The Allure of Strategy Games

For the Strategically Impaired

The Allure of Strategy Games

Real-time strategy (RTS) games and turn-based strategy (TBS?) games have one major detail in common, they're all about money. One might assume when such a broad and vague statement is made, that the reference is to the real-world purchases that keep game companies afloat. In fact, this is instead a statement of a broader pool of currencies: battlefield currencies and national resources. Allow me a moment to reminisce and divulge the secrets of these worlds that are less about tactical domineering and more about economic engineering.

My love of strategy was first fostered on my grandfather's Windows 98 computer. In my youth, I lived in northern Alabama, and my father's father lived in Mobile County in southern Alabama. As a result, I spent many a summer away from home and friends (not that I had many friends to begin with). What was an out of place introvert to do? Dig around on the computer until he found entertainment. Thus did I learn that through some miracle of marketing the computer in that old southern home held a demo of Age of Empires (AoE).

Upon booting up AoE I found myself enveloped, and within a few hours of experimentation, I had led the Carthaginians to victory against the Romans in a series of battles in the Punic Wars confrontation, a sequence of events that would cause much confusion later in life. Sadly, this demo only included the ability to play through the Punic Wars, and after mastering the minute AI that controlled those initial skirmishes, there was little left to entertain a young gamer, save for experimentation. Indeed, I experimented a lot.

The first of my many thought experiments was in the currency of knowledge. Simply harvesting the resources nearby was pointless, they were ultimately finite in a seemingly infinite world. A fleet of transport ships and triremes carried my daring explorers across the land, crushing imposing forces and claiming the map's resources for myself. Carthaginian settlements sprang up across the map, expanding my influence from one island to other sections of my own landmass even into the major enemy territory. AoE served as an excellent economic learning tool—as I claimed every resource possible on the map I learned that the most important resource, gold, was also the scarcest. The need to prove my economic dominance drove me forward, and over hours of gameplay, I experienced the crushing efforts associated with diminishing returns within an over-saturated market as I deforested an entire continent, shipped off all that wood to anonymous trade ports across the world, and claimed miniscule amounts of gold in exchange. This was enthralling, but still held limited entertainment value, one can only deforest an entire continent once after all.

My tactical mind teased by the Punic Wars, I eventually sought out a new RTS. Fortunately, my wandering eye was late enough to find a copy of Blizzard's StarCraft Battle Chest on a Wal-Mart shelf and I knew I had to have it. At the time, I wasn't aware that Blizzard did anything other than World of Warcraft and Diablo (I had never heard of just Warcraft, and never seen Diablo II, and this was before Diablo III), so I was wholly unprepared for the strategic simulation masterpiece that was StarCraft. Beginning the game as it was meant to begin—diving head first into the Terran campaign—I was surprised by the huge gameplay gap between AoE and StarCraft that I would soon meet. I could drone on and on for hours about the beautiful aspects of StarCraft, but I'll quickly cover two very distinctive features: where AoE contains numerous factions with identical technology trees and units save for one or two unique traits per race, StarCraft displays only three factions who function in wholly different ways; and while AoE features four resources (food, wood, stone, and gold), Starcraft contains only two resources, minerals and vespene gas.

The hours spent in AoE were only magnified with Starcraft. Full access to six campaigns with an immersive story, infinite potential replayability in the skirmish mode, and a massive number of strategies between each race (ranging from the lightning fast eponymous early game "Zerg Rush" the ridiculously late game three army strategy). My favorite strategy, of course, was the inefficient, horrifically long-running three army strategy of the Protoss. While the Zerg carry a powerful early game presence and the Terrans remain at about the same strength throughout the game, the technologically inclined Protoss start out with strong defense and lasting power, and can translate this into a crushing end game force. A unique unit in the Protoss force (as they are all in this game) features the ability to mind control enemy units, not only allowing the player to control more units than would normally be allowed but allowing control of the builder units of other races: Terran SCVs and Zerg Drones. This new economy allows players to invest in a powerhouse far greater than any other, tripling the player's total army size (with three individual housing systems) and adding control of Terran superpowers like the nuclear silo alongside the cheap rushing power of the Zerg. The tactical advantage that can be bought by sacrificing a few dozen Zerglings to a nuclear assault cannot be ignored.

Finally, later in my life (starting in my early 20s), I became invested in TBS games, particularly Civilization V. Compared to the basic two resource system of StarCraft and the simplistic four resource system of AoE, the expansive economies upon economies within Civilization require the extreme attention to detail only available in a turn-based game. Whilst rushing out an army to seek martial supremacy and world-conquest is perhaps the fastest road to victory, and winning the space race through heavy emphasis on research may secure one of the easiest victories in the game, the game's expansive cultural and religious systems provide hundreds of hours of customization for the experimental gamer. Though a religious victory alone is not possible in Civilization V (why dominating the world culture cannot be accomplished purely through religion I will never know) it did not stop my Aztec nation from building up the most impressive sect of Zoroastrianism ever, collecting tithes and happiness bonuses from every opposing nation. Yes, those Aztecs are still scurrying about in my save folder, every now and again returning for a few more years of religious dominance. It doesn't help that one can continue playing even after a victory or defeat.

That's my experience with strategy games, from childhood to the present day. Marshaling territory control, military presence, religious power, and world resources into an economic mastery that will stand the ages, at least in my mind. The numerous saved games from AoE and StarCraft may be lost to aging technology, but the mighty Carthaginian industrial powerhouse lives on.

real time strategy
Caleb Sherman
Caleb Sherman
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Caleb Sherman

Host of the Youtube series The Year in Gaming, Final Fantasy completionist, Real-Time Strategy lover and loser, massive fan of Dune and lover of horror movies.

See all posts by Caleb Sherman