Andrew Groen interviewed me and Rob Zacny for a short piece on whether we are now in a Golden Age for strategy games. You can read it over at the Penny Arcade Report if you like.
Now, keep in mind that I sent Andrew 1000 words and he pared me down to a couple of points, so a lot of things I mentioned as roots of this golden age (and the evidence of the age even existing) were cut for space and because many of the root causes are pretty obvious – the increase of digital catalogs has often been paired with low prices, the tablet and mobile space has led to a burst of new creative energies for a platform that is naturally friendly to strategy games, the revival of board games as a common shared social experience, etc. Still it was fun to put some of these ideas on paper, and I may expand on them later.
I did note, and was quoted as saying, that the first great Golden Age of strategy games was in the late 80s and could probably be localized as starting with SimCity. It’s not that great strategy games weren’t around before that; but SimCity was closely followed by Civilization (which was originally designed to be very SimCity-like), Populous, Warlords and then the RTS revolution in the mid-90s. And lots of other stuff as well. Pointing out when the Golden Age ended is a little harder, but I’ll find it somewhere.
Legendary goaltender Ken Dryden was once asked when the golden age of hockey was, and his answer was “When you were 12”. He expanded on that in his book The Game:
“I know that in any way an athlete can be measured – in strength, in speed, in height or distance jumped – he is immensely superior to one who performed twenty years ago. But measured against a memory, he has no chance … Nothing is as good as it used to be, and it never was. The ‘golden age of sports,’ the golden age of anything, is the age of everyone’s childhood.”
Now my golden age of strategy games was not when I was a child (not like my golden age of baseball or hockey – those were clearly the early 80s), but it did coincide with my going to university and having friends with computers, something I did not have easy access to when I was growing up. So we, as a group and as friends, discovered a bunch of these games together. Not just strategy games – I also fell in love with flight sims at this time. Once I got my first degree and moved on to grad school, I lapsed a little in my game playing, but did get back to it. It was a more solitary experience, especially on the strategy side since my wife was more into RPGs.
One reason I am glad that Andrew focused on my comment on the power of Let’s Plays and other videos and their role in supporting this golden age of strategy games is that they serve an important community role that multiplayer can’t in some cases. Face it, Harrington Hall at St. Thomas University did not have much in the way of internet in 1990. Dialing into a BBS is not the same, and multiplayer among us was limited to hotseat turn-based stuff unless we cabled two computers together – precariously in small dorm rooms – to play Populous.
It’s that sense of shared discovery that makes the youthful golden ages of sport so powerful, I think. We are starting to understand the games at higher levels, we can remember player numbers and how to calculate BA and GAA. We are old enough to stay up to watch most of a late playoff game. Then we go to school or argue with our siblings or what have you.
You can’t have a golden age without some sense of newness and wonder, and I think that the explosion of great strategy titles (new and old series alike) and in innovation in the genre on all platforms has come at a time when online social media and shared viewing experiences allow us to see the newness and wonder and talk about it with other people that are right around us online.
My personal golden age starts now.