Strategy Game Sterility – An Exciting Genre Dumbed Down

I love strategy video games and in particular military strategy games. I like feeling like I have won a victory through a display of cunning, tactics and careful planning. I also enjoy these building games where you start something from scratch and develop and grow your town/park/hospital, deciding where to point your resources and where to place new creations. I’ve become a little disheartened though, by seeing the same ideas and format reshuffled and re-packaged into new products.

So many of these military building strategy games revolve around deciding how to organise your resources: you decide whether to build military units, buildings, focus on farming or learning new trades. Then you conquer other players if you wish by sending troops to batter away with health bars over their heads. And you eventually win by defeating everybody or acquiring a certain amount of money or building an ultimate something-or-other.

All this is a neat idea but too many games are repeating themselves and I can’t help but feel strategy as a genre has much more to offer. I personally don’t get much sense of achievement from merely amassing a vast number of units and then marching them off to watch them fight amongst themselves with a just one army strength versus another to decipher who wins. It’s nice to watch the game animate all the violence, though I hate the health bars that are so common. They spoil the visuals a bit for me in these instances. But I know there is an enormous amount of strategy in warfare and almost none of this seems to be considered worth tackling. I know these games are meant to be accessible to everybody and you don’t want to be bogged down with too many details and complications but surely, a lot of this can be done automatically.

In the same way a driving game calculates your speed, strength of breaking, surface type, suspension, acceleration, camber etc etc when you thrash your car around the track, why can’t a strategy game keep it’s details under it’s hood. I don’t need to know the numbers being chucked around when I drive, I just get on with it and accept it when I skid around a corner instead of turn. With a strategy game, why not let the player choose how to organise his troops, dictate direction, pace and objectives and then watch it play out with calculations regarding terrain, skill, visibility, weapons etc. so the result is far more rewarding when you see what happens as planned, what didn’t work as you thought it might and what was more successful than you anticipated. This is how you learn, and the more you learn the greater the sense of accomplishment when you win.

More strategy games where it is possible to win against a vastly stronger side if you can outwit your opponent, would be extremely welcome. I would like to see players channeling opponents into advantageous positions, disguising sizes of units, hiding flanking troops, utilising reserves etc. You only have to take a look at some famous historical battles to see how much tactical employment is not being used in games which try to replicate these scenes. I’m not sure I’ve ever played a game where I felt like I had achieved a victory through cunning. What a joy that would be!

And with regards to the building side of things, I think this is generally done much better than the combat, but a lot of games seem to exclude the best bits about this. Something as simple as deciding where things should go can add enormous replay value. If your initial planning is important with accessibility, nearby utilities and use of space having significance, it is great to play it all through again with a slightly more acute idea of where things will go and gradually work towards what you feel works most efficiently. Theme Hospital by Bullfrog is one game that I remember doing this really well. I loved starting again each time, trying to allow for future development in my opening layout of diagnosis rooms, waiting areas and toilets. Another game that comes to mind is Settlers which I had on the Amiga.

The placement of roads was important because you had to make sure your people could transport materials as quickly as possible between building that used them. One of the greatest joys of this game for me was watching everything being acted out and constructed. You could see the lumberjack hack down a tree and carry it on his shoulder down the road to the saw mill and then, after a bit of sawing action, another chap would carry the planks of wood further down the road to a construction site. You would then see your church beams being put up and stonework being applied after that. The visual development was very involving and there were plenty of decisions you had to make to ensure it all ran smoothly.

Really I would like to see a combination of all these things: much more underlying detail, planning and design involved. Settlers Hospital with some kind of war game adaptation with a gradual learning curve. Perfect! I don’t think it would be inaccessible, it just needs a healthily sized manual to explain the maths that go on behind the scenes. That way when you get thrashed on a battlefield you have some reference material to understand why if you can’t work it out yourself.