April 18, 2020
Board Games Make Better Strategy Games
The title of this essay is a declarative statement. It’s of course open to debate and I’m not suggesting this is an unequivocal rule. But at least in my experience, when I think about the “crux” moments that are the pinnacle of strategic intrigue - where the fate of everything is hanging on the line or where you wait breathlessly to see if your gambit pays off - board games provide both a greater “density” and a greater “diversity” of such moments in comparison to strategy video games.
There are, I believe, a number of factors that contribute to this situation. There are things unique to the design needs and expectations of board games that enable “deep and interesting decisions” to come to the forefront. There are also things, on the video game side of the table, that frequently distract, diminish, or are otherwise at odds with their capacity for deep strategic gameplay. I want to explore both of these dimensions in an effort to tease out, if possible, some poignant ways that strategic video games - especially 4X games - might better capture the strategic depth they aspire to.
Before we get too deep, let’s consider for this article what I mean when I talk about deep, or interesting, or compelling strategic decision points (or the “crux” moments). Principally, I feel these moments exist when: (1) having read and understood the “game state” you are faced with having to decide between mutually exclusive courses of action; (2) these decisions are consequential and have a traceable link to your eventual victory or defeat; and (3) predicting the outcomes of your decisions are laced with enough uncertainty that player skill, experience and heuristics matter for good play (i.e. you can’t just look up an optimal build order and call it a day).
This definition is a lot to unpack. But let’s explore two facets of it.
The foundation of every board game is how you, as a player, take your turn. “What actions you can do on your turn” defines the entire structure of the game. It’s so fundamental and intrinsic to boardgames that we frequently take its importance for granted and move on to discussing the nuances of its execution (worker placement, drafting, action points, etc.). Suffice to say, most games limit how much you can do within the confines of a particular turn, and the mere presence of these limits creates a landscape of tradeoffs. Maybe you have three workers that you assign to actions each round. Maybe you have a menu of ten different actions you can do, but can only perform two of them on your turn. Perhaps you have a hand of six cards but can only play one each round. What do you do in this moment?
These kinds of intrinsic limits shape the structure of a board game. They are also, in a convoluted sort of way, a tacit acknowledgement to the fact that we can only affect so much change over a period of time. We can’t do everything at once, we have to prioritize. And at a more pragmatic level, limiting actions are a way of constraining how long an individual player’s turn might be. And so it affects the pacing and length of the game.
Strategic video games, especially 4X games, typically take the approach that you are omnisciently powerful. They assume that within the confines of a turn or paused gameplay moment, that you have infinite time and capacity to plan and execute your designs. You can queue up dozens of buildings or units in each of your cities, reengineer the design of every military force, adjust policies and politics, engage every foreign faction in diplomacy. And on and on. And you can do this EVERY turn, without limit (barring some occasional checks and balances tossed in by a developer to mitigate totally exploitive play).
This state of affairs has a number of ripple effects on a game’s potential depth. If you can freely do as much or as little “retooling” as you want each turn, your decisions are far less consequential to the outcome of the game. There is little depth in a system where you can queue up every building on every planet, and without cost reprioritize all of it a turn later when the game state changes just a little bit and something unexpected comes along. There is no requirement for “efficiency of action” in such games, no sense of momentum to your play that would be costly to redirect. A 4X game might last 100’s of turns and so playing around the margins of actions taking a few turns more or a few turns less to execute ends up being a study in routine optimization instead of long-term planning. Most it is just a wash.
Going back to boardgames, this idea of “efficiency of action” is central to how player turns are structured. Every turn, picking one course of action necessarily limits other courses of action. There are built in opportunity costs, sometimes known and sometimes uncertain, that affect your evaluation of the risks and rewards of your choices. By having limited actions, you are forced to navigate a layer of strategic prioritization, which intersects nicely with the overall structure and length of a game. If a game only lasts 10 turns then each of your decisions weighs mightily on the outcome. In a game lasting 100’s of turns with dozens of actions each round, any given action provides only an incremental effect on the outcome. Each action matters thus less, despite taking just as much time.
Nevertheless, some video games manage to tackle this. One video game that captures this notion of limited actions is King of Dragon Pass (and its successor Six Ages). In these games, each round is a season, and in each season you can only perform two actions. There is a huge menu of actions you can each turn: improving your settlement, engaging in diplomacy, organizing expeditions, performing rituals, go on a raid - and so on. This intersects with the event system, which triggers an event after each action you take - adding a layer of uncertainty to your actions and forcing you to carefully prioritize and strategize.
A Transparent Game State & Discernable Mechanics
Another major difference is that boardgames require players to manage the game state and execute changes in accordance with the rules. A consequence of this is that the rules have to be discernible by human minds. While there are certainly differences in the complexity of board games, most of them are built on rather simple procedures and basic arithmetic-level math.
Video games, on the other hand, rely on - wait for it - “the computer” to process the game state. As a result, the door is wide open to use whatever mathematical constructions and algorithms the designer can devise to process the game. This enables complex calculations where tons of variables and favors can be tossed into the design of mechanics and integrated with complex formulas and functions. While this creates an opportunity for modeling dynamic relationships or other complex phenomena, the result is that the mechanical underpinning of the game is rarely ever fully explained or known to the player. The game becomes a “black box”.
While 4X video games have made major advancements in using tooltips and in-game manuals/wikis to explain how systems work - this is usually kept at a conceptual level, as opposed to explaining each and every step in how things are calculated or resolved. In the other games, random events or outcomes might be based on hidden mechanisms whose operations are entirely unknown, intentionally, to the player. While this can play into creating emergent narratives or complex simulations - it does so at the expense of transparency.
When a game lacks transparency, I feel that results in a de facto reduction of the game’s potential depth. If you can’t tell how the game operates, and can’t discern how the current game state was arrived at, your moves - as “inputs” into the system - run the risk of being rendered arbitrary.
Of course, in practice video games work hard to provide feedback to the player so they move towards understanding the impact of their decisions. But by definition, feedback is retroactive. You’re giving the results “after” you’ve performed the action. By comparison, board games with their more discernible mechanics allow players to be more predictive and anticipatory “before” they perform an action. This in turn creates a clearer line of connection to player agency, and players are able to build better heuristics (experiential knowledge) faster, because the loop between decision factors to choices to results/impact is tighter and understandable.
At the broadest scale, that of the entire length or arc of the game transparency of mechanics and ability to read the game state has a high bearing on the strategic depth of the game. The more complex and obtuse, the harder it is to formulate a long-range plan with any reliability. The game may end up feeling like a series of isolated tactical puzzles that get solved in isolation, with no clear linkage or connection to an overall gameplay arc. This ends up with many 4X video games feeling very samey from game to game. You aren’t experiencing wildly different long-term strategies because the game just takes too long and individual choices are too disconnected from the big picture.
What to do about it?
I think 4X video game designers would benefit from going back to the genres roots, where one could easily explain and perceive how all of the mechanics work - much like one would for a board game. This may result in seemingly simpler games mechanically - but if the systems are transparent and well designed, may nevertheless result in an actually deeper game. As I’ve been tinkering around with the design for a 4X video game, one of my internal checks for a given system is always this: could I implement this system in boardgame and have it be discernible to players? If not - it needs more refinement and clarity.
On the topic of limiting actions - I think this is one area where 4X video games need to really push the design into new directions. But this will be challenge - as much of the 4X player base has grown accustomed to “being able to do anything, anywhere, at any time - with little to no consequence or tradeoff.” Despite wanting to play a seemingly heavy and challenging game - I think most 4X players don’t actually want to be challenged and forced to make tradeoffs.
My evidence for this resistance to tough tradeoffs is the frequent criticism of when a game, in part or in totality, appears too much “like a board game.” People see a thematic or practical oversimplification of a mechanic as being less valued - because in their minds they can imagine a more complex, nuanced, simulation-like way it could’ve been implemented that would make for more “realistic logic.” The irony is that going down the complexity pathway may in fact undercut the very depth and challenge one is hoping to achieve, for all the reasons outlined above.
For me, when a video game is described as “board game-like” my interest is increased. It’s a signal to me that the decisions and mechanics in the game are built around understandability and harder choices - whether it’s around limited actions or other constraints. And I am seeing, overall, a growing interest in these types of video games across a number of genres. Tactical RPGs, roguelikes, XCOM-likes, wargames, card-driven video games all seem to be embracing the “board game like” mantle as a positive. Yet such trends are lacking in the 4X video game space, and I’d love to see that changed.
As usual, let me know if you have thoughts, reactions, or experiences to share!