Do you like games which require you to map out your plan of play before the game begins, in which you can set a course of action and consistently work toward it throughout the game? Then you like strategic games. Or do you prefer games where you must make many seat-of-the-pants decisions every turn, where you need to be quick-witted enough to deal with changing conditions and not be locked into one mode of play? Then tactical games are more to your liking.
The two most basic ways in which games of skill can differ is in the amount of strategic and tactical decisions they require. Gamers frequently argue about which games are better, or require more skill, or are more fun. More often than not, the differences in opinion come from whether the players prefer strategy or tactics.
Strategy is long-term thought. It can require planning and thinking away from the game. In strategic games, the choices made at the outset of the game are often the most important ones. When one implements a strategy, the expectation is that it will be maintained throughout most of the game; the skill comes in choosing actions which best support the strategy. Perhaps the ultimate strategic game is Chess; entire libraries can be filled with writings about the game and without considerably study, you will never excel at it. When played at the highest level, tremendous preparation goes into every match. Most other abstract games, as well as many wargames, are strategic as well.
Tactics decisions are those that change with every game turn. In tactical games, long-term strategies are pointless because of random factors or unpredictable play by your opponents. Being able to make the best decisions with the resources given you is the paramount skill in such games. Creative thinking "outside the box" is also frequently rewarded. One of the best examples of a tactical game is Moon and Weissblum's San Marco. Game conditions can change dramatically almost every turn, so long-term planning is practically impossible. However, on each turn, the players are presented with an interesting dividing or selection problem, which can only be decided by taking current conditions into account. Resolving these problems makes the game a delight for fans of tactical thinking.
Most games contain a mixture of strategy and tactics. To see how these two disparate aspects mix, I thought I'd look at the Alea games and analyze them to see if their gameplay is strategic, tactical, or both. As many of you know, Alea is the division of Ravensburger that publishes "gamer's games". Thanks to the brilliance of its director, Stefan Brück, the games have maintained a remarkably high level of quality. I've restricted myself to the "bookshelf" format games—the smaller games (such as Royal Turf) tend to be lighter. I've also omitted Adel Verpflichtet, since it was merely a reprint of an older game. Here's my rundown on the rest:
Ra (Knizia) - This is an auction game loosely themed around ancient Egypt. At first glance, it appears that any number of strategies can be attempted: focusing on certain types of tiles, collecting gods, emphasizing the high-valued suns, etc. However, in practice, this is a very tactical game. The vagaries of the tile drawing are such that it is extremely difficult to implement a strategy. Taking advantage of the breaks that come your way turns out to be far more effective. Very highly tactical.
Chinatown (Karsten Hartwig) - A "pure" negotiation game set in New York in the 1930s. Like most negotiation games, this one is almost entirely tactical. I suppose you can decide before the game begins to save up for the larger businesses, or to get a business down as quickly as possible, no matter what the size. And it's true, different players have different styles of play. But the fact remains that your actions are driven far more by the tiles you and your opponents draw, and what deals they are willing to make, than by any overriding strategy. This is a game where those who can come up with imaginative deals and drive the hardest bargains will excel, not the masters of grand strategy. Just about 100% tactical.
Taj Mahal (Knizia) - A unique mix of token placement and Poker-style card play set in 18th century India. As opposed to the first two Alea games, this one definitely has strategic elements. There is the elephant strategy, the palace strategy, the yellow strategy, and the "boatloads of cards at the end" strategy. Some of these can be mixed and matched, so there's no shortage of approaches to this game. Moreover, you know the order in which the regions will come up, so looking ahead is quite important. However, there is a sizable tactical element as well. The card play is the most important part of the game and it is largely tactical. Moreover, I've always felt that taking advantage of unanticipated opportunities is the key to victory. So we have a fairly even mix of strategy and tactics. Many will rate the strategy portion higher; I tend to think that the game is a little more tactical, but then again, I've never won a game of Taj Mahal.
Princes of Florence (Kramer/Ulrich) - A combination city development and auction game set in Renaissance Italy. This is perhaps the most strategic of the Alea games, as numerous strategies have been defined and discussed. These include those that focus on jesters, buildings, enticement cards (and producing tons of works), prestige cards, and quite a few others. It's tough to come up with a coherent strategy before the game begins, but once you know the turn order and your initial personality cards, you can plan which route to take. Carrying out your strategy is more important in this game than in many others because you have so few actions available to you over the course of the game; one wasted action can easily cost you the game. Having said that, I still feel tactics plays a role, particularly in the auctions, where bargains occasionally fall into your lap, opponents can be unexpectedly persistent in their quest for a particular item, and the best-laid plans can be scuttled by the need to play defense. Money management is very important as well; nothing is more frustrating in this game than having to turn in prestige points to get money, unless it's losing the game by a point with 400 florins in front of you. I've been reasonably successful playing this one opportunistically, so I'd say the strategy and tactics are evenly divided; many other players would probably say that this is primarily a strategic game.
Traders of Genoa (Rudiger Dorn) - Multifaceted negotiation game also based in Renaissance Italy. Here's a curious case. The game this most feels like, and to which it is most frequently compared, is Chinatown. Chinatown is more focused and Traders of Genoa is longer and more intense, but the games definitely have a lot in common. But while Chinatown is almost completely tactical, Traders of Genoa is that rare negotiation game with a sizable strategic element. The reason is that there are several different ways to make money (large orders, small orders, messages, privileges, and building ownership) and different players have different favorites. In addition, players have much more choice in what opportunities they can acquire than in most trading games. The game is also long enough to allow strategies to develop. Actually, with the exception of privileges, which are more lucrative the more you have, I can't think of any reason why a mix of strategies wouldn't work just as well as focusing on one, but in practice it doesn't seem to happen often. The last time I played this was in a five player game in which each player was emphasizing a different means of making money. Obviously, this is still primarily a tactical game (there's no substitute for clever negotiation and good judgment), but the game's unusually high strategic element is one of the things that makes it unique.
Puerto Rico (Andreas Seyfarth) - City development/selection game set in colonial Puerto Rico (what, you were expecting Fiji?). This, the latest and perhaps greatest of the Alea big box games, has proved to be the gamer's version of chocolate—we just can't seem to get enough of it. It also has one of the most interesting mixes of strategy vs. tactics of all the German games. Not only is the strategic end of it quite high, it can be applied in a fashion that's very similar to the older, more traditional strategic games. That is, you can study Puerto Rico while away from the game and come up with different approaches. In fact, the importance of appreciating the interaction of the different characters (the game phases) and, particularly, the different buildings makes such study almost mandatory. There are perhaps more strategies identified for Puerto Rico (including the corn, coffee, factory, hospice, quarry, wharf, and "big purple" strategies) than for any other German game I can think of. And yet, the tactical elements of the game are equally strong. The decision of which character to choose on each of your turns is tremendously important and since this can have both offensive and defensive effects, this choice is at least as much tactical as it is strategic. Allocating your colonists among your buildings and plantations is another important tactical decision. Deciding which crops to ship and to trade has elements of tactics as well as strategy. Finally, there is the fact that Puerto Rico is a very chaotic game. I don't mean this in the usual gaming sense of players having little control (far from it!), but in the mathematical sense of a butterfly's flapping wings affecting the weather 100 miles away. Since players can plan their strategies of plantation and building selection ahead of time (the only random element in the game is the order in which the plantations appear), you would think that this game would play very similarly each time. This is absolutely not the case and the reason is that small actions by your opponents can affect the course of the game tremendously. This makes it more difficult to consistently implement a strategy. Obviously, being as true as possible to your chosen approach is still important, but this may require as much tactical skill as strategic ability to counteract what your nefarious opponents are doing. All in all, I can't do any better in rating this wonderful game than to say that it's equally divided between tactics and strategy, but rather than 50/50, it actually feels as if it's 100% tactical and 100% strategic!
As it turns out, I usually much prefer tactical games to strategic ones. I love the challenge of working out the problems that each turn brings, rather than studying a game to come up with a perfect strategy. But many of the Alea games introduce strategy in what are already strong tactical games and I'm finding the mix to be very appealing. I'm hoping this might be a new trend in German gaming, not only because it seems to provide a very rich gaming experience, but because gamers of both stripes can find something to be happy about. Many thanks to the designers and developers that have made this series so great; no doubt, they all have a deep appreciation of the importance of strategy and tactics in their games.
- Larry Levy