Abstract Strategy games: What separates logical gold from a fallacy filled flop?

I love abstract logic strategy games.  They are my weakness.  I find one haphazardly discarded at a Good Will and I must rescue it, despite having upwards of fifty others in that category. Regardless of how many new games I bring into my home, the abstract strategy games are the ones that I open like a child on Christmas morning the moment I walk in the door.  Now of course I will freely admit, some are simply better than others. But that left me pondering, what is it that makes one strategy game better than another?

Firstly, it seemed only right to actually define what an abstract logic strategy game is.  Wikipedia explains this genre of game to be one where all information is known by all players, and thus a ‘best move’ can be determined by using logic alone.  This concept of having all information needed has been dubbed ‘perfect information’.  Wikipedia then goes on to later say that some other games that actually include elements of luck are now being lumped into this category, such as Backgammon or Sequence. I flatly oppose the idea that those are abstract logic games due to their luck and bluffing elements, so games of that nature are not being discussed here, only perfect information games.

Another element mentioned in numerous on-line articles on the subject of abstract strategy games is the number of players involved.  It was repeatedly mentioned that abstract strategy games exist between two people or teams.  I sat there shaking my head at this for quite some time. No, that can’t be an accurate statement!  I have several games that I lump into my abstract strategy category that have more than two people or teams.  Inner Circle and Blockus immediately come to mind as abstract strategy games that are played with more.  But at last I read a good reasoning for this as well.  In a game with more than two people often the game succumbs to politics, with players teaming up to take out an opponent.  This taints the pure logic involved in the game.

OK, so an abstract logic game is one that requires perfect information and is between two people or teams.  But what makes one good? I personally think it all comes down to balancing two scales:  Expertise vs Common Logic and Recovery vs Decisiveness.

Expertise vs Common Logic

A game that is so complicated that the moves seem random to all but those who have dedicated their lives to it  is clearly not a good game. However, a game that a player can not gain any prowess in is not much fun either.  It’s the balance of these two elements that makes for a great strategy game.  Players should be able to get better at the game through practice.  You should be able to refine your skill.  Chess is the prime example of a game where players get better through repeated play.  A player with a higher ranking can almost always beat a player with a lower ranking. But, even a novice player can evaluate the effectiveness of one move over another.  This game is largely in balance between these two elements.

Some might argue with me, but I believe that Go is a game that is too heavily balanced in favor of experience, with the ability to weigh the benefits of one move over another being difficult.  Experienced players often declare a winner in that game long before I see that anything really significant has even occurred on the board.  The difficulty of weighing the advantage of one move over another also makes it very difficult to teach this game to new comers (“But why would I want to put my piece there?” “Because it will allow you to close in that area leaving multiple eyes five to ten turns down the road.” Not an easy concept to convey.).

Recovery vs Decisiveness

The ability to recover from a misstep versus the ability to have a decisive winner on the majority of games is the next scale to grade these games upon.  No one enjoys a game that is nothing but a continuous downward spiral, with one bad move ruining the entire game. But games that between equally matched opponents almost always end in a draw are very little fun as well.  This delicate balance is probably one of the hardest for game designers, but I greatly appreciate when I see it.

Tic-Tac-Toe is a prime example of a game with very little decisiveness.  I can play 100 games of Tic-Tac-Toe against my husband and I can guarantee that 99.99% of them will end in a draw, with that .01% of difference being allotted through a stupid error in which I simply didn’t care any more.  The game holds absolutely no thrill for me, because I know how it is going to end long before I make that first X.

Chess is one of those games that I feel is lacking on the recovery side of the scale though.  Once a player has a significant advantage, the game has all but been decided.  There is a very narrow possibility that your opponent might suffer a head injury mid game, thus allowing you to catch up, but otherwise kiss the win goodbye.  (OK, it might not need to be a head injury.  Perhaps a house rule of:  If you take one of your opponents pieces you take a shot of Tequila as well, might also work to level the playing field.)

New abstract strategy games come and go each year.  It’s rare to see a newer one stick around to compete with the oldies, and I think that largely has to do with games that are tipped way off balance on one of these two scales.  Granted, it’s certainly not easy to create a perfectly balanced game and if the scales are tipped too far in one direction on either scale the whole game will be a flop.  Hopefully by analyzing what makes one good we can all make wiser decisions about our abstract strategy game purchases in the future, spending only our time and money on the ‘Good’ and leaving the ‘Bad’, and especially the ‘Ugly’, on the shelf.

This entry was posted by The_Null_Entry on Thursday, August 6th, 2009 at 8:12 am and is filed under Random Things that Fall out of my head . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

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