And The Gamers Who Play Them: Turn-based nerds, in three generations

[Editor’s note: Brilliam here takes a look at three different aspects of turn-based strategy games as part of this month’s Monthly Musings topic. — CTZ]

If there’s one genre that I’m not only familiar with, but whose gamer base I am intimately familiar with, it’s the oft-maligned turn-based strategy. While the genre has evolved fairly steadily since its inception, I find that the user base is split into three major demographics: the old guard of history wonks and simulation junkies (let’s call them simulationists); a second, younger generation whose obsession is digging through abstract rules systems and breaking them (we’ll call them gamists); and a third, newer generation, whose interest in the tactical aspect of the game is secondary to other parts of the game such as narrative (the narrativists). Conveniently, all three generations are represented in my family. My uncle is an aging simulationist, I am a gamist, and my brother is a narrativist.

I hope to talk about where these three agree, and where the three tend to diverge. More after the jump.


To first understand the tactical nerd, particularly the simulationist, you need to understand the origin of the genre. Many simulationists were hardcore gamers before anyone they knew even owned a computer. That’s because the turn-based strategy began on paper and cardboard with the board game. Long before the first computer games, nerds everywhere were getting their kicks on tabletops with miniature wargaming and even pen and paper RPGs like D&D. Risk’s release and subsequent success in 1957 probably pushed a lot of these young gamers into this enthusiasm, but many more came from a much more unlikely source: sports. Indeed, some of the most loved and respected proto-TBS games were sports titles like Strat-O-Matic Baseball and Football. These games allowed players to enter what could be considered a realistic simulation of war or sports, respectively, and make decisions and learn what their real-life consequences would be.

A box full of batting averages! Yay!

A major fallback for these games, though, is that they’re limited to simple math and even simpler randomized probability; if a ten-year-old couldn’t do it with a pad of paper and a six-sided die, the game would have a hard time gaining any traction. Over the seventies and eighties, however, the reality of personal computers began to dawn on these gamers, and the reality of a truer, more realistic turn-based strategy was more apparent as well. Many of these tactical nerds began trying their hand at translating their favourite board games to the computer, and eventually, some made entirely new ways to simulate reality.

The Quest For Something Real

As early as 1982, simulationists were experiencing the first generation of tactical wonkery on computer platforms. One example that comes immediately to my mind is the original Football Manager, which not only attempted to simulate the results of specific games based on your tactical prowess, but also challenged the user’s strategic and financial wit by introducing real-life limitations such as budgets and player transfers. These complexities would continue to evolve to this day, where Football Manager 2008 is so specific in its simulation that it allows you to alter, by mere meters, the size of the pitch at your park– and suffer the consequences of your changes.

My uncle, however, was not much for sports. He is a huge history buff, and a war fanatic. He drives for hours to take part in revolutionary war recreations and has had painted 1:100 redcoat miniatures since the days before I was born. He had a Commodore Amiga and a legion (pardon the pun) of war games for it, but he enjoyed none more than Harpoon.

Don’t worry, I don’t know what’s happening either

A game that is actually a translation of a miniature game, it allowed him to develop and test strategies while alone. The game went further than just simply translating the game, however, by offering a host of campaign-based missions with escalating difficulties, testing the player’s strategic acumen against a ruthless AI opponent. Other games came out, particularly during the early 90s, that would also appeal to this most hardcore of realists, and to this day, a very good market exists for people expecting the most mucky and real war simulators (for examples, look no further than a company called Shrapnel Games. I get hives just looking at their list of titles). While some titles would be released with fantasy and sci-fi elements, the simulationist’s best friends are always a field manual and Sun Tzu’s Art of War.

Of course, with any simulation game, there are abstractions that deviate from that much-coveted holy grail of “reality.” From that, another type of tactical gamer began to emerge: the gamist.

Break My Game

It’s often difficult to draw a line between what might be a gamist’s game and what might be a simulationist’s game. The best litmus test, I find, is, can I master this game without trying ludicrous things? If not, it’s for gamists.

I consider myself a gamist. I’m not primarily interested in a mirror of real life as much as I am interested in an abstract set of rules and how to exploit them. Of course, gamists existed concurrently with simulationists; after all, one might consider chess the perfect example of a gamist’s game. Knowledge of medieval combat won’t particularly help you wield a knight properly; it’s all about knowing the ins and outs of the game.

When looking at computer games, however, most early “gamist” games could often be looked at as failed attempts at “simulationist” games. One of the first, in my opinion, to really challenge the user to learn the game instead of apply “common sense” was Civilization. After all, how do you realistically assess how you should evolve a civilization? Nobody lives for thousands of years and watches an entire nationality go from hitting each other with rocks to hitting each other with tactical missiles.

There’s nothing quite like shooting cavemen with muskets.

The gamist’s games were, therefore, more open to fantastic elements. One of my most favourite games of all time, X-Com: UFO Defense, put you in charge of an anti-alien headquarters somewhere in the world. You had to control the operations of your anti-alien base, researching relevant technologies and such, and simultaneously order a group of twelve super-soldiers as they battled various bizarre aliens (and their own fear of those aliens– an even bigger enemy, IIRC). There was also Jagged Alliance 1 and 2, where you follow a group of completely over-the-top mercenaries into a fictional, war-torn country and lead them around as they shoot mooks and open crates filled with guns. I’d go as far as to say that if you love games, you MUST play Jagged Alliance 2. There’s also the classic Master of Orion 2 … I’m going to stop myself, because I could seriously go on forever.

Fact: one of the Jagged Alliance mercs was named Skitz. He was really cheap, and okay with knives, but he’d occasionally go apeshit and stab your guys. Good times.

Love On The Battlefield

There’s a third generation I see growing now, represented by my no-longer-kid brother (he’s turning 16 this month, which is blowing my mind). You can pretty much trace the explosion of this nerd subgenre to one game: Final Fantasy Tactics. While the turn-based tactical system in that game is certainly engaging, deep and immersive, it doesn’t really become the games selling point. Conversely, the game’s combat system is used as a vehicle for an engaging narrative exploring themes of war and peace. Someone like my brother eats these tactical RPGs for breakfast, but wouldn’t be as interested in the emergent-story-only nature of a game like Master of Orion. Hence, he is a narrativist.

If all soap operas were this complex and engaging, I would’ve become a housewife years ago.

A lot of these games have significantly less complexity within their rulesets (which doesn’t necessarily bely a lack of depth or difficulty– look at the simple rock-paper-scissors mechanics that are a core of the Fire Emblem series). However, most of their fans are playing them because they are a fantastic way to deliver a story, particularly during gameplay. In a traditional jRPG, there is talking and there is fighting. Sometimes, they talk during fighting. But, in these games, you might have to marhc your main character over to the main enemy so that they can engage in conversation. The tactics become relevant to the story, and the story becomes relevant to the tactics. The message becomes much more powerful when you are that much more in control of your characters. As far as I understand, this is why the narrativist gets so into the genre. At least, that’s why my brother has bought every single English-released Fire Emblem game since the first one dropped on GBA.

Three Groups, One Objective

No matter when a turn-based player is from, though, there’s one thing that remains the most relevant detail: control. With a real-time game of any type, from FPS to RTS, there’s a lack of precision control that you get when you’re playing a turn-based game. The turn-based gamer is intent on having time to think out every move before executing. The only limitation on ability to play is your own intellect. An FPS relies too much on reflexes to purely test the mind, and an RTS is generally an exam on clicking speed. Whether the gamer in question is playing Panzer General, or Silent Storm, or Tactics Ogre, he/she is in complete control of every step and every weapon, and has only his or her own tactics to blame in the event of failure. I mean, genetically, my family is pretty clumsy. But we’re smart. And, really, I’ve never met a tactical nerd I didn’t like, so if you see any, be sure to say hello. We’ll use as many action points as we can afford to say hello back.

Football Manager
Out Of The Park Baseball
Panzer General
Steel Panthers
Anything made by Shrapnel Games
Silent Hunter

Civilization 1-4
Jagged Alliance 1 & 2
X-Com: UFO Defense
UFO Aftermath Series
Master of Orion
Galactic Civilizations II
Space Empires I through V
Star Command

Fallout 1 & 2
Fire Emblem titles
Final Fantasy Tactics titles
Tactics Ogre/Ogre Battle titles
Anything by Nippon Ichi
Shining Force 1-3
Operation Darkness (Upcoming 360 game)