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Subject: Wisdom From an Older Brother rss

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Mark Wilson
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My older brother taught me most of what I know about Stratego back in the late 80s and early 90s. He was always quite good at the game. And it wasn't until years later that I realized many of the tenets he held to in the game hold up quite well.

I'd be remiss in not pointing everyone toward the excellent "Strategy of Stratego" article in the files section of BGG:
If my strategy article seems like a Cliff's Notes of that, it's because he gave voice to many of the things I originally learned from my brother. There will, however, be small differences and a few additions.

My experience with Stratego includes dozens of plays (the number of plays in my profile is a lowball estimate, and doesn't include numerous plays because most were from years ago before I was on BGG). I win about 2/3 of my games on, and my only losses have come against highly ranked players.

Managing Fronts in Setup

In terms of opening moves, the only pieces that truly matter are those on the three "fronts." Put differently, the first couple rows in the two columns on either side of the lakes. You categorically don't want scouts here, first off. But, more generally, you want to protect each front against as many possibilities as you can. This generally means your Marshal and General are on different fronts, and the third front either has a Major, a bomb, a spy, or some combination of those. The spy can hang out with the General but probably shouldn't be with the Marshal, whose mutual annihilation with your opponent's Marshal will make the Spy useless.

These pieces aren't necessarily in the first row, and it's absolutely viable to keep them just behind the lakes (especially the spy). But they should have ready access to their assigned front.

The Movement Line

Your early moves should be spent pushing pieces forward in each front. But don't bother attacking, or responding to much that your opponent is doing. The goal here is to clear a pathway in the row immediately behind your lakes. Because one (or more?!) of your fronts will eventually become overmatched. Easy access between fronts will allow you to respond to these threats.

Miners & Scouts

Almost exclusively in the back lines. The lone time I ever bested my brother was with a rogue Scout whose fast movement in the endgame allowed me an opportunity to guess at his flag placement. It was desperate - I was being soundly beaten otherwise - but it worked.

I've found it useful to break this rule with at least one of each. Bomb configurations vary wildly, and several can be annoying if your Miners are all trapped.

Play Defensively

My brother, being older, was by far the more patient of the two of us. It proved my downfall on multiple occasions. Resist the urge to strike forward except in extremely measured bursts. It's usually the aggressor who errs first. And it's usually that same impatience - never fully eradicated from my youth - that dooms me against highly ranked opponents.

This has its limits, of course. But erring on the side of caution is usually better than playing recklessly.

Bomb Placement

Here I'll differ slightly from the previously linked article. It recommends a bomb/flag configuration like this:

? B ?
B F B the back row, and ideally in a lake column. Only minor variations are considered for variety.

I don't find fault with this configuration, and in a vacuum it's probably the best. But it's also very predictable in competitive play.

My brother's configuration - which I present not as a better alternative but for comparison purposes - is below:

? ? ? B
? ? B 5
? B 6 B
B 7 B F

...with the flag in the corner. Please note, I'm using the original numbering, so the 5, 6, and 7 all beat Miners.

There are advantages and disadvantages to this setup. I shall go through both, and propose rebuttals where I deem it necessary.

The primary advantage of this setup is that it take no less than two Miners to penetrate. This can easily create draw scenarios, even when you might otherwise be losing.

There are three potential disadvantages. None are crippling, imo, and some can be mitigated. The first is that it localizes bombs on one side, making the other side of the board comparatively weak on defense, and eliminating the possibility of a "surprise" bomb, or one that guards a different front. The other disadvantage is that it traps three moving pieces. On the former, I agree, it's a fault. On the latter, I'd contend that the 5, 6, and 7 aren't terribly important in the opening game, and it's unlikely they'll stay trapped indefinitely. In particular, the 5, which is the most powerful of the three trapped, is placed closest to the front lines so as to have the greatest chance of being freed. In the middle and endgame, when such pieces can become VERY useful, it's unlikely he'll remain trapped. If he does, it's likely because you've dominated the game to the extent that he's not needed.

My occasional compromise is to remove the bomb furthest from the flag in the back row, and distribute it elsewhere. Technically the flag can be reached with only one Miner at that point, but I've found that it's rare to see someone come at the bomb exclusively from the back row.

That, to me, greatly reduces both potential drawbacks. Leaving only the last, which is that it's hard to hide the placement of your flag with this setup. I agree that it is, though it's not always a strategic advantage for your opponent. The ability to penetrate enemy lines is far more important than knowing flag position. In fact, it barely changes one's strategy in most games, because flag capture isn't possible in most games until a decided advantage has been gained elsewhere.

Another article on BGG proposes a dummy flag in the opposite corner, with two bombs guarding each. While amusing, and potentially effective, if your opponent can get to both corners, you may be toast. And rather than making it necessary (or at least likely) for him to use two Miners to get to your flag, you give him a 50/50 chance of only needing one. I won't discount it entirely - and will try it in future plays - but for now I'll pass on endorsing it. Similarly, the "random flag" in the 2nd row or something can be a masterpiece of comedic trolling, but it's not sound strategy.

I use both bomb/flag configurations that I've outlined here, as well as slight variations on both. See what works for you, and what you feel comfortable doing. There will be disagreement about strategy, but the most important thing is feeling like you understand your setup and how it flows together.

The Riffraff

I don't think I've ever seen a locktight argument on how to arrange Majors through Sergeants. And I'm constantly fiddling with my setup in this regard, never fully happy with it. Experiment and find what works for you; you'll get no help from me here.

Spies and Bluffing

It's rare that an experienced player will lose their Marshal to a Spy. But if you ever want your Spy to work against an experienced player, you'll need to be running a really good bluff elsewhere. If you actually treat your Spy like a Spy, 9/10 times it won't be useful. You might get away with it against a newer or mid-level player, and very rarely against a veteran who has a mental slip. But don't count on it.

Similarly, you can lock opponents' pieces in place, and defend entire fronts, simply with the threat of a Marshal or Spy. Try it in a few games to see how it works. I've defended a front for half a game with nothing higher than a Captain, simply because I kept track of what I had and hadn't revealed, and the fear of the unknown kept my opponent at bay. And against high-level opponents, the only time I've successfully used a Spy to defeat a Marshal was when I first sold another piece as the Spy for several turns on a bluff.

This is where defensive play can be used against someone, because the defensive instinct is only to attack the pieces we know, or with comparatively less important pieces. If someone is doing this to you and you are at a disadvantage elsewhere, it may be worth attempting to call their bluff. It can mean a swift loss if you're wrong, but that's often more emotionally satisfying than a slow, grinding loss where you risked less. Continuous risk of this nature almost certainly dooms you. Only attack recklessly to try to equalize a clear disadvantage. Like casino gambling, prolonged risk-taking increases the likelihood that you'll come out worse than you started. For every Marshal that recklessly rampaged to victory, there's ten Marshals whose run ended quickly at the hands of a Spy or Bomb.

Odds & Ends

In the interest of comprehensiveness, there's a lot of "common knowledge" that should be reiterated:

- Save your mental energy for memorizing the location of the most powerful pieces (and Spy). Very few can track more than about 6-8 pieces for an entire game.

- Always keep track of how many pieces you've captured/defeated, and how many of each are left. You may have, say, a Captain that can beat anything that moves...and not realize it. The same goes for Miners, whose demise can be the difference between victory, defeat, and draw.

- As soon as you gain an advantage, be very willing to trade pieces. Before you know it, that Major your opponent carelessly lost in the opening moves means that you have your own unstoppable Major roaming the board. In longer, more evenly matched games, I've even seen lone Lieutenants dominate the endgame.

- Aside from discussion of bomb/flag placement, the bits about Miners, Scouts, and Fronts are all general. This is to account for slight variations in preference and strategy. There's no "right" way to defend all three fronts, though there will be common elements to any good defensive configuration.

Further Reading

This is a companion piece I've written, which goes into a specific board setup I used. It explains the good and bad about the setup in light of these strategies.


As always, this is one person's opinion, and is intended as a discussion, not a lecture. Feel free to chime in, and enjoy!
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