The Average Gamer

The Strange Slow Death of Strategy Games

Hello. My name is Matt, and I am a strategy gamer.

It’s an admission I feel compelled to make because unlike first-person shooter fans, or sports obsessive, or platform addicts, my first gaming love is a genre that never crossed that thin and ill-defined but sneeringly exclusive barrier between geekery and the mainstream. So it’s something I talk about with my head down, eyes averted, hands by my sides. If I talk about it at all. I avoid mentioning it at parties.

Yet it’s never been a better time to be a strategy gamer. Excellent turn-based and real-time games appear on iOS with such frequency that there’s hardly time to even thin down the candidates for purchase. XCOM: Enemy Unknown has at least come close to scaling that nerd-wall that separates us from regular gamers. So why is there still this sense of ignominy attached to liking strategy?

It wasn’t always that way. Strategy was an obvious candidate for the earliest computer games, back in the days of keyboards and monochrome displays. You don’t need fancy graphics to make a good strategy game. A complicated control device like a keyboard is a positive boon since there’s probably a lot to control. And before the might of modern microprocessors and programming tools they were relatively easy things to shape in code. The rules and routines required in strategy games are an uncanny mirror for those used in computer languages. So any geek with an idea could knock up a game.

And so it was that when the home computer revolution broke across the globe, strategy games were there, waiting in the wings for their chance in the limelight. And when they got it, they stole the show. Oh, there were others of course, your Manic Miners, your Elites and Chuckie Eggs, muscling in like the hyperactive attention seekers always do. But ask many middle-aged gamers what they remember best from that era and eyes will mist and names will be repeated, breathless with wonder. Famous names. Names to conjure with.

Chaos. Shadowfire. Laser Squad. Lords of Midnight. UFO: Enemy Unknown, the game on which the newer XCOM is based (you may know it as X-COM: UFO Defense). And a man. Julian Gollop. The undisputed king of 8-bit strategy games. The developer who made three of the five just mentioned, including UFO, and more besides. He’s still out there, planning a remake of Chaos, one of his best games and slowly drip-feeding his genius into the world through twitter and a blog.

But it’s a genius that the world no longer seems to want. After the marvels of the eight-bit strategy world, two shells got fired across the video gaming multiverse that would sink turn-based strategy for good. The first was the advent of real-time strategy games. It’s a fantastic genre, full of thrills and excitement, interweaving of important ideas from arcade games, god games and strategy. And it was fresh, and had very wide appeal to a lot gaming tastes, so it sold by the bucketload. But one thing most RTS games are not is particularly strategic. They tend to revolve around a bit of twitch gameplay and the building of efficient engines to gather and utilise resources. To a strategy gamer, they’re like junk food: appealing, tasty, but guilt-inducing and worst of all, never filling you up.

The other was the rise and rise of the home console market. Consoles with their cheap price tags. Consoles that originally had very limited save-game capabilities for longer, more involved games. Consoles with their single-point joystick and joypad controllers that are disgracefully, disgustingly short of the complex controls most strategy games required. But those shortcomings weren’t a problem when it came to RTS games.

And so between expanding console sales, the popularity of RTS and the need of publishers with rising production costs to make cross-platform releases, turn-based strategy got squeezed to death.

Almost, but not quite. Those of us who loved the genre retreated back into our niche, nurtured by a handful of indie developers and small studios like Matrix, Battlefront, Paradox and SPCamo. Truth be told, many seemed to like it that way, revelling in the comfortable nostalgia of past glories and the masochistic pleasure of freedom from responsibility that goes with a victim mentality. It certainly looked that way from the outside. Vocal insistence from a tiny minority helped the few toeholds we still had in the mainstream, like the Civilization franchise, to become ever more focussed on tedious micro-management rather than the sort of grand, sweeping strategy that might have had wider appeal.

We were never good at reaching out, even in the best of times. Scratch the surface of your average strategy fan and a tumble of justifications will rush out, most of them absurdly elitist. Intellectual exercise. Learning about history. Thinking things over. A pitying disdain for people who can only get their kicks by twitching over a joypad and drooling over explosions.

It’s hardly calculated to endear us to the wider gaming world, let alone the casual market. Personally, I’m in it largely for the egomaniacal glee obtained from finding myself in charge of vast numbers of willing pixellated henchmen. I suspect a lot of others are too. You’d just never hear them admit it.

The Total War series, a genuine marriage of real-time game play and compelling strategy was the last hurrah. Granted, it was a pretty big hurrah. Anything with an apex as high as 2004’s Rome: Total War can’t exactly be sneeringly dismissed, even by the worst elitists. But they didn’t have that wide, deep, almost transcendental encompassment of a situation that turn-based strategy at its very best, can boast. Of course, Rome: Total War 2 is on the horizon now, and there have been occasional titles like Crusader Kings that threatened to penetrate the wider consciousness. But for most of the intervening time the mainstream felt like wind drifting over an empty battlefield in the aftermath of conflict. A long silence.

Until XCOM: Enemy Unknown.

That game promised a lot. It promised to resurrect a long-dead franchise and succeeded in spectacular style. It promised to be a brilliant game that was sympathetic to the original yet appealing to a modern audience, and it was. And for strategy gamers it held out a long-awaited return to the mainstream. It delivered, but for those of us that kept the faith through the long, lean years, I fear it’s little more than a brief light in the darkness.

If the cross-platform sales figures I’ve seen are accurate, XCOM sold enough in its first month to make its cost base and probably result in a profit. But for comparison Halo 4 shifted six times as many in a week on Xbox 360 alone. We’re nowhere near the mainstream. Given how staid and steady the unique delights of turn-based strategy appear in an ever more instantly gratifying world, I doubt we ever will be again.

But that doesn’t make those unique delights any less delightful. And the one final promise XCOM makes is that of a new and bigger niche. Only time will tell if that promise is fulfilled but it proved there is still a market for big-budget titles in turn-based strategy, and showed the newest generation of gamers that there was still life in an old dog. Many will not stay the course, but a few will. Perhaps you’re one of those that might. And maybe, just maybe, this piece will convince you to dig a little beyond Enemy Unknown, and find the wide vista of sublime pleasures hidden just below the surface of mainstream gaming.

If you’ve had your curiosity piqued by this article, here’s a few suggestions of recent, sensibly priced and approachable turn-based games to whet your appetite. I apologise in advance that two of them are World War 2 games, but it’s by far the most common setting you’ll find. That’s unfortunate, and a little tedious, but it’s not a barrier to producing fun and interesting games.

If you want to get in close to the action on the level of squads and vehicles, check out Slitherine Software’s Battle Academy. It has PC, Mac and even iPad versions and boasts several campaigns, a solid AI and a slick multi-player interface.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, the indie title Unity of Command offers a high-level view of campaigns across the Eastern Front. It’s quick-playing and has a brutally clever AI.

And if you really can’t stomach another World War 2 title, or perhaps want a fantasy alternative to XCOM’s sci-fi shenanigans there’s King’s Bounty: Armored Princess. Presuming you can get past the horrible cover.