Gallantly ruthless battles - the world of turn based strategy games
A fancy name for something really quite straightforward. Yet, turn based strategy games often offer tremendous depth, all on the basis of simple rules. Two opponents face off, often with an equal number of pawns at their command. Taking turns, they each perform one move at a time. In the end, only one can be left standing. The premise and goal of turn based strategy games can vary but the core concept is identical in all its many forms. It has been around for centuries and has fascinated gamers for just as long. Let’s have a look at a few, and what makes them so compelling.
For the sake of clarity, my attraction to wargames comes solely from their strategic and tactical qualities. I don’t hold a passion for all things war related, nor do I have any interests in weapons and guns. The types of strategy games I enjoy are the fantasy or science-fiction kind. In my opinion, being a militarist or a pacifist has nothing to do with having an interest in strategy simulations. Today, I look at a few that have been highlights in my gamer’s life thus far.
Chess is probably the first one that comes to mind. Its origins are found in the game of Chaturanga and it made its way to Europe by the 9th century. Eventually, the pieces were given their powers as we know them by the 15th century and the modern rules of chess were set in the 19th century. Chess was a popular game when I grew up, as much as it still is today. Being the youngest of three, I always saw it as a game grown-ups played. I have an uncle who has always been very much into chess and back then he occasionally played with my brothers. As with most “advanced” games, nobody had the patience to play with “the little one”. Whether it was because nobody had any interest in teaching me, or me not pursuing it further matters not in the slightest. Chess remained this obscure, complicated game for many years. As a teenager, I believed that friends who played it were either more intelligent or had been trained from a young age, having an advantage I could never make up for. Years later, I spent more time learning the game on my own as a challenge, only to find out that the best way to become a great player was to memorize sequences of play and strategies. I decided that this left little room for creativity and that I would not find any satisfaction in playing it. I was finally at peace. Chess was not the game for me.
A game of vikings
Being half Swedish, I have been meaning to try Hnefatafl, also known as Viking chess. Partly because it is a part of my cultural heritage and also because I find the premise quite interesting. One player is attacking the King from the outside of the board while his opponent has to get the King to safety, from the centre to one of the corners.
I find it fascinating that while the game of chess does not tickle my fancy, games inspired by it do. Another chess-like game I loved growing up was Archon.
The Light and the Dark
Archon was a video game we played on our Commodore 64 (Yes, I’m showing my age now). It is played on a board of 9 by 9 tiles. One side plays the Light, the other the Dark, the setting is one of high fantasy. As such, the most important piece (or character) is the Wizard on the Light Side and the Sorceress on the Dark. Aside from being formidable in every way, they have the ability to cast a variety of spells (teleport, heal, shift time, exchange, summon elemental, revive and imprison). The other characters are your typical fantasy fare. All pieces have their equivalent in both armies, with slight differences. In the ranks of the Wizard you will find Golems, Valkyries, Archers, a Djinni, a Phoenix, and Knights. The Sorceress is assisted by a Basilisk, Manticores, Trolls, a Dragon, Banshees and Goblins. Their abilities, powers, hit points and range all differ.
When a piece attacks another, the winner is determined by a one on one battle. The board makes place for an arena with trees and rock to take cover behind. Factions like the basilisk or unicorn have ranged weapons whereas knights and goblins must go right up to their adversary to hit them with their weaker melee weapon. The victor keeps whatever amounts of life it has left at the end of the encounter. Their health can only be replenished by standing on one of five special tiles on the game board for a certain amount of turns. These five tiles also have a strategic purpose: by standing on all 5 simultaneously, victory is awarded. The other way to win is to defeat all of the opponent’s pieces.
The strategy is very layered in Archon and nothing can ever be taken for granted. I have fond memories of a lone standing Knight defeating the other’s mighty dragon or other situations where odds were beaten to provide a thrilling turn of events. In many respects, Archon is a prime example of a game that makes the most of the platform it was designed for.
On a side note, the graphic design of Archon's cover and booklet is absolutely beautiful and very representative of the spirit of video games of the 80s. You can view scans of the entire booklet here.
Despite my tastes in game genres being very eclectic, I have a fond interest and love for strategy games. Going back once more to my childhood, one in particular grabbed my attention in a way games like Battleship never did. It was Stratego.
In this board game, each player lays out his army as they please but without their opponent knowing where any of the pieces are placed. The pawns are shaped like small towers with one side depicting its officer rank which determines the piece’s strength. This side is hidden from the opponent and only revealed when attacking or being attacked. Any encounter is resolved with the pawn of the highest rank winning. There are exceptions, of course, such as the bomb killing every other piece except for the miner. The spy, the weakest of all pawns, can take out the adversary’s Marshal (the strongest rank in the game) but only if she attacks. The game is won when a player captures the other’s flag, the only immovable piece.
I’ve always seen this game as a better version of Memory, with a dose of strategy that makes for a fun casual game. A few years ago, as I was looking for a travel game to play with my kids, I found a card game adaptation of Stratego that turned out to be just as fun. It remains a favourite to this day, although sometimes I long for the board version I used to play.
It’s clear that Stratego is a very simplistic game compared to the wargames that started to slowly gain traction in the sixties. The very first real set of rules for such a game was written and designed by none other than H.G. Wells. It was aptly called Little Wars. Its full name was actually “Little Wars: a game for boys from twelve years of age to one hundred and fifty and for that more intelligent sort of girl who likes boys' games and books”. Yes, the world was a very different place in 1913 when these rules were first published.
By Samuel Begg (1854–1919). - http://www.nirya.be/snv/fb/fb1.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13353761
RPGs and battle grids
Little Wars paved the way for wargame hobbyists. These Napoleonic themed tabletop recreations of famous battles eventually led to the birth of role playing games of pen and paper in the 70s. And one aspect that has remained an important component of many games such as Dungeons & Dragons is the way combat is handled. Encounters can de dealt with in many ways but when push comes to shove and the time has come to draw swords, you can either play it in the theatre of the mind or use miniature figurines and a battle grid.
In a way, we find ourselves thrown into a typical turn based strategy set up where all protagonists and antagonists take turns following a set of rules that will, with the help of stats, dice rolls and the players’ decisions, determine the outcome of the encounter. Role playing games are different from pure wargames because they heavily rely on storytelling and individual character decisions. This also applies to combat as every character’s actions depends on their distinct personalities, their traits and how the players interpret their roles.
The use of a grid and miniatures does help to enhance the strategy aspect and that is why it has become so widely used in pen and paper adventures. It does make for a unique and enthralling experience. Some games will rely heavily on the use of miniatures, especially if their adventures have a strong combat focus. Some role-players devote more time to storytelling, exploration and intrigue, only occasionally resorting to fighting. For them, using miniatures provides a nice change of pace and helps keeping track of the action as it develops. While not essential, it does add to the game.
In what other way can can we expand on the basic turn based strategy model with the help of storytelling?
Modern digital strategy games
Video games have very effective ways of offering play experiences that cannot be found elsewhere. I have already talked about how inventive hybrid games can bring something entirely new to the table, like Quest for the Rings did in the early days of home consoles. Today, I want to look at how an independent developer took a proven formula and made the most of the platform for which it was programmed.
Wargroove is a throwback to Advance Wars, a beloved series of wargames that were released by Nintendo on the Game Boy Advance and the Nintendo DS. While directly borrowing mechanics from its inspiration, Wargroove adds many of its own twists and improvements to create something new, packaged in a beautiful and slick, modern, retro jacket.
Like in most strategy games, the players have a number of factions at their disposal with specific abilities and weaknesses. Battles are fought on a map that offers tactical advantages and challenges for both sides. The maps offer the typical topography features found in real and fantasy locations such as land, forests, mountains, rivers, oceans, lakes, deserts, etc.
In single player mode, three options are available: arcade, campaign and puzzle. The first offers quick battles against a CPU controlled adversary while puzzle offers challenges in the form of short single objective battles with tight restrictions. The main mode, Campaign (my favourite one player option), offers an extensive series of story based battles that take more than 50 hours of gameplay to complete. Since the motivations of the opponents and the situations are directly linked with how the plot develops, this is where a video game really shines because it has the ability to use storytelling devices to infuse the experience with depth and make us feel involved in compelling ways.
But there’s more to it than just these great single player modes. The game’s mechanics shine throughout and the multiplayer options are what make it a truly contemporary experience rather than just a nostalgic retro homage. Locally, up to 4 players can hash it out on a ridiculously extensive variety of maps. This multiplayer mode is also available online.
Needless to say that the local 4 player option can make for a fun and exciting gaming night that could serve as a great gateway to get your friends and family into the world of board gaming!
As if all this was not enough, Chucklefish, the developer, has added a custom content option to their masterpiece. This means players can create their own maps and even entire campaigns. These can be shared online, meaning that you can also download any shared custom content created by other players around the world!
While I am a big advocate of playing multiplayer games in person, be it tabletop or digital, having the option to play with friends across the world is something that can also have many benefits. It doesn’t have to become the only way to play. In fact, extremes are never positive in my opinion. Moderation is key. Personally, this has always enabled me to experience more diverse occupations, keep an open mind, learn new skills and discover more, in the fields of music, movies, sports, games, literature, cooking, gardening, etc.
If it weren’t for online gaming and technology, my kids would never have the chance to keep in touch with their friends and family back in Europe. When they play Mario Kart or Minecraft with some of their school friends in Holland, it always reminds me of the extraordinary ways technology can make our lives better.
Being able to play a turn based strategy game with friends across the globe is an amazing thing. It sort of takes us right back to where it started during the infancy of wargaming clubs and associations. Members would play occasionally in person but very often by mail. That’s right. They wrote down the moves they executed on their turn and sent it to their opponent by mail. This made for some pretty lengthy game sessions as you can imagine. Eventually, this led to war game conventions being organized and clubs with physical locations appearing so that hobbyists could gather on a regular basis to play.
As much as playing can be done remotely thanks to technology, it’s the human factor that is predominantly necessary for a great game session. Playing online is fun and, at times, the only option but it pales in comparison to a game night with friends or family!
The other day, I went to a hobby store to get some miniature paint and other resources. Yes, I have decided to do some hobby painting again and see if my kids like it. I thoroughly enjoyed this as a teenager, whether it was building and painting cars, airplanes, tanks or tabletop miniature figurines. It’s a relaxing way of slowing down, the perfect pastime for a rainy day. With a hot cup of cocoa, in which you accidentally dip your brush…
Anyway, back to the hobby store. It was a Saturday, and it was pretty packed with all kinds of customers of all age groups. Some were there to start in the hobby of tabletop wargames, others like me just came to get some paint and brushes or check on the arrival of a special order. In the back, more customers were chatting around a table while painting some minis and further back, games were in progress.
While I am not a wargamer, I am one of their role-playing cousin and seeing a store full of enthusiasts for a pastime that is so positive and inclusive was heartwarming. As always it truly doesn’t matter what game you fancy, what is important is why you play! Until next time, have fun and if you’re bored, call a friend and play some games!