Strategy games: cardboard, pixels and victory in only one more turn

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What makes a « heavy » or « grand » strategy game player happy? Is it a thick rulebook? A plethora of units? The historical accuracy? And what are the rules to create a « good » strategy game? Enthusiasts, gamers and developpers don’t always see eye to eye on the topic.

« I’ve already bought a game just to read the manual », wrote Gene Chiu, from the Vancouver region, in its response to this journalist’s querry about passionate boardgames players on Reddit, an online content aggregator where the gaming – including the strategy and the boardgaming – communities are quite present.

And why decide to read a manual just for the sake of it? « I play lots of games, from simple ones to more complicated ones, and most of the people I play with do prefer games that play under two hours, or nothing too complicated, but for that 150-page manual, what intrigued me about that game was that it was a space combat game, but it was 3-D », continues Chiu, joined by phone.

« So, your ship on the board… you can also indicate how high over the plane it is. I heard about that and I was, like, « wow, that’s interesting, I got to buy the game to read how the rules work. I didn’t actually expect to play it, but I managed to find some people here who played it, so we played a few times. »

It has been around 12 years since Mr. Chiu « really got into boardgames », and started « playing a lot, buying a lot of games since then ».

For boardgames enthusiasts, buying and collecting can indeed be a intergral part of the process, maybe, sometimes, even more than the actual act of playing said games. One only needs a few minutes in a specialized shop to take it all in: the colorful boxes, the promise of entertainment (usually), and, when you go all the way to back of Le Valet d’Coeur on Saint-Denis Street in Montreal, for example, the heftiness of a game that will probably last many hours. The more you progress through the store, in fact, the more the boxes can become intimidating. After the worker-placement games comes the strategy games, like the Axis and Allies series, the Game of Thrones and Warhammer 40K themed titles, or Scythe, of the biggest hit of the last few years on BoardGameGeek.com, what could essentially be defined as the online Mecca for the boardgames’ enthusiasts.

And once you pass through all these games, you enter the « heavy strategy games » territory. Usually, the boxes tend to be less colorful. These games are usually centered around historical events, going from Ancient Greece to the Cold War. Napeoleon, Cesar, the First and Second World War… the player can relive all of this, usually on a sprawling map made of hexes, but without fancy figurines. Usually, a unit is mostly a colored cardboard square, with some numerical values on it. And in the box, you would also find one or many manual(s), and maybe even some calculations tables and other informations on sheets.

Are you ready for a multiple-day campaign?

If you take the game A World at War, which gives the opportunity to control the Axis or the Allies during World War II in Europe and/or in the Pacific, the main manual is more than 100 pages long. There are at least five other manuals in the box, logistics tables, research-related documents, and approximately 2000 chits, little pieces of cardboard representing units. A game of A World at War will hopefully last 24 hours. At least, that’s what the publisher GMT Games, is saying. And a copy of this title will set a player back around 210 $ in Montreal.

Pricing does play a role when the time comes to buy a game, says Gene Chiu. « It really depends on the game; I read reviews about a game before I buy it. I think the most expensive game I bought what about 120 $ before tax. However, I bought a game for about 100 $, and then I bought a bunch of expansions. So I probably spent 300, 400$ for the entire lot; it’s my favorite game, right now, so it’s worth it for me. »

« I always try to decide if the game’s worth getting, including the price », he adds. Was it worth it, then, to spend 300 to 400 $ on a game, plus the expansions? « Yes! And I haven’t played it all, yet », continues Chiu.

Is replayability also a factor? « I’ve bought a lot of games, so it’s not often that I have the opportunity to play a game that I’ve played a few times before… It seems that I’m a collector, as well! », he says, chuckling.

Colleting is indeed an interesting – if maybe strange – aspect of the boardgames community. Whilst it is also possible to collect videogames, be it in boxed form from the 80s, 90s and 00s, or in the more recent DVD-case format, buying a videogame online only adds a title to a list of games. There’s no physical manual, no map, no figurines… unless the player buys some kind of « special » or « collector » edition.

But when it’s about boardgames, there’s a purely physical aspect to the hobby. These games have to go somewhere, and if it’s always possible to put them in a basic bookshelf, the community also has its preferences.

« I actually buy these shelving units from IKEA… they’re called Kallax », says Chiu. « I have a whole wall of them. »

Strangely, Kallax shelves are sought after by boardgames collectors, but also by vinyls enthusiasts. The squared shelving space seems to be an adequate space both for boxes and LPs.

Heftiness, complexity, the possibility to conquer the world or change the course of history… all of this is interesting enough for players to spend hours learning intricate rules and pay hundreds of dollars to buy new titles, but the interest seems to be limited to the private sphere.

Indeed, in boardgame cafés, it would be quite rare to find a copy of a six hour monstrosity with hundreds of tokens. And it would be even rarer to find people sitting down for this lenght of time to play it.

In Toronto, Ben Castanie, the founder of the Snakes & Lattes chain of boardgames cafés, says it best: « We have all kinds of clientele, but I have to admit that the most « experts » are not much represented. The « casual » gamers represent the biggest part of our clientele. Usually, a groupe stays between 2h30 and 3h, and they try a bunch of games during their evening. »

« It’s not that we don’t want to offer more complex strategy games », continues Castanie, « but these are not what our clients want ».

And if Snakes & Lattes have an online shop, where it is possible to buy different games including the « heavy » Twilight Imperium, for example, visiting and buying on-site remain the most popular option.

« We have a young clientele, who wants to try new concepts, and who wants to go out, to socialize », says Ben Castanie.

Ironically, with what could maybe be described as a « golden age » for boardgames in general, and maybe even for strategy games in particular, it can be difficult to know where to look to be sure not to miss the latest hit.

« Like all the resellers, we’re a bit lost, and it’s hard to make choices », says Castanie, about the emergence of new publishers and the market’s transformation, including with the space occupied by the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter, where games (physical and virtual) abound.

Astra Exodus’ poster. The game ask the player to build a space-faring empire.

A golden age, really?

The choices are numerous when the time comes to choose a strategy game, be it in physical form or in videogame form. But too many choices can be as bad as not enough choice, and according to some developpers, some titles are taking shortcuts that are detrimental to the players and the genre in general.

« I think there’s a quest for complexity in current 4X games, which sometimes, can lead to either full systems automation or the irrelevance of player choice », says Fernando Rey, who developped the recently published 4X game Astra Exodus under the Slitherine banner– 4X stands for Explore, Exploit, Expand, Exterminate, which is the basic for heavier and more complex strategy games, where the player needs to explore his surroundings, exploit the available resources, expand to control more territory, and exterminate his opponents.

With their virtually limitless space to work with and to implement game mechanics, developpers can be tempted to try to include as many strategic aspect as possible. The processus can lead to a game that feels more « complete », but that is slow, long and cumbersome. There is a reason, after all, why a game of A World at War is supposed to last at least 24 hours. And why « simpler » games will take only two to three hours, sometimes even less.

«  »A game is a series of interesting choices » said Sid Meier and I couldn’t agree more, so that’s not something that sits well with me », continues Rey, while talking about 4X games that are over-complicated.

However, it’s hard to bypass the usually much-needed tutorial section. 4X games can be designed for « hardcore » players, but expanding a payer base is generally good for business. For Fernando Rey, that conumdrum was solved with a tooltips system, that he wanted to implement « from the start ».

« Pretty much all UI objects contain a tooltip, that explain what value or concept it represents, and the why/how behind it. Early on I also decided to add DataVids(tutorial videos) inside the game, to further help the player learn to play the game. I was wary of doing a full on tutorial due to the risk of « over-explaining » and taking some of the magic of finding out stuff by playing from the player », he says.

« Nevertheless we still felt something like that should be included, so we added a sort of quick tutorial/guide through the game’s main screens. I definitely focused on letting the player explore the game, however for those that want to know everything from the get go, we are including a full old school manual; with almost 100 pages to use as reference. »

Field of Glory: Empires, a grand strategy game revisiting the ancient times, instead of focusing on space domination or 20th century warfare.

On the other end of the theme spectrum, Philippe Malacher, also at Slitherine, works as a designer and gameplay/AI developper for Field of Glory: Empires, the third installment in the series.

« A game must be based on design coherence before anything else », he says over email. « This is tied to the fact that the different subsytems cooperate through inter-dependancies. When a subsystem influences another in a logical fashion, then you have a subtlety in your game. And for the player, the fact that there’s a logic gives him the opportunity to understand the game and to implicitely retain the information. »

But beyond that logic, you also need to have some innovation, adds Malacher. Something, he says, that is slowly being lost, « because you don’t want to risk to perturb the players, who have their own habits and expectations ».

However, if it’s necessary to innovate when it comes to game design, it’s also useless to innovate for the sake of it, continues Malacher.

« Sometimes, there’s some innovation (in the 4X genre, but I think there’s a shyness to reinvent concepts. Some games seem to be clones from 20-years old games. What for? You can’t innovate everywhere, of course, but only in 2019, I was able to find at least half a dozen games that shared 95% of their content with Master of Orion II (a 4X game classic dating back to 1996). A plethora of games where you develop your cities like in Civilization (another classic from the 90s). And we won’t talk about the AI, that is not moving forward, but backwards over time, even in renowned studios. »

La Résistance is the fifth Hearts of Iron IV expansion, and focuses on espionnage.

Balancing features, complexity and popularity

When it comes to trying to innovate without alienating the existing player base, the Hearts of Iron series in an interesting case. The grand strategy game, who usually gives the opportunity to relive (and change) World War II, is up to its fourth iteration.

Developed by Paradox Interactive, the Hearts of Iron (HOI) series, especially HOI IV, published in 2016 and updated ever since, can suffer – and suffer is maybe not the best word, here – from a tendency to over-optimize a game, even if this optimization comes at the expanse of clarity.

When the studio decided to create the fourth installment of the series, however, there wasn’t really a lot of pressure from the existing player base, says the game director, Dan Lind.

« Like most games, he writes, there were a lot of players asking for “more”, of course. Team wise, we were all in agreement that we wanted to try to make the game easier to get into and to support more different goals and playstyles while not “dumbing down” things that were interesting. Our goal was definitely to try and improve each feature that was present in HOI 3, but also to shift playstyle towards rewarding industry and planning more. »

Since the launch of the game, HOI IV had five expansions, the more recent, La Résistance, coming out only a few weeks ago. And even if all the expansions brung something new to the game, some players may be put off by the fact that it may be necessary to pay close to 100 $ – when the game is on sale, that is –, to get the full experience. In fact, Paradox Interactive is known for constantly publishing new content for its main games: the Renaissance-themed 4X game Europa UniversalisHOI IV, the space-themed 4X Stellaris, the city building simulator Cities Skylines… all these games have at least a handful of expansions and downloadable contents. It’s also the case for the Middle-Ages-themed 4X Crusader Kings 2; and Paradox is currently developping the third one.

« On one hand HOI4 has been a “complete” experience since release, but the experience people seek change over time, and there are always so many ways to improve the game. So, honestly, I don’t think games are really ever complete », explains Dan Lind.

However, « for me it’s usually not about missing stuff anymore, but rather how to improve areas », he continues. The next steps, he says, would be to rebuild the « focus trees » – the decisions and national ideas that can be pursued as a nation in HOI IV for some nations whose « tree » hasn’t changed since the launch of the game, like the Soviet Union, Italy and Poland.

« Yeah, at a certain point adding more features will harm rather than help. We have tried to do a fair amount of feature reworking with extra tie-ins to delay this point », continues Lind.

Hearts of Iron IV can be intimidating for a newcomer.

All this reworking and feature-adding can lead to a game that is quite complicated to get into. « I am not going to say it’s an easy game to get into, but players are a lot smarter than you think », even says Dan Lind. Nevertheless, learning how to play HOI IV can be a daunting task; even the game’s tutorial only covers the basics. For everything else, a newcomer has to turn to YouTube, and even then, the process is long. Quill18, a YouTuber/Twitcher that plays quite a lot of strategy games for his viewers, has produced a series of tutorial videos for the base game of HOI IV. A neophyte will have to sit down and go through the seven 30-minutes episodes just to get started.

Not overloading the player with information is indeed something that the Paradox team has to take into account.

« This is always a challenge. We start by looking at how the flow of the new feature needs to work in order to have a satisfying feel. After initial sketching, we look at the bigger picture; how this feature fits within the existing flows, actions or activities. This can also be done in reverse order; are there existing user interfaces, flows, or contexts we can tweak or hook new features into? », explains Dan Lind.

« We strive to not overload the player, but rather focus on giving them the information they need depending on what they are currently trying to achieve. The designs are shown, evaluated and discussed with Q&A, our beta players and the team itself, and iterated upon until we’re satisfied that we’ve added an enjoyable experience », he adds.

And that creation process seems to work: HOI IV has sold more than two million copies, and this was before the launch of the latest expansion.

« Yeah, it’s kind of nuts », admits Lind.

«  I think HOI IV struck a really good balance between being deep and complex and not scaring off new players », he adds. The fact that players can rewrite the bloodiest conflict in history – and also explore alternate histories, with the help of a robust modding community – helps, of course.

So, what’s the selling point of all these hours spent around a table, hunched on a rule book, or seated in front of a screen, trying to conquer Rome or capture a space station around the Moon? Is it the power to conquer worlds? The possibility of collecting? The idea of mastering something profoundly complex?

Maybe, just maybe, as Dan Lind says, it’s all about « crushing your enemies, see them driven before you and hear the lamentations of their panzers ».


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Hugo Prévost

Cofondateur et rédacteur en chef de Pieuvre.ca, Hugo Prévost se passionne pour le journalisme depuis l'enfance. S'il s'intéresse surtout à la politique, à la science, à la technologie et à la culture, Hugo n'hésite pas non plus à plonger tête première dans les enjeux de société, l'économie ou encore les loisirs et le tourisme.

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