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Turn-Based Strategy: Genre Overview

This article provides an introduction to the Turn-based Strategy (TBS) genre. A definition of the genre is probably a good place to start before I dive into an attempt to list and explain every TBS mechanic I know of, or can find on the internet. The motivation for this comes out of my realisation (during Ludum Dare 42), that I don’t have a very good mental model of how TBS games are put together. This series of articles will hopefully fix that…

Before I dive in, I just quickly want to clarify what I’m trying to achieve. A friend, who recently started writing a book, was told about Bloom’s Taxonomy by his editor and he passed it on to me. Apparently this taxonomy is commonly used when writing textbooks, to help figure out what level of complexity the content is aimed at. Given the amount of struggles I’ve had trying to figure out the right level of complexity while writing the upcoming articles of this series, I think it’s a good idea for me to pick a level and keep that in mind while writing, lest I wander off into more advanced concepts than I’m ready for.

Bloom's Taxonomy

The first 3 levels of the taxonomy build on top of each other, with all the higher level concepts building in parallel on this foundation. I’m going to focus on level 1 and 2 which should give me a solid foundation of terms and definitions to use in a later series aimed at level 3. That series will involve a great deal of practical experimentation, which will be much easier once I have the lay of the land, as I can then more effectively build tools and libraries to facilitate quickly making a large number of games in the genre.

I must make one disclaimer, before you proceed to the rest of this article… Most of the quotes and definitions I used came from Wikipedia - I know, that’s bad and I should feel bad - however, this is not for lack of trying… I checked all the game design books I own for definitions of strategy game - to no avail. I also bought a copy of Strategy: A History by Sir Lawrence Freedman (the main source referenced in the Wikipedia article on Strategy). In that case I’ve read the first few chapters, but it’s a long book and I have thus far failed to find any nice summary definitions of strategy. When I do I find better definitions from more credible sources I will come back and write an updated version of this article - for now I feel it is more important to get started, as there seems to be dearth of literature on turn-based strategy game design.

Defining a genre

I began by looking for a definition of the TBS genre so that I would have some guidelines for deciding if any given game should be included in my studies or not.

While I own a number of game design textbooks, none of them focus on the TBS genre specifically and even my strongest Google Fu failed to find any books that focus on the genre. The only definition I could find was on Wikipedia - it’s not great, but I decided I’d start there and then try to come up with a better definition of my own.

Turn-based Strategy: A strategy game where players take turns when playing. –Wikipedia

As you can see, the Wikipedia definition of turn-based strategy seems perhaps a bit too simplistic… That is… until you start digging into the definition of strategy game, which on the other hand is much too complex and quite poorly worded.

Strategy game: A game in which players’ uncoerced and often autonomous decision-making skills have a high significance in determining the outcome. Almost all strategy games require internal decision tree style thinking and typically a very high situational awareness. –Wikipedia

I was very confused about the inclusion of the word “uncoerced” until I clicked through to the definition of autonomy, which in the context is “the capacity to make an informed, uncoerced decision” - so I guess it leaked in from there. The uncoerced bit seems especially wrong if you take into account the concept of forced moves which often comes up in TBS games.

I could go deeper into their definition of game, but it is likewise incomplete or wrong compared to the detailed treatments of the topic in books like The Art of Game Design by Jesse Schell or Rules of Play by Katie Salen Tekinbas. Instead I’m just going to assume you already know what a game is (or can research it for yourself) and focus on trying to define turn-based and strategy.

Defining Turn-based

Defining turn-based seems easy, it was already in there: players take turns playing.

What then about games with simultaneous turns like Dominions 5, Age of Wonders or any number of board games? It seems like this definition would exclude those, which doesn’t seem right.

Another counter-example might be pausable-real-time games like the Crusader Kings or Europa Universalis series. I’ve always felt that those pausable-real-time grand strategy games feel like they have much more in common with TBS games than they do with real-time strategy games (RTS). So in order to include those in the TBS genre, I will venture a slightly less orthodox and less specific definition:

Turn-based games are games where the players control the pacing of the game.

I guess the immediate counter-example that springs to mind for this definition, is time limited turns - whether playing chess with a clock or having a 12 hour time limit on your Dominions turn. I will argue however, that these are a case of players choosing to give up a degree of control over the pacing, in order to increase challenge or to ensure that games don’t run too long… Even when on the clock, players usually still have the luxury to pause and think when they need to - something that is never an option in RTS games.

I feel like I might be onto something here, because this bit of definition seems to bring one of the big problems with my LD42 entry into clear focus! I’ve watched a couple of people frustratedly bashing keys trying to make the character move faster while waiting for my “short” 400 millisecond animations to complete… I took away some of the player’s control over the pacing of the game and it feels wrong when playing! I could feel it myself during the jam, but couldn’t quite put my finger on the problem and I wouldn’t have had the time to change it anyway if I could.

In contrast, most of the roguelikes I’ve played in my life respond immediately to key presses and don’t feature any animations at all… At most there might be a slight input delay to avoid accidental movements while holding down a key, but other than that the game responds immediately to your input. So while my animations did add a nice bit of graphical polish, they interfered with a fundamental principal of turn-based games, making the game feel slow and unresponsive. To fix this, the animations should be made skippable, so that the player can make moves more quickly if they desire. This effectively lets the player fast-forward through the boring and routine decisions to get to the interesting decisions more quickly.

Defining Strategy

Defining strategy seemed an even more daunting task! The wording of the Wikipedia definition of strategy game is absolutely terrible and saying that decision making skills are important to a game seems silly - all games are about making decisions - even the ones that seem to be purely reflex based still have you making decisions, even if they are just quick snap decisions. So saying that decision making skills are important for strategy games in my opinion doesn’t do anything at all to help distinguish them from other games.

Returning to the problem after a week, I tried searching for strategy instead of strategy game and found that in that department Wikipedia has much better content, with a whole series on Strategy! The series examines strategy in broad set of contexts - from many angles and with plentiful references to external sources (in particular Strategy: A History by Sir Lawrence Freedman) - so this section seems a bit more credible than the pages on turn-based strategy.

This made my life much easier as I could simply take what I considered the key parts of the definition from the Wikipedia and then try to synthesize them into a more succinct single definition:

Strategy is a high-level plan to achieve one or more goals under conditions of uncertainty. –Wikipedia

Strategy generally involves setting goals, determining actions to achieve the goals, and mobilizing resources to execute the actions. –Wikipedia

I like the first definition which is a good summary of what a strategy is. The second definition would perhaps be classified more correctly as a definition of the process of strategising. It is missing just one key part - that this is an iterative process: you plan a strategy, you choose actions, you execute the actions, then you observe the outcomes of the actions, adjust your strategy if necessary and repeat.

Defining Turn-Based Strategy Genre

Having come up with reasonable definitions of turn-based and strategy, I am finally ready to come up with a definition of turn-based strategy as a genre:

Turn-based strategy: is a genre of games, where gameplay revolves around strategising to achieve goals under uncertain conditions, with the players controlling the pacing of the game.

Strategising: involves setting goals, choosing actions to achieve those goals, executing the actions, observing the results of the actions, then adjusting the strategy and repeating as necessary until the goals are reached.

With the difficult business of getting a definition in place finally out of the way, we can now get on to the fun part: looking at a bunch of games (or at least game genres) to try and see whether this definition holds water.

Testing the definition

I started off by just going through the list of games I own on Steam, but soon realised that I have a very large library - so just listing out every game and trying to see if it fits the definition would make this article way too long… On top of that it’s also unlikely that my library contains a representative of every genre that exists, so there would be a good chance that I might miss something. Instead I’ve gone back to Wikipedia for their list of video game genres - using their genre listing I could quickly filter out a large subset of computer games before moving on to the more interesting cases that look like they might be edge-cases for my definition.

Obviously NOT TBS

The following genres and sub-genres are obviously not TBS:

  • Action: Without exception, games in these genres tend to be real-time, physics-based games often with some form of time pressure integral to their design. The player has little or no control over the pacing of the game, thus these are not TBS.
    • Platform
    • Shooter
    • Fighting
    • Beat’em Up
    • Stealth
    • Survival
    • Rhythm
  • Action-Adventure: These tend to rely heavily on mechanics from the Action genre, so they are not TBS for the same reason.
    • Survival-horror
    • Metroidvania
  • Strategy: This is the parent genre of TBS, there’s a fair number of sub-genres that should be considered sub-genres of TBS, rather than of strategy itself. There are also many sub-genres that are definitely not TBS:
    • RT4X: Sins of A Solar Empire is the only example of this self-invented sub-sub-genre that I know of. It is slow-paced compared to most RTS games, but as I recall you cannot pause or control time in any way.
    • Real-Time Strategy: In the rare-cases that these games can be paused, the player is unable to do anything while the game is paused, as that may confer an unfair competitive advantage over other players.
    • Real-Time Tactics: RTT games only differ from RTS in the scope of strategy allowed (typically no unit construction, you have fixed resources with which to win a battle).
    • MOBA: All representatives of this genre that I know, are real-time multiplayer without the ability to pause or control time.
    • Tower Defence: I’ve played a fair number of games in this genre and they’re all real-time without the ability to act while paused or to control time - time pressure is usually an integral difficulty mechanic in these games, so I’d be surprised to see a turn-based Tower Defence game.
  • Sports: Most of the games in this genre are real-time and often these games are also multiplayer, so as with RTS games players usually can’t do anything while the game is paused. The one exception might be sports management games, which I assume would run at a more leisurely, player-controlled pace.
Maybe TBS

Some genres are a bit more difficult to judge:

  • Adventure: These games generally don’t feature any time pressure as the game pacing is fully controlled by the player. However they tend to feature little to no scope for freely strategising, as they tend to have a single correct solution. This makes them more closely related to puzzle games than to strategy games. Not TBS: no strategy.
  • Role-playing: This one is probably the trickiest genre of them all - some sub-genres qualify under my definition of TBS, while others definitely fall outside the definition, so this was evaluated on a case-by-case basis for each sub-genre:
    • Action RPG: Action mechanics tend to be real-time. Not TBS: no pacing control.
    • MMORPG: These games tend to be real-time, multiplayer games. Not TBS: no pacing control.
    • Roguelikes: I’ve played a lot of roguelikes and they tend to involve large degrees of tactical or strategic planning and they are nearly always turn-based. Is TBS.
    • Tactical RPG: Most games in this genre will qualify from a strategy point-of-view, but are likely to be on the fence depending on whether the player controls the pacing. Mixed: evaluate example games individually.
    • Sandbox RPG: Most of the examples of this sub-genre are real-time and / or first person, so they are unlikely to feature player controlled pacing. Not TBS: no pacing control.
    • First-person party-based RPG: These games tend to be real-time without the option to pause and think. Not TBS: no pacing control.
  • Simulation: This one also features a mix of sub-genres that straddle the fence, so it was evaluated per sub-genre:
    • Construction & management simulation: In my experience these are typically pausable real-time with the player able to issue orders while the game is paused. The settings and subjects of these games usually lend themselves well to strategic planning. Is TBS.
    • Life simulation: I’m not that familiar with this sub-genre, but most of the games listed as examples that I know are real-time without the ability to take action while paused. Not TBS: no pacing control.
    • Vehicle simulation: These tend to be real-time, physics-based games without fail. Not TBS: no pacing control.
  • Strategy: Again, the parent genre of TBS… It also contains a few sub-genres that seem to straddle my definition of TBS:
    • Wargame: These are a bit of a split… many examples of the genre are TBS, but some like the Close Combat series are definitely not TBS. Mixed: evaluate example games individually.
    • Grand Strategy: Games like those from the Crusader Kings or Europa Universalis series are definitely real-time, but the player can pause and issue orders at their liberty, so I would classify them as TBS. On the other hand games from the Total War series feature a TBS campaign game interspersed with real-time strategy battles, so this one’s on the fence. Mixed: evaluate example games individually.
Obviously TBS

At least a few genres are obviously TBS:

  • Strategy: Again, the parent genre of TBS… The sub-genres that are almost definitely TBS are:
    • 4X: The chief citizens of this sub-genre are games from the Civilization and Master of Orion series - these are some of the most widely recognised examples of the TBS genre and they definitely still fit under my definition of TBS.
    • Artillery: Games like Worms may be real-time during a turn, but overall it follows a turn-based structure. Other examples of artillery games I’ve played likewise featured an overall turn-based structure, with time-limited turns to keep the game flowing quickly. These feel like playing chess with a clock.
    • Turn-Based Tactics: TBT includes games from the Jagged Alliance and XCOM series - these are also iconic examples of the TBS genre and they still fit under my new definition. You might want to get into an argument about tactics vs strategy, but I would argue that the difference between those two is only in scale - the principles applied are the same.
  • Board Games: Almost all board-games are TBS. I could probably write a whole article about the many sub-genres in board-games, but I’ll leave that for another day.

Conclusion

Having tested my definition against a large number of games it seems to hold water - a few games that would not traditionally have been considered TBS are included due to my slightly looser definition of turn-based, but this was intentional on my part and the games added were the genres that I thought should included. The true test will be in seeing if anyone that reads this article, comes up with an example that fits my definition while clearly not being a TBS game.

Even with the large number of games, genres and sub-genres that have been excluded by this definition, it should be clear that there’s still a very large number of games that do qualify as TBS. Building a library of mechanics then, that covers even a small percentage of the existing games in the TBS genre, is a very large can of worms to open.

To help me get started I went and looked at the details of some board games on Board Game Geek. They feature a list of all the mechanisms present in in each game. Below is an example from Pandemic Legacy: Season 1:

Pandemic Legacy Season 1: Mechanisms

I will stick with more mainstream game design terminology and call them mechanics rather than mechanisms.

With some digging I found the whole list of mechanics defined on BGG - there are 51! That’s a very large list of mechanics to consider for my library of TBS mechanics and I’m sure that if I started looking at some TBS video games, I’d find even more unique mechanics that are not used in board-games. So, the upper limit of mechanics that could be used in TBS games may be anywhere in the region of 50 to a 100…

That’s a very large elephant to eat! To keep it bite sized I’m going try and group mechanics into categories with a single article for each category. I’ll start by focusing on what I consider the 3 most important categories of mechanics:

  1. Turn-structure
  2. Movement
  3. Randomness

Once I’m done with those I’ll start casting a wider net and look at other mechanics that are commonly used in TBS games. I will add links here as soon as the follow up articles are published, so keep an eye out or add me to your RSS feeds.

If you have any feedback on what I’ve written here, especially examples that would refute my definition, please feel free to leave me a comment or send me a tweet - the point of writing this is to learn, which in my case I find is more likely to happen if someone tells me I’m being a dumb-ass.