Digits & Dragons
Strategy vs. Tactics
"Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise
before defeat." -Sun Tzu
So what is it that appeals to you in battle games? Is it balancing resources, building, and battle
plans or do you like to get down to the nitty-gritty unit-vs-unit fighting? Just about no combat
simulation game is without the broad plans of strategy or the tactical details of implementation,
but usually these game categories are clearly defined.
Despite Old Man Tzu's wise words, very few games successfully blend the usefulness of strategy
and tactics. Starcraft, gaming legend that it is, is one of the few in my mind that successfully
rewarded playing both on a large, strategizing level but also right down to the per-unit impact.
Sending a group of units to attack would work fine, but the best players gained an advantage by
directing the efforts of the individual pieces.
I certainly don't believe that every good game needs to try to cover both; many great games
hardly try, choosing instead to perfect one side while letting the other be simply good enough.
Many excellent strategy games eliminate the resource gathering and long-term planning
altogether, leaving the player having to worry only about a small group with a specific mission.
The Titan of Tactics
X-COM: UFO Defense and its successors were defining games for the tactical genre yet they still
had a strong emphasis on strategy. I somehow missed the series when it first came out, but over
this summer while I was stuck with a somewhat dated PC, I decided to see what all of the X-COM excitement was about.
After firing up UFO:Defense, I saw that there are really two distinct sides of the game, the
strategic base and world management, and the very tactical squad-based missions. From the
world map, you can manage your bases and research new technology that will help you battle
space fiends. Your research can be augmented by bringing back artifacts from slain aliens, and it
is important to keep your equipment up to date. From this view you can also build up your base
with hangars, research facilities, etc., or you can deploy ships to intercept alien craft or land at
When you land at a crashed UFO the game switches from a strategic overview to a squad-based,
turn-taking tactical shooter. If you succeed in planning your turns well and manage to cap all the
malicious Martians, you may get to take home some of their loot for further analysis.
Unfortunately for me, early in the game I found myself at the receiving end of a lot of advanced
weaponry and was eventually kind of soured on the game because of the too-challenging squad
missions. Many love this game--IGN.com even declared it the #1 PC Game of all time in an
article this year--but I just wasn't completely sold on it. I loved the research, loved the creepy
"where will they hit next" feel, but the insane difficulty and repetitiveness of squad missions kept
it from being one of my favorites.
Still, the X-COM idea is a great one and has spawned many sequels and remakes, both official
and not. UFO: Alien Invasion is one such open-source game that tries to remake some of the feel
and gameplay of the X-COM games with better graphics and a smoother interface. I spent a few
hours in UFO:AI and actually enjoyed it more than I did the original UFO:Defense. I'm sure
there are many out there crying blasphemy, but I guess I just didn't experience the magic of the
XCOM when it was young.
While I wasn't bowled over by the XCOM experience, there are some tactical shooters that I
think are really top notch. Chief among these is Fallout Tactics, an excellent game set in the
awesome Fallout world. The Fallout series is set in a post-apocalypse Earth, and the
combination of grunge and trash with tech and mutants makes for an immersive and interesting
Fallout is also known for a quirky, somewhat random sense of humor and Tactics doesn't
disappoint. From brahman tipping to a Reaver dance and the Brothers Grimm, Fallout is about
the only setting I know that can incorporate real world and even current references and not feel
out of place. (OK, perhaps Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel, a console-only action-RPG crossed the
line. I never played it but I heard that the blatant and overdone advertising for a certain energy
drink really killed the environment.)
If you are looking for something to hold you over until Fallout 3 (which may be a while, but at
least a trailer was released), Fallout Tactics is a great way to do so. If you are looking for
something a little more strategic, Supreme Commander takes warfare to a whole new level.
No other RTS handles scale like SupCom
I delayed buying Supreme Commander for a few months while I gathered the resources to put
together a new PC suited for handling a game like SupCom, but the wait is over. Supreme
Commander was one of my most anticipated releases for this year, and while it hasn't lived up to
my wildest expectations, it is still an excellent game and a lot of fun.
Being a huge fan of the original Total Annihilation and a regular player of TA:Spring, a 3d
remake of TA, I have been eager to see what Chris Taylor put into this spiritual successor to TA.
Playing the single player campaign I was immediately impressed with the scale of the game and
how well SupCom handles scale. You can seamlessly zoom from a unit-level perspective right
up to a strategic, map-wide view that lets you see the status of the entire war.
A wide view shows just how complicated things can get
While zooming is cool and well executed, with as much as you have to manage you quickly take
it for granted and wonder what you did in games without it. Although SupCom limits the
resources you need to gather to two, mass and energy, it still takes a lot of mental effort to
continue expanding and building up your base while you try to also build up an army and stop
A smart queuing system allows you to set up a chain of orders for a unit - such as telling an
engineer to build a mass extractor and then build a couple of turrets around to defend it. Like the
zoom, it's a pretty intuitive concept but one that many RTS games don't seem to get. With
SupCom, these neat features are indispensable as you try to manage hundreds of units on land,
sea, and air.
Queueing up orders helps you manage your time
Another feature that I've been waiting for in strategy game campaigns is persistent bases. Just
about every RTS campaign will make you rebuild a base every time, or else start with a prebuilt
one that you have no input on. The missions in SupCom's single player campaign start small
with a simple objective, but as you reach goals, the map boundaries expand in new directions,
letting you keep what you have built up and customized while giving you new obstacles to face.
This little touch makes a huge difference: the scenarios feel much more grand and significant as
you wage longer, broader wars.
There really isn't any question that SupCom reigns supreme in RTS games this year, but it does
so at the expense of tactical mediocrity. Although there are three races, you can play all of them
just about the same because the differences are pretty insubstantial. Further, you never really
have time to manage things at the unit level; all of your mental energy is spent trying to win the
war, not individual battles and skirmishes. Still, despite these shortcomings, as long as you have
a rig that can handle it, it is a fantastic game.