I Am Spartax

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On Strategy and Tactics

Sam Carroll
United States
Champaign
Illinois
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No, grognards, this is not about a magazine.

(perhaps) Sun Tzu wrote:
Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.


I'm not a serious chess player, but I read chess books from time to time. In Capablanca's A Primer of Chess, he mentions that there are thousands of good books about the openings and many more on the endgames, but hardly any good books on the midgame, which is the heart of the game. There are a couple of possible reasons for this: one is that the board has a truly ridiculous number of possible states in the midgame. Another is that a minor change in the board position (a pawn being one square forward or back) could have a profound impact on the strength of one's position. This makes midgame positions and moves difficult to evaluate.

Then a few years ago, I picked up Max Euwe's book "Judgement and planning in chess," which I recommend as a mid-game book. As one Amazon reviewer said, it "does not advocate any sort of 'thinking method' aside from the old fashioned one of examining the position for salient strategic features (such as those shown in the book) and playing accordingly." But at that, it excels.

The book examines several strategic advantages (for example, queen-side pawn majority) in depth, discussing how to gain each advantage and how to capitalize on it. I find this a fascinating read, but the trouble is, I'm not good enough for it. I don't play or practice chess consistently enough that I can avoid egregious tactical mistakes, nor do my opponents. Thus when I play chess, the winner is the one who blunders less.

I suspect that Sun Tzu's dictum is correct in chess, but only given a fair level of skill from both players. If I had the most amazing strategic insight ever to grace the chessboard, I would still lose to any decent tournament-level player because of my tactical failings.* However, if both players can play at least competent tactics, then victory will go to the better strategist.

Let's look at a few other games in various genres. Please note that I do not intend to make a judgement of a game's worth when I consider its tactical or strategic leaning. You will probably be able to tell that I enjoy strategic thinking more, but that's just my personal preference.

Let's look into heavy Euros. I'll consider a few that I know fairly well: first Puerto Rico. Each turn, the major decision you have to make is which role to select; there are at most 7 options, perhaps as few as three, depending on where you are in the turn order. However, that decision is often difficult, with two or more strong options in the running. As each role is resolved, a player may have some decisions to make, but those are frequently no-brainers (“Hmm, should I sell corn for 0 or coffee for 4?”). This is not always the case; the Builder role in particular has very significant decisions for all players, but for the most part, the interesting decisions are in the role selection.

The role selection decisions are heavily tactical in nature. No matter what role you take, the same roles will be available next turn. And the role you choose is probably going to be influenced more by the immediate board situation than by your long-term plans. Have you never seen someone take the Captain just to screw the person who just produced coffee? It seems to me that the strategic decisions in Puerto Rico are the subsidiary decisions; what plantation do I want this time, or which building should I build? Such decisions are permanent, nor are the same options guaranteed to be there next turn.

Considering another popular Euro, Caylus, we find a similar decision tree. The core mechanic of the game is worker placement. Each time, you have the option to place up to six workers before passing. At the start of the first turn, there are 14 options available to the first worker (six special buildings, six pink buildings, the castle, and passing). As workers get placed, the available buildings will diminish until everyone passes. Next turn, all the buildings will once again be available, probably with at least one more option (a brown building.) As the game goes on, the buildings available for placement will tend to increase, but building residences will counteract that.

So each round of worker placement is ONE decision with maybe ten options on average. The chaos of the game generally inhibits planning multiple placements (other than in two-player Caylus), since other players will place their workers before you can place your next one. You just take your first choice now, hoping that the second choice will still be available next round. Very tactical decision-making. The strategic decisions are mostly related to what buildings to build and what favors to take.

The latter is particularly interesting to me, since taking a favor on, say, the money track increases the value of future favors on that track. Since the number of future favors you will earn and how many of those favors you will take on the money track are both unknowns, it is difficult to decide what which of the four tracks you will take the favor on. Consider the building track. Taking that for your first favor is clearly an inferior decision in the short run, since it gives you nothing at all. 3 deniers, a food cube, or even one VP are all better. However, in the long run, the building track is perhaps the strongest track to be pursuing. Contrariwise, the money track is frequently the most helpful in the short term (i.e. for your next turn), but less strong in the big picture.

Note on buildings: I believe that Caylus is nearly unique among worker-placement games in that players create new buildings that A) can be played upon by other players in future turns and B) will stay on the board permanently. Thus, when considering which building to build at the carpenter, one must consider the big picture, not just the next turn. Most other worker-placement games do not have this strategic decision.

Common to both of these Euros is that the central mechanic of the game encourages tactical thinking, while strategy is found more in subsidiary decisions.

A counter-example is Power Grid. The central mechanism and decision of PG is the plant auctions. Which plant (if any) do I want, and how much am I willing to pay for it? This is a decision with permanent consequences, since if you lose the bidding for the plant you want, it will not come back. Also, any plant after the first few represents a substantial investment of capital. If you buy a coal plant now because you have a surplus of coal this turn, you may well regret it in two turns when the price of coal has jumped way up. The tactical decisions of Power Grid are in the resource market and, to some degree, building on the map.

However, Power Grid is one of the few Euros I know that leans more toward the strategic side. (Maybe that's why I like it!) Most Euros lean at least a bit toward the tactical side. Dos Rios, which is more or less an action-point-allowance game, is almost entirely tactical. Which river is about to flood? What enemy meeples can I displace? The damming could be considered strategic, but your opponent will probably find a way to counter-dam on his turn.

Let’s now turn to a classic hex-and-counter wargame: Panzergruppe Guderian. Each turn, each player has the option to move any or all of his units (generally at least 50) and each unit may move at least six hexes. So a Soviet infantry unit in open ground could move to any of roughly 100 hexes in a given turn. If you work out all possible routes, there are over 45,000 for each unit. And that’s for the slowest movers! Clearly, working out whether to move to this hex or the next one over is impossible unless you have a larger goal in mind, such as, for example, that the units of this corps are going to encircle Smolensk roughly two turns from now. Once you have reached that decision, the smaller decisions implementing it (which unit ends up in which hex) are less important. However, when planning a battle, the details of which units attack which enemies can be crucial. So there is a need for tactical planning here, but in general, longer-term planning is more important.

Considering a more modern wargame I know well, I find the same thing. For FAB: The Bulge I wrote an essay on artillery usage which is nearly as long as the one you are reading now. The question being considered is, “For a given round of combat, should I commit 0, 1, 2, or 3 artillery assets?” So there are four options, fewer if you don’t have that much artillery available. However, in writing the essay, I made two interesting discoveries. First, that the decision is rarely simple. There are many possible cases, overlapping and interlocking. When attacking, your artillery will first destroy enemy field works if present, then disrupt the enemy forces if they are not already disrupted, and only then actually start killing guys. Already we have four possible cases (field works present or not, enemy disrupted or not) before even going into the probable composition of the enemy force. My second discovery was that this decision is not that important. In my estimation, someone who assigns artillery in the most efficient way possible versus someone who assigns it intuitively (e.g. this combat is important, so I’ll throw in another artillery) might thereby gain one VP over the course of a game. In this case, tactics without strategy is indeed the noise before defeat.

How about Ameritrash Thematic Games? Well, I'm not as familiar with this genre, but I suspect that decisions in these kinds of games are similar to those in wargames, where there are many small decisions adding up to larger decisions, as in my Panzergruppe Guderian example. However, in most multiplayer Thematic Games, it seems that the most important skill is Diplomacy.

I can't speak about abstracts other than Chess and Go, since I haven't played any (unless you count Hey, That's My Fish!, which is so short it mocks the idea of long-term planning). And I have only played a very little bit of Go, so I'm not comfortable saying anything about it.

*Actually, if I had that kind of insight, I'd play a lot more chess and probably get much better at tactics. But that's beside the point.
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