Methods to achieve better tactical and strategic thinking?
March 18, 2008 2:41 PM   Subscribe

Lately I have been playing many strategy board games and not winning that much. I feel I need to become a more adept strategic / tactical thinker. What books, mental exercises or other things could help me?

I noticed it especially in the middle of a 10 hour game of Twilight Imperium, and then the next day in the middle of an 11 hour long game of Axis and Allies. I suffer from strategic bog down, where I can see a number of diverging paths forward and cannot commit to one over the other and execute a unified strategy effectively.

I have also been playing many, much shorter euro games etc, and I have chalked up my lack of winning to the fact that I am playing most of them for the first time... but the more I lose the more I fear my losing streak is due to my lack of good strategic analysis of situations.

I'd say I am reasonably good at tactical decisions, but I know that I let tactical elements influence my strategic decision making too much (ie being too conservative and not knowing when a strategic risk is necessary). Also I have a tendency to get "psyched out" and make silly play errors due to trying to keep the game going and such.

So basically what could I do to improve the speed and strength of my strategic and tactical mind?

Logic Puzzles?
computer software?

any ideas welcome. Thanks in advance!
posted by DetonatedManiac to Grab Bag (17 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Forgot to add one other thing... I know that I am predominantly an "intuitive" personality type, not so much logical/analytical.

I don't know if there is any way to change that, so I am especially interested in methods that can leverage my intuitive nature if possible. Or maybe shortcuts that an intuitive like myself could take to compensate for this.
posted by DetonatedManiac at 2:46 PM on March 18, 2008

I do solve most problems through logic and analysis. But, the ultimate classic is right up your alley. Very intuitive, it requires you to tease out the exact meanings.

The Art of War by Sun Tzu.

Sun Tzu deals mostly with strategy, with very little emphasis on tactics. Tactics change with weapons, but strategy hasn't seemed to change much since he wrote the book.
posted by Netzapper at 3:01 PM on March 18, 2008

Eleven-hour Axis and Allies game?! You guys must take your turns very seriously.

I think you'll gradually get better at these games as you keep playing them without doing any kind of special training. You might get better faster if you come up with a plan at the beginning of the game and stick with it throughout, no matter how badly things are going at the moment. For example, as Germany, "try to take Karelia in two turns, have three transports to use as a bridge between Southern Europe and Africa in three turns, and always have X infantry on the capital." Changing strategies mid-game can be useful, but sticking to one plan will let you evaluate the merits of a strategy more clearly at the end of the game. And if you're not used to having an overall strategy for the whole game at the outset, this will help you get used to having one.

Don't take it too hard when you lose, though. Axis and Allies rewards good strategic thinking, but due to the dice, not necessarily in the short term. Unfortunately, if your games are eleven hours, it could be quite a while before you can prove that your strategies are good.

While it won't help you win war games, poker is a good game for developing patience in the face of variance.
posted by ignignokt at 3:39 PM on March 18, 2008

I have also been playing many, much shorter euro games etc, and I have chalked up my lack of winning to the fact that I am playing most of them for the first time... but the more I lose the more I fear my losing streak is due to my lack of good strategic analysis of situations.

If you're new to certain games, I would just write off a bunch of the first attempts. It's the rare super strategist who can read the rules of a game and come up with sound strategy. Developing strategy for me comes down to a process of experimentation: what happens when I prioritize this objective over the other? What is the minimal amount of resources (turns, pieces, etc.) that I need to dedicate to that objective to have a reasonable chance of achieving it? What is the point of diminishing returns in dedicating resources to this objective? Sure, some super strategy guy can look at the rules and have an intuitive grasp of it off the bat, but chances are, you're not that guy. With enough games played trying out different things, though, you can arrive at the same conclusions. The key, I think, is that in successive games you should try markedly different things to get a sense of how the rules (and, maybe just as importantly, the playstyles of the people you usually play with) interact instead of just trying "to win."
posted by juv3nal at 3:52 PM on March 18, 2008

If you want to win strategy games regularly you are going to have to do a number of things. First, you are going to have to know the rules. Take the rulebook and read it front to back at least twice. This will make sure you don't have any "wait, can you do that?" or "awww, I forgot about that case" moments. If you don't understand a rule, ask someone or google it.
Second, you need to start thinking mathematically. Most strategy games have an element of chance, you should be able to have a good idea of which of two actions has a better chance of succeeding or yielding the best results. This may seem a but subjective to start (ie. move A to B or A to C), but eventually you will have an epiphany when you realize that many games can be reduced to numbers. Start taking risks, and you will start being able to tell good risks from the bad ones.
Thirdly, you need to think a couple steps ahead. Chess is a great way to learn this. Every move you make should should be setting up a good move for the future. Losing x now to save 2x next turn is a great move 95% of the time. Think about what the most advantageous moves for your opponents are now and what they may be trying to set up.
Fourthly, act, don't react. Good strategy gamers will manipulate your actions through what they do or say. If you see yourself reacting to a move that someone else makes every turn, try to break out of the circle. If you don't try to throw them off a bit, they will figure that you are a good target for their trickery. They will assume you are an easier opponent and use tactics that work well against easy opponents.
Lastly, remember that there are always other people that are better than you or just seem to have great luck. Learn from what they do - try mimicking their strategies and remember what they do to thwart yours.

These aren't things that I have studied or read - just what I think of off the top of my head when I think of how I play a strategy game of any sort.
The best way to learn all this is to play games like Stratego, chess, and Settlers of Katan. They are the games that taught me how to play games well.
posted by Ctrl_Alt_ep at 4:10 PM on March 18, 2008

I've often heard it said about chess that it's better to follow through on a so-so plan than to keep changing plans or not have a plan at all. Maybe a conscious effort to apply this idea would help a bit.
posted by dixie flatline at 4:25 PM on March 18, 2008

Well if you havent tried them already, how about a few real-time computer strategy games? Say, Starcraft just as an example. They show quite graphically the results of certain strategies and tactics based on whatever the scenario is. In most of those cases the big variables are the AI difficulty and the map being used, but the concepts are easily incorporated into any game, even a board game. Know your resources (rules, units, pieces, etc) very well, learn your opponent (offensive or defensive player for example) and just try out different methods.

And play a lot of chess. Or Go.
posted by elendil71 at 4:29 PM on March 18, 2008

Chess, The Art of War, A Book of Five Rings, Machiavelli: The Prince, Tao Te Ching.

My uncle made us play a game of chess every day during vacation. Sometimes several games... beat younger cousin (woot), beat middle cousin (woot), older cousin kicks ass (doh!), finally beat uncle (woot!)... lot's of strategy and planning ahead and keeping options open... a good game.

The books will help with basic info and strategy, playing with people who kick your ass will drive you on.
posted by zengargoyle at 4:52 PM on March 18, 2008

First, write out your plans.

Second, the dice shouldn't affect any game if you play right. Use enough force to win the battle even with bad rolls.
posted by Ironmouth at 5:35 PM on March 18, 2008

The most important lesson I took away from Sun Tzu was the need to develop situational awareness. Twenty years later I am still humbled by my lack of it.

Sun Tzu also extolls the value of ruse and deception; the battle exists as much in the minds of the commander as on the field of combat. I suggest you check out the Thirty-Six Strategies (wikipedia). Though I have purchased a couple of books on the very same topic, the article is a good introduction.
posted by willconsult4food at 6:03 PM on March 18, 2008

Teach yourself to play chess at a competent amateur level, in a year.
posted by eritain at 7:34 PM on March 18, 2008

Second, the dice shouldn't affect any game if you play right. Use enough force to win the battle even with bad rolls.

Sometimes they will, and that's OK if you've weighed the benefits of winning a particular battle and spent an amount of units that you feel is worth that benefit. Read about expected value. You don't necessarily need to send five armor against two infantry every time to make dead sure you'll win. It depends on what you're going to get out of that battle.
posted by ignignokt at 9:15 PM on March 18, 2008

The discipline you're discussing is called game theory. You can find lots of introductory material with a Google search.
posted by lunchbox at 10:01 PM on March 18, 2008

Best answer: All the above suggestions are good, but I think there is actually a quick 10-minute solution to this problem.

First and foremost most games lack perfect BALANCE. In other words, for the vast majority of games there is a single optimal strategy. For example, on a standard risk board with American dice rules. Holding Australia is the dominant strategy. All further strategy is based on the fact that more than one person playing will know this so then how do you respond to that? To use an easier example, in most competitive video game, one fighter, or car, or team, is stronger than the others. A prime example for fans of Blizzard games might be how when starcraft was first released the zerg were best, or how when Diablo2 came out, necromancers with corpse exposion were much stronger than any other build (I realize WW-barbs were close and soon after the nerf were much stronger).

Finding the dominant strategy to any game is very easy. Often it is intuitive, for example during the format of mirrodin block standard in magic: the gathering the Affinity deck type was obviously dominant. For games where the dominant strategy is not obvious use google. Any quick search on poker strategy for example yields that the best way to play is tight and aggressive, or that in monopoly the oranges are best to own and railroads are great for quick money. Now both those games, especially poker, are very strategically deep, and there are possible more complicated deeper strategies that might work better, but if the easy dominant strategy will beat 95% of the field thats good enough for anyone who is only playing at an amateur level.

Probably more relevantly, for the games youve listed, like chess, they are considered to be perfectly balanced, or at least currently unsolved. For balanced games the strategy is more complicated, but again a few simple rules will go a long way.

1. For games of diplomacy, in other words zero-sum game with more than 2 players, usually you want to avoid being attacked and enter as many mutually-beneficial situations as possible. Or in other words for most games, play nice until you're ready to win, trade as frequently as you can. But so basically, for these games (such as monopoly, diplomacy, axis and allies, freeforall games) theyre about the social elements, the strategy goes in how well you can manipulate your opponents.

2. It's too long to get into here but be aware of the difference between strategy and tactics. strategy being an overall long term vision, tactics being a short-term execution. In general tactics require an understanding of the game and possibly research, but you need to have the correct strategy. For most longer games, especially of the free-for-all variety, and especially for poorly balanced games this means powering up. Or in other words building up your resources and playing defensively.

3. Lastly there are games where it is not possible to build up, have little diplomacy and are balanced. Chess might be such a game (though arguably a board-constricting strategy like Karpov's might be considered building up). Fantasy sports usually are another. For these games winning involves just having better information than your opponents. If you practiced an opening knowning all the variation 10 moves deep, or you have access to baseballprospectus's PECOTA projections an no one else in your league does that will give your edge.

Good luck, and as a few final notes, realize that some games have a higher randomness edge than others, which is a built in strategic component of its own. In poker the best players cannot win tournaments 90% of the time, and as a result of the wild swings, a key to poker strategy is effective bankroll management. Similarly the most winning AL baseball team ever, the 2001 marlins won at a .716 clip, whereas four NFL teams won at a higher percentage last season alone. In games with high randomness, think of the war not the battles. Lastly, outside of these rules, and perhaps a few more small things, I don't believe a comprehensive study of strategy is effective across a spectrum of games, and that time is better spent honing on the specific game. Whereas many books exist on the subject, my personal favorite being Robert Greene's 33 strategies of war, I don't believe they will help give you an edge, and certainly not at an amateur level. Unless youre playing a very abstract game like Go at a very high level, stick to reading about the specific game. In that regard, being obsessive helps. Again good luck on all your future gaming endevors and if you have any specific questions feel free to email me.
posted by ihope at 4:23 AM on March 19, 2008 [3 favorites]

Oh, I left out the aforementioned, adaptation to your opponent, obviously very good, but usually very difficult. It's easier to force the most powerful strategy and have opponent react.
posted by ihope at 4:37 AM on March 19, 2008


All the books mentioned are good, but may be a bit too real world.

There are many paths to Strategy. I've successfully taken inspiration from diverse sources - ecosystem theory, chemistry, Gandhi, psychology, jazz structure. Everyone has to find their own way.

Experience - so you can see several pathways. Which one is best? Look for the critical elements. (And what's the critical element ... ? That's the 10 million dollar question. That's where you have to know the rules, and what's going on.) Do your analysis, pick a route, see what happens. If you get your butt kicked, do a post-mortem with the victor.

I like the suggestions others mentioned about chess (no probability), poker (probability and personality), and looking for an optimal strategy.
posted by coffeefilter at 12:24 PM on March 19, 2008

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