment and approach, and how to secure an objective. The tactical decisions are then how you might be moving specific units, or positioning them relative to cover, or the order you activate units to resolve their attacks, etc.

    Conversely, at the campaign/strategic level in Age of Wonders 3, you might establish large goals and objectives, and one of the tactical dimensions is your army composition and how you move and position them on the campaign map to outmaneuver your opponents’ armies – just like your civ example.

    That’s why, in the article, I like coupling the definition of these things to what “exists in your head as a big goal/objective/direction” versus things that play out in actual board/game space and are observable. There can be many strategic and tactical layers at work, simultaneously, and I find this distinction more useful in thinking about what kind of action or decision I’m making rather than what absolute scale its supposed to reflect. The latter isn’t very transferable to a diverse range of games.


  3. As always, Oliver, I really like these high-level posts about what strategy really is…

    I’m a “4X gamer” that keeps wanting to be caught by the bug but never really is. And I find many of your thoughts line up with mine. (I skew heavily towards the eXplore side of things and the strategy side of things, so I find late game to be something that doesn’t hold me well.) I have been a medium-level chess player and a relatively strong go player at times in my life.

    I’m also a relatively active board gamer. But I’m a board gamer in a community that is kind of against playing the same games very often, so I don’t get to dig really deeply into too many games. Some recent favorites from the last few weeks of gaming group, though, are Keyflower (probably my favorite, which I own, and is the most played in this list), Dogs of War, and Grand Austria Hotel. With the exception of Keyflower, I’ve only had one play of each, so can’t speak to their longevity. But what I do feel with each of them is a concept of TIME, which isn’t something I’ve seen you address.

    In Keyflower, you have a limited number of meeples to use for bids and actions. But there are only 4 bidding rounds in the game! And at the beginning of one of those rounds, there are many, many things you want (and indeed NEED) to do. But you can only do one. Then it’s someone else’s turn, and your decision space gets smaller. Some of the things you really want or need to do are excluded from your decision space. And every turn you take, things are more costly.

    The same happens in Dogs of War. There are three battles playing out on the board, and you have to get yourself on the winning side by placing generals on certain spaces. You only have 3-5 generals to place, depending on which turn you’re in. The most desirable spaces go away within the first round of the table. So there are very difficult decisions to make a play. At the very most in this game you get to make 24 plays, but it may be as low as something like 16. Every one must count.

    I had my first play of Grand Austria Hotel last week. I misunderstood one aspect of a upkeep/overhead between-turn concept and it set me several dozen points behind the leader because I lost TIME.

    I wonder how you see this concept of time fit into strategy. In chess, it’s tempo. In go, it’s sente. In my mind, time is the biggest issue I see with “strategy” games. Because they’re spread out over hundreds of turns or years, there doesn’t seem to be an urgency to decision making. The sheer amount of time you as a player have to get things done dilutes the importance of each action. There’s a looseness to many 4X games in my view. There are certainly times when a turn here or there really counts, but there are far more where missing something by a turn is only a minor setback rather than a devastating thing as in many board games.

    In chess or go, you get one move before your opponent gets to do something. And given that the decision space is relatively narrow as far as what you can do, you must make your move count. And, more importantly, there will be a whole host of other moves you CANNOT MAKE as you’re making your move. Time is against you. It’s something you have to take advantage of and leverage against your opponents.

    The very best strategy games, in my mind, make EVERY SINGLE MOVE count. There are very few strategy games where I feel this actually happens. AoW3 is the strategy game I feel does this best, though I’ve only put about 40 hours into it. The game I’ve played in the past year that I feel does this best (and miles above any others) is Invisible, Inc. It’s the most board-gamey PC game I’ve come across, in that you cannot waste a single tempo and every single action must further your goal on a given board.

    ((Deleted a bunch about Desktop Dungeons here, which also has a very interesting cost-benefit balance to each move into the fog of war. It’s not a 4x, so I cut it, though…there’s no eXpand and not much eXploit.)

    Interested to hear how the idea of tightness of action or time or narrowing decision spaces factor into your idea of strategy, as I don’t feel you have a strategy game until time is a very real concern.



    1. Just wanted to say I strongly agree with the sentiment that one thing 4X is lacking is a sense of urgency or pace. In Stellaris, for example, many research techs have such a small impact on gameplay because they are merely an incremental boost. This is a common problem in 4X – the decision space is nearly infinite, i.e. a player can choose to pursue nearly all strategies simultaneously. Stick with technology, I’d rather only be able to implement half dozen or so total tech upgrades throughout an entire game (perhaps from a large but well balanced menu), but have them be extremely tangible in their impact on my strategy, than have the dozens or hundreds that are common in most games but feel very routine.


      1. If anyone has an iPad, and is interested in a 4X game that has this sense of time restraint, non-incremental technology tree, etc …. Seriously check out Eclipse. I did a review for it awhile ago here at eXplorminate, and the game was originally one of the topped ranked board game on BGG. It’s really close to a board game port of MoO2 in some ways, but has very clever and tight game mechanics with some really original twists. It’s amazing how much the game reflects the exploration, expansion, and conquest of the Galaxy in a mere 9 turns of play.


  4. Nice BS’ing. It’s always fun to speculate about the how and why of things. As long you don’t get too bogged down.

    Your focus here seems to be entirely centered on combat and war, one of my least favorite things about 4X games.
    You can (or should) also make strategic decisions via how you run your empire, and by that I don’t mean simple upkeep chores but overall alignment and your decisions on day to day matters.
    Perhaps RTS games are more up your alley instead, if only they took the form of having bigger maps and scale?

    Regarding Erfaels comment about time, I can see what you are getting at but I think that the very long thinking and decision-making time puts another strain on your abilities instead of snap-decisions or making extremely informed decisions from the get-go.

    If 4X games were all about or focused on war and timed decisions I wouldn’t buy a single one.
    I highly enjoy the exploration phase and acquiring resources to build up my empire and research.
    War and diplomacy are of course necessary to make it a full 4X game together with multiple win-states,
    But you should be able to win without managing your fleet tactically or rushing to get the most planets/resources etc.

    I feel that I’m starting to ramble and I’ll just end it with saying that, to me, 4X should be about managing an Empire how you want to and all that comes with in an unexplored location with many different and randomized events that you need to overcome.

    *I reserve the right to alter or change my views depending on clarifications or new information. ,)


    1. In a very distilled manner, this article is basically saying that in order to have a highly strategic game you have to have a high degree of interaction with other players (other empires in the case of 4X games).

      Empire management can be great and require making some tough choices – but they are usually predicated lesson interactions with other empires and more on optimizing internal systems.

      Very few (none successful that I can think of) 4X games have created a compelling system for interaction between empires that gives you the same sort of strategic depth you get in military/diplomatic interactions. I’d love to see it though – eg being able to affect other empires via trade with interactions like Yu get in Offworld Trading Company for example. That would be cool.


    2. “Regarding Erfael’s comment about time, I can see what you are getting at but I think that the very long thinking and decision-making time puts another strain on your abilities instead of snap-decisions or making extremely informed decisions from the get-go.”

      I was typing all that up late at night and was less clear about the time I meant than I intended to be. I’m not suggesting a “move clock” or anything of the sort. I’m talking about time as an abstract resource that is created by the mechanics of the game. By choosing to make one move, you’re spending your time on that move. In doing so, you’re unable to spend your time on something else.

      Going back to a game like chess or go, there may very well be two moves on the board that you want to make in the same turn. And by choosing one, you absolutely lose the opportunity to play the other one because the board position is going to be different next time you get to act.

      This happens all the time in worker placement games. I REALLY need two more dollars to do what I want to do next turn, so I want to place in one spot, but I also REALLY need three pieces of wood to build that mine. I can only take one of those things this turn, and there’s no guarantee that those options will still be open next turn.

      In a board game, depending on the game, you may have only a small number of decision points (say 20ish for chess, 50ish for go, 25 or so for something like Keyflower), but those decisions are of great importance. You can lose the game on any one of them if your decision is slack compared to what your opponents are doing.

      In a modern 4x, there are 100s or 1000s (or more) of decision points. They run hundreds of turns, there are hundreds of troops and piles of cities. But by spreading them out to that point, they’re dilute. A slack decision doesn’t have the same, let’s say….”swing potential” that it does in the above games.

      And I think that this is where this idea ties into Mez’s essay. Without outside influences there to exert a constant pressure against the player, it’s hard to have a contest of strategy. That pressure usually manifests as time…now can I get that troop to where it needs to be before they can take the city, now can I get that thing built so that my city doesn’t culturally defect, how can I possibly get this stone over there so that I can do that thing?

      And I can absolutely see why Mez admires AoW3 as much as he does in that respect. Most games only run 75 or so turns, and there’s almost always a resource shortage of some kind, whether it be movement points, money, production points, casting time, or various others. I can improve city A or I can produce a unit at city B, but very often not both. I can dedicate casting points to keeping my troops safe in this battle, or I can use them on a global spell that will help with the overall war, but not both. As such every move counts. Decisions count more. I’m not sure what the current meta is in Civ, but what stage is a game at by turn 75? And from what I’ve read, at least half of those first 75 are pretty prescribed if you want “optimal play”. I don’t find that strategy. I find it paint by numbers. By reducing the number of decisions you have to make about empire building and making them all more costly, AoW forces you to approach each game on wildly different terms.

      Speaking of time, I’m out of it for now…


      1. Great comments about time. I absolutely think this is an important part of. Good strategy game, because it’s one key way of forcing you to make trade offs. And this is definitely why I like AoW3 so much – as you say it’s always forcing you to make touch choices and the clock is ticking.

        So many 4X games don’t pose the question “A or B?” but rather “A then B or B then A?” The latter is more about optimization. You’ll get both in the end, the question is what optimizes best for what you are solving for? How many of MoO2 or clones like SD2 have you build your robot factory, then you labs, etc. It feels scripted – because it is in a way. Stellaris feels the same way. It starts off with a mineral crunch, then shifts to energy, then often influence (and then you are swimming in resources). In a tight game of AoW3 you are immediately and always needing to make careful decions about building up forces versus building up cities – and you can never fully do both.


  5. It doesn’t need time descision points, in a lot of games your have action points and movepoints as time limit. If you want a short game with high density of descisions play on a small map.


    1. Yeup. I always played a small or tiny map in AoW3 with fast game settings and 3-4 other AI. Like a knife fight in a phone booth.

      Also – I like king of dragon pass because each turn/season you are limited to two actions you can do. Really forces you to make tough trade offs in what sorts of strategy you pursue.


      1. I have KoDP, but IMO it is not a good strategy game: Your choice can be logical, but the consequences are not predictable.


  6. Fantastic article, very well thought out. I started a company based around principles very similar to these flowing from Keith Burugn’s work, and we’re currently working on our 3rd game. Love to see other people picking up on the same sorts of ideas.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Very nice article, you organized and put to words alot of stuff i had glimpses here and there in my mind:).

    I agree with most of the article , but personally i wouldnt like to see 4x games devoid of empire management:
    Its imho an important layer of strategy, deciding where you want to spend your resources :invest for future more powerful units, more research or more economic. Also i love to see my empire growing stronger, i guess its a bit of rpgish charm, but nevertheless important for me. I agree that busy work in that regard shoudl \be minimalized (The upgrading of planets in Stellaris is prettty horrible in that aspect)


    1. Great points.

      It’s funny – someone brought to my attention some earlier points I made in a different form on this topic. I spent a bunch of time talking about external vs. internal “pressure” mechanics, and how those pressures can enhance the weight / consequence of decisions. The discussion was about how to create pressures for internal systems, pressures maybe with no clear way to optimize around, and hence keep those internal “empire building” aspects of the game more strategic in nature. Anyway – it’s a notion I should’ve got into more detail with in hindsight.


  8. Fascinating article! I’m a board gamer, and 4X board games are my favorite. I’m curious if you’ve played the top-rated 4X board games, and if so, how they measure up to your criteria:

    (Sorted by rank):

    Dominant Species
    Twilight Imperium III
    Age of Empires III (the board game)
    Civilization (the Fantasy Flight board game)
    Clash of Cultures
    Tiny Epic Galaxies
    Space Empires: 4X
    Ascending Empires
    Tiny Epic Kingdoms
    Exodus: Proxima Centauri
    Impulse (my personal favorite)

    I’m currently designing a board game called “WhiteSpace; the 4X game where it’s always your turn,” and this article has given me a lot of food for thought. Fortunately, one of my design goals was “interesting, interactive decisions.”


    1. Thanks!

      I play a lot of board games and even have a 4X game published (hegemonic from minion games). Ive read the rules for almost all of those on your list have played eclipse, impulse, and civilization.

      To be honest, I think boardgames are doing a better job creating interesting strategic experiences than their 4X video game counterparts. They manage to cut out all the chaff and leave the real interesting bits to come to forefront.


  9. Burgun is usually disliked by many people due to his “moralistic”, normative claims, but this article shows, that freed of them, his approach can be quite constructive.


  10. This is a well written article and I am going to read your other articles. I think your description of internal and external systems is illuminating.

    I think my viewpoint on the matter clashes fairly strongly with yours, but my experience is oriented more towards board games than video games. To summarize my opinion on the matter: player interaction in multiplayer games does not inherently generate interesting decisions and in fact is likely to undermine the strategic value of a game. I can’t explain this argument fully here, but if you have the time you can read about it in my blog post that is largely on this issue:

    In this post, you can see that I prefer to describe decisions as existing on a spectrum of interactivity. I think this may be more parsimonious than your idea of internal and external systems, because things which you describe as external systems (automatically controlled alien threats, random elements) could be just as easily modeled as being part of one’s internal systems, as long as we allow one’s internal systems to involve indeterminacy.

    Liked by 1 person


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