Thinking in terms of ‘Strategies’ rather than ‘Actions’ will help your designs adapt to the way players actually play them.
Within a game, players have many actions at their disposal. These actions may be small or large, but each one is a single part of a player’s strategy.
But what is strategy?
Strategy is the imagined path between the player’s current state and their goal. More simply even, strategy is the player’s intention.
If laying a railroad track is an action, then building a route from Paris to Madrid is a strategy.
Within large games with many interconnected systems, strategies can be nested within one another.
I have to build from Paris to Madrid so I can take advantage of a supply-demand imbalance between the cities, so I can make money faster than everyone else and outbid them on rocket parts, so I can be first to the moon.
This chain of strategy charts the player’s course to victory (hopefully). There may be adjustments to deal with different players, new information, or course correction that drives a change in strategy. However, it is important that at any given moment within the game, the player can and should have a strategy in mind.
What use are strategies?
There are three major uses for Strategy-Centered thinking as you design.
The first is directly related to player experience. Given the player’s knowledge of the game state, systems, and game goal, are they able to form and articulate a cohesive strategy? If the game is too complex or obtuse for players to form a strategy, the game won’t be able to deliver on its target experience. The formation and execution of strategy is an important benchmark for testing.
The second is to help you understand what the ‘game’ really is. Connected strategies form links of logic, and this is the way players will ultimately come to understand your game. Just start with “I want to win,” then ask “How?” List out those answers, and for each of those, ask again “How?” Very soon you’ll have a web of interconnected links that encompass all the strategic options within your game. Each possible traversal of this web forms a model of how your game might play out.
The third is related to game development. When refining a completed design, the developer can utilize strategy compression to streamline the game in an intuitive way, cutting out useless or mundane activities in order to hone in on the experience.
It is important that players be able to form and articulate a strategy. Once that is done, they must also be able to execute on it.
As much as possible, we want the game to get out of the way and let the players play.
For this reasons, actions should reflect the strategies behind them.
In the train game example, I already know that I want to build a railway from Paris to Madrid. Placing each individual bit of track isn’t a key part of my strategy, it’s just a means to an end. Unless some critical element of experience is tied up in placing those tracks, let’s just build them all as a single action, rather than piece by piece. Now three or four turns have been condensed into one, and the player can spend more time in strategy.
When a game feels tedious or is taking longer than its target play time, strategy compression is a great tool to iron out the experience. Look for opportunities to think like your players, and try to let them pursue their goals in as straightforward a manner as possible.
Strategy Compression from the Other Direction
Another situation for strategy compression is when one action always follows another. Once I build that track and drop a locomotive on it, regardless of what else happens, I’m going to ship things along it every turn.
In this case, we can compress by removing the activity of shipping (which is a given) and just offer the player a lump payout that approximates what they might earn over the course of trading (or perhaps adjust their turn-by-turn income) and avoid the tedium of shipping each turn.
These are just a few ways that building your game around strategies can help to improve game experience, which after all, is the ultimate goal of the designer.