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civilization II
7 Jul 2014

Avoid These Mistakes When Designing Strategy Games

Full disclosure: I love strategy games. Probably my favorite genre in gaming, there’s nothing more addicting than a strategy game that keeps me up until the wee hours of the morning as I slowly yet methodically outwit my opponents (turn-based strategy games are my favorite). I’ve played a ton of them, and because strategy games have been on my mind as of late (it’s almost all I’ve been playing), I thought today would be a great way to point out some of the mistakes many developers make when designing and developing strategy games.

If you have been thinking about developing an indie strategy game, do your part and avoid these mistakes. By doing so, your indie strategy game will be better for it!


Don’t pile on too much stuff

When developing a strategy game, it can be easy to keep developing awesome units, buildings, etc. until you have too much stuff. Sure, it’s great to have a variety of units and special items to keep the game interesting, but this works until it doesn’t. Avoid ‘stuff overload’ by ensuring that you only include the content that actually makes your strategy game interesting.

Strategy games should never be about how much stuff you can fit into the game. Instead, it should be about allowing the player to make interesting decisions in order to win the game (a law that should be applied to any game). Thus, your content – every single piece of content at that – should have a purpose and be completely unique in its own right. Everything should feel as if it has purpose in-game. If you can pull this off, you’re on the right path.


Don’t limit the varieties of play

Nothing will keep players from continuing to play a strategy game like limiting a player’s choices. Once you learn the rules of a strategy game and discover how the AI operates, a strategy game can lose its luster. Therefore, you need to take the appropriate steps to ensure that the AI, the resources – literally everything about the strategy game can be tweaked to some extent.

What I enjoy about the Civilization series is that you have multiple map types and tons of other variations you can choose from in order to keep the game feeling fresh. Heck, I’ve been playing Civilization IV for nearly a decade, and the game continues to feel fresh and new despite the hundreds of matches I’ve had in the game.

Rules, choices, etc. should never be static. Simply give players the freedom to adjust games to their whim, and you will increase your indie game’s replay value considerably!


Ensure your story doesn’t interrupt gameplay

Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I firmly believe that the moment you place a story into your strategy game, you risk mucking up the flow of the game – and a strategy game without proper flow is like playing basketball with a semi-flat ball. It just doesn’t work.

There are obviously exceptions. Case in point: the fantastic X-COM: Enemy Unknown. A strategy game that has had me hooked for a few years, this game certainly has a story attached to the gameplay, yet the story unfolds properly. The story never invades the actual gameplay of the game and only continues when players are researching, buildings, etc. It feels truly organic, and the best part about the game? The bulk of the story is always unique, as it surrounds the triumphs and tragedies of your own personalized soldiers. It’s one of the finest examples of integrating story into strategy games, so give it a shot to see what I mean.

You will usually want to stay clear of including a story into your strategy game though. As stated, the bulk of the story (and the most important part of the story) takes place during the actual game. For example, in every Civilization game, the only thing you know about the game’s story before beginning a game is that you have been chosen to lead a civilization to victory. That’s it. Everything else that happens in the game? It unfolds in-game and like X-COM: EU, it is different every time.

The actions of every player needs to be the central focus of your game’s story – no exceptions.

I mentioned the word organic earlier, and that’s really the main idea behind strategy games as a whole. They need to feel organic – as if everything happening in the game feels natural (unforced) and the result of the player’s actions.

Think about it in terms of a board game (strategy games are essentially another type of board game): how do the events of board games unfold? You guessed it: by the actions of players.

Ensure your strategy game does the same, and everything else will begin to fall into place.


Have any questions or comments? Let us know in the comments below!

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