by Jason Green-Lowe
People are often very unclear on what the difference is between a tactic and a strategy. In this essay, I’m going to try to set out a crisp definition of what counts as a strategy, why that matters, how to use suits (e.g. spades, hearts, minerals, aliens, water) to reinforce and communicate strategic paths, and how optimizing the link between suits and strategies can improve the state of the art for classic-style Eurogames.
What is a strategy?
Strategic choices are:
Most strategies are “long-term” in the sense that you have to keep working at them for several turns or actions, but that’s not an absolute requirement — the important thing is that strategic choices need to be scarce; when you make one, it stops you from making other, competing strategic choices, or at least it makes pursuing those other strategies much more expensive or difficult or unlikely to succeed. One way to make a strategy scarce is to force players to spend a third of the game pursuing a strategy in order to make it work (e.g., a pawn storm in chess, or a factory in Puerto Rico, or Platinum in Dominion), but that’s not the only way to make strategies scarce; you could also just make strategies really expensive (e.g. the 6-cost developments in Race for the Galaxy), or limit players to one strategy per game by fiat (e.g. what alien species do you want to play in Eclipse or Galactic Dawn or Twilight Imperium). On the other hand, if I’m making a decision every single turn, then it’s probably not strategic, even if I won’t see the results until the endgame. For example, in Clue, I eliminate a possible suspect on most of my turns, and in Battlestar Galactica, I contribute to a perception of my character as either Human or Cylon on most of my turns, and none of that will typically pay off until the game is over, so there’s a sense in which I’m working toward a long-term objective…but that work isn’t scarce; I wind up doing this stuff as a matter of course, almost for free, simply by playing the game. I could also pivot and start taking some other type of action at any time without any real cost. If you’re not making any commitments when you choose an option, then your choice isn’t strategic.
By chunky, I mean that one strategy has to be meaningfully and sharply different from the next, and they can’t seamlessly blend into each other. Synonyms for chunky are “staccato” and “discrete.” In no-limit poker, if I can bet $3, or $4, or $5, or $6, or any number I like up to $100, then that doesn’t afford me strategic choices; that’s just an optimization problem where I want to pick whatever bet is most effective at achieving some plurality of goals. On the other hand, in $1/$2 limit poker, where my choices are to fold, check, bet, or raise, and that’s it, now I’ve got a real strategic choice; it matters which route I go down; the choices have totally different effects and I have to pick one and not the others. In the opening of Puerto Rico, I have to choose one good to specialize in — am I going to produce corn, or indigo, or sugar? They’re not the same as each other, and I can really only pick one of them to start with. Puerto Rico is strategic. In Stratego, which is ironically not strategic, I can set up my bombs near my front lines, or in the middle, or in the back, and there are no ‘break points’ at which my strategy actually shifts from one to the other; I can really put my bombs whereever I like, and the overall impact of where they go is totally continuous.
By discretionary, I mean that the choice is really up to me, and not forced by the conditions on the board, or (even worse) by the rules of the game. Some conditions might favor certain strategies, and being a brutally effective tournament player might require the ability to master different strategies and apply one of the strategies that works best with whatever starting position you find yourself in, but even then there should still be at least a couple of plausible options, and genius players who are really good at one particular strategy ought to be able to find a way to successfully apply that strategy even outside of its optimal conditions. For example, in Magic the Gathering, there are some sets where one color is stronger than the others, so all else being equal you might want to draft that color, but I can still choose to draft a different color and reasonably expect to win a tournament; or, zooming in, I might open my first booster pack and see that it’s full of strong red cards, but I could still choose to pick a medium-strength blue card from that pack and go on to build a winning blue deck. Backgammon is much less discretionary in that my opening move is largely forced by what dice I roll; if I roll a [3, 4] then as a practical matter I don’t have the option of trying to fortify my home row, and I am essentially required to make a run for it and try to break out of your home row with exactly one of my pieces. Legally, I could make some other move, but it would be terrible and it would promptly and reliably result in a loss.
Why does a game need strategies?
The virtue of having strategies that are scarce and chunky and discretionary is that players feel like they got to make important choices that had a real impact on how their game developed, which is fun and empowering. If your choices aren’t scarce, then they’re not important. If your choices aren’t chunky, then they don’t impact how your game develops. If your choices aren’t discretionary, then they’re not really choices, they’re just a successful response to a puzzle.
The combined impact of having scarce *and* chunky *and* discretionary strategies is that you get to express yourself through the game, to have the game take on an aspect of your personality and unique identity.
For example, when you play Ticket to Ride, you have a tactical level where you’re trying to gain the colored train cards you need more efficiently than your opponents and force them to buy expensive rainbow cards to complete their sets, or where you’re trying to grab a crucial link on a crowded region of the map before your opponents can get there. Each tactical event only lasts a few turns at most.
You also have a strategic level where you’re trying to complete the routes shown on your ticket cards, and you can choose to either accumulate a dozen ticket cards and hope that the ones you complete will outweigh the cards you fail, or you can choose to limit your ticket cards and focus on ending the game quickly to catch opponents off guard, or you can try to score lots of 6-train runs for ticketless points, and whatever strategy you choose will take up essentially the entire game.
It’s the strategic choices, not the tactical choices, that wind up defining who you are as a Ticket to Ride player. Everybody is going to pick some colored cards and some rainbow cards; everybody is going to lay some tracks and get there first sometimes and get their last sometimes. The decisions are interesting enough while they’re in front of you, but they’re not memorable or distinctive. The strategies *are* memorable and distinctive. If you play Ticket to Ride enough, you start to notice everybody’s unique playing style. You probably have that one guy in your group who always accumulates a million route cards, or that one chick who always manages to trigger the end of the game two turns before you’re ready for it.
Same thing with Puerto Rico — you have a tactical level where you’re trying to get your opponent to call Craftsman right before you call Trader, or otherwise get the best use out of the role privileges, or fill up a ship with indigo when nobody is expecting that so that you collect a few more VP than they do and their goods get wasted. That stuff is fun but forgettable. Then you have a strategic level where you’re trying to optimize your tableau to take advantage of a particular 10-cost building, or set up a coffee engine and trade your coffee before someone else can clog the market. If you beat your opponent to the coffee sales, or score 9 points off of the Town Hall, that’s what people are still talking about when you come back next week and they want revenge.
Which games have suits that are relevant to their strategies?
One of the best ways to properly develop strategies in a board game is to have 3 to 6 suits, of which the player is encouraged to specialize in 1 or 2 at a time during the game. If you can only reasonably pick 1 or 2 suits, then picking a suit is scarce. By definition, suits are chunky — the entire concept of what it means for something to be a suit is that things in the suit go together in a way that things outside the suit do not. Finally, if you’re not required to pick a suit at any particular time, then picking a suit is discretionary.
A good example of using suits in a board game is Hearts. The suit of spades is different from the others because it contains the Queen of Spades, which is worth an uncomfortable 13 points. The suit of hearts is different from the others because it contains all of the hearts, which are worth an annoying 1 point each. The suit of clubs is slightly different from the others because the game always starts with the two of clubs, and players aren’t allowed to play any points on the first trick, so you know you will have at least one safe opportunity to get rid of, e.g., an ace of clubs. Finally, diamonds don’t have any distinguishing features, but that’s fine, because there’s only one suit with no distinguishing features, so that in itself works as a sort of theme for diamonds; they’re the normal suit.
A bad example of using suits in a board game is Uno. In Uno, it makes no difference at all whether you play red, blue, green, or yellow cards. There are literally no mechanical differences between the suits, so choosing to play in one suit vs. another is not relevant in any way. It takes a lot of negative talent to screw up the concept of suits, and that is how much negative talent the designers of Uno have.
Splendor is like Uno in that it makes absolutely no difference which of the five colors of gems you play. The gem-color is not really a suit because all of the gems have identical mechanical properties. There is a little bit of strategy in Splendor (unlike Uno), but it doesn’t come from the suits.
In Puerto Rico, there are five suits: corn, indigo, sugar, tobacco, and coffee. Corn strongly favors a produce/ship strategy with wharves and harbors, because you can produce a higher quantity of goods than any other player and then convert those goods into VP; the problem is that you will likely be broke for most of the game. Coffee and Tobacco strongly favor a produce/trade/build strategy with markets and universities, where you create one or two of an expensive good, sell them in the market for cash, and then spend the cash on victory buildings that generate VP. There is only a minor difference between coffee and tobacco — coffee is slightly more expensive to produce and creates smaller quantities of goods, but trades for a slightly higher value in the market. Indigo and Sugar are intermediate between these two strategies; it can be used for either VP shipping or cash trade, but they are not as good at either task as the other three suits. As a result, the only strategic reason to specialize in indigo or sugar is if you are going for a factory strategy, which rewards you for having three or more suits in your tableau. Overall, Puerto Rico does a better job than Uno, but a worse job than Hearts — the suits are not very crisply defined; they sort of blend into each other, and if you described a game of Puerto Rico that you were playing without naming the crops you were using, it is not obvious that other Puerto Rico fans would be able to correctly identify your suits.
In Race for the Galaxy, there are five suits: novelties, minerals, genes, aliens, and military. (There are also basic cards with no suit, but they are usually very weak or situational and do not synergize with each other). Military cards support a ‘blitz’ strategy where you try to rapidly settle worlds faster than anyone else can, triggering an early end to the game with a relatively low score for you and an even worse score for everyone else. Novelties (much like corn) strongly favor a produce/consume strategy where you create lots of cheap goods and then consume them for VP. Genes and Aliens (much like tobacco and coffee) strongly favor a produce/ship strategy where you create a few expensive goods and then sell them for cash, which you can use to play cards that are worth a lot of VP. There is only a minor difference between genes and aliens; genes are a little easier/cheaper to get started with, whereas aliens are a little more likely to hybridize well with a military strategy; sometimes the alien cards will give you a military boost, so you can settle some alien worlds, trade their goods for cash, and then spend the endgame relentlessly settling high-value worlds without pausing to reload. Mineral worlds are a hybrid strategy between novelty and genes/aliens; they work for both cash-trading and VP-consuming, but they don’t do either as well as the specialist suits. Interestingly, instead of using mineral worlds in an every-suit-strategy (like Puerto Rico’s factory), which is very rare in Race for the Galaxy, mineral worlds are most useful when pursuing a mineral-worlds-only strategy. The mineral suit has the most cards in it that support playing exactly one suit, so there are lots of mineral cards that give you discounts on other mineral cards, bonuses for having more mineral cards than anyone else, VP for each mineral world you own, and so on. These explicit rewards for specialization are mostly absent from the other suits. Overall, Race for the Galaxy does a somewhat better job of using suits than Puerto Rico, but it’s still not perfect — novelty/mineral worlds sort of blend into each other (and work well together), and genes/aliens sort of blend into each other (and work well together), and it is very difficult to mix and match these suits, e.g., you would almost never play a novelty/genes game, or a novelty/aliens game, or a mineral/genes game, and so on.
In 7 Wonders, there are theoretically six suits: raw goods, manufactured goods, commerce, military, monuments, and science. The first three suits are almost entirely “enabling” suits, i.e., you use them to enable other strategies. You can’t win by accumulating all of the raw goods, but you also can’t build cards from other suits unless you have at least some base of raw goods, manufactured goods, and/or commercial arrangements. The fourth suit, military, is a “supportive” suit in that you cannot win the game using military alone, no matter how well you do. Even if you win every war and boost it with the guild that gives you extra VP for the tears of your enemies, you score a maximum of 30 points, and your opponents score a minimum of -6 points, so you only have a 36 point advantage in an absolutely perfect military game — but a typical winning score from science or monuments is in the 50s or 60s. So you are really forced to choose to play either monuments, science, or some combination of the two if you have any interest in winning. This choice is further weakened by the fact that science is mostly an all-or-nothing strategy…there are times when you can snag exactly three science cards in exactly the right combination to add a modest boost to your score (9 or 10 points), but mostly you need to go hard or go home with science. Military is the same way — you want to either totally neglect it (because at worst you only lose 6 points) or make damn sure to win it (because if you invest in military but don’t win your wars, your investment is totally wasted). So in any given 7 Wonders game, you really only have two important strategic choices: (1) do I want to go for monuments or for science, and (2) do I want to invest in a military, or not. These choices are most effective when they are made early in the game and then stuck to relentlessly throughout the entire game. As a result, even though 7 Wonders has artwork for six different suits in six different colors, the game does not really ‘feel’ like it offers you six different options once you are familiar with the gameplay.
As I write this up, I am struck by the idea that there is significant room for improvement in the strategic use of suits even above the bar set by what are some of the most successful board games published in the last 20 years. It’s possible that I’ve misunderstood what makes suits fun or why designers include suits in their games, but it’s also possible that most designers are simply not using suits to their full potential, and that we could make a breakout game that rises above the pack by applying these theories correctly. In particular, we need to find a way to more closely match the strategic diversity of a game to its diversity of suits: if there are four main strategies in a game, then the game should have four main suits, not two main suits or six main suits. If there are only two main strategies in a game under development, then we need to create a third main strategy for that game, not (consciously or unconsciously) try to obscure the lack of a viable third strategy by adding in a third suit that only differs from the first two suits by dint of its extra colors and artwork and flavor text.
What strategies are possible in a Eurogame?
This can be challenging in a lightweight/midweight Eurogame, because many of these games have fallen into a four-stage rut that gets repeated over and over again in hundreds of designs. In Stage 1, players try to accumulate an initial stock of seed capital — you make some savvy tactical play or simply exercise some patience to save up a few coins. In Stage 2, players spend their initial seed capital on an economic engine that will generate lots of coins over several turns. In Stage 3, players invest the resulting stack of coins into a victory point engine that will generate lots of VP over several turns. In Stage 4, players sell off any liquid or liquifiable assets in order to accumulate VP as rapidly as possible in the last couple of turns of the game.
For example, in Dominion, Stage 1 looks like buying some Silver, or a Moneylender, or buying a Village and a pair of Woodcutters, and then using those cards to get up to 5 coins in the same turn. Stage 2 looks like buying some Gold, or Festivals, or Laboratories, and using the proceeds to buy even more Gold and Festivals and Laboratories. Stage 3 looks like buying Throne Rooms, or Libraries, or Platinum, and using the proceeds to buy Provinces almost every turn. Stage 4 looks like buying Estates, Gardens, Duchies, etc. and just generally doing whatever you can to desperately boost your VP total even if it would clog your deck in a theoretical future turn, because there is no future turn to worry about, because the game is ending.
This design gets used all the time because it’s fun, but it also makes it harder to design suits that feel compelling, original, or distinct. The most pessimistic view of the genre is that the only possible mechanical concepts for a suit are generating coins, generating VPs, and ending the game — everything else is an irrelevant distraction in a game where you win by ending the game with a higher VP total than your opponents and the main way to get VP is to pay for them with coins.
This suggests that one of the most fruitful ways of breaking out of the rut may be to find ways to give players VP without requiring them to spend coins — if you can earn VP for winning some type of special subgame, e.g., correctly guessing what your opponents will do (even if you don’t have coin to spend), or having the most diverse or the most specialized tableau at certain stages of the game, or outmaneuvering your opponents on a map, or accomplishing quests from a quest deck that are not mostly driven by whether you have the most coins. These mechanics are used well by Citadels, Caylus, Mission: Red Planet, and War of the Ring, respectively, but I still think the median board game has zero of these features.
What are some other features that could be introduced into a lightweight/midweight strategy board game in order to lend mechanical definition to its suits? What are some other ‘scripts’ or ‘storyboards’ that could be used to give shape to gameplay other than Get Coins -> Get More Coins -> Trade Coins for VP -> Trade Everything for VP (if you’re losing) or to End the Game (if you’re winning)?