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Three Moves Ahead Episode 29 – Getting Started

September 8th, 2009 by Troy Goodfellow · 21 Comments · Podcast, Three Moves Ahead


This week, a full panel deals with the question of getting started in strategy gaming. Should people approach the genre from first principles (The Murdoch Method) or through a topic they are interested in (The Goodfellow Approach)? How important is the visual immersion compared to the mechanics?

Bonus: Everyone is called an idiot by someone else at least once.

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The Qt3 thread that inspired this chat
Tom’s column on RTSes for newcomers


21 Comments so far ↓

  • Patrick

    To start a person on strategy games, I think it would be better to focus on titles that blend the addictive with the mechanics cliche of “easy to learn, hard to master.” An X-Com, Jagged Alliance, or whatever their modern equivalents would be, would fit the bill.

    You get your clear goals, a definite feeling of progression, room to make mistakes, an “adult” enough theme to keep people from feeling they’re being talked down to, and enough difficulty so that your potential strategy gamer always feels good about their accomplishments. And a bonus of real world logic making practical game sense (flanking good, walking around blind bad).

    I wouldn’t be too worried about graphical immersion and the like given that if you’re trying to get someone into the genre, you already have a good idea that flash isn’t the only thing they’re looking for.

  • Skyrider68

    For me anyway, the “Goodfellow Approach.” The game has to be in a subject I have some knowledge or am keen to increase my knowledge.

    For example, at this time in my life, a game that focuses on the Boer Wars isn’t something that I would have much interest in, no matter how great the graphics, interface, or play mechanic may be. Just not my cup of tea.

  • George Brof

    what is it all about that chess bashing? chess is the mother of all strategy games and as Julian pointed out, there is a lot to be learned from chess. Especially if you are going to create a strategy game. Think about tempo, balance, stratregy and tactics, material, different solutions to the same problem, chess has EVERYTHING.

    btw, you were pretty harsh on Julian this time, it was kind of annoying for the listener, too much negative vibe is going on…

  • Troy

    I love chess, George and think everyone should play it. I just think it’s a poor way to get people who want to play computer strategy games up to the task. Chess is so abstract and so confined.

  • DavyRam

    Long time listener, firs time comment leaver. Firstly,I’d have to agree with Troy chess is useless for learning something like Civ. It will teach you useful principles for war, but in any game with an economy,TBS or RTS, the real problems are going to be cutting through potentially Byzantine UIs, getting enough resources to convert into soldiers and research points, and not getting into a corner diplomatically. Indeed, being chess or something like it could be a hindrance due to giving you false confidence.

    Which brings me to my next point: do some strategy games seem harder to get into than they should be because gamers assume all games should be intuitive and easy for them? Try and teach your mum or sister to play an FPS and you’ll realise the only reason those seem easy because you’ve played so many simpler games with near identical controls. This is tied into Bruce’s comments about Dwarf Fortress and my own experience with Dom3. Knowing its reputation, I went through the tutorial carefully, read online guides and devoured the manual, and consequentially I found my early experiences far more smooth and comprehensible than something like Rise of Nations, where I assumed I knew how things should go. I suspect that something with a passion for 18th century european history but no game experience could get into the game if he sits down and absorbed a comprehensive “how to start playing” guide, as opposed to someone like my Civ II/IV playing dad climbing the ladder of complexity and getting frustrated trying to work out how things work on his own. Should we just accept that complex video games require a short period of dedicated study to understand?

    Lastly, I can think of a fine example to back up Troy’s theory that subject matter is the best learning aid: The Championship/Football manager series. These are unquestionably strategy games about using limited resources to best effect, and they should be a poster boy for what not use to introduce someone to strategy games. Stat heavy, obtuse, very little clear advice on the effects of your choices and no pre-set gaols, yet they sell like hotcakes to people who are not gamers, let alone strategy gamers, because they tap into the fantasy every soccer fan has at some point that they know better than someone like Rafa Benitez. Indeed, I expect the situation is the same in any other place, simply with sims of different sports.

  • DavyRam

    Curses. I left out that the game that two theoretical people are learning to play in the second paragraph is Europa Universalis.

  • FhnuZoag

    I don’t really buy the idea that people should be introduced through topics they are interested in. Maybe that’s the case with the old grognards, but there’s only so many history buffs out there. I for one, do not set out to play a game about WWII. I didn’t play XCOM because I’m especially interested in UFOs. I play a game because I think it might have an interesting play mechanic. And I think the actual success of Advance Wars underlines this. You need to get people comfortable with strategy games first.

  • driillSGT

    The original poster on the QT3 thread specifies an interest in Civ and turn based games. I’d like to recommend Civilization Revolution to any beginner or experienced players who just want to finish a Civ game in less than 5 hours.

    I own Civ Revolution for both my DS and my 360. The 360 version is significantly better overall.

  • spelk

    Tricky subject this, because “strategy” in gaming can be perceived as being so diverse as to cover a wide range of games, from the abstract boardgames like chess and go through to turn based wargames, RTS’es, Grand Strategy titles, Tactical level operations, City Builders and God games like The Sims. Theres a huge spectrum there to try and cherry pick single titles to introduce the genre to newcomers.

    I agree that a game like Civilisation with an almost universal appeal of building, exploring, gathering, researching, expansion and conflict, gives the player a structured sandbox in which to play that is more or less totally customisable to your play level and cerebral involvement. Again Civilisation Revolution has made the game even more palatable, and bite-size in its appeal, and is certainly one of those games that my eleven year old son comes back to again and again to taste strategy amidst a playground of wonderment and conquest.

    Thinking about strategy titles that my son has warmed to over the years, without much encouragement from me, names like Total Annihilation Kingdoms, Warlords Battlecry 3, Dawn of War and Legion Arena – it seems to me that he gains pleasure from the “playing with soldiers” concept and the fact that resources, customisation, story and territory are brought into play are just additional mechanics he becomes familiar with – in order to “play with soldiers”. So the RTS premise of ordering units around to get into battle is the hook for him, and perhaps could be the hook for many non strategists, to get their first taste of strategy? Although he enjoys some of the storied pieces, the majority of his enjoyment comes from the more freer skirmishes, where he can try things out, see the consequences and then perhaps try different combinations, exploring the strategy, rather than being taught it as such.

    The more I think about it, the more I’m like the poster on Qt3 forums who enjoys talking strategy, reading about it, and then finds some of the games a bit too impenetrable. Like Troy I am often totally sucked in to games because of the era depicted, the specifics of the conflicts presented, and I think its an important draw, but, its only one of a number of reasons why I take the plunge. I enjoy military history, and I love exploring that through DVD’s (documentaries and movies), Internet info, books and magazine, but also via games. However, I don’t limit my appreciation to strategy titles (or wargames), because I want to experience as much as I can about the era, sinking into the lore, but also tasting any action title based in that period. And this doesn’t just confine itself to actual history, fantasy and science fiction universes come into play also.

    I really want to dive into the larger more complex strategic titles such as the Hearts of Iron games, but there is such an investment of time and energy to get anywhere with them, that I often find myself bereft of enthusiasm to play the game, after one or two tutorial pieces have been completed. So for me, and I’d imagine any newcomer to strategy you need a title that isn’t going to demand dedication on that scale, whether it be time or effort to get the ball rolling.

    I gravitate to more tactical level games, simply because they are more approachable, and palatable in terms of time required to play. For me, I haven’t found a Grand Strategy game yet, that gives me a glimpse of the beauty and excitement in the first hour, without completely fatiguing me with the interface lesson, or the nuances of the complexities involved in their economic models. What you need is a Grand Strategy title, that has the option, to take you from a very small subset of the big game, and to more or less guide you, but with you playing it out – rather than a straight jacketed tutorial with walls of text to read. So you’re taking on board interface and mechanics in bite size chunks that are digestible and relevant. Then the next scenario presented works you up another step on the ladder, with a bigger chunk of the game, and more of the subtle complexities involved, and you can play that until you’re confident enough to be experimenting. Then perhaps open up the full game itself, so you can flex your knowledge in the arena that it was always intended to be played in. So sort of like learning to swim from the shallow pool with steps through to the deep end, and then diving in with somersaults once you’ve finally mastered the concepts and the mechanics of how to play.

    So many strategy titles, brush over the key points, or hide them in manuals and just drop you in to the deep end, head first, without armbands. You can help yourself by scouring the Internet and the communities out there, but this all adds up to the time invested in getting to a point where you can play the game. Something which I feel should be built into the game from the start. If you open the doors and make the place warm and welcoming people will come. Make it optional, for the strategy players who want to hit the deep end because they’ve already got their trunks wet. But strategy titles seriously need some good introduction training, and they need to stop relying on the dedication of the niche few.

    I’d like the panel to know that there are alternatives to Advanced Wars that are not all “kids in tanks”. Endwar on the Nintendo DS is a very competent turn based unit battler. Or perhaps the Fire Emblem series (although they are still based in Anime fantasy setting). Or perhaps The Battle of Wesnoth on the PC. Or Weewar.com.

    Another point I’d like to bring up is that Card games are colourful and often collectable ways to get people into strategy, with cards requiring resources to bring out, group offensives, blocking, and inter-card dependencies. I’m sure the recent Magic the Gathering on the Xbox Live Arcade system has brought many numbers of non-strategy players into the realm of card battling strategy.

    So what game would I recommend to bring gamers to strategy? If they’re not a gamer I’d probably pick Plants Vs Zombies, or Patapon (for Tom) :) If they’re already a gamer, I’d pick something like Civilisation Revolution, Kings Bounty: The Legend (HOMM but better) or perhaps Majesty.

  • Deadbuffalo

    I disagree that playing Civ, or any strategy game, on the lower levels is a good way to learn how to play a strategy game. What it does is reinforce bad habits by removing the player from any sort of feedback on how well they are playing. When you aren’t paying attention to stuff like optimal expansion because you can still easily walk over the AI, c’est magnifique mais ce n’est pas la strategy. And for these people, I don’t think there is necessarily an easy transition to more complex strategy games. Their enjoyment from a gaming experience might not be focused on the challenge of mastering a system so much as the sense of victory from creating an empire or conquering an army. Which also explains why the AARs for the Paradox games can be so alluring to that type of player.

    I think an important part of teaching a strategy game to someone would be teaching them the feedback mechanisms that exist in games to let you know how you’re doing. Like the demographics section in Civ 4 that lets you see how you rank in land area, population, military, and productivity. You know if you’re lagging in any one of those categories that you need to build a bigger/better military or increase the number of towns you have or even just better manage the population.

    That being said, I want the next Tom vs Troy Vs Julian vs Bruce to be AGEOD’s world war 1 so I can hear all about the grand strategy of that game without having to learn all of the rules myself .I never got past 1914 in the trial version.

  • nullspace

    At least for me, the hook of strategy games is actually thinking up a strategy, trying it out in a game to see how well it works, and then improving or adapting it. Based on that, I think that that Advance Wars is a good gateway drug. But I can see how the kiddie presentation might be a turn-off for someone who needs an appealing setting or an immersive experience until they get to that hook.

    So how about some other games that are good, simple and fast? Some of these have been mentioned already, but I’m thinking of games like Armageddon Empires, End War, Civilization Revolution, Battle for Wesnoth, or War Plan Pacific. These games are simple enough that there isn’t a long learning period before you can start formulating sensible strategies. Each game is quick enough that you get immediate feedback and you can try again. And there must be some game that is in a setting that’s appealing enough to get the newbie over the short learning curve.

  • Skyrider68

    Spelk, I am able to totally relate to your comment about having an interest in some of the grander strategy games available for me to sink my teeth into, but the realities of life have kept me on the sidelines, in a manner of speaking. As a full-time professional and father, I’m always at odds with my craving to go out and buy that next “Big Thing” to play on the PC, only to remind myself that the to-do list, be it for work or home, never seems to get any shorter. Alas, the life responsibilities of the aging gamer. To be 16 again!!

  • Ginger Yellow

    While CivRev is probably the single best answer, Axis and Allies seems to me to be a good one. Not so complex that it’s off putting, but complex enough to allow the player(s) to really develop and implement strategies. And, even if they played the physical board game, it would introduce a lot of concepts that would help with PC strategy games.

  • driillSGT

    “Hello there sir. Can I interest you in a little bit of OGRE?”

    Troy is ready to bust out some OGRE, at a moments notice it seems :)

  • driillSGT

    Oops I meant Julian, DOH.

  • Black Dawn

    I’m in the camp that believes it is a good to introduce people to game-play concepts relevant to strategy game rather that finding them games with subject matter they like.

    One of the barriers to entry to strategy games that my friends mention and which you guys did not are the low-quality graphics in many turn-based games. Many of the genre’s deepest games have extremely poor graphics. Dominions is a case in point, it looks like someone used MS Paint to create the units.

    The way that I have successfully gotten friends past this hurdle is to introduce them to Collectible Card Games. You may think CCGs are not related to strategy games, but you’d be wrong. In Magic, for example, each player manages resources (mana) and armies (creatures), while keeping track of global effects (Enchantments and artifacts). Many of the same game-play concepts are used in strategy games, and your friends will get used to the idea of graphics as additions to fun, rather than requirements for fun.

  • Johan K

    Just wanted to say that I enjoy your podcasts. And this episode’s rap music was unexpetedly good ;)

  • Paris N

    Great podcast. Gotta recommend Montjoie! http://www.montjoiegame.com/en_downloads.php

    It plays quickly, and is pretty simple but very fun. The only possible stumbling block would be the 100-Years War setting.

  • Tom Grant

    While I think the recommendations of gateway games was useful, it may not really answer the original question (at least, not fully). Neither chess nor Dwarf Fortress is going to help solve problems specific to particular strategy games. For example, in an RTS like Starcraft, how long should you build up before attacking? Or in Demigod, do you need to respond to every threat to a flag you just took?

  • Erez

    Only half way through, but Bruce Geryk is 100% (I would’ve said 150%, but he’d be offended, being the person he is) on the spot.
    Think Bridge, for once. You can play Poker, or solitaire or whatever game of cards you fancy, but you will never “get” into bridge unless you sit with 3 other guys (or girls), go over the rules, and play for ages until you make it through. So you should just a: pick a game you want to play either cause you fancy the premise (WWII, space fights, fantasy, the ancient world, medieval times, or what have you), or cause you heard its good, play the tutorial and start playing the game. Tom Chick’s crash course (linked above) is a must-have for RTS, but even with broader strategy games, there’s no other way.
    Any “gateway-drug” will always cut you short. Advance wars doesn’t prepare you for the base-building, resources-gathering, fast-action or RTS’. Dawn of War II doesn’t have the huge, sprawling tech-trees of 4X games. Homeworld (which used to be my suggestions) doesn’t have base-building, and you also master a technique (3-d battles) that you don’t need anywhere else.

    And, finally, like with everything else, the number-one-most-important-problem with strategy games is: You Will Need to Read a Guide. 90% of the quarter-to-three, or any “I can’t get into strategy game X” posts can told to go and read the manual, or a web guide (cue again Geryk’s comments), or follow a long tutorial. This is what Strategy gamers consider “fun”. Julian Murdock mentioned that he loves spending a few nights with the rulebook before launching a board game. That is what you need to get ahead of a strategy game, which *is* the farthest end of the spectrum from Nintendo games, or Portal where all you “need” to know is how to hold a controller and start the game.

    Finally, (not really, but I don’t want to make it into a spelk-long rant), Troy, the URL that Bruce mentions wrt Dwarf Fortress was a bit lost in the hullabaloo, could you post it again?

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