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Guest Blog: Message and Meaning in Strategy Games

October 11th, 2010 by Troy Goodfellow · 17 Comments · Design, Guest Blog

Jeff Petraska is a long-time board and computer gamer, and has written articles over the years for Fire & Movement, The General, and C3i magazines. He sent me a long email full of questions last week, and I thought it would work much better as a full post than as an exchange between us. As with all guest blogs, I don’t endorse everything Jeff says here, but it’s food for thought.

“Why did the author write this story?”

That question was my most hated question throughout my school years. And you knew it was coming, too. Whenever you got a reading assignment in English class, whether book or short story, you could count on that question being the very first one you’d have to answer when your reading was done.

I hate to admit it, but answering that question over and over actually taught me something. It eventually drove home the point that every piece of literature has a point, a message, an underlying theme. There really are reasons why the authors write stories. And that observation is not just applicable to writers of fiction, either. Non-fiction authors have individual viewpoints, perspectives, and messages that underlie their work as well. For example, the underlying message behind Clay Blair’s Hitler’s U-Boat War
is that the Germans never really came close to severing the so-called Atlantic lifeline between North American and Britain, in spite of popular perception. The underlying message behind John Lundstrom’s Black Shoe Carrier Admiral
is that Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher was unfairly maligned, both during the war and in the histories written afterwards.

Which leads me to ask a similar question: “Why did the designer design this game?”

The answer to this question, if indeed it has an answer, I think depends upon the degree to which a game can be seen as a story, and that the designer can be viewed as its author. It’s very easy to view role playing games and adventure games as literary works because of their overt story elements; they are literally stories in game format. Baldur’s Gate had a story. Fallout 3 has a story. The Longest Journey is a story. But what about strategy games?

Back in my youth, when I played mostly Avalon Hill wargames, I tended to look upon them as interactive history books. I viewed a game’s designer as the equivalent of a book’s author, and a game’s rule book as the equivalent of the text of a history book. That is, I viewed wargames as being a representation of the game designer’s viewpoint of the historical event, emphasizing those elements that the designer believed were the most influential in determining the historical outcome, and tailored to produce a range of realistic outcomes appropriate for likely variations in those elements. As a result, I never made up “house rules” for any of my games; that would have been equivalent to re-writing portions of a history book to better suit my tastes and preconceived notions. Just as my high school English teachers would ask me, “What do you think was the author’s purpose for writing this book?” I would play games with an eye toward discerning the answer to, “What is the designer’s message in this game? What historical lessons did he intend for me to learn?”

A few wargames were designed with a historical message in mind, and sometimes this was made clear in the designer’s notes at the back of the rulebook. Omaha Beachhead, designed by Joseph Balkoski and published by Victory Games, had a very clear historical message – the US forces could have made deep penetrations and large territorial gains beyond Omaha Beach in the first few days after D-Day, and saved themselves weeks of future fighting through the bocage in the process, if they had only driven inland more aggressively than they did historically. I tended to afford games like that the same respect as a well-written history book, and consider them the equivalent of non-fiction literary works.

As for gaming today, very rarely do I come away from a strategy game with that kind of feeling. I don’t play tabletop wargames much any more, and maybe that’s where most of the difference lies. But the PC wargames and strategy games that I play don’t give me that same literary impression I used to get. Take Combat Mission, my favorite historical tactical combat game. Is there a “designer’s message” in there anywhere? Or is Combat Mission simply a situational toy box for historically-representative units to fight each other? Is there a designer’s message in the Silent Hunter series? Or War Plan Pacific?

And what about non-wargame strategy games? Is there a designer’s message in Civilization V? Elemental? Europa Universalis III? Rise of Nations? Dominions 3? Demigod? Is there some nugget of wisdom, some underlying message that we can take away from these games? Do they come anywhere close to being literary works? Are there any strategy games that you would be reluctant to mod out of respect for the designer’s original intent? I suspect not.

No, I tend to view most strategy games today as being toys for people who like to figure things out, who like to create a plan and try to execute it. They are, for the most part, pastimes without a message, without lasting value beyond how long they keep my gray matter engaged in mathematical problem-solving. Like electronic Lego sets, they provide me with a pile of different “pieces” of different shapes, sizes, and colors, and invite me to go have fun playing with them in different combinations. No matter how much I enjoy playing strategy games, very rarely do I come away feeling that I’ve learned something of value, or gleaned something that the game designer had intended for me to discover. Strategy game designers and design teams strike me as more like toymakers than as authors.

Back in episode 38 of Three Moves Ahead, Bruce talked about how modding and downloadable content has made games an entirely different consumable product than they used to be. I wonder if this might be symptomatic of the change in game design over the last 30 years. If electronic games don’t have any underlying core message or intrinsic value, why not modify them to our heart’s content? And if this viewpoint spreads with the growth of electronic media, will we reach a point in the future in which I can download a mod to an actual literary work? And if so, how will the availability of such story mods affect how we view and value the original works of literature? We already have movies released on DVD with alternative endings, so is it really that much of a stretch to envision alternative plotlines being made available for books as well?

The scene: Two teenagers are walking out of school together, talking.

“So did you finish reading The Lord of the Rings yet?”

“Yeah, just last night.” The student pulls his Kindle out of his pocket briefly to accentuate the point.

“Which mods did you decide to read?”

“Just one, the Gollum Redeemed mod.”

“Never heard of it. What’s it do?”

“It just changes the last few chapters. Gollum repents due to Frodo’s kindness. At the Cracks of Doom, when Frodo declares that he’s keeping the ring, Gollum realizes that Frodo’s about to turn himself into a wretch like Gollum was, and shoves him and the ring off the cliff and into the fires. Later, Gollum goes back to The Shire and tries to live a normal life, but eventually Gandalf comes and takes him on one of the elven ships across the seas.”

“Sounds almost as boring as the original story.”

“Which mods did you read?”

“I read the Boss Battles mod. It adds three really cool battles, Treebeard vs. Saruman at Isengard, Aragorn vs. the Nazgul Lord at Minas Tirith, and then the really epic battle, Gandalf vs. Sauron at the Black Gate, outside Mordor.”

“Sounds cool.”

“Yeah, and I also read the Arwen’s Passion mod.”

“Really? My mom won’t let me download that one. She says it’s too racy.”

“Dude, you have no idea… I’ll send it to you when I get home, but promise you won’t tell her where you got it.”


17 Comments so far ↓

  • Michael A.

    Great article/post, though I have to say that I do not entirely agree. Perhaps it is just that I spend a lot of time thinking myself around the messages that I may (or may not) convey in the designs I do, but I think any form of creative work conveys a message – inadvertently if not directly. Games may not be art, but they are (in most cases) creative works.

    Do Civilization V, Elemental, EUIII, RoN, Dominions 3 carry messages? In my opinion, very much so. If nothing else, consider the differences between US and European strategy games. Could something like EU3 have been made in the US? What would a Civ5 game made by Japanese developers look like? In the more innocent department (I’ll tease Johan a bit here, being Danish) why is Sweden so powerful in pretty much every EU3 game? ;-)

    Obviously, games are different from books in one key aspect, and this is that “fun” sometimes trumps the designer vision. The designer may well wish to emphasize some aspect of a conflict, but if doing so unbalances the game play, then the design will have to be changed. In addition, there are obviously game designers who take a very “mechanical” approach to the game design, which muddy up the waters further. Even in games designed in the latter way, IMO, there are messages to be taken from the game, if one is interested.

    Content mods are more akin to Fan fiction, IMO (and in some cases, e.g. FFH or Rhye’s and Fall are works entirely in their own right. Rhye’s and Fall is, btw, an excellent example of a mod/game with a clear message/design idea).

  • Eliot Hemingway

    Sometimes it is not that the medium has devolved, but rather that the individual has evolved.

    Games today are no less deep than the games of yesteryear. I can recognize the same procedural rhetoric in Civilization 5 that I absorbed from Civilization 2-4. The difference is that it’s no longer new, no longer novel, no longer a revelatory encounter with history. It’s still the same tale of the linear march of human progress, the same tale of enlightenment ideals and rational actor diplomacy. The difference is that I no longer believe in it, am no longer inclined to accept the designer’s representations (intentional or not) as realistic. The difference with games today is that we’ve long ago learned the same lessons that they continue to teach.

    The problem is not that games lack the capacity for meaningful narrative, emergent or scripted. There are roguelikes that continue to surprise me with how they portray complex realities. The problem is that all big-title games are being created for the newcomers, a continually broadening audience. Games continue to draw in the new, the young, the inexperienced individuals to whom all this is new. For those of us who’ve already experienced what games taught a decade ago, yes, games now seem shallow. It’s not because games lack the structural capacity to innovate, but rather because market demographics do not demand it.

    If there are to be games that build upon the meaningful lessons of the past, they won’t come from the big publishers. They will come from the low-tech, low-budget realm of game design artists. They will come from groups that are free from the perceived restrictions of the shallow mass market. Perhaps someday the market on lower-level meaning will be so saturated that big companies resort to building upon it rather than regurgitating it, but there will always a new generation fascinated by those first lessons.

  • Cow cookie

    I bought EU3 in large part because of reading a history of the Thirty Years War (I must admit the podcast added fuel to the fire). While I understood the history, it became much more visceral when I played the Thirty Years War scenario as the Dutch Republic. I tried to snag a few Dutch provinces held by the Spanish and inadvertently ignited a continent-wide war that took me decades to recover from. The precarious balance of power, the shifting alliances, the competing agendas — that period of history suddenly became clearer.

    It’s not incorrect to say EU3 is about tinkering, but I think there’s also an overriding vision there about unforeseen consequences and the tendency for small, well-meaning actions to have outsized impacts.

  • boyhowdy

    Pretty much what you’re talking about (a little low-tech, maybe, but give it time): http://amzn.to/aedkkg

  • Quinten

    I think comparing board games and strategy computer games will bring up interesting results. In this case it is apples and oranges… delicious apples and oranges, but apples and oranges none the less. I do not think all board war games have a thesis, and I think some computer games do have a thesis. What is the thesis of the board war game Ambush? For every game with a thesis, you will find one that is just a simulation: like Combat Mission.

    BUT Combat Mission sort of has a thesis: morale makes or breaks an army. This is watered down from Advanced Squad Leader, which begat Close Combat, which begat Combat Mission… sort of. Playing the original Combat Mission, the mechanic focused on more than anything is morale and leadership. Memoir ’44, my favorite board war game, has a focus on the importance of maneuvering and terrain in WW2 combat. Richard Borg, a very smart man, believes this is what makes combat in that period different than the other periods in his Command & Colors system.

    Many games have themes and thesis’ that are tied into the game play. I think that computer gaming makes them less evident because we are interacting with the system less than the designer is. In Memoir, I have to know the terrain modifiers and combat abilities of my troops in order to plan. In Civ 4 I can just look at the numbers real quick, all the math is done, and it is fire and forget. “Oh look, this is six to three odds, lets go!” This hides the designer’s interesting ideas behind the graphics and animations.

    As for modding, I do not think comparing mods to fan fiction is accurate. I am a Creative Writing major (with bad grammar, don’t judge). My professor told us one day that if you spent ten years writing stories like Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use,” you would have written some really good stories. I see mods like “Rhyse and Fall” and “Fall from Heaven” to be people using an already created framework to tell their own stories. All good roguelikes are just that: games based on doing Rogue but different. From this perception, Panzer General Forever is a new translation of the Iliad and the Odyssey. To me it is.

    In conclusion, repeat thesis, punchy closing line, question for audience to reaffirm your beliefs. I think that once we spend time with a game, thinking about game play and not graphics like a good little strategy gamer, then we can see what the designer’s thesis is. That is if there is one. I can honestly say that Men of War has no thesis other than “Woah! Tank explosion! Your squad is dead :(“. Panzer General 3D has a cool thesis built into its leader mechanic about the strength of a unit based on leadership that evolves as the war does. Wot do you think? (I am right)

  • Peter (Mind Elemental)

    Thanks for an interesting guest post! I do disagree, though, with your premise that games today are ‘different’ – as the examples above, and my own experience illustrate, this is a very, very subjective thing.

    Take Dominions, for example. There IS a designer’s message in there: the greater the amount of magic/divinity in a world, the greater the extent to which humanity is marginalised. This is visible in (1) the increasing prominence of humans in the world’s societies in the later ages, whereas in earlier ages they tend to play second fiddle to Vanir, giants, etc… and (2) perhaps more importantly, in the way in which sacreds dominate the early battlefield, followed by summoned units (everything from SC Tartarians to hordes of mechanical men) dominating the late-game battlefield. No, humanity is very clearly NOT at the top of the food chain in the Dominionsverse.

  • Hell-Mikey

    I’d disagree both with Mr. Petraska and commenter Quentin. The theme of Combat Mission is “details matter.” The theme is supported by the thickness-and-slope-ariffic armor system, a 3D engine that enables all those armor slope details, and an insistence that all the physics and simulation were backed up by real world tests. The we-go system keeps enough chaos in the system to keep micromanaging Michael Wittmanns from grinding the fun out of their game.

    I’d propose that a secondary support is the uncertainty associated with contact reports in the game. The detail there is the difference between experienced troops making good decisions, and green soldiers spooking at rabbits in the underbrush. Yes, details are the cornerstone of “mere simulation,” but many other tactical strategy games have soft-pedaled the details while still providing a good experience. CM effectively persuades, and so is both fun, and realistic.

  • Rower 41

    Good blog post and with much to think about.

    I don’t agree that more recent strategy games have no message. In CM for example, the designers were trying have the player learn the lessons that real WWII combat commanders had to learn the hard way. …Early 1942 was a bad time for a German tanker on the Eastern Front: PzkwIIIs vs. T-34/76s…ouch. Before panzerfausts and bazookas, infantry was nearly powerless against well handled armored forces. The German 88 flak was a game changer. I could go on all day. The strategy guide that was published for CMBB I think outlines the designer’s vision pretty well; the guide spends a few hundred pages to talk about using real life tactics on the game map, not gamey tweaks.

    Still I agree that it is clear that more and more, players are looking to mods and customization. This certainly erodes any message the original designers were trying for (there is a recent post in the Wargamer forums where somebody talks about the fact that they just bought the classic Master of Orion from GOG, and applied 40 mods to it, that much customization must seriously water down the original message of the game). But I see this trend more like an auto enthusiast replacing the stock carb in their 67 Chevy. Everybody thinks they can improve the things they like (go to any miniature gamer’s convention and you will see that almost everybody has their own set of “rules” they are writing, or have written). Game developers now let us open the hoods, and tinker with the game engine.

  • Chris


  • Tom Grant

    A timely post, from a personal perspective. I recently purchased Command Ops: Battles From The Bulge, a very detailed wargame about a very familiar subject. However, Command Ops took a fresh look at the Bulge, emphasizing C3I to an unprecedented degree. (Forget about giving orders to individual units. Get used to issuing directives to your battalion-level subordinates and then letting them figure out how to move and fight with individual companies.)

    In other words, it had a story to tell, just as different books about the Bulge have their own, specific narratives about the battle. Command Ops wasn’t cheap ($80), but after reading a glowing review at the Out Of Eight blog, I decided it was for me.

    The same week, I could have purchased Civ 5 for $50, but I passed. It’s not that Civ doesn’t have a story to tell–the problem is, the story isn’t that interesting to me. It’s so divorced from actual history that, if the game isn’t compelling on its own, it’s not going to be worth the $50 investment. After reading mixed reviews, I decided it wasn’t the time.

    Ditto for Starcraft 2. After playing the campaign, I tried a few multi-player matches. They didn’t hold my interest, primarily because the game is about optimizing production and deployment, while interfering with the enemy’s. That’s just not enough to hold my attention, with so many other gaming experiences available.

    Of course, I’m what some people might call an Ameritrash gamer, when it comes to boardgames. I’d rather play an “experience” game like any decent wargame, or War of the Ring, or Twilight Imperium, or Space Hulk, over a dry exercise in auction mechanics or production optimization like, oh, say, Puerto Rico or Agricola. The gameplay matters, but it isn’t the only thing that matters. Without a story to tell — the struggle between Rome and Carthage, the exploration and colonization of the galaxy, etc. — the game is just not fun for me.

    And I’m 100% with you about “the game as toolkit” not being a substitute for “the game as finished product.” Not only does a toolkit usually deliver a very weak narrative punch, it also requires too much time to figure out — whether it’s worth my while in the first place, or which version of the game is worth playing, or which version I might play against someone else, or what the complete game might include a year from now. Bleh. Give me the finished product, with the toolkit as maybe, just maybe, a value-add. Don’t give me a game with a bad UI that might get fixed later (Civ 5), or a game that requires a leap of faith in the publisher’s ability to fix it (Elemental).

  • Jeff Petraska

    Lots of excellent comments, so I’ll shotgun some responses:

    Michael A. – What would you say are the core messages of your games? When you decided to design Imperium, for example, did you have a driving purpose? Did you say to yourself, “I want to create a game that demonstrates *this*”?

    Eliot H. – I think you may be onto something. One of the drawbacks of being a longtime gamer is the feeling that I seen a lot of this stuff before. I’ve pretty much quit playing conventional hex & chit wargames for that very reason. Maybe there are discernable theses (to borrow Quinten’s term) in more games that I realize, but they don’t stand out to me because they’re not new or novel.

    Cow cookie – “…but I think there’s also an overriding vision there about unforeseen consequences and the tendency for small, well-meaning actions to have outsized impacts.” Well said, Cc. That’s exactly what my high school English teacher would have wanted to see. It’s also exactly the kind of real-world takeaway that I was talking about.

    boyhowdy, Chris – Fan fiction and parodies are one thing, but to my mind those are different from a “story mod” that I was envisioning, in which the fan-written content would be inserted into the text of an existing story written by another author. Has that been done yet?

    Quinten, Hell-Mikey, Rower 41 – Here’s the primary message that I get from playing Combat Mission: the side with the last surviving tank(s) almost always win. But that’s probably a valid lesson, considering the limited infantry anti-tank capabilities of the time. As for details mattering, it’s hard for the players to judge just how much they matter in a PC game because the details are generally inaccessible. During play we see the result, but usually not the process. Rower 41, all of your points regarding CM are very well taken. What occurs to me, though, is that those points are all illustrated by playing a variety of scenarios, and it’s arguable whether the scenario designers or the designers of Combat Mission should get the credit for teaching those historical lessons. Combat Mission provides the means, while the scenario designers create the situations. I suppose both deserve credit, for even if CM is a primarily a wargame toolkit, it’s a toolkit designed with the capability to illustrate these lessons.

    Tom Grant – As I wrote my essay, I was thinking that Highway to the Reich (predecessor to Command Ops: Battles from the Bulge) was a good example of a PC wargame that does have a thesis (thanks again, Quinten) behind it. We’re on the same page with that series of games. However, I don’t think I said that games as toolkits were poor substitutes for games as finished products, did I? I just suggested that toolkit games may lack a discernable designer’s message. That doesn’t make them unfinished products.

  • cuc

    >story mod

    These have existed since the dawn of time, long before the idea of “author” existed, and in the case of Indian literature (which was traditionally recited by heart rather than written down), even after that. It’s called “oral tradition”. I recall reading that due to bards keep adding to it, the length of Ramayana has doubled during a time period.

  • Chris King

    I’d say that designing a historical strategy games you start with your time period and then select a scope and a point of view (POV). Once you have that you then start setting up constraints and choices around the scope and POV. As a designer your choice of constraints and choices is influenced by what you feel were key to the period. You are seeking to capture the period in your game to give the player the feeling that they are there. Modding enters the equation because people never seem to agree with what you chose to be important and have thier opinions.

  • Michael A.

    Absolutely. Imperium is a case of too many themes, though; that’s at least a contributory reason for why I haven’t yet finished it (if not the only one).

    But for example, with “A Brief History of Rome”, there is a pretty overt message regarding rise and fall – expansion mandates more expansion until over extension leads to fall. A lot of players don’t like the game because they are unable to “conquer the map” (barbarian invasions are constant, and maintaining a purely defensive empire is expensive) – but that is not the point of the game. Those who like it are generally those who get the point (and some, of course, just like the challenge).

    With “Pirates and Traders”, a part of the original theme was to show just how merciless the pirate life was (leading to a very Rogue-like implementation – you get caught, you hang). I’ve since toned down that message somewhat since – quite frankly – it wasn’t very fun.

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  • Alexander Wang

    Has understood not all.

  • joe

    you say that games have changed however have you ever played the diablo series; yes they are very old now however they still use the same techniques and adopt the same story line into many on todays games. Look at world of warcraft for example, it’s one of the most successful games of all times and yet it’s just a remake and revamp of many playstation one games like garmb gremlins.

    They have taken a few games and mixed them all together just like they do with movies