What is the value of tactics in strategy games?

Discussion in 'Game Design' started by Hopenager, Aug 20, 2017.

  1. Hopenager

    Hopenager Active Member

    The other day on @keithburgun 's stream, I mentioned to him that my biggest problem with the current build of PTL is that the tactical layer is so emphasized. I thought it was obvious that tactics should be minimized in a strategy game, so I was surprised when he responded that the tactical focus of PTL was actually intentional, and that PTL was supposed to be a hybrid tactics-strategy game.

    Before continuing, I want to clarify what exactly I mean by "tactics", because I think there are two different common definitions here that I don't want to confuse.

    First, "tactics" can refer simply to decision-making at the lowest level of abstraction in any game. Under this definition, "tactical" decisions deal with small-scale, detailed considerations, often on narrow parts of the gamestate, while "strategic" decisions deal with more abstract, general, large-scale considerations.

    Second, tactics can refer to the type of gameplay that Auro is composed of: calculation-heavy, low generalizability, puzzle-like gameplay.

    The definition that I am using for this conversation, and the one that I believe Keith was using when I talked to him during the stream (Please let me if I'm wrong, Keith), is the latter. Under the first definition, ALL games have to include a significant tactical layer, since by definition the tactical layer is just the least abstract layer of strategic consideration, the layer right at "what inputs do I make this exact moment in this exact situation." Under this definition a "hybrid tactics-strategy game" is redundant, since all strategy games include tactics by definition.

    What I object to is a hybrid tactics-strategy game under the second definition of the term, or in other words, a game with interesting long-arc decisions with plenty of room for the player to learn on the strategic scale, but with gameplay that resembles a puzzle game (or something like Auro) on a moment-to-moment scale.

    My first objection to this is that I just don't see what value tactics adds to a strategy game. Tactics really is more similar to a puzzle-game than it is to a strategy game, and so, going by the four-forms framework, the value that tactics adds to a game is actually a completely different thing ("solving") than what a strategy game normally offers ("understanding"). So if tactics does add any value to a strategy game, it isn't really the type of value we want in a strategy game. In fact, I think that having tactics actually detracts from understanding-value a game normally provides, because if the player is spending mental resources doing tactical calculations, they don't have as much to put into postulating and testing heuristics, which is what provides understanding-value.

    One could object to this by claiming that hybrid tactics-strategy games are looking to provide both solving-value and understanding-value, but to that I would simply ask, why would you want to do that? I think the standard argument for purity of forms works here, i.e why not just make a strategy game and a tactics game, instead of a strategy-and-tactics game? That way, you could really maximize each value in an environment that isn't held back by the other consideration. If you try to combine the two, you'll have a much harder time making something that satisfies each value as well as if you had just made an individual game for each one.

    My second objection is, thankfully, more concrete: If the tactical layer isn't there for it's solving-value, but is instead included because it holds some understanding-value, then I think the player will exhaust the value in the tactical layer before the strategic layer, leaving a distracting husk of calculation behind. Keith has argued before that you actually don't want too much depth on the tactical layer in a strategy game, because you don't want the player to be able to focus exclusively on improving in the tactical layer without considering the strategic layer. Assuming this argument is true, and that the tactical layer needs to be significantly shallower than the strategic layer, the player will solve the tactical layer before they get close to solving the whole game. When that happens, the player will cease getting any understanding-value from the tactical layer, but they'll still have to trudge through the tactical calculations to be able to gain any understanding on the strategic layer (Which, since we are presuming here that the tactical layer is not there for it's solving-value, is self-evidently bad).

    It may be true that all strategy games need to have some amount of tactics/calculation, but the idea that we should actually seek to add more is what I find objectionable. I feel strongly that tactics should be minimized however possible, so I don't see why a hybrid tactics-strategy game is desirable.
    richy and Nomorebirds like this.
  2. Bucky

    Bucky Well-Known Member

    Isn't "strategy" in PTL just deeper tactics?
  3. keithburgun

    keithburgun Administrator, Lead Designer Staff Member

    In this regard, PTL is not a tactics game. I meant hopefully more like the first way. Auro is a tactics game because you can "win locally". You can get a small edge locally by what you do at the tactical level in PTL but it would be really bad if you could gain such an edge that you could win. And I agree that to the extent that there are any "tactics" they should not be calculatey but continually informed by the longer strategy arcs.

    If they are too distinct and disconnected, yeah, this will happen. But if it's connected well enough, the larger strategy will always be informing the tactics and keeping them unsolved and alive. This is in theory, at least.
  4. Hopenager

    Hopenager Active Member

    Under the first definition, yeah, strategy is just layers of abstraction on top of the lowest layer, tactics. But under the second definition, no I wouldn't say strategy is just "deeper tactics", since the definition of "tactics" is being puzzle-like and involving calculation, which strategy almost never is.
  5. Bucky

    Bucky Well-Known Member

    Is the approach a player uses on tactical activity necessarily puzzle-like, though? What if my "tactical" layer is all either unthinking execution or highly abstracted?
  6. Hopenager

    Hopenager Active Member

    But then why have such a hefty tactical layer to begin with? I find it hard to believe that there needs to be as much calculation/definition-2-tactics as PTL has for a game to be sufficiently deep, or that having tactical complexity even helps much with strategic depth.

    (It was mentioned in the discord that one reason for having the tactical layer be so heavy is just to appease consumers. If that's all it is, that's fair enough, though I'm only really interested in the theoretical reasons here, if there are any.)
  7. Hopenager

    Hopenager Active Member

    Then it isn't definition-2-tactics, but of course it is definition-1-tactics. This is why I separated the two definitions.

    Edit: I should mention, what you describe ("tactical layer is all either unthinking execution or highly abstracted") is basically exactly what I'm advocating for. I don't think PTL accomplishes that sufficiently
    Last edited: Aug 20, 2017
  8. keithburgun

    keithburgun Administrator, Lead Designer Staff Member

    Yeah, maybe it needs less. Will definitely keep it in mind. Still am in the "make something work at all" stage. From there we can definitely simplify the tactical layer if we need to.

    "To appease consumers" can also be re-worded as "to get human beings to play your game". That is a factor, yeah. I think games take years to make and it's hard to continue forward with game design or have any resources if no one is playing your game. "Having no theoretical flaws" only gets you so far. I assure you though it's less of a commercial concern and more of a "it can't be a great game unless I get people playing it" thing.
    richy and Hopenager like this.
  9. richy

    richy Well-Known Member

    Very important question I think.

    Maybe a game of 100% strategy shouldn't be seen as the ideal strategy game. The tactics layer could be seen for some purposes as like the UI quality and general aesthetics, in as much as they provide immediacy and approachability to what are otherwise totally (but deliberately of course) ambiguous mechanics. Good for beginners (incremental complexity, something to get a handle on); good for casual strategy players (seasoning if neat strategy stew is too bitter); good for *some* experts (useful little bits of mental warmup drill between the main strategising).

    Probably a small minority will want to wrestle with the gnarly heuristics stuff exclusively. And for those that do I can't see anything wrong with an auto-resolve-tactics feature, a la Total War. With the proviso I guess that at expert level the tactics play should have practically no effect on results, so experts wouldn't feel the need to grind out the extra 1% by doing the tactics manually.

    One of Keith's remarks often springs to mind: "Games are broken toys", meaning a goal, strategy etc. added to a toy makes it not fulfil its role as a toy properly any more. True. But I always think of the phrase more when I realise toys generally give tactile pleasure, and/or tickle the curiosity of the thoughtful player, and/or have nice smooth visually-pleasing visuals and controls - generally aiming to be enjoyable doodads to mess around with. Well then perhaps it follows that a good game, i.e. a good broken toy, should be a good toy, broken. In other words have something of that immediately enjoyable "feel" even if you took away all the strategy.

    It's probably a mistake to hope people will play a strategy game on the strength of some good strategy reportedly buried inside. For us thinky players the bar is probably lower in terms of look and feel, and we'll ignore presentation to a degree, so for us I think a tactics layer with some level of immediate calculability can serve the same purpose. Who on this forum doesn't find puzzles alluring? Or Auro, which is nearly all tactics?

    So that's my answer to the OP question. The value of a tactics layer is accessibility and the other things I said. I'm with Keith in saying you have to design so people will want to play. It's not even appeasement or a compromise really, it's the medium. Games have players. It might even be their one common characteristic.

    Final thought for the day: Strategy is also a compromise-laden and ambiguity-oriented thought process. Perhaps it would be ironic for us, supposed lovers of strategy games, to baulk at the ambiguity involved in designing for actual players :)
    Nomorebirds likes this.
  10. Bucky

    Bucky Well-Known Member

    Tactics are the basic building blocks of strategy. The more tactics a player uses, the richer the strategy layer becomes as a result.
  11. keithburgun

    keithburgun Administrator, Lead Designer Staff Member

    I definitely do not think games should be "100% strategy", and I'm also not sure that that's something that even could exist even if we wanted it to. Like you could make a 100% strategy game, probably, but it would be super shallow, because there's not enough going on. And if you expand it long enough so that there IS enough going on, you're back to kind of having tactics again.

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