May 2007

Tactics Revisited

Ah yes, I knew that my posting would be commented on. Recently I posted an entry talking about my enjoyment of Wizard Kings. In that posting I commented that "It doesn't seem that eurogames really focus too much on tactics as an essence of game play."

I knew that statement would garner comment, and so it has. Jeremiah has provided many examples of games where he feels that eurogames do indeed have tactics, but concedes that the range of options at any one time are rather limited (which he points out is not necessarily a bad thing).

Yes, it is true that eurogames have tactics. However, perhaps I didn't explain enough of my rationale about eurogames.

I suppose what I was struggling to describe is related to the two terms "tactics" and "strategy" and how badly they are defined. Someone can point at a strategy and say "see that's a strategy" and point at a tactic and say "see that's a tactic". However, defining them in anything other than example becomes problematic.

The problem is that the terms are interrelated with each other. Perhaps they aren't actually different at all, just terms applied to different levels of abstraction of the same thing. Presume we are talking about board games (see, the examples again!). I have a goal for how I want to move all my pieces from here to there and it will take many moves to do it. That's strategy. Now, I have these immediate problems during my turn, or over the next couple of turns, and I need to figure out how to solve those immediate problems to eventually achieve that goal I was just talking about. That's tactics. But are they different from one another?

I'm arguing that they're not really different. Yes, they are different levels of abstraction and change differently as the game moves forward, but other than the abstraction (or perhaps I could say "level of focus", which is really just another term for abstraction) they are pretty much the same.

What I'm writing makes me think of the the work done by the Goal Oriented Action Planning (GOAP) working group from the IGDA. GOAP is basically a way of programming artificial intelligence into games and other programs. GOAP considers that AIs have a modularity to them and the working group introduces definitions for "goal", "action", and "plan", which they themselves adapt from a planning standard. When you read these terms, they seem very close to each other and to the terms strategy (GOAP goal) and tactics (GOAP plan).

So what does this all mean when I said that eurogames don't focus too much on tactics? Well, it all comes down to feel or perception. Let's assume (as I do) that strategy and tactics are different levels of abstraction of the same thing. What I'm concerned with then is whether the game feels more strategic (more decisions at higher abstraction) or more tactical (more decisions at lower abstraction). Whichever way the game feels then dictates which of these two labels to apply.

In my mind eurogames are structured around making more (not all) decisions at the higher levels of abstraction. Wizard Kings, on the other hand, focuses on more (not all) decisions at lower levels of abstraction. Of course, the degree to which this is done varies from one game to the next, but I believe eurogames feel more strategic.

To use some example provided by Jeremiah: I would apply the strategic label to Caylus, Tigris & Euphrates, Tikal, Java, and Carcassonne: The City. I would argue that Blue Moon City, Samurai and Through the Desert are somewhere in the middle, and that Tongiaki, Kingdoms, Lost Cities, and Blue Moon are more tactical.

I have often wondered if this balance of game play towards the strategic is one of the characteristics defining a eurogame as opposed to an American-style board game, but that is an entirely different discussion.

I doubt this settles the matter. I'm not sure such a matter can ever be truly settled, due to the nature of the words we are using. However, it may help frame the discussion a bit more.

Wizard Kings Tactics

A while ago I finished playing Grandia III on the PS2. Although the story line was a little weak (something the Grandia series is known for), the battles were wonderfully tactical (also something the Grandia series is known for). I realized through playing Grandia III that I liked games with lots of tactics. This is not to say that I dislike strategy games, but I found myself quite surprised at how much I liked tactical games.

I suppose I should define those terms, since they are easily confused. Tactics refers to the actual steps you take to achieve a goal, whereas strategy defines the overall goal. Wikipedia does a much better job explaining it.

I am exploring this tactical aspect of games though Yggrda Union, but I was really looking for a tactical board game, since I play lots of board games (and have talked about this at length on my website).

Eurogames? err...not so strong on the tactical side. It doesn't seem that eurogames really focus too much on tactics as an essence of game play. (Don't shoot me for generalizing with that statement. Eurogames certainly do have tactics in them.) I looked through my whole collection and could find bits and pieces here and there, but no real game that could fulfil this desire for a truly tactical game.

The obvious place I can go to get these kinds of games are wargames. Many of them are very tactical and very good at it. I looked at Hammer of the Scots and Fire in the Sky. There were many good candidates...but I hesitated. I really don't like the idea of playing wargames. It's one of those slippery slope arguments, but the idea of playing a game where humans are destroying one another through war is really unappealing to me. The slippery slope comes in because all games have some form of conflict, even cooperative games like the excellent Lord of the Rings. I can handle conflict in a fantasy-themed game but I really dislike when it looks too much like war. I even refuse to play the eurogame Memoir 44. I have looked at it and it appears to be a great game and, even though everyone from Tom Vasal on down thinks it's not-to-be-missed, I resist a stylized game of war.

I was able to come up with a compromise I can live with (and also enjoy, let's not forget that!). It comes in the form of the game Wizard Kings from Columbia Games, the famous wargame company in the States. They do a very good job of keeping the rules short and sweet (though at times confusing for mere eurogamers like me). The Wizard Kings maps are of excellent quality and are some of the clearest I have ever seen. I mention this because I have seen some dreadfully confusing maps in other games.

Unlike many wargames, which can play for hours or days, Wizard Kings can play very quickly, with many scenarios taking less than an hour. You can configure the maps in many different configurations, use different armies, and invent whatever scenario you can think of. I particularly like one of the supplied scenarios where the Amazons are defending their great wall from an invasion by the Barbarian horde.

Is it tactical? Yes, very much so. Especially the shorter scenarios, where you have to move very fast in a short number of turns. These scenarios play out in about twenty minutes and have a wonderfully tactical feel to them. Jeremiah and I have played a longer scenario and it was ok, but it felt more like a wargame and lost a bit of the tactical feel I was looking for. We'll probably stick to the shorter scenarios or invent our own.

Now I just have to get better at it. Tactics, that is. I realize that I have a long way to go.