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So Where Do You Start?

April 26th, 2013 by Troy Goodfellow · 8 Comments · Design, Me

I get a lot of email from people that want to play strategy games – that are attracted to particular strategy games because they like the subject matter or because they listen to our podcast and everything sounds so amazing that they have to get into this system cracking nutbar hobby of ours.

It’s one reason I recorded myself playing a teaching game of Crusader Kings 2 that ended up getting deleted because I had the settings wrong somehow. (I promise I’ll do another one later.) And, though I am hesitant to keep giving the same advice to people that want to know how to become games journalists or podcasters or PR people (like I knew a damn thing when I started any of those), I will never tire of giving people advice on how to get into strategy games.

An acquaintance recently asked me if he should just jump into Victoria 2 or start with a simpler Paradox game. Since he was really interested in the Victorian Age and the Paradox grand strategy titles are all quite distinct from each other despite any similarity in appearance, the answer was easy: If you want to play these games, you just play them. Start with Victoria and come back to me with any questions.

Yes, sometimes I think we make too much about difficult any of this really is. A grown up that is patient can figure out pretty much any reflex=independent game that has transparent inputs and a decent UI.

The harder thing to find is time. Time to learn new things. This is one of my great barriers in learning new strategy games. I used to be able to just sample anything for five to ten hours at a time before deciding whether I would make the commitment (Knights of Honor no, World in Conflict yes), and time is the great enemy of adults. Let’s face it, Netflix makes it very easy for me to pretend I am being productive by catching up on Parks & Rec.

And don’t get me started on board games.

For a strategy game designer, this must pose a serious problem. You need to hook players early enough for them to commit to seeing more of the game, but all the best strategy games BUILD towards something. Yes, Civilization is great because it starts asking you to make important choices immediately. But Imperialism is great in spite of the fact you can really do nothing but look for resources for the first dozen or so turns. Master of Orion is the Civ model of exploration and building from the start, Starflight is a brilliant but slow moving trading sim gussied up like an adventure game. If old X-Com came out today would we have even noticed its genius? The new XCom has a tutorial with tension and casualties.

That opening hook…

So many of the best games out there are slow burns, including some of my comfort games like Europa Universalis; yeah you can do a lot immediately if you play France, but what if you are Denmark? And I played many more slow-burning games when I was a) paid to do so, and b) my work and play schedule were more flexible than they are now.

This is my challenge in getting more people into strategy games. I play fewer than I have in the past, and the ones I do play I can only say a few things about because, if they are not clients, I don’t have the base of experience of other recent titles for a good comparison. I am not as great a guide as I used to be. So I can’t justify the slow burns or “Just wait” since the base of comparison is fading.

Now a part of me would rather stick to Netflix and start a Tumblr about historical movies and go into why they are almost all terrible, and maybe I will do that someday. I also need to get this video thing straightened out, go back to my collaborative work that’s been put aside and if I had enough money to do nothing for a year, I’d stop and write a book while catching up on all that I’ve missed lately.

But I have a platform and people will keep asking me about where to begin in learning strategy games in general or whether they should dip a toe into a certain title in particular. And I will keep giving advice. I am the evangelist that never knocks on your door. Have to spread the word.


8 Comments so far ↓

  • Chris Parsons

    Great article, Troy! I have had CKII sitting on my PC for some time now and I haven’t fired it up because I want that initial block of time to learn the game. The genius of a game like Civ is the constant moving target of early objectives: first city, first units, first new settler, goody huts, first contact, etc. This actually hurts the later parts of the game because those “wins” become fewer and farther in between. But the early game is teaching you how do play while providing you with with an almost constant stream of satisfying moments. It’s the definition of “addictive gameplay”.

    Compare that to a game–even a game that’s ultimately as much or more fun– that makes you wait too long for a satisfying win moment. Or requires a steep learning curve. I don’t want to have to stop playing CKII while I still haven’t quite gotten it.

  • Rob C

    I for one still consider you among the top game reviewers even though it has been a long time since you performed that role. Your blog talks about games in interesting ways that I could never do and I’m always happy to hear your name mentioned at the beginning of a TMA episode as a cast member. You have made a great impact on the discussion of strategy games. Thanks!

  • Rob C

    PS – As I have gotten older it gets harder to overcome the inerta of moving to a new game. Rather than feeling the pull of Netflix as an easy activity (I have a hard time sitting in front of the tv), low barrier games have been pulling me in. I’m ashamed to admit I finished the campaign in Faerie Solitaire. Sometimes I just want to play something that gives me just enough without firing too many neurons. Then I feel said I didn’t spend some time with something more substantial.

  • Pete W

    This ties in somewhat with something Johan Andersson from Paradox spoke briefly about yesterday during the EU 4 livestream, about how strategy games can be intimidating to people due to a perceived “fear of failure”, when in fact failure can be part of the game, part of the learning curve and the enjoyment, rather than a “game over” state.
    I have bought a lot of strategy games, particularly in the last two or three years (and due in no small part to 3MA / FoS), because I am interested in the period of history, and fascinated with learning game mechanics, seeing what complexity lies within. I would consider myself a master of none of them, yet I don’t regret a single purchase.

    I bounced off EU3 a couple of times when I picked it up at first (the Heir to the Throne 3MA triggered that), but I’ve been ploughing hours into it in the last week or two; something just clicked and I was able to launch myself at it; it’s been a blast.
    I bought Victoria 2 on release due to an interest not only in the era, but with the economic mode of the game, the incredible drilling down in detail it offered. I have put many, many hours into that game and I remain an amateur at it, but it continually interests me. I’m not sure how I’d even begin to sell it to someone not given to strategy games though.

    For me, good history books or documentaries give an overview not only of the events of that time, but the decisions that needed to be made – the consequences and the fears and hopes of the people of that time; rulers and ruled. What a good strategy game can do is give you a sliver of insight into why those decisions should or should not have been made, and let you experiment with that insight. For example, Bruce Geryk talking on 3MA about how he dug out a book on Manstein while playing War in the East, to further understand what was going on at the time and help inform his game decisions.
    I bought War in the East based on the two podcasts about it, despite what might have been seen as an intimidating price, and tentatively poke at it repeatedly, learning, enjoying.

    Never underestimate the interest the enthusiasm from informed, intelligent people talking about something they love can generate. And never stop writing / broadcasting / evangelising.

  • Lior G

    Like science and art, you have to understand strategy games in order to enjoy them.

    I’ve played RTS/Civ/Total war before 3MA and FoS, but I was just playing them. The briliant discussions here, the most important ones being about mechanics, helped me understand games in general. What they’re about, what they’re trying to represent, what are their relation with history. The more I learn, the more I enjoy, and want to continue learning.


  • Jonathon H

    I usually start people with Civ 3 and/or Master of Orion. Both games are quick enough to get people hooked. If they like it and they play through them I recommend more “complicated stuff”

  • Simon Dor

    Great post, I really agree with the fact that people should play the game they really want to play. Playing strategy games is so time consuming and time is the rarest resource out there. I am a game studies scholar researching on and teaching about strategy games and this is one of the first thing I mentioned to my students as obstacles to a proper understanding of these games. I am glad to know that it really is a shared problem.

  • ShadowTiger

    I only play fantasy and science fiction strategy games… mostly tbs. None of the Sci-Fi games that came since MoO 2 have really done it for me… so I just don’t play the newer games. In terms of MoM… I enjoyed digging into Eador, Warlock MotA, and I look forward to seeing what comes out of Worlds of Magic.

    So from my point of view… its not really about learning curves or hooks… its about deep satisfying gameplay. Many of the modern games fall short of that and so I tend to avoid them or pick them up deeply discounted so I don’t feel bad abandoning them after a few hours.

    I have spent almost a year designing a 4x strategy game in my spare time. I don’t really feel any pressure at all since most games that come out are just a re-hash of mechanics that have been done before. One of my main inspirations for the game is King of Dragon Pass, which I think is telling of the direction I want to go for. Now combine that with X-Com and a little bit of Baldur’s Gate and now you get something special. Most of the stuff I am putting into the game are a brand new spin on tried and true mechanics… but I hope to take them one step further and make the mechanics feel core to the experience rather than tacked on.

    I think thats the main thing developers need to focus on: Remove superfluous mechanics and decisions so that what is left over really stands out and has a chance to shine.