I love a good first person shooter (FPS) but really enjoy pitting my wits against another mind in a strategy game. It’s no secret that I’ve been wanting to remake a strategy favourite of mine for a considerable time (Laser Squad). I feel that one of its main attractions is that you are pitted against an opponent with similar strengths and gaming units meaning it is a true battle of wits to beat your opponent. Chess is probably the ultimate game in this respect.

Over the years, companies have released games with various themes, styles and additional elements requiring planning and strategic thought giving us a rich and varied choice of gaming experiences. Sadly, whether it be by design, accident or just inevitable conclusion, a lot of these games end up with the ‘brute force’ conclusion.

So what is ‘brute force’? A simple example is simply banging against a barrier until it gives way. Not elegant or skilled, just a war of attrition and willpower. Another example would be unlocking your briefcase when you’ve forgotten the combination. There are 1000 possible combinations of digits and trying each one in sequential order will get you the answer eventually. Great if the code is 0000, a pain if it’s 9999! Again, not skilled or elegant, just a war of attrition and willpower.

So how does this occur in strategy gaming? Well, generally the ‘pieces’ you are given have strengths and weaknesses which seem to follow a ‘scissors-paper-stone’ pattern. Your infantry unit can walk around land mines but are vulnerable to tanks squishing them, tanks go boom over landmines but can pretty much squish or boom infantry but infantry can manoeveur around fixed placements and tanks quite easily. Yes, it can get complicated very quickly and this is where doing your homework pays off when playing other players. Some ‘pieces’ are ‘super pieces’. Nuclear weapons, laser satellites and so on. They seem to have the upper hand over most of the other pieces on the board. So what does every player do? Keep banging away against the opposition until they have reached a point where they have these ‘super pieces’ and then brute force their way to victory! Add to this the fact that on higher gaming difficulty levels, you tend to see the same things being done to you (i.e. pump out resources until you have an unbeatable army then march onto the enemy base) and the game gets rather predictable.

Is that even a strategy? Well, in the broadest definition of ‘strategy’, yes. Yes it is. Sadly it seems to be the common strategy your average gamer opts for. No skill or specialist knowledge required. Get your big guns and shoot at will. Saying that, your true strategist will absolutely annihilate such a player in online play. How? Using knowledge as a weapon!

I recall playing Dune 2000 a decade ago (strange that) and I was using some brute force against the AI. I was making slow headway but could see the game taking a couple of hours, by which time all the spice will have dried up and we’ll end up with a ‘last man standing’ scenario. I decided to get clever and sent a couple of scouts to er… scout the AIs base. I found that there was a gaping hole right at the back of the base where the wind traps, construction yard and storage silos were guarded by a few tanks. A brainiac idea came to me. I built up a fairly sizeable force and a small, building-busting force of about 6 tanks. I carefully moved the tanks to within spitting distance of the hole. Moved my massive army to the front of the base and let rip. Suddenly, all the guardians of the special buildings moved to the front of the base to fight off the invaders leaving me a free run in destroying all their production buildings. Conclusion? They repelled the invading force but had no means of replacing the lost buildings or replacing the lost units. My next attack took out the base and victory to me. Success in 15 minutes instead of 2+ hours. Brains over brawn. A big thanks to Arnold J. Rimmer for an adjustment of his original tactic. Any mention of ‘Risk’ stories will be dealt with severely!

So back to the question… Can we counter ‘brute force’ wins? Sadly, I don’t think we can. If we only had games like Laser Squad and Chess, we’d lose a massive audience of players who enjoy such games but either can’t grasp or can’t be bothered to grasp the intricacies of the game. No interest means no games get made. Disaster!

The only way I can see of reducing the opportunity to ‘brute force’ is:

    – Reduce availability of ‘super pieces’
    – Improve the AI to intelligently counter opposing pieces properly
    – Put a cap on player pieces
    – Limit resources thus forcing tough decisions to be made

Some of these seem to have been implemented in many games already whether it be because of machine/application limitations or a conscious decision to make things fairer. Let’s read these in more depth:

Reduce availability of ‘super pieces’

Only being allowed to have one or two of a ‘super piece’ and/or forcing a long period of time between iterations of such a piece will limit the player in what they do and how they use it. i.e. forces them to use it strategically! Building a force of 10-15 ‘super pieces’ and marching onto the enemy base is textbook ‘brute force’.

Improve the AI to intelligently counter opposing pieces properly

AI is still relatively infantile in the world of research but in limited-scope applications it can be quite brilliant. A strategy game is a limited-scope application and even the poorest of strategists would know to use kryptonite against Superman and if they see the wicked witch of the west, they know they should be off to the kitchen to get a bucket of water. AI in games doesn’t seem to think of the defensive/counter approach very much. If the player is throwing horsemen at you, start generating pikemen to counter! The same if the player is using tanks to defend their base, use missile-carrying soldiers to take them out! Force the player to use their guile and skill!

Put a cap on player pieces

In all fairness, a lot of games use this anyway. It’s included as a point of note. It’s either that or you get an army of thousands marching onto the enemy base.

Limit resources thus forcing tough decisions to be made

Isn’t Tiberium wonderful? Constantly available but refreshing itself over a period of time. A big part of decent strategy is making the most effective use of your resources! Having a neverending supply doesn’t make it any kind of disadvantage. Limiting the resources forces the player to spend wisely.

This list is probably not conclusive but I feel that a stronger implementation of those features will make the modern strategy game more er… strategic.

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