Abstract Strategy Games

Anything and everything about abstract strategy games

I would like to thank Hans Scharler, inventor of Divide & Conquer for having the courage to ask a stranger to play and review his game publicly. As a game-inventor I know that is not an easy thing to do. Hans and I met up in Indianapolis during GenCon 2009 so he could give me a finished prototype of his abstract strategy game Divide & Conquer. Hans gives a quick description:

Divide and Conquer is an abstract strategy board game for 3-4 players. As the Commander of a battalion of troops, you plan out and execute troop movements to secure objective regions around the game board. Your opponent’s competing troops will cause you to tangle and engage in conflict taking on causalities and slowing your pace to victory. You must anticipate the other players’ strategies by moving with precision and seizing the initiative. Sometimes your position is defensive to block an opponent from an objective and other times you are invading occupied regions to weaken the offensive of another player.

The game mechanics are based in mathematics and game theory, which provides an additional opponent. If you plan optimally, you will not only defeat the other players, but you will also solve the game with a minimal number of movements.

source: Divide & Conquer

Divide and Conquer

That next week I took D&C to my local game club. I told the gamers not to judge the visual design of Hans’ game because it is not the final look, but to take notes on everything else. We played many games with both three and four players.

D&C is quick to learn and even quicker to set up. In fact, there were no illegal moves played during the entire learning process. This is unusual for most games. I’m a fan of simplicity - this was a great first impression. So far, so good.

Divide & Conquer

One of D&C’s major concept is for all players to write down their moves before anyone else takes a turn. When it’s your turn you must make the move you wrote down. After each round you switch the person who goes first. This disrupted the flow of the game. One set of players decided to play on the honor system where they thought about the move before anyone played and everyone trusted others were being honest. They explained to me that no one was reading the written moves anyway, so this was just easier. And, even though we were using a system to determine who’s turn it was to begin a round, there were many times where people were asking who’s turn it was.

Divide & Conquer

When we finished for the evening I asked for everyone’s opinion about the gameplay and there was a universal agreement in the lack of depth in strategy. They didn’t get the same satisfaction of making a move as our other popular club games.

Overall I enjoyed the game, and admit the gamers in my club probably need more games under their belts before coming to a conclusion about the depth of this game. With that said I look forward to playing more of Divide & Conquer and I hope Hans decides to put out more abstracts for us to review.

Click here to visit the Divide & Conquer website.


At Gen Con Indy 2009, I was lucky enough to get a press pass and I took full advantage. I was able to speak with more gamers this year than in previous years. One of my more interesting interactions was with an abstract strategy game inventor who gave me his newest prototype to review. In the next couple of weeks I’ll be testing it out with some local abstracters. It looks interesting…stay tuned.

The 12th International Southern German Meeting of Game Inventors in Munich begins on November 1st, 2008. It is being organized by the Bavarian Games Archive Haar, and will be in Haar, a suburb of Munich, Germany.

On November 1st and 2nd, 2008 the Bavarian Games Archive Haar will organize the 12th International Southern German Meeting of Game Inventors in Haar, a suburb of Munich.

Registration: Bayerisches Spiele-Archiv Haar e.V., Postfach 1120, D 85529 Haar

The number of presentation tables is limited and can’t be enlarged. The proceeding ensures that editors will pay sufficient time and attention to each game inventor.

Who is the addressee of this game inventor meeting?

  • Game inventors, who have already worked out concrete ideas and look for exchange of experience or suitable partners for publishing purposes
  • Future game inventors, who are still on orientation and are looking for advice
  • The Spiele-Autoren-Zunft e.V. (SAZ), the world’s largest representation of game inventors as well as all other organizations which represent the interests of game inventors
  • The product managers of the game manufacturers
  • License agencies
  • Suppliers who can provide working material for game inventors
  • Representatives of the technical press
  • Journalists, Game experts and other specialists in this branch

Date: Saturday, November 1st, 2008 (Distribution of the presentation tables from 9 a.m. on, opening at 10 a.m., end 6:30 p.m.) and Sunday, November 2nd, 2008 (open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.)

Location: Bürgerhaus Haar, great hall

Presentation: Game inventors are invited to present as many projects and prototypes or even games from their own production as they want. They can present themselves individually or as a team. Companions are welcomed.

Abstract Strategy Games

As a game designer, my interest was peaked while reading about the Chicago Toy & Game Fair taking place in November.  This year they’re expanding their outreach to game inventors with the Toy and Game Inventors Expo (TAGIE).  It is a four day event (11/20/08 - 11/23/08) taking place at Chicago’s Navy Pier.

It’s an excellent opportunity for new game designers to learn the game business from experts in the field. However, this crash-course education isn’t cheap - the price tag is an expensive $1,950.  But, the package includes two nights in a hotel, two breakfasts, two lunches, one dinner and a cocktail cruise.

The schedule is full of topics helpful to anyone trying to either self-publish or license their game.  According to their website, the agenda will include advice on IP protection, licensing, self-publishing, presentation, prototype creation, exhibiting, marketing, public relations, safety, and much more.  That weekend they are also allowing TAGIE 2008 attendees to demo and promote their games at tables in the Chi-Tag exhibit halls.  This is a great opportunity to put some of the their advice into practice.  There is nothing like demoing and playtesting with strangers to test your game.

Abstract Strategy Games

Strategy requires thought; tactics requires observation. - Max Euwe

Strategies are long term plans to win a game. A tactic is an immediate action, typically planned to advance your strategy. Tactics often are available as a result of a particular strategy. It is common for the winner to best coordinate tactics with strategies. Strategic goals are often accomplished through tactics. It is also possible to allow for a tactical loss and gain a strategic advantage.


"Chess is 99% tactics"
Richard Teichmann

Two questions to help understand the difference:
1. What do I do to win? (Strategy)
2. How do I do it? (Tactics)

Strategic examples:
1.  Chess: Pawn Structure, King Safety, Center
2.  Go: Amashi, Shinogi, and Reduction (more)

Tactical examples:
1.  Chess:  Forks, Pins, and Discovered Attacks
2.  Go: Ladder, Net, and Snapback (more)

It is common for players to be referred to as ‘strategical players’ or ‘tactical players’. For most abstract strategy games, a player needs to understand both strategy and tactics to be well-rounded. Every game has a natural balance of tactics and strategy, and may reward more tactical or strategic gameplay.  A player needs to know how to balance the two levels.  For example, a chess player will often be more tactical when first playing Go, and will need to learn the strategy/tactic balance in Go.

Three characteristics of an abstract strategy game:

1. The gameplay is not impacted by a theme.
2. The rules allow for a minimal amount of chance.
3. The game environment provides perfect information.

If an abstract strategy game has a theme, it shouldn’t influence the rules.  For example, Simpsons Chess has a theme, but is still an abstract strategy game because the rules have nothing to do with the Simpsons.  It is considered a weak theme because it could be changed without impacting the game’s core.

Abstract strategy games are not games of chance, and gameplay does not rely on random elements, like rolling dice or card shuffling.  Only the players’ actions determine the outcome.  Abstract strategy games typically provide an environment where the player with the best strategy will accomplish the object of the game.

Abstract strategy games allow the players to know every action that has taken place in the game.  If a rule in a game doesn’t allow a player to know the full position and past positions, it is a game of imperfect information, and is not an abstract strategy game.

Examples of abstract strategy games:

  1. Chess
  2. Go
  3. Tic-Tac_Toe
  4. Blokus
  5. Connect Four
  6. Quarto
  7. Mancala
  8. Checkers
  9. Hive
  10. Othello

In the past four days at Gen Con I’ve attended twelve game development discussions.  I took careful notes of what was discussed by experts in the business, including game designers, publishers, distributors, retailers, and gamers.  Below I’ve listed their advice for designing, publishing and marketing games.

Overall Concepts:
1.  Do not design from habit or imitation.
2.  Look to other communities for new ideas.
3.  Realize game design is an art form.
4.  Decide if you’re designing your game for fun or profit.
5.  Choose to design for yourself or other people.
6.  Write down your definition of success.
7.  Know the marketplace, and create something breakthrough and unique.
8.  Define your target audience.
9.  Know the types of games your target audience plays and understands.
10.  Abstract strategy games appear too difficult for the general public, and tend not to be mass market products.
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