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Guest Column: The State of Strategy

Guest contributor Rob Zacny explains why the big strategy games of 2015 left him wanting, while the strange, small experiments sparked his imagination.

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On some level, every game needs to make a case for its own existence. Why should you play this game instead of all of those other ones? Why play this sequel over the original? The question is especially acute in strategy games because they tend to be so stripped-down. There's no heavily processed explosions, surround sound, or lifelike animations to drown out the existential dread: "This is your life and it's ending, one more turn at a time."

Here's what worries me: In all of 2015, I can think of maybe one major, new strategy game that made any impression on me at all. That was Total War: Attila. City management games are kind of their own weird little subgenre, but let's go ahead and add Cities: Skylines to the list.

That's not a great performance for mainstream strategy gaming in a year where a new Civilization expansion came out, and when we got two 4X strategy games from Stardock, Sorcerer King and Galactic Civilizations III. With Paradox sticking to expansions through 2015, it was a year of covering old ground, despite the fact that so many of the genre's "heavies" were out there swinging for the fences.

I don't mean to say these were bad games. But they they were familiar and safe, aimed squarely at serving up fresh helpings of familiar experiences. Firaxis' inability to make Beyond Earth feel new or exciting or even like an improvement on Civilization: Brave New World seems either to reflect a timidity at the heart of their vision of what makes a Civilization game, or a bone-deep exhaustion with their own creation.

Stardock, on the other hand, made a move in the direction of something new and exciting with Sorcerer King, which pits the player against a Sauron-like enemy with the twist that Sauron won the War of the Ring and is now doing a victory lap before crushing the player. But in the end the game stuck close to the design of Elemental and Fallen Enchantress — fairly conventional 4X games — instead of embracing its own concept. Galactic Civilizations III was a bigger success and a better game, but it really is a game that aims to check every box on the list of Things-Space-4X-Fans-Love. That sense of obligation, of repetition, weighed the entire game down for me. A galaxy full of stars and nowhere I hadn't been before.

This is a genre where you can solve almost any kind of problem and tackle almost any setting and subject. Yet overwhelmingly we're treated to new renditions of Civilization and Master of Orion. Strategy and "turn-based 4X" have become almost synonymous, which seems to have sucked all the fresh ideas out of mainstream strategy gaming. I'm practically lighting candles for Paradox's upcoming Stellaris because I don't think I could handle it if Paradox just became the studio that cranked out Europa Universalis and Crusader Kings DLC until it was time for a sequel.

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I don't think I'm alone in feeling like this, either, because one of the most interesting subplots in strategy games last year was how many fans embraced Thea: The Awakening, despite the fact that it's actually an RPG!

The confusion is understandable, though. Thea looks a lot like Civilization V, except that you only control a single village, and instead of deploying armies out on the map, you send out tiny expeditions of hunters, gatherers, and fighters into a vast wilderness. Instead of building monuments, you're building things like lookout towers and magical swords made from rare crafting materials.

I wasn't a big fan of the game, finding that while it was greater than the sum of its parts, those constituent parts were often dull and clunky. Challenges were resolved through a slightly tedious card game. Fully half the game was about inventory management, and it would occasionally just crush you with huge difficulty spikes and force you to restart the entire game.

What surprised me was how many of the game's fans agreed with that diagnosis… but didn't really care because they valued the experience as a whole so highly. They loved its choose-your-own-adventure subplots, and the goofy stuff that would happen to your characters.

(One of my favorite moments: My little village celebrated a religious feast and I chose to end it by having all the single people in the village send bridal bouquets down the river. A few turns later, a river spirit that abducts children (and sometimes drowns people) showed up with the bouquet and demanded her wedding. I rolled with it, and that's how I ended up having a super-badass witch with always-dripping hair and skin join my party. Makes you wonder if things could have turned out differently in The Ring if people had just been cooler about everything.) [I really need to play Thea. -Austin]

I suspect the reason Thea resonated with so many of its fans is because it was something new and novel. It was a journey to somewhere unseen, where the destination was a mystery even as you were playing it. That's a feeling I was dying to get from a major strategy game by the end of 2015.

But if you looked at the edges of strategy gaming, where people were making games in other genres while borrowing strategic elements, 2015 was actually a pretty exciting year for strategy games because that's where I could find so many more creators bringing exciting and essential new ideas to the table. The people who weren't setting-out to make strategy games ended up making the most important ones.

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Invisible, Inc. was so self-evidently different and exciting that there was never a moment's doubt about why someone should play it. Taking XCOM as a point of departure, it created a stylish and tense stealth tactics game, without any of the compromises you usually find softening the edges of stealth games. If you screw up, "kill everyone" is not a viable Plan B. So keep quiet.

Hell, even games I didn't like all that much in the end were still among my year's most memorable experiences in strategy. There was my Lost Weekend with Kingdom, a sidescrolling survival game in which you run your lone monarch back and forth across a gorgeous map, building up defenses and recruiting new workers and warriors for your war against the monsters. It was elegant, simple, and gorgeous. When it left me wandering the vast desert of its miserable endgame, I wasn't even mad. At least it had been a memorable trip.

These games captured the imagination. They made their case for why they were different, why they were special, why they'd be worth remembering. Sometimes it was a combination of evocative art and music making a game like Armello stand out from the crowd. Sometimes it was just a good execution of an irresistible premise, like with Frozen Cortex's take on robot-football. Sometimes it was just bewildering-but-exciting "I don't know where you're going with this" curiosity, like with Thea: The Awakening.

I didn't love every single one of these games. But I never, for a moment, wondered what made them special. They kept me playing until I knew whether or not I liked them, and even when I decided I didn't, they made a strong impression. I'll remember Thea forever, even if I'm rarely moved to play it.

Maybe that's what matters more. There's a tendency among strategy fans to use depth as some kind of objective good, that if a strategy game has sufficient depth in its systems, then it's a success. If a game is sufficiently convoluted, then it must be "strategic", at least according to the kind of people who try and graph the taxonomy of strategy games to a cartesian grid. "This will take a while to figure out, so surely it will satisfy strategy fans!" But increasingly, I've started to think that depth is really only a term that tells you how long the journey could be. It can't convince you that the journey is one worth taking.

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So on the one hand, after years of wondering why platformers and endless runners seemed to be the only things anyone wanted to reinvent, I'm thrilled to see indie strategy games starting to become more of A Thing,. It's left me excited and curious for what the future of my favorite genre will look like in a few years, as more creators arrive to start questioning and redefining the conventions of strategy gaming.

On the other hand, I worry about whether those those independent, small-studio games stood-out more because there was so little that was new or memorable among bigger strategy franchises.

It could be this is all just cyclical. This year's indie harvest was sown by games like XCOM and Crusader Kings 2. The last few years saw a lot of fresh, creative approaches taken by major developers, and that inspired a lot of other creators to remix those concepts. It could be that in a year or two, someone like Firaxis or Stardock is going to come along and create something inspired by Thea or Prison Architect, and we're just at a point in the cycle where there's a major disparity between "mainstream" strategy and its indies.

I hope so. But it's hard to shake the feeling that the established leaders in strategy games have been drawing from an increasingly exhausted well of inspiration for a few years, and 2015 marked the year they ran out of reasons to keep revisiting the same old ideas. When I asked myself why I should keep playing them, the answer was that I should look to smaller games instead. They remain the products of inspiration, not obligation.

Rob Zacny is a freelance writer and host of the Three Moves Ahead, Esports Today, and Idle Weekend podcasts. His work has been published at most reputable games websites and a few disreputable ones. He lives in Cambridge. You can find him on Twitter and listen to him chat with Austin on the most recent episode of Giant Bomb Presents.