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Monthly Q&A: Strategy Game Favorites

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!

LadiesGamers Pikmin1
Pikmin 1 on GameCube. Image credit: Servo, MobyGames.

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:

LadiesGamers Monthly Q&A Strategy Favorites
A page from the manual of Civilization 1 (1991). From the days we used to read whole paragraphs.

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.

LadiesGamers Civilization V
Civilization V. It’s the worst when the NPCs want to take you down.

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! :laughing: 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!

LadiesGamers Final Fantasy Tactics
Final Fantasy Tactics was a PlayStation game that had a spin-off title, Tactics Advance, for the GameBoy Advance and WiiU systems.
LadiesGamers Final Fantasy Tactics Advance
I love the version of moogles in the Tactics universe: less cute, more butt-kicker-y.

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.

LadiesGamers Into the Breach
Into the Breach, a strategy-puzzle game of giant mechs defending humanity.

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.

LadiesGamers Steamworld Heist
Steamworld Heist is a sidescrolling tactical placement game with robot space cowboys.

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.

LadiesGamers Curious Expedition
Curious Expedition, a roguelike strategy game with the appearance of a board game.

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.

On Randomness

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.

LadiesGamers Pikmin3
Hup two three four! Hup two three four!

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

Elena: In this respect, I think Fire Emblem: Awakening is a great game because, rather than randomness, it is the large cast of character that invites replay, to try different ways of teaming up your units. And there’s also a narrative incentive: I want to see new pairs of characters develop a friendship and have funny conversations! I don’t mind rewatching old conversations, too, when they’re so endearing.

LadiesGamers Fire Emblem Awakening
Fire Emblem: Awakening, one of the FE games with a marriage/children mechanic.

Ash: I agree with you there. I think the reason I liked Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn/Path of Radiance was the sheer volume of characters you can get/take on missions. I liked it when certain characters, who had spent a lot of battle-time together, fall in love. And there was even a child mechanic in a Fire Emblem game I played where two characters could have a child that was a stronger mix of their skills and abilities.

Elena: Fire Emblem’s children! Isn’t that such a cool thing? It’s like, “Here’s this awesome cast of characters, but that’s not all. Their children are playable characters too!” I vaguely recall that the side missions for obtaining these kids were tougher than usual missions. Labor pains, I guess!

I just checked… apparently three Fire Emblem games had a marriage/children mechanic! :open_mouth: (Genealogy of the Holy War; Fates; Awakening)

Ash: I didn’t realize that mechanic was in three different FE games! I only remember doing it in one, but I haven’t played a lot of FE games.

I think Fire Emblem: Three Houses was trying to do that as well (provide a huge cast), but rather than have every character available for your party, you kind of have to play the game three (four, or even five) times to see the story from every perspective and to see all of the character interactions. That gives the game a lot of replay value, and it is a very long game.

No one can fault a Fire Emblem game for being too short. However, in the same vein, I can find some tactical RPG’s like that become very grind-y very fast. I feel like I always have to grind through several random battles so that my characters level up enough to survive later battles. That is just an RPG thing in general, but I’m not a big fan of it anymore.

Elena: Yeah, like you, I now lack the time and patience for grinding. Ahh, school days — how I miss thee!

LadiesGamers Baten Kaitos
“Thanks Meemai!” You’ll get it if you’ve played Baten Kaitos.

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

Elena: Now… a rather big question: What are one or two of your strategy favorites? And why? If it’s tough to pick between favorites, perhaps we could name both old favorites and new favorites.

LadiesGamers Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance
“Nintendo Power” magazine, back in the day, told me how to get the best character: Stefan.

Ash: Simply because I don’t play a lot of strategy games, my pool to choose my favourites from is rather small. Honestly, Pikmin 3 is soooo amazing; I’d say that and the Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn/Path of Radiance combo (since one was a direct sequel to the other, I count them together).

Honestly though, if we are counting deck-building games as a form of strategy, I’m going to have to say Baten Kaitos is in my favourite games as well. It was just such an interesting and strange concept, and the voice acting was hilarious. Very campy most of the time. What would your favourites be?

Elena: It’s hard not to love Pikmin 3 :slight_smile: And it’s a nice co-op game! Whenever I think of Pikmin, I think of that hilarious-looking Red Bulborb. By the way, you’ve gotten me very interested in Baten Kaitos. Perhaps they’ll remake it some day…

LadiesGamers Worms Armageddon
Worms Armageddon, an artillery game on PC in which teams of worms battle it out, often clumsily.

My childhood favorite might be the Worms series (e.g. Worms Armageddon). They are wacky games in which you control a team of cute worms, with an arsenal of weapons like Bazooka, Dynamite, Banana, Super Sheep, etc. The goal is to defeat the other teams of worms — either controlled by AI or human players. The specific genre is called “artillery games,” in which teams take turns to fire at each other and it takes a bit of skill to fire accurately — the right angle, the right intensity. Often, you ended up accidentally damaging yourself!

More recently, I reckon my top favorites are Into the Breach and Slay the Spire, mentioned earlier. The latter is about figuring out the right moves on a chess-like grid. The former is about building a lean, mean deck of cards. Visually, they’re not the most dazzling, but they’ve totally nailed it gameplay-wise. Both easy to pick up and put down, they’re well-suited to the Switch and made me stay up too late at night.

LadiesGamers Slay the Spire
Slay the Spire, a roguelike strategy card game.

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.

LadiesGamers Fire Emblem Three Houses
Swoon-worthy Claude from Fire Emblem: Three Houses.

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! :heart: People made a bunch of funny memes about him. If I can track down my favorite one, I’ll send it to you!

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