Three Elements of a Great Game Part 1: Strategy

All great games have three key elements: Strategy, Chance, and Design. We'll write about each in the coming weeks (sign up below for updates).

Strategy

Many games provide choices that aren’t meaningful. This means that players’ decisions don’t actually have an impact on the game, or that there’s an obvious “best choice”, turning the game into a race to take that option first. Snowballing power from first-mover advantages can quickly suck the fun from any game, so a decision tree with depth is key to a great game.

Playtests

A game with a deep decision tree means players can discover new strategies (and counterstrategies), giving the game greater replayability. Players become masters of strategic games by experimenting, learning the consequences of the various branches on the decision tree so they can look ahead and inform their play. However, a deeply strategic game will obscure the best decisions, leaving uncertainty with even its most experienced players.

Game designers bear the burden of making their game great. A basic three-step process to follow to create the element of strategy in a game:

1. Playtest. Not just playing the game, but intentionally trying different play styles and making decisions that aren’t obvious. The purpose of playtesting is to uncover broken strategies, whether overpowered or underpowered. Decisions should matter, but one early decision shouldn’t decide the winner.

2. Balance. After each playtest, game designers can balance an overpowered strategy by either nerfing it, adding a new decision that counters it, or buffing an inferior path. This doesn’t mean all decisions should be made equal; if playtesting reveals that decisions don’t make a difference, buff and nerfs should be added to add meaning to choices.

3. Repeat. Changes must always be tested.

For example, when we doing early playtests of Galactic Contract, we discovered that people who chose to employ a “produce early” strategy always snowballed and won because the reward for gaining points was a punishment to all other players. This essentially disabled those who wanted to play an “invest early” strategy, but we wanted them to have a fair shot at winning. By replacing the punishments to investors with small strategic choices for the early producers, both strategies became more satisfying to play.

But a game of pure strategic thinking can still become repetitive and even arduous. Drop your email in the form below to be notified of our next post on why the second element of a great game is Chance.