Tactics vs Strategy – What’s the Difference?
Strategy. Tactics. These are words we use all the time in the world of tabletop gaming, but far too often, they are intermingled with each other, and one is often used to describe the other. How does strategic planning differ from tactical execution? In this week’s Board Game Lingo, we’ll examine these two words, and how they apply to your tabletop gaming sessions.
The word “strategy” is often used to describe the amount of choices you have in a game. A game, however, that is filled with all kinds of “strategic depth” (a term that even we use sometimes) might actually be much more tactical in nature. While we will break down the two words in most detail, the most succinct way to sum things up would be to say that strategy is the planning, and tactics are the execution. It’s not quite that simple, but that’s the easiest way to boil it down. It’s also important to note that, while they each serve their own purpose, it’s rare to find games that are completely devoid of one or the other. While most games lean more heavily towards a tactical or strategic nature, they most often act as complements of one another.
“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” Sun Tzu
You can think of strategy as your long term plan. Strategy is looking at the board and formulating some course of long-term action. When you strategize, you’re essentially looking at all of the paths towards victory, and choosing a general path that you’ll want to take. Your strategy, of course, can change, and often multiple strategies will be used to win one game. However, in just about every instance, strategy is something that’s more long-term.
If strategy is based on planning, then tactics are reactionary. While strategies can account for potential upsets that will change the game (such as actions from other players or elements of randomness), it has no way to predict everything exactly, and when unexpected events occur, its tactical prowess that will efficiently work through them. Tactics are all about execution, reaction, and looking for the best-case outcome in the moment.
There are many ways that strategy and tactics can present themselves in board games, and in the following examples, we’ll use specific games to demonstrate them.
The Settlers of Catan – Forming a Plan
Strategy – Placing Your Starting Settlements
The first and foremost strategy you’ll apply in Settlers of Catan will be placing your starting settlements. It’s often said of Settlers that this is 50% of your game, and that screwing it up could doom you. This isn’t entirely untrue; the most effective players are the ones that can analyze the board, and place in a way that opens up a good strategic pathway for them. For example, placing a settlement on two high-production wood tiles, and then placing the other near a wood port most likely means that one of your general strategies will be to trade wood in abundance for other resources you need. A player who has a scant supply of sheep and wheat might want to pursue an expansionary strategy, since building cities will be difficult. Your starting placements are where you look at the board, and draw out a mental map of what you’ll most likely end up doing. This is an excellent example of the most basic aspect of strategy: forming a plan.
Tactics – Resource Management, Trading, Building
So maybe your strategy is to capitalize on wood and expand out to better resources and numbers. Just how do you do that? By being tactically minded in the way you play your cards. An important thing to remember is that strategy can’t predict random events, so your tactics will have to deal with them when they come up. What if you want to trade lots of wood 2:1, but for some reason your numbers just aren’t rolling? You’ll have to react. Maybe you want clay, but nobody has clay, but you’re also not rolling wood. Why not trade your other resources for the wood that other players possess, and then cash it in for precious clay? You’re still sticking with your general strategy, and you’ll use that clay to expand outward, but it happened in a way you might have not expected. The good thing is that your good tactics were there to save your butt.
7 Wonders – Changing Strategies
Strategy – Find an “Emphasis”
7 Wonders (without expansions) is an example of a game that leans towards a more tactical nature. You’re almost always just reacting to whatever hand you’ll get, but even in this there is strategy. Your Wonder Board, for example, is telling. It would be foolish, for example, to not make some use of science if your board gives you a free science symbol. Maybe you’re on Giza Side B; you’ll probably want to fill up all your wonder spots, and looking at the resources necessary will give you a clue as to what resources you need to focus on. Looking at your neighbors can also help you form your strategy. If your neighbor is the science guy, maybe you’ll want to bury the science cards that come through to use them on your wonders.
Tactics – Adapting and Reacting
Let’s face it; your strategies don’t always work in 7 Wonders, because you never know what’s going to happen. This is why you must react to everything that happens wisely. 7 Wonders is a good example of a game where you’ll employ several strategies to win that are often re-determined on the spot from whatever tactical decisions you make. So your neighbors hogged up the stone cards that you needed to build your Wonders, boom, play money cards to finance your borrowing from them. Now you’re focusing on money. Same general strategy (get stone), but you’re playing it a different way. Your neighbor hasn’t played any military, and you’re on the last hand and you have a red card to play? Boom, play a military and you’ve got yourself some extra points. Got a card that will give you points for every purple card in your area? Boom, time to play purple cards. Strategies can change on the fly In 7 Wonders, but you’ll have to make reactionary tactical decisions that will maximize your efficiency. Sometimes, changing your approach on the spot will yield more net gain than sticking with what your original plan was.
Eclipse – Strategic and Tactical Overlap
Strategy – Building Your Ships
Building ships is an example of a strategic aspect in Eclipse. In almost every instance where you add parts to your ship, you won’t get use out of them until later on. Deciding what parts to add to your ships requires an analyzation of what other people are doing, and what you plan to do. If you have an expansionary strategy that banks on stealing other people’s hexes with neutron bombs, maybe you’ll want to make a lot of smaller, quicker ships that can move all over the board. If you want to take the Galactic Center which another player is competing for, perhaps you should build more powerful Dreadnaughts. Building ships is interesting because it’s an example of tactical and strategic overlap. On one hand, the parts that you choose to use will determine your strategy going onward, but on the other, you’re likely already choosing them because of a greater strategy that you already planned earlier.
Tactics – Using Your Ships
So, you’ve built some cool blueprints, and you’ve got some general ideas on how to use them. But wait, suddenly your opponent plops a dreadnaught down right next to the Galactic Center for his action. Suddenly, you know that he’s planning on moving in. Maybe you were going to wait until next turn and prep your ships up even more, but you analyze his ships, and realize that, if you get into the hex first, you’ll beat his initiative. Perhaps you’ve designed your ships to be powerful hitters but weak on defense, so being able to strike first is a must. Instead of upgrading your ships, you decide to move into the Galactic Center hex to get defender’s advantage. You now also have the tactical advantage of being able to react to any changes in your opponent’s ship. Should he add initiative, you might be able to react back and do it too. The strategy you planned earlier built you up to be in this position, but your tactics allow you to complete your plan with the least amount of losses.
Tzolk’in – Big and Small Strategies Working Together
Strategies – Starting Approach and Premeditated Placements
Tzolk’in is a game that’s highly strategic; it rewards you for planning ahead. This is an example of big and small strategies working together. Your big strategy might be built around your starting cards; these cards give you a certain amount of resources and might jump-start you on a tech track or give you incentive to pursue a certain plan. Someone who got two tiles, for example, that move them up on the architecture track might want to pursue building and resource collection as a route to victory.
Furthermore, Tzolk’in is loaded with miniature strategic moments, where it pays off to plan a couple of turns in advance. To play an action in Tzolk’in, you must place a worker on the gear and remove him on the corresponding action spot once he moves up. This means that you’re often planning a few turns in advance for an action that will come later. If you have a bunch of resources, you might want to place on the architecture wheel and wait two turns to get the build action. This is an example of a smaller, short-term strategy, but it’s a strategy nonetheless. In a game like Tzolk’in, you typically have an overarching plan, with several smaller plans working in tandem at the same time.
Tactics: Seizing Opportunities
The problem with Tzolk’in is that you have to plan in advance, but things sometimes don’t go the way you expected. Sometimes this hurts you, and sometimes it helps you. The strength of your tactics is usually the main determinant of your fortune.
Say, for instance, that somebody ends up filling the architecture wheel’s initial spots before you get the chance, robbing you of your chance to play the build action. Instead, you could put your worker farther up the wheel and get the double build action. Only, there’s a problem—you don’t have the resources to pay for two buildings!
However, you notice that you have a shortcut to the better spaces on the board, and you want to take it. Only, you have to place this turn or you’ll be forced at the bottom of the wheel again. You decide to place the worker this turn, let him slide past your desired action, and on the next turn you collect a worker off the agriculture wheel to give you the wood to pay for your second building. You’ll have to pay an extra corn to use the double build space (because you’ve passed it), but ultimately you get two buildings when you were only planning on one. This is an example of using tactical sensibilities to analyze opportunities to increase your action economy.
Imperial Assault – Optimizing Your Potential
Strategies – Creating Your Loadout
In Imperial Assault’s campaign mode, you can equip your heroes with weapons and abilities that will augment their performance in varying ways.
While you can’t strategically plan how to win the next mission (due to it not being revealed), you can decide how to most optimally equip your character to guarantee you the best odds in whatever situation might arise. By choosing weapons and abilities that complement each other, you can guarantee that your character will be ready for any situation. This kind of preparation is a strategy on its own, and it’s an example of optimizing your potential.
Jyn Odan’s special ability is “Quick Draw,” which allows you to fire on an Imperial unit before they’re able to move or attack you. Perhaps you’ve found out as Rebels that it’s difficult to complete missions without focusing on movement or objectives. By taking advantage of Jyn’s quick draw, you essentially allow her one free attack once every round, freeing up her main actions to clear objectives. It stands to reason, then, that you’d want to make this one attack as effective and deadly as possible, and your cards should reflect that.
It’s important to prep for battle, and this is part of your strategy. Loading your character in a random fashion without thinking about the upgrades is like sailing without a map. You might know how to do it, but you’ll lack any kind of reasonable direction.
Tactics: Seizing Opportunities
So, you’ve finally seen the map, you’ve seen your objective, and now it’s time to play. If your characters are designed to fulfill certain roles, you’ll benefit the most by taking advantage of your upgrades, and tactically deciding when is the best time to use them. Jyn’s Quick Draw, for example, takes two stress, meaning that she has to take an action to regain her ability points after every two rounds. The ability “Get Cocky” allows her to heal two stress immediately if she defeats an enemy, so it goes to reason that you’d want to set up Jyn in a position where her Quick Draw could destroy the target, giving you more action economy.
Furthermore, Quick Draw only applies to enemies that are in Jyn’s line of sight. This means a clever Imperial player could move enemies from out of sight in front of Jyn’s eligible targets, thereby blocking them from her vision and robbing her of her opportunity. This means that, tactically, you would want to move Jyn at the opportune moment where it won’t allow the Imperial to block her shot.
If every character were used to their absolute tactical potential, using the abilities that you strategically game them, the Rebels would be a force to be reckoned with.
Tactics and strategy are two different beasts, but ultimately, they complement each other, and having a mastery of both will allow you to win your games. Being able to identify your strategic potential, and then examining the tactical implications of how to fulfill that potential in real-time is a skill that you can develop as you play more and more games. Some players are more strongly suited in one more than the other. I, for example, am a much better tactical player; I’m very good at reacting to my situation and finding the action with the highest payoff and least opportunity cost, but I’m not quite as good at planning something long-term. How about you? Are you a strategist or a tactician? Sound off in the comments to let us know!