This month’s topic is “Strategy Games”! LadiesGamers team members Ash and Elena discuss the genre definition and their favourite games. Sit down for a nice read, and see if you already know the games they mention!
First Encounters of the Strategy Kind
Elena: Do you remember the first strategy game you ever played?
Ash: My first strategy game was Pikmin 1 actually. I had to look that information up, because I THOUGHT I had played Final Fantasy Tactics Advance for GBA before that, but the first Pikmin game actually came out two years before FF Tactics!
Elena: Oh wow, you’ve played the first Pikmin! I’ve only played Pikmin 3, and it’s such a unique strategy game on so many levels. The most obvious feature, maybe, is that you’re controlling miniature flora/fauna hybrids, in what feels like a garden or forest world. This is a marked difference from the real-time strategy (RTS) games of my childhood on PC, which were often about humans and their war machines engaging in, like, World War 5 or whatever.
Ash: I do love the aesthetic of Pikmin a lot. I love that you are such tiny creatures in the world. The fact that you’re directing your little Pikmin to pick up everyday household objects like batteries is just so quaint.
I really like the added ability in Pikmin 3 to split your army and command your troops. Though, now that I say that, I can’t remember if that was a thing in the first Pikmin game (or even the second game). I just know I had a lot of fun in 3, trying to best manage my time by sending Captain with all my red and rock pikmin, and then sending someone else with my electric. It just made it a lot more strategic and fun. I do like that aesthetic better than a huge war/battle for control/kingdoms/etc.
How about your first strategy game?
Elena: My first was Civilization 1 on PC (belonging to my brother). It had this manual of 155 pages in black and white. A typical page looked like this:
I didn’t become a console player until I was about 20. My first strategy game on console might have been Fire Emblem: Awakening.
Ash: Even though I did enjoy Fire Emblem: Three Houses, I liked Pikmin 3 a lot more. As far as Civ games: I am a console gamer through and through. I have been gaming for as long as I can remember. My uncle had a NES, and then we got a SNES for Christmas one year. I actually didn’t have a PC of any kind until I turned 19 and bought my own (a used one from my job at the time because they were upgrading to better computers, so I got it for dirt cheap).
I have a smattering of games for PC, but I gravitate towards my Switch way more. The point: I played Civilization V with my friends a few times, on their PC. We would play… I guess it’s a competitive multiplayer mode.
I really had no idea how to play, but apparently I was doing really well, and the ONE NPC character in the game (Greece) kept sending me (Egypt) messages about how they wanted all these things from me, and I was like “No! I’m peaceful, I just want to farm and build stuff” Then the next thing I know, Greece is attacking me! And my friends knew it was going to happen and didn’t do anything to help or stop it because they saw I was doing really well! Such rudeness, haha. I’ll still confirm that I enjoyed Pikmin more than Civ.
Elena: You were being extorted for tribute! I remember those moments all the way back in Civ 1. And sometimes, I would go around demanding for tributes… and usually didn’t get them! I was only 9 then, and didn’t have a good grasp of the game.
Defining the Strategy Genre
Elena: The games we’ve brought up so far are well-known examples of two major kinds of strategy games: real-time (RTS) and turn-based (TBS). Do you have a preference for one kind over another? Or, perhaps, which have you ended up playing more?
Ash: I don’t think I have a preference. They both have their plus sides. I think the thing I like about the game types like Civ was just the fact that I had a chance to look away from the game while my friends were doing their turns (we would have a gentleman’s agreement not to look at each other’s screens unless we asked for help).
I REALLY loved Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, the story was great and the gameplay was fantastic. I prefer playing games like Fire Emblem (TBS I guess, yeah?) by myself rather than with other people. But then, I’m not sure if that’s just because of the game, or just because I usually just prefer to play most games alone. Haha!
Elena: We’ve mentioned FF Tactics and Fire Emblem a few times now — games we definitely need to talk about eventually!
Ash: In terms of the word “Strategy”, what other games can fit into that category? Is a Brain Age game a kind of strategy? What exactly are the specific things that make a game a strategy game?
Elena: Ash, a great question about defining the strategy genre. I think an important characteristic found in most strategy games is “planning,” and that being the focus or skill most required.
Both strategy games and puzzle games might be considered “thinking” games, but that’s a little too broad and inaccurate to say thinking isn’t required for other genres! I think puzzle games tend to emphasize short-term problem solving of the logical kind, like Brain Age. Meanwhile, strategy games tend to include planning that spans a longer chunk of gameplay. This could be planning how to build a series of things or defeat an army — very typical of RTS games I played on PC as a kid, like StarCraft. Early-game decisions tend to have a bigger impact on late-game.
The line between strategy and puzzle can be blurred. A good example being Into the Breach, another Switch favorite of mine. What makes it puzzle-like is that there are very, very few viable solutions to winning a mission. To use an analogy, it looks like chess but unlike chess, has so few ways of playing out that result in victory.
Ash: I like your very specific definition of a strategy game. I think I agree with all of the points you made in terms of what makes a strategy game different from a puzzle or adventure game. A game where all of your decisions matter, and something done very early in the game can have a big impact on the end game.
Elena: Some people go even further, distinguishing between “strategy” and “tactical” games. The former is long-term planning, and the latter is short-term planning or problem-solving. Though, personally, I wouldn’t mind using the word “strategy” for both kinds of games.
I guess the easiest way to categorize strategy games is into RTS (real-time) and TBS (turn-based). Handheld gaming tends to lend itself better to TBS games. Which is why I’ve gotten into Fire Emblem (which people call a “strategy RPG”!), alongside indie titles like Steamworld Heist and most recently Banner Saga. I’ve quite enjoyed turn-based games which emphasize tactical placement. If I had more time and patience, I’d love to explore old classics. There were a few titles I tried on my husband’s old consoles but didn’t invest time in: FF Tactics, Joan of Arc, Advance Wars.
These titles all happen to involve armies, but I don’t think strategy games need to necessarily involve building and expansion in the sense of an army, or even city or kingdom. I would consider many board games and card games as strategy games, and these can have different themes.
One of my recent favorites is Slay the Spire, a card game that requires planning what cards to keep, in order to build an efficient deck of moves for your one character to survive successive fights. Another is Curious Expedition, which isn’t a board game but feels like one. There’s combat sometimes, but most of the time your strategizing how to manage resources and sanity, and deciding what place is worth the risk of exploring.
Ash: Unfortunately I do not know about Curious Expedition. I know a lot of people who play Slay the Spire, and they say it is really fun. I would categorize that as a “deck building” game as well. Just like board games (Ascension, or DC Deck Building) where you are collecting cards in order to build a deck that can stomp your enemies.
Ash: There is an element of strategy to a deckbuilding game, but I think those games are a lot more RNG-based (random number generation). You can’t really control which cards you draw, so your pile of cards to choose from that you can add to your deck is based a lot on randomness.
Perhaps there is an element of randomness to all strategy games? In Pikmin, it can be random how many pikmin of each colour you get (if you have more red pikmin in your party, they’re probably going to be carrying back the majority of enemy corpses, and thus making more red pikmin). However, that can also be a very strategic part of the game as well, in that you can actively control how many of each colour of pikmin you have and take with you at all times.
I think there’s an element of randomness to games like Civilization: where you get placed on the map, what resources are near you, how many enemies might be near you and attack you, etc.
But on the other hand, I would say that there is very little randomness in a Fire Emblem or FFTactics game. The characters you can get on your team are pre-determined by the game itself. You can choose to level, or not level, certain characters up – but there’s very little in the way of RNG to impede or bolster your progress.
Elena: Yes, the degree of randomness certain varies within the strategy genre. And that can lead to satisfaction for different reasons. Maybe some folks love having less randomness, as it enhances their satisfaction of developing a thorough, deep strategy?
Though, randomness can also be a tool to inject freshness into playthroughs and keep gamers on their toes. Roguelike/roguelite games employ a controlled amount of randomness to keep each “run” or attempt fresh, exciting.
Ash: I like roguelikes and roguelites, so I personally enjoy some randomness/RNG in my games.
Elena: And yet, games with little RNG can be enjoyed again and again too!
Talking Fire Emblem
Ash: As a child I had all the time in the world to play Pokemon and level them up to 90 before I even tried for the Elite Four… but now, as an adult, I have a lot less time and patience for a game that makes you grind in order to get through it.
Did you ever play Baten Kaitos on the GameCube? It is a deckbuilding RPG (and we’ve established that deck-building games are a form of strategy to us). It was a wild game, and I remember having a lot of fun playing it, but I also remember having to restart my whole game because I went into an area and wasn’t strong enough, and couldn’t go back or grind my level in that area. So I just died over and over to the boss… Very frustrating.
Elena: I just looked up Baten Kaitos. It sounds like a unique game, even by today’s standards. The mix of deckbuilding and real-time combat sounds like a recent cross-genre game (One Step from Eden) I’d like to try some day. It’s fun to see games fusing major elements from different genres.
Old and New Favorites
Ash: Yeah, I haven’t played any of those games you mentioned: Worms, Slay the Spire, etc. I have heard of most of them though, so I know the concept.
Elena: So… being a FF Tactics and Fire Emblem lover, do you think you’ll play Square Enix’s upcoming Triangle Strategy?
Ash: I used to be all about Final Fantasy games (not just the strategy games, but the RPGs as well), and now I just don’t find myself as drawn to them. They’re just so long, and very grind-y, so I just find myself with less patience for them.
As much as I liked Fire Emblem: Three Houses… it took me over a year to beat just the ONE Golden Deer playthrough… I just no longer have the patience for long grind-y games. I say that, but then I put hours upon hours into Cyberpunk.
Elena: Yeah, I totally get that. FE: Three Houses is a decent game, but midway it felt a bit “oh, just more of the same thing.” I felt slightly relieved when it was over! Golden Deer House was my choice too. Because, well, Claude!
Ash: oh my goodness gracious, same! Claude was just so cute and charismatic, I had to choose his house!
Elena: Yes! People made a bunch of funny memes about him. If I can track down my favorite one, I’ll send it to you!