Genes and Behaviour
While I'm Away...

Strategic Play

88studyjpgw300h400 Strategic play relates to mastering complex game systems and problem solving, with a drive towards perfectionism. It is arguably the oldest play style in videogames, and its commercial importance peaked in the 1980s and 1990s. Now in decline, there nonetheless exist great numbers of hobbyist players whose play needs are best met by the Strategic play style.

Conversion from Other Models

Strategic play is presumed to correlate with Rational in Temperament Theory, which corresponds with NT (Intuitive and Thinking preferences) in Myers-Briggs typology. Additionally, the Type 2 Manager in DGD1 correlates strongly with Strategic play. Note, however, that the fiero theme of the Type 1 Conqueror is often present in Strategic play. 

Note that the concerns expressed in respect of Temperament Theory in the statistical disclaimer apply to this related model.


Different play styles are associated with different talents, which are expressed in those players who favour this approach to play. 

Complex systems are the focus of most, but not all, Strategic play – with examples including the majority of simulation and turn-based strategy games, as well as many cRPG games. Players who favour this play style show greater than usual tolerance for complexity, and indeed will generally persevere with games while they feel that they do not yet understand, provided they believe their tenacity will eventually be rewarded. This allows them to tolerate far longer learning curves than players favouring other play styles – but note that every player can be frustrated by any game for a variety of reasons, and the Strategic play style only gives players the capacity to learn how to use complex game systems, it does not guarantee that they will persist with any given game.

Coupled with this tolerance of complexity comes an ability to perceive ways to optimise the complex systems in question. This gift for optimisation is expressed as a tendency to evaluate every situation in order to determine how to get the maximum benefit for minimum cost. So pronounced is this tendency to min-max game situations that it is even mentioned in Keirsey’s description of the Rational temperament, even though play is not a focus of his work. There is a relationship between complexity and min-maxing, since in simple systems there is limited scope for this kind of optimisation. The love of turn-based strategy games associated with Strategic play is partly related to the capacity for these games to afford multiple optimal routes, and thus to allow for both min-maxing and choice. 

A third talent associated with the Strategic play style is problem solving, and the related ability to think ahead. In many respects, this is simply an extension of tolerance for complexity, since every problem represents a situation of incomplete information (which represents a more convoluted arrangement than the equivalent situation where the solution is known, but must be implemented by skill). Given the relationship between science and the Rational temperament, the gift for problem solving associated with Strategic play is unsurprising, and the games that leverage this talent are often solved by what might be considered a scientific approach – hypothesising possible solutions, exploring the outcome of those solutions, and using this data to produce new hypotheses until a solution has been found. All classic adventure games – text adventures, point and clicks and modern descendents based on this form - find their most loyal fans among people whose play needs lean towards the Strategic.

The driving force behind Strategic play is the Rational temperament’s desire for knowledge and mastery, and as a result Strategic play can seem more focussed on perfectionism than ‘fun’ – although it must be understood that by making perfection the goal, the player expressing this play style achieves fiero and personal satisfaction by achieving mastery. The greater trials they endure en route to this goal, the more it enhances the ultimate reward in fiero. 

When this theme is expressed purely in Strategic terms, the focus of the perfectionism will tend to be a desire for complete game knowledge. An examination of the FAQs available online for complex games, for example the Pokémon games (Game Freak/Creatures Inc, 1996 onwards), shows the output of this drive for complete understanding. When this theme is tempered by Logistical skills, the focus will tend more towards complete acquisition – a drive to collect everything that can be found in the game space. Finally, when this theme is tempered by Tactical skills, the focus will tend more towards mastery of skills; the ability to finesse a situation, and not just to ‘win’.

Keirsey does not often mention play in his Temperament description, so it is noteworthy that he includes the following comment in respect of Strategic skills:

[People who are strong in Strategic skills] play not so much to have fun but to exercise their ingenuity in acquiring game skills. Fun for [them] means figuring out how to get better at some skill, nor merely exercising the skills they already have, and so for [such people] the field of play is invariably a laboratory for increasing their proficiency… When [they] play sports, or even cards and board games, there must be continuous improvement, with no backsliding.

When playing with other people, those preferring the Strategic play style often seem to be highly competitive (which is mentioned in passing in Berens account of the Rational temperament). But for those players expressing this style who are introverted by nature, this competitiveness is the product of their personal drive towards a high degree of proficiency. The other players are simply part of the complex system they are trying to master. Such players often prefer to play alone.


Players favouring specific play styles are also prone to different frustrations. Different elements of play cause varying degrees of friction for players, according to their preferred way to play.

The principle source of friction associated with Strategic play is limitation, specifically limitation of choice, and the consequent disempowerment this can lead to. The Rational temperament which drives this style of play is associated with a need for autonomy, and players who prefer the Strategic play style have a strong need to feel completely in control of their play – to have the freedom to make choices about how that play will proceed. When insufficient choices are provided, this creates a state of powerless limitation. 

For example, a typical first person shooter game consists primarily of a linear sequence of fights. This structure is generally sufficient for players expressing other play needs, but for Strategic play it is unacceptably limited. The player faces no meaningful (Strategic) choices in this situation, and as such this limitation becomes a source of frustration if the game does not engage the player by other means.

Deus Ex (Ion Storm, 2000) is a good example of a game that sets out to minimise this source of friction for players favouring Strategic play, by adding choice at every level of the design. The player is afforded virtually unlimited choices for proceeding through the game space. But in the process of providing these choices, the game develops such a degree of complexity that only players favouring Strategic play can manage to enjoy it. This is the likely reason for the eventual commercial failure of this franchise, since Strategic players have become a minority among videogame players. 

(This problem with limitation should not be confused with the Tactical play style’s issue with constraint – constraint in intended to refer to immediate barriers to action or movement, while limitation is intended to reflect a lack of meaningful options for affecting the game situation. A player favouring Strategic play may tolerate being temporarily constrained provided they have a sufficient choice of actions with which to figure out a way to remove the constraint, while a player favouring Tactical play will generally be frustrated by the constraint itself.).

A Brief History of Strategic Play 

Because the Rational temperament is associated with programmers and game designers, early videogames were extremely influenced by Strategic play. Early mainframe games in the 1970s , such as Star Trek (Mike Mayfield, 1971), Adventure/Colossal Cave (Will Crowther, 1975) and Dungeon (Don Daglow, 1975) and its spiritual descendent Rogue (Toy, Wichman and Arnold, 1980). Many early games were influenced by the tabletop wargames (and role-playing games) of the 1970s, which were also great examples of Strategic play – providing complex play resulting from many different rules and options.

In the 1980s, new computers allowed Strategic play to flourish further. Elite (Braben and Bell,1984) appealed to a number of different play styles, but the apparent lack of limitations (go anywhere, do anything) had especial Strategic appeal. But the real focus of Strategic play in videogames from the 1980s were adventure games, typified by Zork (Infocom, circa 1980) and its many sequels, and at the latter end of the decade, graphical adventures such as The Pawn (Magnetic Scrolls, 1986) and Guild of Thieves (Magnetic Scrolls, 1987). These games seemed to provide few limitations, since the player could enter any command in plain text, although of course in practice this was a somewhat illusory state of affairs. Near the end of the decade, simulations drawing from Strategic play, such as SimCity (Maxis, 1989) started to emerge. 

In the 1990s, turn-based strategy games raised Strategic play to a new level with games such as Civilization (Microprose, 1991), Master of Orion (Simtex, 1993) and the X-COM series (Mythos Games et al, 1994 onwards). Additionally, strategic role-playing games such as the Heroes of Might and Magic series (New World Computing et al, 1990 onwards), and point and click adventures such as The Secret of Monkey Island (LucasArts, 1990) made this decade the golden age of Strategic play for many people preferring this play style.

Sadly for players preferring Strategic play, the arrival of the PlayStation in the mid-90s marked a change in the focus of the videogame market. Until this point, players favouring Strategic play were (arguably) in the majority, and the bulk of the games being made appealed to these players in some way. But a new era was arriving in which effortless 3D graphics opened the door to a wider market. The Strategic player was about to go from being the key audience for videogames, to being a strong but diminished niche market. 

This change was to mark the end of the commercial importance of adventure games, and a gradual narrowing of the importance of turn-based strategy games which today support very few viable franchises, and maximum audiences of no more than 2 million units (while other types of games were able to pull in maximum audiences of 8 million units during this time). Today, Strategic play in isolation is a commercial backwater, although many successful games support Strategic play along with other play styles.


Strategic play was the force behind adventure games, strategy games and simulations, as well as an influencing factor in the development of computer RPGs. Once the most important play style in the videogames industry, it has since been eclipsed by the more popular Tactical and Logistical play styles, and now represents something of a niche market.

With talents for dealing with complexity and problem solving, and an especial weakness for min-maxing, the Strategic player is something of an expert in figuring out games, avoids play that in their eyes is limited, and, armed with their strong drive for perfectionism, they generally master the games they adopt as their own. In many ways, they are the very model of the gamer hobbyist. 

The opening image is Creation is Evolution by Tom McNease, which I found here. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended, and I will take the image down if asked.


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Its interesting, a representative of a casual publisher told me earlier in the sumbission process that they liked to see a strategic dimension in their prospective titles. Typically casual play has been about tactical, if potentially deep, styles of interaction. I'm wondering if a strategic macro-game involving abstracted social dynamics is the next big ticket - rather than tactical social dynamics, which are considerably harder and as yet intimidating to casual players (see Facade).

Casual publishers may need a strategic dimension to appeal to game-literate players in order to have them act as evangelists to spread the game to the wider audience.

Or, they may be confusing their own play needs with the needs of their audience. ;)

Certainly, PopCap's successes contain no strategic elements at all, as far as I can tell.

Yeah, but I've got a feeling it could make a come back, the trick is to design the system space to be somewhat paristaltic, so the player can improve their situation after following a poor strategy much more readily than the can optimize a given strategy. For instance, apologizing to people can get you back to about nuetral, while building a deep relationship takes time and consistent behavior.

I think by marrying strategic play with abstract social verbs, which are nesting a more visceral, tactical micro-game, we can bring the casual audience strategy that means something.

Just one factual error: Deus Ex is one of the best selling games for both PC and Mac. It was the sequel, which was both a critical and commercial failure, that killed the franchise. The series was revived a month or so ago, however.

Matt: I appreciate the fact check, but I think you're mistaken. The only sales figures I have for Deus Ex are from here and show that it only sold about half a million units. That's a long way shy of being a best selling PC game.

If you're taking this data from the Wikipedia page, it's an error: citation 5 is an article about best selling games, but Deus Ex is *not* in the list of best selling games, but in an earlier list of well known games shown for demonstration purposes. Compare Final Fantasy VII at 7.8 million and Pokemon at 8 million in the later list and we can see a big discrepency.

Deus Ex is beloved by its fans, but it experienced only modest sales figures.

If you have any other data about its sales, I'd love to know a more precise figure, but it does not appear to have been a best selling PC game by any stretch of the imagination.


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